10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century

Alexander Meddings - December 5, 2017

We might rely on regular sessions of retail therapy or morale-boosting injections of protestant work ethic to get us through the daily drudgery of our working lives, but it goes without saying that we’ve come a long way from antiquity. In the West, working nine-to-five hasn’t always been a way to make a living. Having a schedule, a salary, and—in some cases—security is actually a privilege (if we may call it that) of living in a modernised world of capital and infrastructure; one that takes us beyond our need to desperately hunt for where the next meal’s going to come from.

Had we been born in any other historical period, we would have learned this the hard way through an unhealthy concoction of blood, sweat, and tears. And there was no shortage of any of these in the ancient world, where endemic war, death, and violence might have been considered welcome reprieves from some of the more gruelling hardships of everyday life. This article contains a list of ancient jobs that make being a call-centre worker (sorry), a corporate lawyer (sorry again) or a White House PR agent (actually not sorry for this one) seem like a walk in the park.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
Praegustator. Look4ward

Praegustator” (Food Taster)

You might think that the quality of food on offer at a Roman imperial banquet would make people reluctant to share it. Poisoning had been a public concern in Rome since at least 331 BC. Problematically, however, early charges of poisoning came about at the same time as a wave of plagues and pestilences, and the inadequacy of Roman post-mortem examinations made it practically impossible to determine which has been the cause of death. By the time of the Roman Empire (after 31 BC), however, poisoning had become widespread.

People would resort to poison for any number of reasons: from removing political enemies to ensuring an inheritance to getting rid of a pesky family member. It was certainly a big concern in the imperial palace. But it probably also plagued the minds of cheating husbands and rough traders in households across the city and around the empire. The difference, of course, is that we have far more evidence the imperial household, and that the Caesars—unlike most “ordinary” families—could afford to take preventative measures.

One of these might be a potion. The Roman satirist Juvenal mentions a man who took an anti-venom to protect himself from his wife (though ultimately it failed to protect him from a swing of her axe). But the most common method taken by emperors in particular was to hire a professional food-taster: the praegustator. And more bizarrely still, there were enough of them during the early empire to form their own collegium (worker’s guild).

The job certainly had its upsides. Rather than receiving the normal chickenfeed rations reserved for slaves or freedmen (recently freed-slaves), praegustatores would have the privilege of wolfing down some delicious imperial delicacies. The downside, however, was that any one of these delicacies could spell agonising death. We have a fair few examples from antiquity. We know that before the Battle of Actium, Mark Antony had his praegustator hard at work, paranoid that one of his many enemies might be set on having him killed.

If there’s one thing that makes the job of the imperial poison-taster even more bizarre, it’s that, at least under the reign of Nero, there was also an imperial poisoner. Along with his mother Agrippina, Nero employed the services of the skilled poisoner Locusta to get rid of their enemies. Among her alleged victims was the emperor Claudius (the another account suggests he was poisoned by his own praegustator) and Nero’s half-brother, and Claudius’s son, Britannicus.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
Mosiac of a Roman Feast. Google Images

Nomenclator” (Name Caller)

We’ve all been there. You’re at a party or some other social event when someone comes up to you with a beaming smile and expectant eyes. You know you’ve met them before, but you can’t for the life of you place where. Worse still, you can’t remember their name. They remember yours though of course, singing it out as if you’ve been lifelong friends, before asking you how everything’s going and “what news” you have from the last however-many years. You do your best, fire off the best small talk you can muster, but you know—and they know—that you’re at a complete loss. And then the unspeakable happens: someone else joins the two of you and all falls silent as you’re expected to do the introductions. The game is up.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Romans, efficient as they were, had insurance against this. They would single out slaves or freedmen with particularly good memories for service as a nomenclator, whose name in Latin literally means “a caller of names”. And as the name suggests, the job of these walking friends-lists-cum-address-books was to save their master from mortifying social embarrassment by loudly announcing the name of whomever they happened to come across. They were put to good use at parties and banquets, waiting patiently by their master’s side to put lengthy Latin names to hooked Roman faced (was it Lucius Caecilius Balbus or Antonius Caecilius Bantius??). But away from feasts and festivities, they also served as important political instruments.

From the founding of the Republic, Roman politics involved annual elections. Like in democratic societies today, candidates for office would canvas for votes, showing their faces at the games or in the public forums while surrounded by a retinue of friends, clients, and dependents. This retinue would also include a nomenclator whose role was essential if the candidate was to avoid embarrassment; for only by calling out the name of whomever approached could he ensure his candidate could greet them in a personal and friendly manner.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
[Herein lie] the bones of Aristarchus, freedman, nomenclator. John Hopkins Archaeological Museum
Ironically, we don’t know many of the names of the people whose precise job was to remember names. But scratch deep enough beneath the surface and you find the odd mention. One such example comes from the tombstone above. Dating from first century AD Rome, was dedicated to a freedman named Aristarchus who was employed by his patron as a nomenclator.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
Laureys a Castro’s “Battle of Actium” 1672. Wikipedia

Rower

When we think about rowing today, we tend to think about hitting the rowing machines at the gym, rowing competitively for a college, university, or Olympic team, or—if you’re English like me—the annual Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race. We see rowing as an elitist sport, one that’s both physically and emotionally demanding. And for this reason we see rowing as something that brings a great deal of prestige. Suffice to say, this is a far cry from how rowing was thought of in the ancient world.

Save for pushy parents, these days rowing is optional. In antiquity, on the other hand, those who manned the boats of triremes and warships had little say in the matter. Apart from the measly ration of daily bread, there was no let up for these poor souls. They would simply go until they had done their duty (or died in the process) before enjoying a moment’s brief respite and being made to go again. As may be the case with some of the more hard-core gym subscriptions (I don’t know; I don’t go), there was no concept of an “off day”. Put simply, slackers would be lashed by the big beasty man standing behind them and keeping time.

One common misconception is that all rowers were slaves; an idea propagated by films such as “Ben Hur”. But in reality, it would have made little sense to have poorly trained (and presumably chained) men rowing your war machine when the objective was to ram the enemy vessel by means of strength, unity, and precision. Not only would this have put you at a distinct disadvantage when fighting against a superior enemy; chained men would have also been easy picking for the enemy once they’d boarded your vessel.

Instead, rowing was considered a job (albeit a bad one) that required intense training and dedication to the cause. Much like in the modern profession when you think about it! During the Classical Greek period, the job was vital. Unlike the Romans, the Greeks weren’t great road builders (with such easy coastal access they had little need for them) and so defending their waters from pirates and protecting the vital food supplies needed in the city was a necessity.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
Roman public toilets. Phys.org

Urinary Tax Collector

One of the most rewarding things that comes from reading about ancient history is that it throws up a lot of parallels to the modern day. One of these is that paying for public toilets has never been popular—after all, why should having to perform a basic bodily function have to cost? Another is that in no point in time has there been any love lost between the ordinary, upstanding worker and the taxman.

The Romans of the first century AD would have felt disgruntled on both accounts when they were made to pay a tax that brought a whole new meaning to the term “Render unto Caesar”: the urine tax. First introduced by the ever-popular emperor Nero (54 – 68 AD), it came into effect again under his eventual successor, Vespasian, in after his rise to power in 69 AD. The measure was widely unpopular, and his son and future successor Titus had no issue taking on his father over the taxation of urine. His response stunned his son into silence however, when he held up some gold coins procured from the tax and quipped, pecunia non olet: “money doesn’t stink!”

The money might not have stunk, but despite the efficacy of Roman baths its origins would have smelled horrific. The piss would be requisitioned from overflowing public toilets and cesspools, from where it would be put to use for a variety of chemical processes, from soaking animal skins before tanning to extracting the ammonia to clean clothes to—that’s right—using as toothpaste.

The measure might not have been popular but there’s no doubt it was successful. When he came to power in 69 AD, Vespasian inherited an empire that was financially crippled after nearly two years of civil war. When he died 10 years later, he left his successor a surplus. From a fiscal point of view, enforcing a tax on urine was pragmatic. Let’s just spare a moment’s thought for the poor buggers whose job it was to collect it.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
Miners condemned to hard labour. Wikipedia

Imperial miner

The punishment of being condemned to work in one of the Roman Empire’s many mines was the worst non-capital sentence you could be dealt. Invented during the first century AD, the sentence stripped you of your citizenship, reduced you to the status of a slave, and consigned you to a (probably somewhat brief) lifetime of hard labour. And it was doled out to men and women alike, though usually only those of lower social standing. In fact, the only punishment that was perhaps worse is one that’s familiar to all of us thanks to a certain Christian story from the first century AD: crucifixion.

So what could get you sent to the mines? An act of negligence resulting in homicide was one thing—dropping a branch out of your window, for example, which landed on someone’s head with mortal consequences. This might sound like a random example, but it comes straight out of a third century AD law book. Other crimes that carried this punishment included: stealing something of moderate value during the day (at night would probably get you condemned ad bestiam—to fight beasts in the arena).

Testament to just how bad this punishment was is its place in the penal hierarchy. The emperor Hadrian certainly believed that being sent to the mines was a punishment worse than death. In a rather baffling act of law, he ruled that after their first offence cattle-rustlers should be sent to fight in the arena while after their second they should be sent to the mines. Perhaps the logic was that you could theoretically survive as a gladiator by means of your physical prowess and go on to live a pretty decent standard of life. Toiling away in the mines on the other hand, even if for a limited time, left you no chance.

Although this punishment was normally reserved for those of lower social standing, there were examples of this rule being overturned. The emperor Caligula, for example, did away with the tradition of having noblemen merely beheaded or exiled and also condemned them to the mines during his reign (37 – 41 AD). The Roman Empire was full of mines, the most profitable coming from areas such as Dacia or gold and silver-rich Spain. They provided precious metals for all uses: from coinage to weaponry to sculptures.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
Fresco from the brothel in Pompeii. Extra.ie

Prostitute

Often cited as “the world’s oldest profession”, it goes without saying that prostitution pre-dates the world of antiquity. From the powerful female courtesans of fourth century Athens to the poor, starving workers that hung about on the street corners of first century Rome, prostitution was endemic in the ancient world. And issues of bodily hygiene aside, the job brought with both some of the same problems it does today as well as a number of different ones.

Apart from the perpetual prostitute-related problem of having to sleep with pretty much any paying man who walked through the door, prostitutes in the ancient world faced another more existential threat: death. It’s often said that contraception was practically unheard of in the ancient world. The reality, however, is much more sinister. Prostitutes or slaves were themselves contraception; sexual vessels for men to use (so they claimed) to protect their wives from the grave threat of childbearing.

It’s worth stressing that the Romans had a much different idea of marriage than we have today. Rather than love, their marriages were based on politics, pragmatism, and property-inheritance (unlike in the Christian world, divorces were easily obtainable should issues arise in any of these spheres). In fact love would have been disastrous for marriages because it would mean frequent sexual intercourse which greatly increased the chances of death for the wife.

It’s for this reason that we have a famous anecdote from antiquity in which the upstanding, conservative Roman Cato the Elder praises a young aristocrat he saw leaving a brothel. He commends the young man for sleeping with prostitutes rather than involving himself with other men’s wives. The implication here is that adultery is the great social evil; the reality is that the potentially lethal consequences said adultery could bring posed the greatest threat to the stability of the Roman state.

So what was prostitution like in antiquity? Aesthetically, increasing Greek contact with the Near Eastern world brought with it a number of developments. Eastern spices transformed female scents and soaps, while eastern cultures also contributed a better and more durable make-up: the eye shadow. In the Roman world, prostitutes were identifiable by their colourful dress, over-the-top hairstyles, and heavy-set makeup. Sexually, fortunately for those plying their trade in the Roman world, the Romans weren’t big into oral sex. Unfortunately for those of the Hellenistic world, however, the Greeks seemed to have few qualms.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
Cornelia an unchaste vestal virgin left to starve to death in a sealed tomb. http://www.ancient-origins.net

Vestal Virgin

From prostitutes to virgins: the job might be the opposite but that didn’t make it any easier. Take the year 216 BC, for example. Hannibal had just won a stunning victory at Cannae, slaughtering up to 70,000 Romans including one of Rome’s consuls. Sensing his imminent victory, many of Rome’s Italian neighbours started switching sides. And so, depleted of both money and manpower, Rome was forced to send envoys to grovel for a rather embarrassing loan from the king of Syracuse, Hiero II.

The Romans, superstitious as they were, believed they had run into such bad fortune that year because they had displeased the gods. In particular, they blamed two of the Vestal Virgins who had been convicted of… well… not being virgins. In keeping with tradition, the Roman state reacted to this by punishing the Vestals (or at least the one who didn’t kill herself first) by walling her up alive at a designated (though now lost) spot near the Colline Gate.

The brutality of the punishment came from the importance the Romans attached to the goddess Vesta. They believed she was one of the most important in the Roman pantheon; the goddess of the hearth and home and the protector of the family. It was the main duty of the Vestals, her priestesses, to keep her hearth—a fire in the Temple of Vesta—burning. Failure to do so, so the Romans believed, would lead to chaos for the city and (later by extension) the empire.

The Romans believed it essential that the Vestals were virgins, and this explains why such a slow and painful death awaited any Vestal who forsook her vow of chastity. But there were also punishments reserved for Vestals who broke any other vow. Should a Vestal let the fire go out, for example, she could expect a vicious beating in the dark behind a curtain (the curtain intended to preserve her modesty).

So how (and why!?) did a girl become a Vestal? Provided she was free of mental or physical defects, a girl could be chosen aged between six and 10 and committed—or condemned, depending how you look at it—to 30 years of celibate service. “Chosen” is actually too forgiving a word; the ceremony in which girls would be taken was called the captio (“capture” in English), in which the pontifex maximus would turn up at the girl’s house and lead her away to the temple. Still, it wasn’t all bad for the Vestals… At least they were treated pretty well under the emperor Augustus, being given special seats at the games and some land in Rome’s surrounding area.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
Boxer at Olympia. Ancient Origins

Boxer

In Greek boxing, only blows directed towards the head or the neck were allowed. Body blows, which we might today consider “under the belt”, were strictly forbidden. The reason for this is that Greek boxing was supposedly a Spartan invention, and because the Spartans refrained from wearing helmets—believing a shield to be enough—they had to train to avoid taking blows to the face and, when the blows came, to toughen their faces up.

As you might expect, the focus on the face and neck led to a fair few fatalities throughout the centuries, especially given how hard ancient boxers used to hit. We have a remarkable piece of physical evidence for this: the statue of a boxer at rest (pictured above) complete with facial scars and cauliflower ear. But we know they hit hard because the ancients told us. Cicero once wrote that when boxers deliver any blow they let out a grunt, not because they are tired or in any pain but so they can concentrate all their power into the physical effort.

Most of the information we have from these come from Olympia. This isn’t that surprising. As the most prestigious sporting competition of the ancient world, it makes sense that the athletes would have exerted themselves more. The first known fatality comes from sixth century and took place during the pankration. The pankration was essentially a bare-knuckle submission sport involving a mixture of boxing and wrestling. Because the rules were few (no biting or eye-gouging), serious injuries were common. And in 564 BC, one Arrachion lost his life in the event.

He was not the only one. The ancient travel writer Pausanius records one Iccus of Epidaurus losing his life to his rival Cleomedes of Astypalaea. The story became incredibly elaborated in the years to come—with one version saying that Cleomedes punched through Iccus’s body and pulled out his lung—but the long and short of it seem to be that the mighty Cleomedes dealt his rival one powerful punch and killed him instantly.

The judges convicted Cleomedes of foul play—presumably on account of the fact he’d struck the body—and denied him his prize. Their decision drove him mad with grief and he went on to live a reclusive guilt-ridden life. But over time he was forgiven, and upon his death the people of Delphi decided that he should undergo apotheosis (essentially becoming a god). Fatalities from boxing continued throughout antiquity right up until the second century AD.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
Armpit Hair Plucker. Career Addict

Armpit Hair Plucker

We know that the practice of plucking armpit hair was rife during the early Roman Empire because one of its contemporaries tells us. In one of his letters, Seneca the Younger, the Stoic philosopher and tutor to the emperor Nero, suggested that not to pluck one’s armpit hair was to be unreasonably negligent in one’s personal care. The practice makes sense, especially given the presumed stench (Roman baths could only do so much, and Rome really does get hot in the summer). But a Roman man had to be careful not to go too far the other way however: in the same passage Seneca criticises men who depilate their legs, implying that doing so is the hallmark of someone who is vain and effeminate.

So what were the beauty standards of when it came to body hair in the Roman world? Well, thanks to a work called the ars amatoria (the “Art of Love”) written by the Roman poet Ovid, we have a pretty good idea. Women were expected to depilate lest, as Ovid writes, they reek of “wild goat under the armpits” or have “legs bristling with harsh hair”. Men, on the other hand, had a little more flexibility when it came to removing their body hair.

While removing armpit hair was considered acceptable (if not to be encouraged), depilating other parts of your body was seen as overly-effeminate and not becoming of a good old fashioned military Roman. Julius Caesar, for example, ran into some stick when it was pointed out that in addition to his meticulous preening routine (shaving his face, combing over his bald patch etc.) he would have his body hair plucked.

We have another example linking the plucking of body hair with effeminacy from imperial times. Suetonius tells us that Nero’s immediate successor, Galba, received news of his predecessor’s demise from a slave-boy called Icelus. Initially overjoyed, Galba then became inexplicably horny, and requested that Icelus have all of his body hair plucked before he took him aside.

10 Horrible Jobs from Ancient Rome that Will Make You Thankful for Being Born in The Last Century
Vasily S. Smirnov “Nero’s Death” (1888). The TLS

Slave in the Imperial Household

When we think of the population of the Roman world, we tend to think of degenerate emperors, fearsome legionaries, and servile senators. We don’t really think of slaves—the great hidden population of the Roman world—because they’ve left us little mark of their existence. However, across the Roman Empire slaves far outnumbered the free citizenry; a seemingly infinite supply of human property to be used and abused as the master saw fit.

There’s no reason to assume that the abuse of slaves in the imperial household was any worse than the abuse suffered by slaves in other households across the ancient city and empire. The difference is that most of our surviving writing concerns itself with politics, and therefore centres in on the royal palace (and, needless to say, domestic abuses don’t tend to get inscribed onto headstones).

Not all Roman emperors treat their slaves appallingly, and not just because the fact they had up to 20,000 at their disposal would have made it difficult to do so. The great philosopher Seneca wrote about how treating slaves well could ensure they in turn performed their service well (and were less inclined to murder you in your sleep). And testament to their longevity, it seems many of Rome’s better emperors took his sage advice on board.

Some of the worst instances of abuse in the imperial household come from the reign of Nero (54 – 68 AD). We’re told that he had a favourite young ex-slave (known varyingly as either Pythagoras or Doryphorus) who after falling head over heals in love with he decided to marry in the 64 AD. But Phythagoras/Doryphorus wasn’t the only young man the emperor took a shine to. Nero soon became enraptured with a young slave called Sporus who met a decisively darker fate than his predecessor: being castrated and forced to marry the emperor the year before Nero’s death in 67 AD.

In keeping with character, Nero’s appalling treatment of his slaves continued right up until his final moments. After being declared an enemy of the state and forced to hide out in one of his freedmen’s countryside villas, he resolved to commit suicide. He didn’t quite know how to go about it, however, and so solicited the help of one of his unfortunate servile attendants. Nero passed his slave a dagger and asked him to show him how it was done. Luckily for the slave, at that moment Nero confused the sound of a passing horse for the sound of soldiers sent to arrest him, and drove a dagger into his own throat.

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