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Romans at Work

The poet Martial (4.8.1-6) gives the schedule for a typical Roman workday.

  • The first and second hours cause those involved in the salutatio to rub shoulders,
  • The third sees lawyers active,
  • Rome extends its labors into the fifth hour,
  • The sixth will be a respite for the weary, the seventh, the end of labor.
  • The eighth and part of the ninth hour is sufficient for the sleek exercise rooms,
  • The ninth commands people to wear out couches piled up with pillows...

The Roman day began with dawn. The first activity of the day in the first two hours after dawn brought upper and lower classes together in the early morning greeting ritual called the salutatio. This ritual was the outward sign of the close bond that worked for the benefit of both the lower class client and his upper class patron (derived from pater, "father"). When a client went to visit his patron at his house early every morning, he was acknowledging his dependency on the patron and in turn received a basket of food called a sportula or in its place, a small payment of money. An invitation to dinner was another typical gift. For many poor unemployed Romans, this was their only income, although some clients did have jobs. Another favor that a patron could perform for a client would be to give him legal advice or to defend him in court (cf. the modern meaning of "client"). In return, the client owed his patron political support, such as his vote and if possible, to be a member of an entourage for the patron in his movements in the city, especially in the Roman Forum, the center of political activity in Rome. With the Empire, when elections had disappeared and emperors chose magistrates, about all that a client could do for his patron was to bolster the ego of his patron by flattering him.

The Nobility's Workday

The next activity for a Roman noble after the salutatio was to go to the Forum and either plead cases in court or engage in political activity (not mentioned by Martial). Martial doesn't specify any of the activities of lower class Romans, because they would just be too varied to mention.

A Roman aristocrat who wanted to reach the highest level of society (senatorial aristocracy) did not have a great variety of choice for a career; he was for the most part limited to unpaid public service in different magistracies, in the Senate, and in the courts. There was another class of aristocratic Romans called the equites, who did not participate in politics at all, but were primarily businessmen. They were not held in the same esteem as the senatorial aristocracy because, like lower class Romans, they worked for a living. The equites, however, still managed to maintain retain a high level of respect in Roman society, because they conducted business on a large scale and made large amounts of money.

The Seventh Hour

As Martial tells us, the Roman workday was over by the end of the seventh hour. Romans of both the lower and upper classes then headed to the baths houses to bathe and to exercise. In the poem, Martial only mentions exercise. He applies the adjective "sleek" to the exercise rooms, because Romans covered themselves in oil before exercising. The final line in this selection refers to dinner, at which Romans reclined on couches.

According to Martial's schedule, dinner would probably have been over around (our time) six p.m. at the summer solstice, when daylight lasted the longest and around three p.m. at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

Men's work would depend on where you lived — in the cities or the countryside.

Work in the Cities

In the Roman Cities there was work to be done in shops, bath houses, and building work. Tradesmen, shopkeepers and craftsmen worked in Rome and the other cities of the Roman Empire.

Different kinds of shops in the Ancient Roman world included (among many others):

  • Bakers
  • Barbers
  • Booksellers
  • Butchers
  • Cobblers
  • Fishmongers
  • Food Shops
  • Furniture Sellers
  • Olive Oil Sellers
  • Perfume Makers
  • Taverns
  • and of course, Money Lenders.

Many of the shopkeepers would have been slaves or ex-slaves, and in the Roman world, slaves would certainly have done all the work requiring muscle power.

Many occupations and jobs in the Empire would have been aimed at the provision of the daily needs of the population of Rome.

The administration of the Empire was an important job and many men would have been involved in this work.

Work in the Countryside

In the Roman Countryside, work would be centered on the villa. The land would need to be worked to produce crops. Vines were grown for grapes to make wine. There would have been olive groves to tend; olives were an important crop for their oil. A form of wheat called "emmer" was grown for Roman Bread. There were also animals to tend. The Roman farmers kept goats, horses, pigs and small birds.

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