In ancient thought work is only rarely conceived of as a distinct domain of human activity, separately analyzable. Where ancient authors engage with the topic, they discuss it in ways that can seem hopelessly foreign, such that it has become almost a cliché to observe that the Greeks and the Romans lacked any vocabulary for concepts even roughly approximate to modern notions of “work” or “labor.”
That commonplace is not obviously wrong, but it is no longer apparent that it is meaningful. It was given special impetus by schools of thought wherein it is important to establish fundamental differences between the modern, capitalist economic order and the societies of the Greeks and Romans. These systems of ideas include that of Marx and his adherents but more especially the sociological thought of Max Weber and Moses Finley, which has exercised far greater influence on the study of antiquity. For Finley little that we tend to consider essential about labor need have existed in the ancient world since society was structured primarily by social status and especially by the dichotomy between free and slave. Any form of labor that was not independent, including free wage labor, was assimilated to slavery, and ideologies related to social status prevented any rational organization of labor or indeed even the development of any kind of distinctly economic behavior.
For these and other theorists ancient work is a useful subject of study primarily insofar as it demonstrates a decisive break between antiquity and rational developments such as technological innovation or a Protestant ethic held to have ushered in industrialization. More recent approaches to the ancient economy, especially New Institutional Economics, have abandoned ideological determinism and tried to move beyond evolutionary schemes that assume premodern societies are to varying degrees irrational and proportionately far removed from rational, capitalist society. These approaches stress that in all societies economic behavior is shaped and constrained by institutions encompassing nearly every aspect of culture. From this point of view it is not important, in and of itself, that ancient concepts related to work are decidedly not modern. It matters more that the Greeks and Romans did have rich vocabularies related to work, and that this evidence when understood in the context of ancient thought is useful in analyzing the internal logic of Greek and Roman institutions and their related but hardly determinative ideologies.
These approaches are compatible with recent trends in the history of work more generally, which stress that an analytical focus on free wage labor has obscured the degree to which other forms of work were prevalent in Europe until relatively recently. One important result of that re-evaluation is that the cultural history of work in the western world before the Industrial Revolution can be understood in terms that are also applicable to antiquity. Antiquity, then, is potentially an important test case, and not just for writing a comparative history of work in the western world, but for premodern societies globally.
For Greek and Roman societies the evidence for work is situated within a tremendous abundance of data. In addition to the unusually rich body of literary texts we have vast amounts of other kinds of evidence: hundreds of thousands of inscriptions, a wide range of archaeological data, art-historical evidence, and, from Greco-Roman Egypt, documentary papyri. This data has long been the subject of intensive research. Moreover, the study of antiquity has been interdisciplinary well before that became a preoccupation of the academy as a whole, with art historians, archaeologists, philologists, political theorists, and social and economic historians of antiquity sharing thematic interests. Even if a cultural history of work in antiquity has remained a pressing desideratum, for nearly all of the most popular themes—household, family, gender, childhood, slavery, urbanization, class, warfare, to list but a few—work has been recognized as comprising an essential aspect.
Given the nature of previous research and the degree to which in ancient thought work is embedded, an introduction to the cultural history of work in antiquity risks surveying Greek and Roman societies more generally. At the same time, I wish to avoid superficial discussion of the problems treated more thoroughly in the thematic chapters that follow. Instead I hope to offer some context for understanding what is perhaps the fundamental structural problem in the study of work in antiquity—the apparent insufficiency of literary sources that are often not only deeply prejudiced but also profoundly limited in their concerns and viewpoints. Scholars are right in attempting to describe work in antiquity “from the bottom up.” The literary sources remain, however, indispensible evidence and these texts are themselves a form of culture responsible to a large degree for enduring interest in antiquity. In what follows I will sketch out some of the key features of the ancient literary history of work, focusing especially on a few genres and texts that through elite education— paideia—shaped how authors treated work well into late antiquity.
In exploring the literary history of work in antiquity, Dio Chrysostom’s Euboicus (Euboean Discourse) offers a useful starting point. Dio in certain respects bridges all of Greco-Roman antiquity. Born in a Greek polis in northwestern Anatolia in the first century CE,Dio identified strongly with his city, claiming its honors meant more to him than if “all the Greeks and the people of Rome should marvel at and praise” him ( Or. 44.1). As that formulation implies, however, Dio’s horizons were wider. A Roman citizen, he spent periods living at Rome and travelling across the eastern parts of the empire. Dio was personally connected to networks of Roman elites that included emperors and their relatives. But like most Greeks living under Roman rule Dio identified just as strongly with a larger Hellenic ideal elaborated through and symbolized by a proper classical education. Despite being composed in a fossilized dialect used only by a similarly educated 1 percent, Dio’s work was aimed at a relatively broad audience and spoke to an essentially bilingual and bicultural audience of educated Greeks and Romans.
Dio repackaged classical learning in ways that appealed to elite audiences well into late antiquity. Some eighty of his discourses survive and his work influenced important early Christian figures who admired especially the Euboicus, a speech that is both a kaleidoscope of ancient genres and also a text that as much as any other before late antiquity takes directly as its subject the meaning and nature of work. The speech first sketches out an idealized portrait of rustic self-sufficiency ( autarkeia) before turning to the topic of poverty and how best to employ the urban poor. The topic of work is brought into focus in the opening lines ( Or. 7.1–2): “It happened that I was crossing over from Chios outside of the summer season with some fishermen in an exceedingly small craft. A bad storm blew up … and the fishermen destroyed their boat in driving it up onto a rough beach under the bluffs.” This discourse is imaginative, and its reference points are primarily other texts. But the world that Dio pictures stands in close relation to realities structured by work and mobility, by the Mediterranean sea, and marginal classes like fishermen who travel in order to work and whose skill allows them to find employment essentially anywhere.
Dio too is travelling “on some urgent business” (7.7), but the kind of work he performs—the kind of work appropriate for educated elites—is set apart. He and the wrecked fishermen are left equally destitute but for the latter this is no tragedy, they simply “went off to join some murex fishermen anchored behind a nearby headland, intending to remain there working in partnership with them” (7.2). Dio to the contrary possesses no transferable skills in such environments and faces certain death but is rescued, conventionally, by the rustic, whose materially poor but happy way of life becomes the subject of the first half of the speech. Winking at himself, and his audience, Dio has the rustic announce that the orator’s character is plainly visible: “You look to me like someone from the city, not a sailor or a worker (ergatês), but as if suffering from some severe physical illness, to judge by the slightness of your build” (7.8).
The uselessness of urban elites, and especially their incapacity for hard, manual labor is an ancient trope that was exploited already in Attic old comedy. Aristophanes’ Clouds, for example, pits the rustic (agroikos) Strepsiades against a spendthrift son whose incapacity for work he ascribes to the boy’s mother, a wealthy “city girl” (39–55). As with the idealized world of pastoral poetry, such scenes seem to have been especially popular with urban elites more numerous in teeming Hellenistic cities like Alexandria and Antioch and in the increasingly urbanized world of the Roman Empire. So in Menander’s Dyskolos (The Grouch), the protagonist, Sostratos, hoping to win consent to marry the misanthropic farmer Knemon’s daughter, is persuaded that the only hope of achieving his goal is to visit the farm and do what he has never had to do: engage in hard, manual labor. Knemon eventually consents to the marriage, believing Sostratos to have proved himself “sufficient with respect to his character” (770). That moral fitness is demonstrated chiefly by Sostratos having “taken up the pick, having dug, having been willing to toil (ponein)” (766–7). New comedy is highly generic, but like modern sitcoms it assumes a popular morality against which its protagonists are played. Knemon’s work ethic, which ascribed moral value to toil, ponos, while shunning idleness, argia, is as ancient and as well attested as any Greek popular virtue. Already in the Archaic period Hesiod in his Works and Days avows that “those who work (ergazomenoi) are far dearer to the gods. No work ( ergon) is shameful, only laziness (aergiê) is shameful” (310–11). That dearness to the gods is conceived of in material terms: “If you desire wealth … work at work upon work” (381–2).
It is not uncommon to find scholars continuing to treat Hesiod as anomalous, since “the Ancients did not place value on work (ponos), preferring studious leisure (scholê).” Such claims have been central to a wide range of ideologically driven appeals to ancient society. In fact attitudes to work in antiquity were never uniform. As in all complex societies what was seen to constitute work and what kind of work was seen to be virtuous were constantly negotiated. For antiquity we are fortunate to have—relative to most premodern societies—unusually rich evidence reflecting the complexity of attitudes towards work. That complexity is apparent even in literary sources produced, like Dio’s discourses, exclusively by and for elites. The impression that Greek attitudes towards work were somehow monolithic and that laborious effort was shunned is largely the result of taking as representative a relatively small number of texts composed at classical Athens, in particular the reactionary philosophical works of Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle.
A passage in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus (Household Management) offers perhaps the most concise example of how philosophers at Athens deployed Socratic traditions together with elements of more widely attested elite ideology in order to articulate potentially radical theories about the ideal political community. Xenophon’s Socrates is made to assert (4.2–3):
The so-called banausic arts (banausikai technai) are inveighed against and quite rightly held in altogether low esteem among the poleis. For they ruin the bodies of workers and foremen alike, forcing them to remain sitting indoors, and some even to spend the day by the fire. As their bodies become womanly their souls too become feebler. These banausic arts also entail a lack of leisure (ascholia). But leisure is necessary to tend to friends and the polis, so how can such people be other than poor friends and useless in defense of their fatherlands?
In the context of poleis, where citizenship was often tied directly to the possession of land and where participation and civic offices were frequently restricted to wealthier landowners, democracies like Athens were exceptional. At Athens political participation was open even to those citizens—craftsmen, merchants, wage laborers—who possessed no agricultural land. It is partly that reality that motivates antidemocratic elites like Xenophon to forcefully assert the moral and practical virtues of farming (Oec. 5.4–7).
The practical virtue of farming—that this particular kind of ponos physically prepares citizens for the toil of war—is widely attested, including in republican Rome (Cato, Agr. pref. 4). But the attendant claim that craftsmen and laborers are unfit always rested on a shaky foundation given that many trades were not physically deforming. For Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle the use of banausos and related terms constitutes a kind of rhetorical strategy. Its use is clearly pejorative even if its exact sense is harder to recover. The stem banau- is not attested earlier than the classical period and it clusters heavily in fourth-century philosophical texts. The grammarians derived banausia from the word for “furnace” (baunos) and a verb meaning “to light” (auein). That logic is usually rejected as a folk etymology, but no better suggestion has been offered and Chantraine is perhaps right to consider it plausible, in which case elites like Xenophon would have adapted a technical usage describing those laborers engaged in manifestly dirty and unhealthful tasks related to stoking the furnaces and kilns common in various kinds of craft production.
As in most societies, the social statuses of non-elites are described by Greek and Roman elites in moral terms. Such elites especially stress the differences between those deriving wealth primarily from the management of agricultural estates and more or less everyone else. Three key features of that ideology are worth highlighting. The first is a kind of nexus of ideas that links martial virtue and agriculture, as pictured already in the Archaic period in an elegiac poem of Tyrtaeus (10.1–10):
It is a noble thing for a good man to die falling among the front ranks while fighting for his fatherland, and the most grievous of all to become a beggar, having left behind one’s city and rich fields, wandering … For he will be despised by all he meets, yielding to need and hateful poverty … and every dishonor and evil follow him.
Unlike farmers, the argument held, craftsmen and wage laborers are already poor, dishonored and mobile, thus having no essential stake in defending the agricultural territory on which a community’s very existence depended.
A second feature involves extending the notion of banausia to include a moral deformation linked to the dichotomy between freedom and slavery. So Aristotle states bluntly that because “their way of life is vulgar (phaulos), a population of craftsmen (banausoi), merchants and wage laborers can have no part in any work (ergon) related to virtue” ( Pol. 6.1319a27–9). Plato and Aristotle do not abandon the importance of physical training but the essential “vulgarity” of banausic trades is owed in part to remuneration (e.g., Pl. Leg. 5.741d–743b). Whereas farmers could in theory (but in fact only in theory) grow all of their own food, store their surpluses, and produce all of their necessities within their own households, thus achieving self-sufficiency, that “freedom” was thought to be impossible for craftsmen, merchants, and wage-workers (Arist. Pol. 1.1260a–b). For these compensation and market exchange introduce a kind of dependency akin to slavery: “Those who perform menial tasks for an individual are slaves, and those on behalf of the public are craftsmen (banausoi) and wage laborers” (Arist. Pol. 3.1278a11–13).
The development of philosophical notions allowing for varying degrees and kinds of freedom linked to ideal political hierarchies is tied in turn to the notion that the ruling class should possess political wisdom, distinct from the practical skills, technai, possessed, for example, by craftsmen and artisans. Socrates is made by Plato to say in the Theaetetus (176c–d):
There is nothing more divine than becoming as just as possible. It is of this that a man’s true cleverness exists, or his worthlessness and cowardice. For the knowledge of this is wisdom and true virtue … All else that appears to be cleverness and wisdom is, in the realm of politics, vulgar, and in the arts, banausic.
The question of how to acquire “true wisdom and virtue” led Plato and likewise Aristotle to stress that virtue requires leisure, scholê. While it was already proverbial that “there exists no leisure for slaves” (Arist. Pol. 7.1334a21–2), Plato and Aristotle stress that a philosophical mode of living requires not only legal freedom but also independence from the physical and mental demands of laboring to provide life’s necessities. At the same time, this philosophical scholê can have no part of idleness and is distinct from common conceptions of leisure, which could include not only the recreation that Pericles describes in unquestionably positive terms as available to Athenians both publicly and privately as “a break from toils” (Thuc. 2.38) but also many of the forms of leisure characteristic of aristocratic elites. For Plato and Aristotle the latter posed the risks of indulging mere entertainment or, far worse still, involving a kind of withdrawal from participation in public life.
It would be misleading to dismiss philosophical attitudes towards work as reflecting only elite biases necessarily at odds with working-class attitudes. For classical Athens we have a rich abundance of evidence from oratory and comedy suggesting that occupational status mattered and that in many respects elite biases overlapped with attitudes and stereotypes operating across all levels of Athenian society. There is little evidence for a distinct “working-class” mentality, let alone any notion of worker solidarity. On the other hand, any alternate reality that placed a leisured class of philosophers atop a political hierarchy would have been considered laughable by all those more populous classes at democratic Athens not similarly privileged in Plato’s scheme, even if in other respects a philosophical hierarchy of soldiers, farmers, craftsmen, wage laborers, and slaves reproduced features of existing social stratification. One need look no further than Aristophanes’ wildly successful parody of Socrates and his students bent over, staring at the ground, “groping about in the darkness below the underworld” while their asses “study, of their own accord, astronomy” ( Nub. 191–4).
Such jokes rely on widely shared belief in the value of practical wisdom and of occupational skills, technai, the possession of which was compatible with a kind of work ethic that allowed for some degree of social mobility—as memorably framed by the tragic poet Agathon, “skill (technê) loves fortune and fortune skill” (TGF 39F6). Furthermore, the citizen craftsmen and free wage-workers that rowed in Athens’ fleet also had no weaker claim to civic virtue than political elites or farmer hoplites. Pericles’ funeral oration reflects a democratic ideology that valued a citizen based on his ability to contribute regardless of social status (Thuc. 2.37). Even after the disasters of the Peloponnesian Wars it could plausibly be maintained that the participation in politics of citizens possessing a wide range of technai furnished a better form of government than any realistic alternatives—the murderous, despotic regime of the Thirty ensured as much. Plato’s Protagoras offers clear evidence that such arguments were made and we can imagine that had we any of Simon the shoemaker’s dozens of alleged dialogues they might ascribe to Socrates very different conceptions of work, wisdom, and self-sufficiency (Diog. Laert. 2.122–3).
The canonical status enjoyed in later periods by Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle obscures the degree to which their views on work and leisure were contested even within the narrow confines of philosophical thought at classical Athens. Others writing during and shortly after the life of Socrates advocated visions of philosophical wisdom that emphasized the virtues of toil. A favorite figure in such debate was Heracles. Prodicus had offered a parable about Heracles that turned his life of labor into an ethical choice (Xen., Mem. 2.1.1–32), and Antisthenes—in other respects probably a conservative critic of democracy—similarly embraced that hero as an example showing “that labor (ponos) is a good thing” (Diog. Laert. 6.2). To insist that philosophers like Antisthenes set philosophical ponos apart from everyday work misses the point. The labors of the hero-god already described by Hesiod as “most toiling and virtuous” (frs. 248–9 M–W) were associated in Greek popular thought with everyday human toil. Biographical traditions about philosophers acknowledge the same. So Diogenes Laertius reports that the Stoic Cleanthes, forced to spend his nights as a wage laborer due to extreme poverty, was called on that account “a second Heracles” (7.168–70). In Aristophanes’ Clouds the Stronger Argument judges “no man better than Heracles” because he “performed the most labors” (1049), in stark contrast with the deities worshipped by philosophers—the Clouds, “great goddesses for lazy men” (316). While Heracles continued to be invoked by kings like Alexander the Great and others claiming divine descent or striving to emulate heroic, martial labors, there seems little reason to doubt that Heracles’ wide popularity throughout Greco-Roman antiquity was owed also to non-elites identifying above all with his work ethic and the fundamentally important notion that the gods smile materially upon those who toil. In the words of Thucydides’ Pericles, “it is not poverty itself that is shameful, but rather not attempting to escape it through work” (2.40).
One fascinating aspect of the Heracles myths involves his enslavement to the Lydian queen Omphale. Heracles’ enslavement was certainly known already by the classical period (Soph. Trach. 252–3; Aesch. Ag. 1024–5), but his performance of women’s labor seems to have been suppressed at Athens, except perhaps on the comic stage where reference to a “New Omphale” apparently marked Pericles’ relationship with Aspasia, and especially her alleged involvement in his political decision-making, as standing outside of Athenian gender norms (Plut. Vit. Per. 25). In the Roman period Heracles’ enslavement became especially popular, including depictions of him engaged in the most typical women’s work of spinning and weaving (Figure I.1; Ov. Her. 9.55–80; Ars am. 2.217–22; Sen. Phaed. 317–24). By elevating women’s work to the level of Heraclean toil the myth acknowledged—even if ironically and with a focus on gender reversal—the importance of labor otherwise largely taken for granted.
The figure of the laboring Heracles brings us back to Dio Chrysostom, whose portrait in the Euboicus of a small-scale herder, farmer, and subsistence hunter living entirely “off the grid” draws on diverse texts and genres but is also presented, like the labors of Heracles, as a Stoic ( or Cynic) philosophical exemplum demonstrating that the working poor can lead lives “suitable to free men” and “more in accordance with nature” than the lifestyles of the wealthy (7.103). Dio uses that possibility to transition to the topic of the second half of the speech, the problem of “the livelihood and occupations” of the urban poor (7.104), whose situation Dio suggests “is not hopeless, as it seems to be to many,” but rather “offers to men willing to labor many ways of making a living that are neither shameful nor harmful” (7.125).
Some scholars have taken scattered clues to suggest that Dio delivered this speech at Rome and that he especially has in mind the capitol’s urban population, which in the late first and early second centuries CE likely exceeded a million souls, the vast majority of whom were, in the eyes of elites, hopelessly destitute. But it is perhaps more interesting that Dio speaks of the urban poor as a general class implying that poverty and employment could be conceived of as distinct concepts related to the general phenomenon of urbanization. Indeed it is in Stoic thought that notions of work most closely approach modern concepts of labor. A famous passage in Cicero’s On Duties describes categories of things produced by “the work of men” (hominum operis), which consists of “manual effort and skill” (manus et ars: Off. 2.3.12–13). Discussing that passage, Brent Shaw observes that the Stoics are unique in having recognized work as “a socially differentiated category of activity … a separately analyzable power of man that had changed his own environment.” The effects, however, of that theoretical advance turn out to be negligible since the Stoics immediately reembed the abstract category of labor in a model of nature that incorporates closely defined social roles and long-established hierarchies of status. There is never any question then of radically reconfiguring social structures to privilege a “working class” or to abolish servitude, but only of how to incorporate moral reform within a model of nature that essentially mirrored society.
Dio argues that the urban poor must have access to wage-paying jobs since the fact of living in a city requires that they purchase even basic necessities (7.105), yet beyond schemes to redistribute the poor on marginal agricultural land he never considers the possibility of measures that might increase overall employment or improve the conditions of those already working. Rather he rejects in familiar terms not only banausic trades “harmful to the body” or “engendering in the soul disgrace or servility” but also occupations incompatible with traditional Roman morality. In proscribing any occupation in any way related to “the frivolity and luxury of cities” (7.110), Dio links his sermon to familiar Roman discourses about the kinds of activities appropriate for political elites and the proper uses of wealth. What follows is dreary and predictable: Dio’s austere city will have no occupations related to the production or sale of dyes or perfumes, no hairdressers, no jewellers, no fashion, no decorative arts of any kind, no drama or “craftsmen of intemperate laughter,” no dancers, and, but for certain sacred performances, no music. Many readers, sensing that Dio’s ideal society would be approximately as pleasant as life under the Taliban, are perhaps likely to side with critics that the orator imagines will accuse him of “censuring everything that Greeks most cherish” (7.122).
The occupations left for the poor in Dio’s ideal state are those “in no way objectionable” and the only examples he gives are wet nurse, tutor, and hired laborer in the grain and grape harvests (7.114). That list is owed directly to Demosthenes (57.45) and includes occupations thought to be vital to the needs of traditional agricultural elites who could otherwise rely on slaves to perform all necessary work on their estates and within their households. Given that Dio forbids a whole range of occupations essential for the functioning of basic economic institutions like the making and enforcement of contracts (7.123–6), his reforms would for all intents and purposes undo urbanization, an outcome that he embraces, imagining “well-inhabited” cities from which the poor and free laborers of any kind are banished altogether (7.107).
In the end Dio’s views are less progressive even than those of other Stoics like his teacher Musonius Rufus, who advocated for the education of women (Discourses 3 and 4). Dio preaches a popular kind of Stoicism that came in all its diverse forms to be the most influential school of thought under the Roman Empire. In simultaneously welcoming toil and teaching that nothing is inherently shameful about poverty, while also stridently attacking wealth and attempting to enforce a kind of traditional morality, Dio’s thought shares essential features with the Christianity that developed in the West. It is no accident that later Christians embraced the Euboicus and its author as models, as demonstrated especially by an author like Synesius (see his Dio).
A striking feature of Dio’s discussion—but consistent with our other literary sources for work—is the degree to which it is divorced from historical realities. There is no attention to the social and economic conditions of urban employment or the institutions that structured labor or relations between classes. There are no guilds, no contemporary forms of public support, no freedmen, not even households. Dio even tells us he has refrained from naming specific occupations because of their “uncouthness”—atopia (7.110), a formulation suggesting that the very terms related to everyday work could be considered inappropriate for literary usage. It is hardly necessary to note that absent too are the voices and viewpoints of those engaged in such work. In this latter regard, however, Dio’s account is in a single respect remarkable in that at one point he does actually consider the possibility of soliciting the opinions of the poor (7.100). Instead Dio introduces as voice for the working classes “their prophets and spokesmen, the poets … since there we will find the beliefs of the masses clearly expressed and preserved in meter” (7.101).
There are two points worth noting about Dio’s otherwise conventional appeal to poetry. First, ancient poetry does offer, despite its formal generic qualities, some of our richest evidence for everyday work. Second, while Dio invokes canonical texts that his audience would take pleasure in recognizing, these are primarily the epics of Homer and Hesiod (but also Eurpides’ Electra) and together with comedy this early Greek poetry offers a richer picture of work than almost all other literature from the classical, Hellenistic, and Roman imperial periods. This was noted already in antiquity—Athenaeus, for example, reports that the Stoic Chrysippus praised Homer for showing his heroes performing everyday work (1.18b). Modern critics are more likely to discuss the contrast in terms of historical change. But such schemes perhaps fail to appreciate the degree to which attitudes towards work within the Homeric and Hesiodic epics are less the product of unique historical rather than performative contexts, since these poems were shaped in the context of oral performances aimed at relatively diverse audiences. That broad appeal is likewise mirrored by their continued reception well into the Roman period, as suggested by accounts like Dio’s of the Greek merchants of Pontic Olbia who possess little in the way of formal paideia but nevertheless have nearly all learned by heart the Homeric epics ( Or. 36.9 and 24–6).
Homeric attention to work is well demonstrated by a famous digression in Book 18 of the Iliad depicting Hephaestus fashioning a shield for Achilles (468–608). This account stands as the earliest and one of the richest examples of ekphrasis, a technique popular throughout antiquity that involved describing in highly literary terms products of skilled labor that were most often exceptional works of art. This example is especially of interest because work itself is richly illustrated by the shield’s figural design contrasting a city at peace with another under siege. Peace is characterized by work, especially agricultural (541–6, trans. Lattimore):
This image of work contrasts sharply with the picture of farming in Hesiod’s Works and Days, a world of grim, highly fraught toil, where small landholders could only through unceasing, virtuous labor and pious attention to the gods ward off hunger or, worse, debt and the disaster of losing one’s estate. The idealized depiction of work on the Shield of Achilles serves the larger meanings of the ekphrastic account itself, which in turn resonate within a poem about the rage of Achilles that prefigures the destruction of prosperous Troy. It is no more real than Dio’s Euboean fantasy, which includes numerous ekphrastic elements in its description of the rustic’s idyllic homestead (e.g. 7.13–15).
Such accounts stand at multiple removes from reality even when the objects depicted are not themselves imaginary, but actual works of art, like, perhaps, those that the third-century CE author Philostratus purports to describe in his Eikones (Images), an account of some sixty-five paintings ostensibly on display in a luxurious villa on the Bay of Naples. On the other hand, ekphrastic accounts occasionally offer useful evidence for everyday work. So while Philostratus’ paintings primarily depict mythological subjects, one monumental landscape of the Bosporus includes a scene of a complex seine fishing operation described in vivid (if highly literary) terms (1.13). That evidence can be combined with additional literary and especially epigraphic evidence to reconstruct with some level of detail the technology and organization of large-scale fishing operations in the region (I.Parion 5 and 6; Ael. NA 15.5).
Closely related to ekphrasis and often designated in Greek with the same word—eikones—are comparisons, which often rely on the audience’s familiarity with various kinds of everyday work. Here too Homer is a model. In the Iliad, for example, the roar of battle is likened to “the din of woodcutters in mountain glens” (16.633–4). The heroes Menelaus and Meriones hauling the corpse of Patroclus from the battlefield are compared to “mules together dragging with strong endurance a main beam or great shipbuilding timber along a rugged path” (17.742–4). And time is marked by “the hour when a woodcutter readies his meal in a mountain glen, weary in his hands from cutting tall trees” (11.86–8). Such comparisons offer only abstract depictions of work and of only certain kinds of work. Images of woodcutters, for example, are well suited to poems wherein heroes compared to towering oaks or pines hack one another down on the battlefield.
In later Greek and Latin poetry comparisons constitute perhaps the most common way in which everyday work is attested, although only rarely with more detail or specificity than in Homer. Especially common are comparisons from work that can function metapoetically—so the typical women’s work of weaving is frequently invoked not only because it is used to symbolize female virtue or mêtis (which includes the capacity for deceit), but also because it often functions as a metaphor for the poet’s craft (see, e.g., Ov. Met. 6.1–145). Comparisons are common too in prose, especially in authors known for a “poetic” style, like Plato, whose interlocutors, notably Socrates, show a particular fondness for comparisons, many drawn from the work not only of farmers ( Phdr. 276c) and herdsmen ( Criti. 109b–c) but also from a wide range of banausic trades, from dyers of wool ( Resp. 4.429d–30b) to “the shipwright who at the outset of his shipbuilding determines the dimensions of his vessels by setting in place their keels” ( Leg. 7.803a). Plato’s comparisons often show an awareness of technical vocabulary but they are rarely fulsome and what scant details they provide are carefully chosen to serve the needs of philosophical arguments.
There is another important respect in which poetry intersects with the world of everyday work. In antiquity much lyric poetry—song performed solo or in chorus, usually with musical accompaniment—was closely linked to work, as figured already in the Shield of Achilles ( Il. 18.561–72):
Unfortunately little actual work song survives. The single verse of a woman’s grinding song quoted by Plutarch is very nearly unique ( Mor. 157e = Carm. pop. PMG 869). But it has been argued that echoes of everyday work songs are widely present in ancient poetry. Most of our extant early lyric was composed rather for private contexts, especially the symposion that came to be a dominant feature of elite Greek culture in the archaic and classical periods. This distancing continues in most genres of poetry during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. So Callimachus shows interest in the origins of religious rituals and an awareness of their relationship to work (e.g., Ia. 7, fr. 197 Pfeiffer), but he claims programmatically to “despise all things common” ( Epigr. 28.4) and his poems are composed in idioms intelligible only to similarly well-educated elites.
The contrast between actual work and literature is perhaps starkest in pastoral poetry. Herdsmen in the Shield of Achilles are shown tending their flocks while “playing happily upon pipes” ( Il. 18.525–6), and that kind of work and song affords the fictional context for the herders of Theocritus’ Idylls and Vergil’s Eclogues. Their literary songs on themes like love and loss are, however, in no sense real work songs, and it is hard to imagine literature more distant from the concerns of everyday labor. Theocritus’ tenth idyll is of unusual interest in that it features a contest of songs between two free wage-laboring harvesters, one of whom purports to a sing a real work song, the “Song of the Divine Lityerses.” That song turns out to be highly literary but it does acknowledge social and economic dimensions of the grain harvest that are otherwise rarely attested. Reaping required tremendous amounts of seasonal labor (Figure I.2). It is estimated, for example, that grain production in Roman North Africa required for reaping alone something on the order of thirty million man-days of labor annually. And yet throughout antiquity the most detailed ancient description of reaping remained the picturesque account in the Shield of Achilles depicting bands of wage-laborers (erithoi) reaping grain on a royal estate (Il. 18.550–60). Otherwise even the most cursory descriptions of harvest labor are largely absent before late antiquity, when images of reaping become prolific in the Christian sermons of authors such as Augustine of Hippo.
That apparent transformation is less the product of religious ideology or social and economic changes than of audience—like the Homeric poems Christian sermons reflect oral performance and socioeconomically diverse audiences. In intervening centuries, reaping—like work more generally—is hidden behind the same elite Greco-Roman literary culture that produced Dio Chrysostom. Shining out against that darkened backdrop is one of our single most fascinating pieces of evidence for work from all of antiquity, poetic or otherwise. A funerary monument from ancient Mactaris in North Africa, perhaps dating to the latter half of the fourth century CE, includes an inscribed poem that narrates in approximately thirty lines the rise of the “Maktar Harvester” from wage-laborer to member of the curial class (CIL VIII 11824 = ILS 7457, ll. 1–20, transl. Shaw):
The immense concentrations of periodic labor required just for the harvesting of grain must have produced many similar stories in antiquity, even if upward mobility remained overall markedly less common than in many modern societies. Suetonius reports an apparently persistent rumor that the emperor Vespasian’s paternal grandfather had owed his status among the local elite at Reate to wealth his father had earned in similar fashion to the Maktar Harvester, by contracting teams of laborers from Umbria to work in Sabine fields (Vesp. 1.4). The story’s truth has little bearing on its interest: its telling takes the reality of such mobility for granted while likewise suggesting elites would have been keen to hide or, when politically expedient, to impute such origins. The latter phenomenon surely explains in part why the Maktar Harvester’s account is so anomalous. Self-made, proud of his labors, strikingly individualistic, his epitaph casts in a distinctly literary mode (probably with the assistance of a professional poet) a kind of work song wherein the usual cultural currency of elites—honors—are treated as functionally equivalent to wages, to labor, to scythed grain. Safely ensconced in the curial class his descendants likely would be no more interested in advertising the origins of their status than was Vespasian. Their tombstones would record only honors.
The use of occupational status for purposes of abuse is a characteristic not only of ancient politics but also of art, and especially where the two coincided. Roman satire features much of this kind of invective, and it is often closely related to the kinds of moral discourse encountered already in Dio Chrysostom. Comedy, on the other hand, was aimed at a broader audience than the poetry of Juvenal or Martial, and Attic old and middle comedy offers unusually rich evidence for occupational diversity, social status, and related attitudes. It is unfortunate that so little Attic comedy survives apart from Aristophanes, since the attested titles of many lost plays suggest that the choruses or main characters were frequently identified occupationally. The prolific middle comic poet Alexis is known, for example, to have staged plays with titles like Ekpomatopoios (The Cup Maker), Koniatês (The Plasterer), Kouris (The Female Hairdresser), Aiopoloi (The Goatherds), and Ampelourgos (The Vine Worker). Nevertheless, Aristophanes and the comic fragments feature characters engaged in a wide range of occupations, from fishermen and farmers to wholesalers, retailers and producers of every kind of product. Aristophanes on occasion draws attention directly to the diversity of trades practiced by his audience (e.g., Pax 543–9). Work is rarely pictured extensively but composite portraits of certain more common Athenian occupations, or classes of occupations, can sometimes be drawn in part based on comic evidence. Comedy presents obvious interpretative problems, and its stereotypes and stock characters are in a certain sense no more real than its fantastic plots, but it is clear that much of its detail is drawn from everyday life and that its attitudes reflect aspects of social complexity at classical Athens. Like contemporary ambulance-chasing lawyers or used-car salesmen, certain servile occupations, and especially retailers of cheaper wares, are favorite subjects of caricature on the Attic stage. Those stereotypes are used to especially biting effect when deployed against politically powerful elites, like Cleon, whose family wealth may have been owed to profits earned at least in part in the tanning business, but who is characterized by Aristophanes as a lowly retailer of third-rate leather (e.g. Eq. 315–18; Pax 270, 648). A century later, Chaerephilus and his sons, naturalized citizens and wealthy merchants probably hailing originally from the region of the Black Sea, are repeatedly characterized as foreign, servile saltfish sellers.
In closing we might perhaps say something more about work in the wide range of prose genres we have not had occasion to mention. Many of these can be glimpsed in Dio’s kaleidoscopic Euboicus, which frequently incorporates not only elements of philosophy, oratory, and historiography but also fictional genres ranging from the romance novel to fantastic travel accounts. Such literature often includes various kinds of work in constructing imaginary landscapes like the bucolic countryside in Daphnis and Chloe. Work features too in epistolographic fiction, like the collection of letters to and from farmers ascribed to Aelian or the three books of letters to and from fishermen, farmers, parasites, and courtesans attributed to the Second Sophistic author Alciphron. Such letters sometimes depict scenes of work in picturesque detail—much of it probably drawn from Attic comedy—but they are at the same time highly artificial in their themes, their imagined classical Attic settings, and their painstakingly reconstructed dialect.
In this imaginative fiction, agricultural and pastoral work predominates, as indeed it does in prose more generally. Agrarian manuals like those of Cato, Varro, and Columella frequently preserve indispensable evidence for social and economic historians, but it nevertheless deserves to be stressed that these texts are written by elites for elites whose work consists chiefly of seeing to the effective management of large estates. Their households, already narrowly representative, are rarely described in detail and women’s labor especially is absent. There is a great deal of discussion in a text like Xenophon’s Oeconomicus of the virtues appropriate to a wife, and her general responsibility for managing the household, but without describing much actual work or offering reliable evidence for the nature of women’s work in non-elite households.
For many of the same reasons that we are well informed about estate management, best attested in prose literature are those relatively few professional occupations thought to be appropriate for educated Hellenistic and Roman elites, like the practice of rhetoric or medicine. For such occupations we have rich technical literatures as well as ample attestation in biographical and other traditions. That evidence can be augmented by documentary sources such as inscribed honorary decrees. And for a few figures like Cicero or Galen we can construct from their own accounts detailed portraits of lives that seem to be dedicated almost exclusively to work, even if they themselves are careful to justify and set apart their labor and likewise their productive leisure from the occupations and entertainments of not only the lower classes but also peers pursuing private profit or pleasure at the expense of honorable officia.
One field of elite action never required any special justification. Unlike everyday work, Greek and Roman elites considered deeds performed in war inherently worth remembering. In addition to forms of public commemoration, the genre of historiography emerged in the fifth century BCE as a kind of analog to epic poetry but dedicated to memorializing in prose the more immediate past—Herodotus opens his account of the Persian Wars with the emphatic claim that his work is undertaken “in order that great and wondrous erga of both Greeks and Barbarians not be forgotten (aklea).” Nevertheless, the historiographic tradition only offers a limited picture of work related to warfare. So Thucydides gives a relatively full account of the rapid rebuilding of Athens’ walls after the Persian Wars but his description of the work itself is brief (1.90): “The whole population of the city was to rebuild the wall, the men together with their wives and children, sparing no structure that would be useful for the work, whether private or public, but tearing everything down.” Even this scant description serves another purpose in that it allows Thucydides to demonstrate its truthfulness through autopsy (1.93). The bulk of Thucydides’ account is dedicated rather to the leadership of Themistocles whose guile is largely credited for the project’s success. That focus on generalship and statecraft is characteristic of all later Greco-Roman historiography. What is depicted is most often the wondrous erga of leaders like Alexander the Great, whose brilliance is figured in part by the way he harnesses and directs the labor of his soldiers. Perhaps the most famous example is his seven-month-long siege of Tyre, a seemingly impossible endeavor allegedly encouraged by a dream about Heracles accepted by Alexander as meaning that “Tyre would be taken with toil (ponos) since Heracles’ deeds (erga) were accomplished with toil, for the siege of the city seemed to be a similarly great deed (mega ergon)” (Arr. Anab. 2.18–24).
Even if most sieges were not on the same scale as that of Tyre, historians regularly describe such work, which involved tremendous amounts of manual labor guided by or otherwise involving a range of different specialists. It is noteworthy that accounts of cities under siege feature to an unusual degree technological innovation, which seems to have been promoted by necessity but also perhaps by the concentration of resources and the radical loosening of social and economic structures. Perhaps the most famous episode is the long siege of Syracuse by the Roman general Marcellus (214–212 BCE), in which the innovations of the mathematician and scientist Archimedes played a key role in defending his native city against the hardly less ingenious Romans. Noteworthy too is Plutarch’s account of Archimedes’ role in the siege as a rare occasion of pure theoretical knowledge being harnessed for practical ends and likewise his description of engineering as a practical technê existing almost exclusively in the service of warfare ( Vit. Marc. 14–17).
An equally interesting and perhaps more typical case is offered by Polybius’ account of the Roman siege of Ambracia (189 BCE), which celebrates both Roman efficiency in conducting such operations and the communal bravery and ingenuity of the Ambracians in countering those tactics. The Ambracians’ efforts must have relied on close cooperation between military leaders, soldiers, citizens, and the local craftsmen who certainly produced and probably designed not only the thin-walled bronze cauldrons that acted as sounding chambers to detect Roman mining efforts but also a carefully engineered bronze device successfully used to drive the Romans from their tunnels with an acrid smoke (21.27–8; cf. Livy 38.4–7). Polybius, however, as is true of ancient historians more generally, elides most of this social context.
Our relatively rich accounts of erga performed in war contrast sharply with our nearly complete dearth of similarly detailed accounts of everyday work in times of relative peace. Reasons are not hard to find, but perhaps chief among them is that there existed no demand for ancient authors to describe in straightforward terms what was common and familiar. There did, however, exist a considerable market for accounts of the strange and paradoxical, a demand met in part by a whole range of different accounts that might broadly be categorized as ethnographic. Such accounts almost always imply or make explicit a contrast with customs and practices familiar to Greek and Roman audiences, and frequently those comparisons are structured by work. Herodotus famously gives an account of the customs of the Egyptians, which are “opposite to other men” (2.35): “Among them, the women buy in the market and act as retailers, while the men remain at home weaving. Others weave by working the threads of the weft upwards, but the Egyptians downwards. Their men carry loads on their heads, their women on their shoulders.”
Whenever they are not at war, they sometimes engage in hunting, but far more in idle leisure ( otium), abandoning themselves to food and sleep, the bravest and most warlike doing nothing, yielding management of the household, home and fields to the women, the aged and whoever of the family is least capable, while they themselves remain in stupor, a strange contradiction of nature, that the same men should be so inclined to laziness (inertia), so averse to peace.
These kinds of comparisons can occur in texts clearly marked out like Tacitus’ Germania as ethnographic, but also in nearly every other prose genre. Such passages rarely describe directly normative Greek and Roman beliefs and practices related to work but they can only be understood within those cultural contexts. Literary texts themselves preserve much of the evidence necessary to reconstruct those contexts, but equally important is meticulous attention to other kinds of evidence, ranging from the archaeological remains of physical workspaces to documentary papyri like the second-century BCE personal letter from a Greek woman celebrating that her son or husband has learned Egyptian, since now he might find employment educating slaves in the office of the local enema doctor (UPZ I 148). It is that evidence, what Dio Chrysostom describes as atopia—inappropriate even to mention in a literary context, that not only allows historians to produce the kind of richly textured historical reconstructions found in the chapters that follow, but also to reread the literary sources with additional meaning.
 Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Work and Nature in Ancient Greece,” in Myth and Thought among the Greeks , trans. Janet Lloyd and Jeff Fort (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), 248–70 ; Moses I. Finley, The Ancient Economy , Revised edn. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 81 ; most recently (and critically), Koenraad Verboven and Christian Laes, “Work, Labour, Professions: What’s in a Name?,” in Work, Labour, and Professions in the Roman World , eds. Koenraad Verboven and Christian Laes (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 1–6 .
 Finley, The Ancient Economy, 65–71; Ellen Meiksins Wood, Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy (London: Verso, 1988), 5–41 ; Verboven and Laes, “Work, Labour, Professions,” 13–16.
 Alain Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States , trans. S. Rendall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 1–27 .
 Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000) ; Marcel Van Der Linden and Jan Lucassen, Prolegomena for a Global Labour History (Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History, 1999) ; Verboven and Laes, “Work, Labour, Professions,” 17–19.
 See the introduction and essays in Simon Swain, ed., Dio Chrysostom: Politics, Letters, and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) . Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
 Donald A. Russell, Dio Chrysostom: Orations 7, 12, 36 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 1–13 (introduction) and 109–58 (commentary) .
 Wood, Peasant-Citizen and Slave, 137–45; Catherina Lis and Hugo Soly, Worthy Efforts: Attitudes to Work and Workers in Pre-Industrial Europe (Boston: Brill, 2012), 13–155 .
 Suzanne Saïd and Monique Trédé, A Short History of Greek Literature , trans. Trista Selous et al. (London: Routledge, 1999), 18 .
 Lis and Soly, Worthy Efforts, 13–155.
 See, e.g., Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998) ; with discussion specifically of work, Wood, Peasant-Citizen and Slave, 126–50.
 Etym. Magn. 187.40; Hesychius, s.v.; Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque: histoire de mots , Revised ed. (Paris: Klincksieck, 1999) (haplology, with a change to short alpha in the initial syllable through dissimilation). But see most recently Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek , vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 199–200 (a “folk etymology” for what “is rather a Pre-Greek word”).
 Friedrich Solmsen, “Leisure and Play in Aristotle’s Ideal State,” Rheinisches Museum 107 (1964): 193–220 .
 Kenneth J. Dover, Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974) .
 John Sellars, “Simon the Shoemaker and the Problem of Socrates,” Classical Philology 98, no. 3 (2003): 207–16 .
 Ragnar Höistad, Cynic Hero and Cynic King: Studies in the Cynic Conception of Man (Uppsala: B. H. Blackwell, 1948), 33–7 .
 Frank Brommer, Heracles: The Twelve Labors of the Hero in Ancient Art and Literature , trans. Shirley J. Schwarz (New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas, 1986) .
 Neville Morley, “Population Size and Social Structure,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome , ed. Paul Erdkamp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 29–44 .
 Brent D. Shaw, “The Divine Economy: Stoicism as Ideology,” Latomus 64 (1985), 43–4 .
 Peter A. Brunt, “Aspects of the Social Thought of Dio Chrysostom and of the Stoics,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 19 (1973): 9–34 .
 Runar Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) .
 Andromache Karanika, Voices at Work: Women, Performance, and Labor in Ancient Greece (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) .
 Brent D. Shaw, Bringing in the Sheaves: Economy and Metaphor in the Roman World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 3–4 (scarcity of literary depictions of reaping), 11–23 (labor requirements) .
 Ibid., 48–92 (date and context), 281–98 (text, translation, and commentary).
 Victor Ehrenberg, The People of Aristophanes: A Sociology of Old Attic Comedy , 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1951), esp. 113–46 .
 Ephraim Lytle, “Chaerephilus & Sons: Vertical Integration, Classical Athens and the Black Sea Fish Trade,” Ancient Society 46 (2016): 1–26 .
 Évelyne Samama, Les médecins dans le monde grec: sources épigraphiques sur la naissance d’un corps médical (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2003) .
 In Aeneas Tacticus, however, the invention of the use of sounding devices in siege defense is ascribed specifically to a bronze-smith (37).