Work: urban and rural
Every Roman had a job to do. Whether this involved leading armies into battle, baking bread or planting crops of wheat and barley, there was always something to be done. The majority of physical labour and menial work in Rome was done by slaves in the cities, leaving Roman citizens free to occupy themselves in other, more interesting, jobs.
In the many cities in the Roman Republic, there was a wide variety of work to be found.
Most Romans did not have kitchens in their homes. A kitchen was a luxury that only the richest Romans could afford. The majority of Romans ate takeaway - for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The food industry in ancient Rome was always booming. Romans liked their food fresh. Bakers were important as fresh bread was a staple food in the Roman diet. There were also butchers, fishmongers, olive oil sellers, wine merchants and a huge number of take-away stalls selling snack foods and meals. A popular side dish was a fishpaste made of mashed anchovies, garlic and olive oil. Refer Image1 and animation
People who lived in cities were employed in crafts and trades. The most common craft and trade jobs included carpentry, pottery and metal working. Many products that archaeologists have discovered include beds, tables, storage chests, pots and dishes, tools, pans and weapons. Romans were skilled in metal working and their products were purchased by the wealthy and exported to overseas customers. Intricate jewellery such as gold and sliver necklaces, flasks, ornaments, brooches and rings were popular gifts.
The Romans also perfected the art of glass blowing by the 1st century AD. This was called glazing. Roman glaziers blew simple glass jars, even large sheets of glass for windows. A variety of drinking glasses were made and purchased by wealthy Romans. These glasses were used at dinner parties. Some were buried with loved ones as funeral offerings.
Roman craftsmen sold their products at markets where other Romans traded all sorts of products. Like the Greek agora, Roman marketplaces were busy. Not only were products bought and sold but scribes wrote up legal documents for illiterate people. Butchers and fishmongers displayed and sold fresh food. There was a large variety of food stalls and people met to negotiate business deals. Trading took place in the morning. Most shops and workshops were closed by early afternoon.
Another interesting occupation held by some Romans was medicine. There were many doctors who diagnosed and attempted to cure common ailments. Doctors even performed basic surgery. Often, doctors had been trained in the army while on campaign. As a result, Roman surgeons were skilled at amputation and cauterising (burning a part of the body to seal a wound, usually done when a limb has been amputated). Refer Image2
The Romans pioneered many areas of medicine. The Romans had the first chemists. Pharmacists would concoct herbal remedies and liquid medicines to help cure illness. The Romans also had the first optometrists. These doctors specialised in studying the eye. There were also dentists who extracted teeth and made replacements. Archaeologists have discovered a gold plate with an ivory tooth attached to it, probably worn to replace a missing tooth.
There were some less glamorous occupations held by some Romans. After Romans purchased cloth to be made into clothes, they took it to a fuller's workshop to prepare it for clothes-making. Cloth was first stiffened by soaking it in urine, then cleaned by rubbing it with clay. After this, the cloth was beaten, stretched and bleached to become soft and white. Wealthy Romans also took their clothes to the fullers for washing and mending.
Rome conquered many cities, countries and civilisations. Slaves were taken as rewards from battles. Cities and tribes that had put up particularly strong resistance against the Roman army would be taken prisoner. Men, women and children would be sold into slavery.
Slaves were transported to the nearest markets and sold at auction. Educated slaves were sold for the highest price. These slaves were often trained in public speaking, science or philosophy. They were purchased and put to work in the houses of wealthy Romans as tutors for their children. Some educated slaves were employed as doctors and pharmacists.
Healthy and strong slaves fetched a high price. They performed the most laborious tasks. Romans were prolific builders. They constructed bridges, archways, viaducts, sewers, aqueducts, temples and homes. While the Romans designed many of these projects, it was the slaves who performed the time consuming, back-breaking labour.
By the Imperial period, the government owned entire families of slaves that they used to construct and maintain public buildings. Women and children were used in the private houses of rich Romans. These slaves did the household cleaning, cooking and shopping. Some slave women acted as midwives and wet nurses (women who helped to care for new born babies).
Some slaves resisted Roman rule. These troublesome slaves were sent to work in Roman mines and quarries. This work was dangerous and unhealthy. Roman mines were notorious for their unsafe conditions. Walls often caved in, the mines were hot and slaves were worked to death. Slaves sent to the quarries faced a similar fate. They worked in the hot sun shovelling rubble and shifting heavy rocks from dawn until dusk. Mining and quarrying were frightening occupations and few slaves risked being sent there.
Early farms in Italy were small and owned by a single family. Harvests were plentiful and there was more than enough for the single family and local trade at markets. Farmers were often used in the Roman army. As the Roman Republic encompassed more land, farmers spent more time away from their farms.
Rich landowners bought many farms to help boost agricultural production while farmers were away on campaign. Land was leased to families or worked with slaves. These practices caused an agricultural crisis as families were unable to pay the rich landowners rent for the land.
Agricultural production was going to waste. This situation caused many problems for the Romans in the late Republic. By the time of the Roman Empire, the agricultural crisis had been resolved. Almost all farm workers were slaves. Roman crops were supplemented by imported grain from Egypt. Refer Image3
Work in the country was difficult. Staple crops included grain, grapes, olives, wheat, oats and barley. Roman farmers also kept sheep, goats and cattle to produce milk, cheese and wool. These products were traded at local and city markets.
While farming was a year-round occupation, shepherds had by far the most difficult jobs.
Sheep, goats and cattle were kept in the remote highlands and hills where grazing was good. Shepherds spent the majority of their time alone, isolated from friends and family and at the mercy of thieves and bad weather.