Sarah E. Bond’s new monograph, Trade and Taboo, is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature dealing with those professionals and tradesmen who performed important roles within Roman society but who, on the whole, received scorn rather than gratitude from those members of Rome’s elite who considered themselves above such petty or unpleasant tasks. Over the course of five chapters, Bond examines the duties and social positions of a variety of workers and economic/social groups, and also thinks about the sorts of restrictions—beyond the legal designation of infamia, which was reserved for only the most reviled professions—that were imposed upon them. In particular, Bond seeks to demonstrate that, whatever condemnation of them might be voiced by literary sources, many such workers fulfilled vital functions and were essential elements within the Roman economic and social machine. Chapter 1 deals with criers, who, while ridiculed and barred from holding municipal offices, were nevertheless prominent individuals who served as intermediaries between the different social classes in a variety of contexts, whether at religious events, the theater, public auctions, or funerals, and disseminated messages from the center to the peripheries across the Roman Empire. The profession was popular among members of the freedman class, for whom it presented significant opportunities to acquire wealth and foster connections. Chapter 2 considers the well-known restrictions placed upon funeral workers and corpse-handlers, but places the laws surrounding Roman funeral workers within their broader Mediterranean context, alongside Egyptian and Jewish customs concerning burial. While Roman practitioners were excluded from the city and classed as religiously unclean, the religious views of Egyptians and Jews concerning the afterlife (along with the complexities of Egyptian burial customs) meant that funeral workers in their communities were better regarded. This, in turn, had a significant impact on the trade in Rome following the rise of Christianity, which viewed funeral workers as performing a pious service as well as a necessary one. Chapter 3 moves on to tanners, a group synonymous with bad smells and unpleasant materials. Once again, despite being derided by the elite, tanners performed a vital service, and their trade was a central economic node that influenced and supplied numerous other trades and industries. While tanners were commonly thought to have been banished to the urban (and social) periphery, Bond demonstrates that the reality was far more variable, with the locations of tanneries dictated more by the necessities of the trade in terms of water supply and proximity to other relevant production centers. As a result, across the empire we see a lot of evidence of tanneries situated within city limits. With Chapters 4 and 5 the argument shifts slightly when analyzing first mint workers and then those associated with sensual (culinary) trades. These chapters focus increasingly on the later empire, arguing that the increasing restrictions placed upon those engaged as mint workers, bakers, fishermen, and so on were imposed not to denigrate these workers, but to ensure that they continued to serve in their existing, essential roles. Although mint workers might be barred from the equestrian order and in various ways confined by their profession, they might also enjoy tax breaks and the prestige that came with proximity to power. Bond illustrates the potential for mint workers to convey legitimacy on emperors or usurpers through the supply of reliable currency, as well as their potential to be a destabilizing factor in times of unrest. The chapter discussing sensual trades highlights the long-standing hostility toward cooks, bakers, fishermen, and others by those who sought to blame them for the perceived spread of luxury and effeminacy. Particular censure was directed toward those whose trades or goods were equated with excess or else associated with the private entourages of wealthy individuals. The condemnation voiced in works of philosophy is contrasted with the essential role played by those who ensured food supplies both to urban centers and to the army. However, the importance of meeting such demands also led to the use of servile/penal labor in mills, which provided hostile onlookers with additional ammunition against bakers. Each chapter provides a clear overview of the trades under discussion and will be a useful resource for readers, as will the collection of appendixes, which brings together epigraphic examples of four of the trades discussed. While the focus on trades produces a sustained and coherent argument throughout, the attempted emphasis on “taboo,” stigma, and pollution is far more sporadic and less convincing, and there perhaps needed to be more detailed discussion of what is at stake when such terms are employed. Despite Bond’s repeated use of words like “sordid” and “polluted,” with the exception of funeral workers, the use of such language and dirt imagery in reference to the professions that are examined is rather scarce in our ancient sources. The occasional suggestion that some of these tradesmen were marginalized because they were unclean distracts from the far more important and tantalizing argument that forms the backbone of Bond’s study—namely, that these essential workers were marginalized, controlled, and incentivized in order to keep them exactly where they were, providing those services and doing those jobs that Roman society most needed them to do. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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