Thursday, October 12, 2017


Koenraad Verboven, Christian Laes (ed.), Work, Labour, and Professions in the Roman World. Impact of Empire, 23. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. Pp. 356. ISBN 9789004331655. $151.00.

Reviewed by Josaphat Tam, Evangel Seminary, Hong Kong (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The book under review offers thirteen papers presented in a 2014 conference organized by the Roman Society Research Centre, a joint research centre of Ghent University and the Free University of Brussels. It forms part of a larger research programme called "Factors of Production in the Roman World" in which a previous book on the topic of ownership and exploitation of land and natural resource has already been published by the Oxford University Press (2015) and another one on capital, investment and innovation is in preparation.

The essays, though diverse, adopted a common "neo-institutionalist" approach as indicated by the editors (Koenraad Verboven and Christian Laes) in the Preface. The approach assumes that, on the one hand, ancient institutions determine transaction costs and lay out the incentive structure of a society, but that, on the other, they are at the same time determined by the society's prevalent value systems, mentalities and worldviews. Acknowledging the huge differences with the modern world since c.1700, the book makes use of multidisciplinary specialists, including cultural, social and economic historians and archaeologists, to uncover the driving forces behind the long-term development of economic performance of the ancient Romans. The editors believe that other than factors like "favourable natural conditions, capital accumulations, technology and political stability," the ability to "mobilize, train and direct human efforts" ultimately contributed to the unparalleled economic success of the Empire (vii).

The introductory chapter (the first essay) written by the editors is to be appreciated. Sometimes for this kind of technical monograph, the editor(s) fails to offer a comprehensive introduction to the subject. As a result, the monograph appears merely as a collection of unrelated essays. No thread is drawn (or even can be drawn) across them so that the edited volume often fails to give readers any sense of coherence. This is understandable for conference papers with presenters with diverse interests and from diverse backgrounds. However, this is undesirable for an edited volume. Verboven and Laes offer a positive example by providing readers a good orientation, first laying out the Greek and Latin terms used and the key ancient texts to look at. Concepts of "profession", "labour" and "work" are then defined with their possible range of ambiguity noted. Key ideas are explained like the incentive structure for labour. A variety of labour statuses, including free independent and wage labour, slave labour, traditional arrangements of semi-dependent labour, debt-bondage, corvée labour, convict labour as well as military duties, is also introduced. Then Verboven and Laes point out that the incentive structure for such mixed statuses accommodated markets and played a substantial role in the Roman Empire (contrasting Han China of the corresponding era). Yet, they remind readers that the situation is still incomparable to that of the modern times (13). On top of this, the editors also highlight influential models shaping the field, namely Moses Finley's "orders and status" model, Marxist theory applied to Roman slavery, the neo-classical model revitalized by Peter Temin, New Institutional Economics, and network theory. They introduce and evaluate them one by one and thereby pave the way for the preferred approach taken by them and by the authors of the essays which follow. Thus, the introduction alerts readers to what to look for in the rest of the book.

The remaining essays are ordered into five groups.

After the introductory chapter, we have two essays exploring the role of (semi-)dependent labour in the Empire. While one essay takes Asia Minor as a case study to justify the institutional approach adopted as well as to argue against "a unified, integrated labour market" as previously held (Arjan Zuiderhoek), the other essay analyses the role of slaves and freedmen in artisanal firms, using the theory of the firm and the experiences of artisan employers (Cameron Hawkins).

The second group of three essays focuses on the relationship between wage labour, dependent labour and coerced labour. The first essay discusses the Empire's building industry, being seasonal and specialized, and shows how it made use of slave labour, unskilled casual labour, forced labour and contractual labour (Seth Bernard). Claire Holleran, in the next essay, then explores how structural labour shortages in Rome can be tackled by finding free salaried workers, taking note of the distorting effect of slavery and patronage in the Roman labour market. In the third essay, Miriam Groen-Vallinga and Laurens Tacoma then argue that slave and free labour were substitutes for each other, as Diocletian's Prices Edict predominantly shows little differentiation in terms of remuneration.

The third group of two essays focuses on the connection of material working conditions to workers' social relationships. The first discusses how aspects of the household archaeology in ceramic production contribute to reconstructing workshops as places of economic and social activity (Elizabeth A. Murphy). The second essay reconstructs the Romans' occupational identities as affected by the three investment models of tabernae, domestic workshops and production halls within the four social layers of work group, clients and customers, social superiors and the outside urban community (Miko Flohr).

The fourth group of three essays discusses the role of the professional associations in the Roman world. Koenraad Verboven explores the function of different guilds in influencing the society during the Principate. Jinyu Liu shows how the Roman collegia, as institutionalized trust networks, created social capital by facilitating the participation of the lower class in civic life, socializing upward mobility, facilitating "Romanization," etc. Last Sarah Bond turns to the Late Antiquity to see how state-controlled bound labour in imperial mints replaced the earlier slave-based system. By endowing workers with social prestige and privilege, the system shows a strategy similar to that adopted for the corpora of soldiers.

The last group of two essays explores how social status is created through work and professions. The first focuses on skilled urban workers from the first century BC to the third century AD and attempts to identify elements and aspects of their work that gave rise to their professional pride (Nicolas Tran). The other rectifies the common misconception that Greco-Roman culture scorns work and workers by comparing the ancient appreciation of work (100BC-AD200) with the medieval (1100-1500) (Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly). Lis and Soly show that according to the Romans, it is idleness which is a disgrace, not work (Hesiod). In contrast, during the middle ages, as a result of influences from Christianity, occupational awareness was comparatively low and workers' economic success was rarely heralded publicly.

The volume comes with an extensive bibliography and three indices of subjects, places and geographical names as well as personal names. Yet, this last index contains names of ancient personal figures only. The volume would be enhanced if an index of modern personal names were added.

Despite the highly specialized nature of the subject matter as surveyed above, the volume represents a valuable contribution to scholarship by offering an updated guide to a complex field.

Table of Contents

Preface vii
Abbreviations of Ancient Sources xii
About the Authors xiii
1 Work, Labour, Professions. What's in a Name?, Koenraad Verboven and Christian Laes, 1
2 Sorting Out Labour in the Roman Provinces: Some Reflections on Labour and Institutions in Asia Minor, Arjan Zuiderhoek, 20
3 Contracts, Coercion, and the Boundaries of the Roman Artisanal Firm, Cameron Hawkins, 36
4 Workers in the Roman Imperial Building Industry, Seth G. Bernard, 62
5 Getting a Job: Finding Work in the City of Rome, Claire Holleran, 87
6 The Value of Labour: Diocletian's Prices Edict, Miriam J. Groen-Vallinga and Laurens E. Tacoma, 104
7 Roman Workers and Their Workplaces: Some Archaeological Thoughts on the Organization of Workshop Labour in Ceramic Production, Elizabeth A. Murphy, 133
8 Constructing Occupational Identities in the Roman World, Miko Flohr, 147
9 Guilds and the Organisation of Urban Populations During the Principate, Koenraad Verboven, 173
10 Group Membership, Trust Networks, and Social Capital: A Critical Analysis, Jinyu Liu, 203
11 Currency and Control: Mint Workers in the Later Roman Empire, Sarah Bond, 227
12 Ars and Doctrina: The Socioeconomic Identity of Roman Skilled Workers (First Century BC–Third Century AD), Nicolas Tran, 246
13 Work, Identity and Self-Representation in the Roman Empire and the West-European Middle Ages: Different Interplays between the Social and the Cultural, Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly, 262
Bibliography 291
Index of Subjects 342
Index of Places and Geographical Names 348
Index of Personal Names 351

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