Many stories about walk-outs and strikes in the Roman Empire originate from its Eastern provinces.
A particularly noteworthy event in this context is the strike of the bakers’ guild in Ephesus in the second half of the second century A. D. – an event that is known from an edict, originally presumably written in Latin and subsequently translated into rather careless Greek (SEG IV 512).
In the English translation of Allan Chester Johnson, Paul Robinson Coleman-Norton, and Frank Card Bourne, the transmitted (somewhat fragmentary) text reads as follows:
. . . and according to the agreements . . . thus it happens that sometimes the people fall into confusion and tumults because of the captious audacity of the factions of bakers in the market place, for which they should have been summoned forthwith and placed on trial. But, since it is necessary to provide for the welfare of the city rather than for the punishment of these persons, I have resolved to bring them to their senses by means of an edict.
I, therefore, order the bakers not to indulge in meetings and their leaders not to undertake audacious actions, but to obey in every respect the regulations made for the common welfare and to furnish the city faultlessly with the labour that is necessary for bread-making.
But if anyone of them hereafter is apprehended either attending a meeting contrary to orders or taking the lead in any tumult or sedition he shall be summoned and punished with the appropriate penalty. But if anyone plotting against the city dares to hide himself he shall in addition have ‘belonging to the decury’ branded upon his foot; and anyone who harbors such person shall be liable to the same punishment.
In the prytany of Claudius Modestus, on the fourth day from the beginning of the month Klareon, at a meeting of the council held on another occasion, Marcellinus said, ‘Yesterday Hermeias gave a very great example of the folly of the workshop foremen . . .’
Though it is not entirely clear from this text what the bakers were doing, and how the tumults were caused, it is clear that they also withheld their labour – after all, the edict requires them to ‘to furnish the city faultlessly with the labour that is necessary for bread-making’ for the future.
The edict is not only testament to the effectiveness of collective industrial action in causing disruption and public attention to pressing matters, especially when the disruption affects central aspects of provisions in the public interest (for another example see an earlier blog piece). It also shows the great responsibility that everyone involved in such a conflict has when it comes to striking the right balance between valiantly defending vital interest and not causing disruption to a degree that a forceful response becomes necessary.
Talks, designed to resolve the dispute, are necessary. But that requires both sides to enter negotiations without conditions.
In the case of the Ephesian bakers, the Roman magistrate wrote:
‘But, since it is necessary to provide for the welfare of the city rather than for the punishment of these persons, I have resolved to bring them to their senses by means of an edict.’
The modern editors added a footnote to this:
‘This is perhaps one of the most unrealistic, overoptimistic, and pitiable sentences in Roman legal documents.’
It is indeed.