Relief from a sarcophagus depicting scenes of everyday life. Roman Civilisation, 2nd Century.

The Meaning of Work in the Ancient World

As societies based upon slavery, Ancient Greece and Rome had no vocabulary to refer to ‘work’ or ‘labour’ in the way that those terms are understood today. Nonetheless, work was ubiquitous in Antiquity. Ephraim Lytle introduces us to the complexities of this world as revealed in literary texts, inscriptions, and archaeological data, while Lena Larsson Lovén and Agneta Strömberg explain the interconnections between work, the family economy and social status in the ancient world.

An oil painting of two women milking cows in a barn.

Portfolio Working in the Sixteenth Century

In a famous survey conducted in 1688, English statistician Gregory King estimated that 88 percent of his fellow countrymen and countrywomen were engaged in agriculture. What this meant could vary hugely according to the season, the region and the demand for migrant workers. Explore the astonishing range of activities encompassed by the term 'agricultural labour' in Early Modern Europe.

colored engraving of the Interior of an English factory, London, Late 18th century, Nineteenth-century

Adam’s Curse Redefined?

In the Christian tradition, work was God’s curse on Adam for his disobedience. But by the eighteenth century attitudes had changed: Voltaire argued in his novel, Candide, that work was the answer to the three major problems of life: boredom, vice and poverty. Discover how this more positive attitude was reflected in artistic representations of work during the years of the Enlightenment.

An image of an engraving showing the inspection of newly made paper before dispatch, Kent, England, 1887.

Women on the Move

Spurred by industrialization and urbanization, people of all social classes became more mobile over the course of the nineteenth century: between 1850 and 1913 about 30 million European migrants left for the United States and another 10 million for South America. While many moved much shorter distances in search of work, for women in particular migration was always both an opportunity and a risk. Learn about women’s patterns of work migration in a period of rapid economic and social change.

A Stock Photo of a team of happy entrepreneurs having fun on a break while playing table soccer.

Balancing Work and Leisure in the Modern Era

With the growth of mass entertainment in the twentieth century, opportunities for leisure expanded hugely in the United States and Western Europe. Achieving a good balance between work and leisure proved much more elusive: periods of economic instability undermined workers’ successes while government- or corporate-sponsored leisure programs failed to recognize that a fulfilling leisure life was dependent upon a rewarding work experience. Randy D. McBee explains how leisure can be meaningful only if work is.