The world of work in Rome - the port of Ostia, the markets, the construction industry. The patron-client sytem provides a work-substitute for the non employed: manual and clerical work was done by slaves.



A Roman bakery

Reconstruction of a bakery, with grinding mills, Pompeii. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)

Romans rose early and usually worked a six-hour day. Free men and freedmen who had work were out and about on their business for the whole morning, contributing to the noise and bustle of urban activity. The import business was centred on Ostia, where goods from overseas were unloaded, checked, and stored in warehouses before being transferred to barges for the journey upstream.

Apartments Ostia

Model of Roman apartment building, Ostia (side view with storage spaces on ground floor). (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

The building industry accounted for a continual supply of skilled labour in the form of architects, surveyors, supervisors, foremen, sculptors, stonemasons, carpenters, and brickworks’ managers. In the cities and towns, wholesale and retail markets operated, craftsmen plied their trades, and the little shops, taverns, and inns did their business. They in their turn were supplied with raw materials and foodstuffs by the agricultural estates.

Cushion and belt shop

Cushion and belt shop: sculptural relief of the Augustan age. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

Sons tended to follow the trades of their fathers. Apart from the army, the only respectable callings for the upper classes were the law and politics, since so many professional posts in such fields as architecture, medicine, surgery, dentistry, teaching, and agricultural management were held by freedmen.

This left a sizeable group of educated, if not always aristocratic, unemployed, many of whom pursued the occupation of client. Queues of them formed at dawn at the houses of the rich, waiting patiently in their best clothes for some gift of money or food, which the patron solemnly dispensed to each in order of social seniority. The more humble or poorer clients would do the rounds of patrons to collect as many donations as possible. That done, clients would mingle with the crowds in the forum or market, which were as much meeting places as centres of public or private business.

After work, or the daily round, a visit to the public baths was usually the order of the day, for women as well as men.

Going to the baths

Going to the baths: mosaic from Villa del Casale, Sicily. The woman at the centre has her children on either side of her. The two others are slaves, one carrying clothes, the other massage utensils. (René Seindal)



In Rome patronage (the relationship between client and patron) involved responsibilities on both sides. A patron was bound to help and protect his clients. The clients in their turn supported their patron, especially by casting their votes at elections according to his wishes.

Trajan's market

Trajan’s Market, Rome, second century AD. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)