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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34.4 (2004) 513-538

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The Labor Market of the Early Roman Empire

Peter Temin

Ancient Rome was a slave society. Hopkins was the first to assert that Rome was one of only five slave societies in recorded history, a view adopted quickly by Finley. This characterization is important because slavery is used as a sign of a non-market economy, which, in turn, is a classification within the Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft conception of history as the account of progress from one to the other. The former is the informal economy of families and villages where social rules and obligations are dominant influences on behavior. The latter is the economy characteristic of modern, urban societies. In the classic view of Tönnies, "a period of Gesellschaft follows a period of Gemeinschaft." Tönnies, citing Marx, described the mechanism behind this progress "as a process of increasing urbanization." Marx and Tönnies were trying to make sense of changes in nineteenth-century society, in which the dramatic rise of urbanization loomed large.1

Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, located the center of this transition in the labor market. He argued that labor markets in the modern sense did not exist before the Industrial Revolution and the Poor Laws that accompanied it in England. This view is consonant with Weber's judgment that a critical component of capitalism was free labor. One way to identify a period of Gesellschaft is the prevalence of urban life, but an even more important key is [End Page 513] the presence of a labor market in which the services of labor can be bought and sold, which, Polanyi argued, emerged only two centuries ago.2

The widespread use of slavery in Rome is taken as a sign that Gemeinschaft dominated the life of the Roman republic and the early Roman empire. Finley, and others following his lead, argued that ancient economies were not market economies, but an alternate, even primitive, form of organization. Finley stated, "In early societies, free hired labor (though widely documented) was spasmodic, casual, marginal." According to Hopkins, the early Roman empire was "a society which had no labor market." Hopkins speculated as a result, "In a society without a market in free labor, recruitment by force (i.e. slavery) was probably the only method of securing large numbers of full-time dependents with particular skills."3

This view is mistaken. A variety of evidence indicates that Rome had a functioning labor market and a unified labor force. Wage dispersion in the early Roman empire, to the extent that we know it, is indistinguishable from that in pre-industrial Europe. Roman labor contracts have a distinctly modern allocation of risks and rewards. In addition, Roman slavery was so different from modern slavery that it did not indicate the presence of non- market, traditional actions. Instead, ancient Roman slavery was an integral part of a labor force that shares many characteristics with labor forces in other advanced agricultural societies. Contrary to Finley, who asserted, "[A]ncient slavery ... co-existed with other [End Page 514] forms of dependent labor, not with free wage-labor," and Schiavone, who added recently that "slavery ... led to the eventual stagnation of the [Roman economic] system, blocking off other paths," the analysis herein finds that free hired labor waswidespread and that ancient slavery was part of a unified laborforce in the early Roman empire, not a barrier to economic progress.4

The Roman Labor Market

A functioning labor market couples a labor demand with a labor supply. Two conditions must be filled, at least partially: Workers must be free to change their economic activity and/or their location, and they must be paid something commensurate with their labor productivity to indicate to them which kind of work to choose. Contemporary studies maintain that labor needs to be mobile enough to bring wages for work of equal skill near equality. Although this stipulation does not mean that everyone has to change jobs with great frequency, enough people must be able and willing to do so to keep...


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