Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Labor Market of the Early Roman Empire

by Peter Temin

Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34:4: "Free urban workers in the early Roman empire were paid for their work and were able to change their economic activities. Hereditary barriers were nonexistent, and Roman guilds do not appear to have been restrictive. Workers in large enterprises, like mines and galleys, were paid wages, as in more modern labor markets. Workers engaged in more skilled and complex tasks received more elaborate compensation, probably for longer units of time than those doing wage labor, again as in more modern labor markets, even though explicit long-term contracts were not yet established. The force of competition under those circumstances probably brought wages and labor productivity into the same ballpark.8

Some of the work in the early Roman empire was done for wages and some under the duress of slavery. The early Roman empire even had salaried long-term free workers in Egypt. Craftsmen sold their wares in cities and also supplied them to rural and urban patrons in return for long-term economic and social support. Similarly, people who worked for, or supplied, senators and equestrians often worked for long-term rewards and advancement. The episodic nature of monumental building in Rome, accomplished largely by free laborers, gives evidence of a mobile labor force that could be diverted from one activity to another. Free workers, freedmen, and slaves worked in all kinds of activities; contemporaries saw the ranges of jobs and of freedom as separate [End Page 518] ?even orthogonal. In particular, rural slaves hardly comprised an undifferentiated gang of laborers; certain lists of rural slave jobs are as varied as the known range of urban or household 'slave' jobs. Some rural laborers received piece rates and others, daily wages. Cicero, anticipating Marx, conflated legal and economic relations by equating wages with servitude.9

A labor market in the early Roman empire would have tended to equalize real wages in different parts of the empire. Suggestively, Cuvigny found equal wages of miners in Egypt and Dacia in Eastern Europe. Nominal wages of unskilled workers were unequal in Rome and Egypt, but the price of wheat and other goods differed as well. Real wages?the buying power of wages in wheat?were close, however; the hypothesis of equality cannot be rejected. These scraps of data provide evidence of a well-functioning labor market. Only the ability and willingness of workers to change jobs in response to wage differentials would produce such uniformity.10

Moreover, in a functioning labor market, wages increase as the number of laborers decreases because of the competition to hire them; workers are more productive when fewer of them are available to work. It is hard to know of small changes in Roman labor supplies, but plagues led to rapid, large falls in the pool of available labor. Egyptian wages doubled after the major Antonine plague of 165-175 C.E. This clearly is the standard labor-market response to a sharp decrease in the supply of labor. It demonstrates that wages in the early Roman empire moved to clear markets, in this case to allocate newly scarce labor.11

Employment contracts also give evidence of labor-market activity in which workers could choose their jobs. The modern division between wages and salaries finds its analog in Roman Egypt: "As a general rule permanent employees of the Appianus and related [End Page 519] estates can be distinguished by their receipt of opsonion (salary), a fixed monthly allowance of cash and wheat and sometimes vegetable oil, whereas occasional employees received misthos, that is 'wages.'" some of these "free" workers were tied to the estate for life, like those subject to the more modern worker contracts studied by Steinfeld, but others were free to leave when their jobs were done.12

Miners and apprentices had employment contracts. One dating from 164 C.E. shows that workers were paid only for work done and that they had more right to quit than the nineteenth-century workers described by Steinfeld:

In the consulship of Macrinus and Celsus, May 20. I, Flavius Secundinus, at the request of Memmius, son of Asceplius, have here recorded the fact that he declared that he had let, and he did in fact let, his labor in the gold mine to Aurelius Adjutor from this day to November 13 next for seventy denarii and board. He shall be entitled to receive his wages in installments. He shall be required to render healthy and vigorous labor to the above-mentioned employer. If he wants to quit or stop working against the employer's wishes, he shall have to pay five sesterces for each day, deducted from his total wages. If a flood hinders operations, he shall be required to prorate accordingly. If the employer delays payment of the wage when the time is up, he shall be subject to the same penalty after three days of grace.13

Most free workers were farmers, many of them tenant farmers, although employment categories in the countryside were fluid. Roman tenancy contracts allocated risks between landowners and tenants in much the same way as analogous contracts did in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. Major risks were borne by the landowners as events beyond the tenants' control, whereas minor risks were borne by tenants in return for the opportunity to earn more and keep their earnings: "Force majeure ought not cause loss to the tenant, if the crops have been damaged beyond what is sustainable. But the tenant ought to bear loss which is moderate with equanimity, just as he does not have to give up profits which are immoderate. It will be obvious that we [End Page 520] are speaking here of the tenant who pays rent in money; for a share-cropper (partiarus colonus) shares loss and profit with the landlord, as it were by law of partnership."14

We know a lot more about wages in England before industrialization than in the Roman empire. Wages for comparable work were similar throughout England, but they were not uniform. Agriculture was more prosperous in the South than in the North, and wages were higher in the eighteenth century. (This pattern was reversed in the nineteenth century when the North industrialized.) Substantial variation was evident within regions, due to the immobility of the population. A recent summary of the English data shows daily winter wages in the North to be only half of what they were in the South in 1700. They approached each other gradually during the next century and a half.15

England is much smaller than the Roman empire was. If we use Roman data from Egypt and Dacia, a more suitable comparison is pre-industrial Europe. Clearly, labor had even less mobility between countries than within England, and wages varied more, though they did remain at the same general level. Allen demonstrated that wages within Europe began to diverge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By 1700, the real wages of masons inLondon and Antwerp were more than double those in other European cities.16

Based on this more modern evidence, we do not expect to find wages that are equal in distant places except by coincidence, but we expect wages to be similar. If the early Roman empire had a labor market that functioned about as well as the labor market in pre-industrial Europe, then wages in the early Roman empire would have been approximately equal. Real wages for similar tasks might have varied by a factor of two or three, as real wages did in eighteenth-century Europe, but they were not different orders of [End Page 521] magnitude. As just described, this presumption is consistent with the fragmentary evidence about wages in the Principate.

The army must be distinguished from the private sphere, as in modern economies. Peacetime armies are often voluntary, recruited via the standard organizational lures?favorable wages and working conditions. Wartime armies, by contrast, often rely on conscription, which is a non-market process. Actions within armies are directed by commands, not by market transactions. Armies therefore represent at best a partial approximation to a free labor market and typically an exception to it. Since armies, unhappily, are present in almost all societies, we place this exception to the general rule to one side.

The wages of the Roman army, which was staffed by a mixture of attraction and conscription, stayed constant for many decades at a time. When the army was not fighting, which was most of the time, soldiers had to be set tasks to keep them fit and out of trouble, like building roads and public monuments. This construction work did not interfere with the labor market in Rome or elsewhere in the center of the empire since the army was stationed at the frontiers.17

Slaves appear to be like soldiers in that they are subject tocommand, but such was not necessarily the case in the early Roman empire, especially in cities. Unlike American slaves, Roman slaves were able to participate in the labor market in almost the same way as free laborers. Although they often started at an extremely low point, particularly those who were uneducated, many were able to advance by merit. Freedmen started from a better position, and their ability to progress was almost limitless, despite some prominent restrictions. These conditions created powerful positive work incentives for slaves in the early Roman empire."
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