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Review: The Dignity of labour. Image, Work and Identity in the Roman World

Iain Ferris

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The Dignity of labour. Image, Work and Identity in the Roman World

The book “The Dignity of labor. Image, Work and Identity in the Roman World” by Iain Ferris is a book presenting preserved images and inscriptions of workers from ancient Rome and analyzing the motives of leaving information about the profession or skills by the Romans.

Iain Ferris is a British archaeologist and lecturer at many universities. Experience in archaeological excavations in the British Island and thorough knowledge of Roman art and history, especially the Roman period of Britain, are proofs that the reader receives really credible and interesting literature.

The book is divided into: acknowledgment; preface; proper content; annotations; bibliography; a list of Roman workers’ names that have been described or mentioned by the author; index of words used; and photos of selected objects.

As the author points out in the preface, it is the first publication of this type that aims to show Roman society in a broader way from the perspective of employment and craftsmanship. The position deliberately omits the slave sphere, and – as the author himself points out – a large proportion of cases consist of freedmen and freedwomen. The author in presenting examples of “working people” from ancient Rome, basing on material sources (stelae, tombstones, inscriptions) or written sources.

The book shows us in an extremely tangible way what the world of ancient inhabitants of towns and villages looked like. As it turns out, the custom of putting information about employment on the tombstones was very popular. Many such objects, which were found in abundance, especially in Italy, have survived to our times; in Rome alone, 1,470 inscriptions were found mentioning particular people and their profession. From the stamps on the vessels, we learn about the approximately 5,000 ceramics specialists that existed over the centuries. How are the finds dated? From the 2nd century BCE until the end of the Western Roman Empire.
We have a chance to read about architects, builders, artists, butchers, tanners, doctors, midwives, perfume manufacturers and teachers. Preserved extremely valuable artefacts allow us to get to know the ancient people and understand what guided people of antiquity in their lives, especially those from the plebeian sphere.

The actual content of the book has been divided into nine chapters. Each of them is aimed at grouping the subject matter and presenting the discussed examples of entrepreneurs or craftsmen separately. The author presents the outline of each chapter in a very neat way and explains what “industry” he plans to focus on. Discusses and describes selected examples of tombstones, stelae and altars; some of them are possible to be seen at the end of the book. The photos naturally visualize the discussed artefacts, but in my opinion, those should be placed directly in the content – leafing through the pages to be able to look at the object is quite tiring.

The division of chapters is, in my opinion, very well thought out. Chapter one focuses on the construction industry, architects, construction contractors, mosaic makers, and more; the second chapter covers professions responsible for the production of food: bakers, butchers, farmers; chapter three – weaving and clothes; chapter four – metallurgical and other manufacturing; chapter five – stamps and markings on vessels and pipes; chapter six – transport and related services; the seventh chapter focuses on the analysis of metaphors and symbols located on the finds; chapter eight – guilds and associations of various professions; the ninth chapter refers the subject of the book to the 20th century, touches some omitted professions and presents working women of antiquity.

All in all, the book is really fantastic and worth recommending. If you want to delve into the world of ancient people, their problems and life, probably the best way is to simply familiarize yourself with their tombstones and inscriptions. Roman citizens or freedmen were eager to describe their lives, present their professions, used tools, refer to deities or symbols. Some emphasized life satisfaction and justice to others; others were simply proud of their business and skills.

In my opinion, the work is extremely interesting and engaging. Iain Ferris wrote a book that is extremely accessible, rich in knowledge, analysis and conclusions. I can confidently recommend it to anyone who would like to feel the world and Roman society much better.

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