Earning a Living in Uncertain Times:
Roman Artisans and their Sons in Comparative Perspective

Cameron Hawkins

University of Chicago

The relationship between economic production and social organization continues to dominate the agendas of researchers who study economic behaviour in historical societies.  In particular, researchers have focused on the family or household unit, which served in pre-industrial societies as the basic social unit in which economic production was organized.  From this focus on the household unit stems the conventional portrait of the artisan family as a unit of production in which the head of the household pursued his craft with the assistance of his wife and children.

While Roman historians continue for the most part to subscribe to this conventional portrait, studies of artisan families in Early Modern Europe have demonstrated that for more recent historical periods it is seriously misleading.  Labour arrangements in artisan families in Early Modern Europe were in fact extremely flexible.  Sons of artisans, for instance, often learned craft skills and found employment as apprentices and journeymen outside of the home instead of acquiring these skills and making use of them in their own natal households.  For the most part, such behaviour appears to have been a strategic response to a prevailing climate of economic uncertainty. 

In this paper I make use of these conclusions as a springboard for a discussion of how artisans in the Early Roman Empire made use of the labour of their sons.  I argue three main points.  First of all, a combination of literary and documentary evidence demonstrates that apprenticeship offered artisans in the Roman world a clear alternative to training and employing their sons in their own enterprises.  Commemorations on tombstones bolster this conclusion by showing that apprenticeship may, in fact, have been the preferred option.  Secondly, to the degree that the extant sources shed light on the motivations of artisans in the Roman Empire who apprenticed their sons to other craftsmen, they suggest that these artisans, like their later counterparts in Early Modern Europe, were primarily interested in mitigating the potential consequences of economic uncertainty by diversifying the income portfolios of their households.  Finally, only through the continued study of specific problems arising from comparative history can we generate fresh insights into the ancient economy and draw further conclusions on the degree to which it was similar to or different from the economies of other historical societies.

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