Strike action and the creation of cheap labour

Until very recently, I believed that the strike of Egyptian artisans at Deir El-Medina in the twelfth century B. C., as recorded in a famous papyrus now in the possession of the Museo Egizio at Turin, was the oldest actual strike ever recorded.

And it may well be that.

There is, however, an even older record of a strike, mentioned in the so-called Epic of Atrahasis, dated to seventeenth century B. C. Mesopotamia (and an important source for the epic of Gilgamesh), which, among other things, records an ancient deluge narrative akin to the biblical story of Noah.

Cuneiform tablet preserving the epic of Atrahasis (image source:

More pertinent to the recent theme of this blog, though, is the Atrahasis epic’s version of the creation of humankind: the result of a heavenly strike no less, when the lower gods began to comprehend their predicament (all translations from this wonderful web resource):

[1] When the gods were man
they did forced labor, they bore drudgery.
Great indeed was the drudgery of the gods,
the forced labor was heavy, the misery too much:

[5] the seven great Anunna-gods were burdening
the Igigi-gods with forced labor.


[21] The gods were digging watercourses,
canals they opened, the life of the land.
The Igigi-gods were digging watercourses
canals they opened, the life of the land.

[25] The Igigi-gods dug the Tigris river
and the Euphrates thereafter.
Springs they opened from the depths,
wells … they established.

They heaped up all the mountains.

[Several lines missing]

[34]  … years of drudgery.

[35] … the vast marsh.
They counted years of drudgery,
… and forty years, too much!
… forced labor they bore night and day.
They were complaining, denouncing,

[40] muttering down in the ditch:
“Let us face up to our foreman the prefect,
he must take off our heavy burden upon us!
Enlil, counsellor of the gods, the warrior,
come, let us remove him from his dwelling;

[45] Enlil, counsellor of the gods, the warrior,
come, let us remove him from his dwelling!”

[Several lines missing]

[61] “Now them, call for battle,
battle let us join, warfare!”
The gods heard his words:
they set fire to their tools,

[65] they put fire to their spaces,
and flame to their workbaskets.
Off they went, one and all,
to the gate of the warrior Enlil’s abode.

When the lower gods thus resorted to insurrection, the higher gods were quick to respond: first and foremost, they wanted to know who was the ringleader.

But the lower gods stand united:

“Everyone of us gods has declared war;

We have set … in the excavation,
excessive drudgery has killed us,

[150] our forced labor was heavy, the misery too much!
Now, everyone of us gods
has resolved on a reckoning with Enlil.”

A meeting of the higher gods then ponders possible responses:

[a1] Ea made ready to speak,
and said to the gods, his brothers:
“What calumny do we lay to their charge?
Their forced labor was heavy, their misery too much!

[a5] Every day …
the outcry was loud, we could hear the clamor.

There is …
Belet-ili, the midwife, is present.
Let her create, then, a human, a man,

[a10] Let him bear the yoke!
Let him bear the yoke!
Let man assume the drudgery of the god.”
Belet-ili, the midwife, is present.

[190] Let the midwife create a human being!
Let man assume the drudgery of the god.”

Following some consultation, the higher gods soon began to realise that one way around the strike and the riots of the lower gods would be the employment of weak, vulnerable, dependent serfs – beings that resembled the lesser gods (and were in fact created in their likeness and made from the remains of one of the lesser god, with some added clay), that are forced to live up to the original ethos, but left without the gods’ original powers or entitlements:

[215] From the flesh of the god let a spirit remain,
let it make the living know its sign,
lest he be allowed to be forgotten, let the spirit remain.”

(Most of those on precarious, temporary, part-time contracts will have a clear idea of what that means, I am tempted to add.)

And thus it happened. One of the lesser gods is sacrificed, and cheap labour takes his place:

You ordered me the task and I have completed it!
You have slaughtered the god, along with his inspiration.

[240] I have done away with your heavy forced labor,
I have imposed your drudgery on man.
You have bestowed clamor upon mankind.
I have released the yoke, I have made restoration.”

Human population quickly grows, and their clamour begins to annoy Enlil, disrupting his heavenly sleep – eventually to such a degree that the decision is taken to wipe out most of their creation by means of a deluge (and subsequently imposed restrictions to life-span and the ability to procreate).

The gods appear to have celebrated this as a success.

A more realistic way of looking at it would be that they sacrificed one of theirs in vain, that they promoted slavery of those who once formed part of them, and failed to protect those who made their lives better and easier.

As a result of that, they brought great misery over the world, because they failed to do the obvious: to challenge the questionable privilege of those at the top who, though seemingly superior, were once recruited from the same stock.

The fact that, when standing united, they could challenge even the supreme gods, without retribution, should have told them something about their actual might to change something for the better.

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If they win on this point, what then will they not try…?

In 195 B. C., Rome’s women had had enough.

It had been for almost exactly twenty years that, due to a decision taken in 215 B. C., at the height of the Second Punic War, their right to possess, and to display, wealth had been severely restricted.

Originally perhaps devised as an austerity measure during the Hannibalic war, the lex Oppia, a so-called sumptuary law, affected not only the possession and display of precious objects but even regulated their dress and modes of transportation.

The law’s supporters – very much like those who advocate school uniforms – argued that, among other things, this law had reduced unnecessary competition and therefore was in everyone’s interest – a means to rein in wasteful spending and extravagance.

Those who argued against the law, at a time when austerity was no longer a major concern, suggested that it put Roman women at a disadvantage to their peers in other communities who were not affected by such measures.

Eventually, after much debate, with the elder Cato as the most prominent supporter of the lex Oppia, the law was abolished.

One might take this event as yet another example of how, historically, men have been trying to suppress women and making decisions over their bodies as well as over their rights – an unsurprising, somewhat trite observation to make, of course, considering that ancient Rome was a patriarchy and the feminist movement had not yet come about.

Unlike in other ancient societies, however, Roman women were fully well able to organise themselves and to voice their views publicly – much to the annoyance of at least some men.

On occasion of International Women’s Day 2018, and in keeping with the strike theme of my recent posts, I would thus like to celebrate the fear that the women of Rome very clearly managed to inspire in the male establishment.

Cornelia Africana (image source:

Here is how the elder Cato is represented by the historian Livy responding to the fact that the women of Rome, no longer willing to accept this interference with their interests, took to the streets (Liv. 34.2.4–13, transl. J. C. Yardley):

“I personally have difficulty in deciding in my own mind which is worse, the affair itself or the precedent it may set—one of which is more a concern for us consuls and other magistrates, while the other pertains more to you, my fellow citizens. For whether what is being proposed to you is or is not in the interests of the state is for you to judge—you who will be voting on the matter. But this disorderly conduct of the women, whether it is spontaneous or occasioned by you, Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius, must certainly be blamed on the magistrates, and I do not know whether it brings more disgrace on you, the tribunes, or on the consuls. It brings more on you if you have drawn the women into your tribunician revolts, and more on us if laws must be accepted because of a secession of women, as formerly because of a secession of the plebs.

“Frankly, I was blushing somewhat a moment ago when I came into the Forum through the midst of a crowd of women. Had I not been held back by respect for the status and modesty of some of the individuals present rather than of the group as a whole—I feared they might appear to have been rebuked by a consul—I would have said: ‘What sort of conduct is this, all this running out into public places, blocking streets and accosting other women’s husbands? Couldn’t you all have asked your own husbands the very same thing at home? Are your charms more seductive in public than in private and to other women’s spouses more than your own? And yet not even at home should the proposing or repealing of laws in this place have been any concern of yours, not if modesty kept married women within their proper limits.

“Our ancestors did not want women conducting business, even private business, without a guardian acting as her spokesman; they were to remain under the protection of fathers, brothers or husbands. But we, for God’s sake, are now allowing them even to engage in affairs of state and almost to involve themselves in the Forum, in our meetings and in our assemblies. For what else are they doing at this moment in the streets and at the crossroads but urging acceptance of a bill of the plebeian tribunes and voting for repealing a law?”

Cato stylises the women’s taking it to the streets, their ‘disorderly conduct’ (consternatio muliebris in the original Latin) into a major strike and walkout, a mulierum secessio, in the fashion of the fabled walkouts of the Roman people in response to their lack of power and rights in the face of patrician rule.

At the same time, Cato appears to be rather clear about, and afraid of, the very real consequences that such a united walkout would have: it would mean that laws would have to be accepted that are actually in the interest of Rome’s womanhood.

A scary thought to the elder Cato.

After all, where would this end…?

Cato knew the answer to that, of course – and his vision, though terrifying to him, is a message of hope to us (Liv. 34.2.14):

“Give free rein to their wild nature, to this unbroken beast, and then hope that they themselves will impose a curb on their license! If you do not impose it, this curb on them is merely the least of the restraints that women resent having imposed upon them by convention or the law. What they want is freedom—no, complete license, if we are willing to speak the truth,—in everything. If they win on this point, what then will they not try?”

Unity is strength.

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Creative disruption and relentless retribution

Strikes are annoying to everyone: employers, customers, and – last, but certainly not least – their employees.

Annoyance quickly leads to anger, and anger quickly leads to advocacy for acts of retribution for a perceived injustice – retribution that in many cases is not at all proportionate to what is at stake, partly as a means to seek by force what was denied at someone’s request, partly as a deterrent for others who might consider to follow suit.

An instructive example for that comes – once again – from the Greek-speaking east of the (late) Roman Empire – from the city of Sardis, to be precise.

We do not know what bugged the local building workers of Sardis. What we do know is that clearly they were not very happy about something, and that they were beautifully creative (or infuriatingly obnoxious, depending on one’s viewpoint) in their attempts to undermine the position of their employers.

So what did they do?

There are no independent sources. All we have is a long legal text, preserved in an inscription from Sardis itself, giving the ‘official’ version (I. Sardis 18 cf. SEG 52: 1177; transl. W. H. Buckler – D. M. Robinson).

In this text, the following accusation is made:

. . . that they take in hand pieces of building work, leave these unfinished and obstruct the employers . . .

The employers sought remedy and retribution, and they therefore approached the local provincial government. And the government’s response, administered by Sardis’ commissioner and defensor, one Aurelianus, was nothing but draconic.

The entire local corporation of building artisans was subsequently forced to undertake the following, rather devastating, conditions – under oath:

(1) That we will complete all pieces of work given out to us by any one of the employers, provided the employer is prepared to pay us the wages mutually agreed upon;

(2) Should the man undertaking the work have any plea on which he declines it for some reason of his own either private or public, another artisan from among us shall take his place and shall entirely complete the work under construction, on the distinct understanding that the man declining it, whether he be the artisan who began it or the man who shall have taken his place, is one of ourselves and that no reason of our own stands in the way of the work;

(3) Should the man undertaking the work once hinder the employer in any way while it is, as we said, under construction, if he who either began it from the beginning or shall have taken the place of any artisan is one of ourselves, we shall for such hindrance pay indemnities according to the contract between the individual employer and the individual artisan;

(4) Should the employer show indulgence, if he be for seven days hindered from working, the work shall be left to the artisan undertaking it;

(5) Should the artisan fall ill, the employer shall wait twenty days, and if after such indulgence for twenty days the man should get well, but show no disposition to work at that time, another shall take his place on the terms stipulated by us as to the man who declines;

(6) If, when the man undertaking the work declines it, some one of us be found neither doing anything nor performing work in accordance with the provisions herein written, we promise and agree that we will make payment by way of fine to be used for the city’s public works, and that the defensor shall forthwith exact eight pieces of gold, and notwithstanding and even after exaction of the fine, shall prosecute under the divine edicts on the charge of wrong-doing; the present agreement remaining firm, unbroken and undisturbed in perpetuity, and being irrevocably carried out in strict conformity with all things above determined and promised by us;

(7) And for the full discharging of the fine we pledge, under a lien both general and individual, all our property present and future of every kind and sort.

And when to all things above written the question was put to us by your excellency, we gave our assent to this agreement and declaration under oath on the day and in the consulship above written [i. e. in A. D. 459].

Many present-day employers would probably be delighted to be granted so powerful an injunction to break industrial action.

It is useful to remember, especially when threatened with carefully composed, deliberately bullying employer’s rhetoric, that, though workers’ rights have been strengthened for decades and centuries as a result of collective action, current rights are not a given.

Defend them or lose them.

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Selling out core values

The Historia Augusta, probably dating to the fourth century A. D., is a most peculiar assemblage of imperial biographies, much of which may be pure fiction.

In the context of the Life of the Deified Aurelian, an emperor of the third century A. D. (270–275), the following story is related (ch. 38, transl. D. Magie):

There was also during the rule of Aurelian a revolt among the mint-workers, under the leadership of Felicissimus, the supervisor of the privy-purse. This revolt he crushed with the utmost vigour and harshness, but still seven thousand of his soldiers were slain, as is shown by a letter addressed to Ulpius Crinitus, thrice consul, by whom he had formerly been adopted:

“From Aurelian Augustus to Ulpius his father. Just as though it were ordained for me by Fate that all the wars that I wage and all commotions only become more difficult, so also a revolt within the city has stirred up for me a most grievous struggle. For under the leadership of Felicissimus, the lowest of all my slaves, to whom I had committed the care of the privy-purse, the mint-workers have shown the spirit of rebellion. They have indeed been crushed, but with the loss of seven thousand men, boatmen, bank-troops, camp-troops and Dacians. Hence it is clear that the immortal gods have granted me no victory without some hardship.”

The ‘revolt among the mint-workers’, or monetariorum bellum, as it is called in the Latin original, which took place in the first half of the 270s A. D. (though an exact date cannot be established: likely dates are A. D. 271 and 274), allegedly resulting in the death of some 7,000 soldiers, is certainly a remarkable incident. (For a fuller, academic investigation of the matter read C. P. M. Conway’s article here.)

The report in the Historia Augusta is substantiated by another fourth-century source, Aurelius Victor and his history of imperial Rome, De Caesaribus. Victor writes (ch. 35.6):

In the same manner the mint workers in the city were destroyed. Since, at the instigation of the treasurer, Felicissimus, they had been filing off the coin marks, in fear of punishment they had fought so serious a war that after gathering on the Caelian Hill they killed about seven thousand troops.

Another source for this incident, also from the fourth century, is Eutropius, who, in his Breviarium, reports it as follows (ch. 9.14, transl. J. S. Watson):

In his [i. e. Aurelian’s] reign, the people of the mint raised a rebellion in the city, after having adulterated the money, and put to death Felicissimus the commissioner of the treasury. Aurelian suppressed them with the utmost severity; several noblemen he condemned to death.

As the sources partly contradict each other, it is difficult to understand what precisely happened, and even more difficult (if not impossible) to gather the motivations of those involved.

The sources report the matter at hand largely to illustrate the unreasonable, cruel behaviour of the emperor himself. All one can reasonably say is that, while the number of casualties has almost certainly been exaggerated, the incident was of major significance, involving deployment of armed forces to rein in the violent riot of the monetarii, who in turn appear to have gained support of certain (privileged) parts of Rome’s society.

The role of Felicissimus, and in fact even his actual title and role, remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that one of the issues at the core of this conflict must have been the continued debasement of Rome’s coinage – which the mint workers either no longer felt able to support, or complicity to which made them feel increasingly uneasy: after all, they would have to deal with the eventual backlash if found out.

If this narrative comes close to the truth, then the riots instigated by Rome’s mint workers were a response to their initial readiness to sell out their core values to increasingly corrupt regimes – right up to a point where they had to fear severe retribution.

At that point, however, they had become complicit in a fundamentally corrupt system to such an extent that the emperor saw no other choice than to wage war against them and everyone who supported their cause – and then to close the mint at Rome for a number of years, waiting for the dust to settle.

Perhaps it would have been better after all not to sell out to powers who suggest that shaving off a bit here and there won’t have a major impact on the core values or the system as a whole . . .

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Worth a fart(h)ing?

There are many things one may say about Petronius‘ famous Neronian-era novel Satyricon; that it shows much sympathy for Rome’s lower and lowest social classes, however, or for those who managed to escape their social predicament and reached a certain level of prosperity, certainly is not one of them.

At the same time, though usually with a desire to ridicule, Petronius’ work preserves many a sentiment that credibly may have been held by members of Rome’s plebs.

A fascinating scene features in Sat. 117. In this scene, Encolpius, the novel’s principal character and narrator, accompanied by Giton (a young man) and Eumolpus (an older, impoverished, somewhat creepy poet), having narrowly escaped death after a shipwreck, find themselves in the neighbourhood of Crotona. They are accompanied by a hired servant called Corax, who also survived.

As the inhabitants of Crotona were notorious for their being legacy-hunters, the three are then seen to be scheming in order to take advantage of that by means of a little charade.

Once they have come up with a plan and decide to get their fraudulent show on the road, Giton and Corax are tasked with carrying their possessions (transl. M. Heseltine):

His ita ordinatis, “quod bene feliciterque eveniret ” precati deos viam ingredimur. Sed neque Giton sub insolito fasce durabat, et mercennarius Corax, detractator ministerii, posita frequentius sarcina male dicebat properantibus, affirmabatque se aut proiecturum sarcinas aut cum onere fugiturum. “Quid vos, inquit? iumentum me putatis esse aut lapidariam navem? Hominis operas locavi, non caballi. Nec minus liber sum quam vos, etiam si pauperem pater me reliquit.” Nec contentus maledictis tollebat subinde altius pedem, et strepitu obsceno simul atque odore viam implebat. Ridebat contumaciam Giton et singulos crepitus eius pari clamore prosequebatur

This was all arranged; we offered a prayer to Heaven for a prosperous and happy issue, and started on our journey. But Giton was not used to a burden and could not bear it, and the slave Corax, a shirker of work, kept putting down his bundle and cursing our hurry, and declaring that he would either throw the baggage away or run off with his load. “You seem to think I am a beast of burden or a ship for carrying stones,” he cried. “You paid for the services of a man, not a horse. I am just as free as you are, although my father did leave me a poor man.” Not satisfied with curses, he kept lifting his leg up and filling the whole road with a disgusting noise and smell. Giton laughed at his impudence and matched every noise he made.

Encolpius’/Petronius’ auctorial perspective presents Corax as detractator ministerii, ‘a shirker of work’, first and foremost – and his behaviour is presented as obscene and juvenile when he eventually gets on with it, yet appears almost to be propelled by his own resounding flatulence (a well-known humorous motif: after all, who doesn’t like a fart joke!).

At the same time, Petronius may well have captured a common comment on ancient working conditions, insufficient salaries, and employers’ contract violations: after all, Corax complains about dehumanising treatment (being mistaken for a beast of burden or a stone-carrying vessel), ill-defined contracts that just see additional chores added to what was originally agreed, and his employers’ lack of respect for a free man who needs to work for a living. (One might add that Corax’s chores, whether he wants it or not, now also involve becoming complicit in his employers’ questionable efforts in seeking ill-gotten gains.)

Can he be blamed for venting some pressure, or even raising a veritable stink, in response to that?

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Strike where the sun don’t shine…

The sun-god Helios could not believe it when his daughter Lampetië told him what had just happened: a bunch of savages had dared to kill and devour his sacred cattle that he pastured on the island of Thrinacia!

P. Tibaldi: The Companions of Odysseus Steal the Cattle of Helios (source:

Of course, Odysseus had been warned beforehand, and he even had passed on the warning to his companions: under no circumstances touch the cattle of Helios, as doing so would be a sure-fire way to trigger the devastating wrath of the gods!

But greed, following their adventures around Scylla and Charybdis, got the better of them and clouded their judgement.

Helios was displeased, to say the least, to see his sacred cattle killed. He approached Zeus about the matter at once, and in this context the following dialogue ensued (Homer, Odyssey 12.377–388, transl. Murray – Dimock):

‘Ζεῦ πάτερ ἠδ᾿ ἄλλοι μάκαρες θεοὶ αἰὲν ἐόντες,
τῖσαι δὴ ἑτάρους Λαερτιάδεω Ὀδυσῆος,
οἵ μευ βοῦς ἔκτειναν ὑπέρβιον, ᾗσιν ἐγώ γε
χαίρεσκον μὲν ἰὼν εἰς οὐρανὸν ἀστερόεντα,
ἠδ᾿ ὁπότ᾿ ἂψ ἐπὶ γαῖαν ἀπ᾿ οὐρανόθεν προτραποίμην.
εἰ δέ μοι οὐ τίσουσι βοῶν ἐπιεικέ᾿ ἀμοιβήν,
δύσομαι εἰς Ἀίδαο καὶ ἐν νεκύεσσι φαείνω.’

τὸν δ᾿ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη νεφεληγερέτα Ζεύς·
‘Ἠέλι᾿, ἦ τοι μὲν σὺ μετ᾿ ἀθανάτοισι φάεινε
καὶ θνητοῖσι βροτοῖσιν ἐπὶ ζείδωρον ἄρουραν·
τῶν δέ κ᾿ ἐγὼ τάχα νῆα θοὴν ἀργῆτι κεραυνῷ
τυτθὰ βαλὼν κεάσαιμι μέσῳ ἐνὶ οἴνοπι πόντῳ.’

‘Father Zeus and you other blessed gods that are forever, take vengeance now on the comrades of Odysseus, son of Laertes, who have insolently slain my cattle, in which I took delight whenever I mounted to the starry heaven, and when I turned back again to the earth from heaven. If they do not pay me fit atonement for the cattle I will go down to Hades and shine among the dead.’

Then Zeus, the cloud-gatherer, answered him and said: ‘Helios, for your part do not fail to go on shining among the immortals and among mortal men upon the earth, the giver of grain. As for these men I will soon strike their swift ship with my bright thunderbolt, and shatter it to pieces in the midst of the wine-dark sea.’

Helios threatens to upset the order of the entire world in response to the violent interference with his cherished property:

εἰ δέ μοι οὐ τίσουσι βοῶν ἐπιεικέ᾿ ἀμοιβήν,
δύσομαι εἰς Ἀίδαο καὶ ἐν νεκύεσσι φαείνω.

If they do not pay me fit atonement for the cattle I will go down to Hades and shine among the dead.

Not the world of the living (and of the immortals), but the world of the dead, otherwise clad in eternal twilight or darkness, Helios threatens, will soon benefit from his powers, unless there be a proper response to the injustice he suffered: quite possibly the most drastic walk-out ever threatened.

Zeus is unwilling to take his chances in this matter – he does not even try to negotiate in the face of this fundamental threat. Instead, he begs Helios to keep rendering his vital services and offers retribution in response to the injustice that Helios had to endure.

It does not take long for Odysseus’ companions to experience the thundering consequences for their greed and sacrilege: they all drown, and Odysseus alone gets to survive – he is eventually stranded on Calypso’s island, where his return to Ithaca is stalled for another seven years.

Helios, the reliable provider of light and life on earth as we know it, is presented by the author as – quite literally! – prepared to go to, and through, hell in his quest for justice against those who cruelly took his cherished property away.

Helios succeeds in this quest. Though hardly powerless himself, it probably helped that he had an ally in a position of real power who was utterly unafraid to throw a thunderbolt or two when and where needed to hit the greedy thieves of Helios’ property.

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The solidarity of the precariously employed

A papyrus from the Hermopolite nome in Egypt, dated to A. D. 117, written by a lady called Eudaimonis to her daughter Aline addresses a wide range of family matters, including some current worries over the family business (P. Brem. 63, transl. R. S. Bagnall – R. Cribiore):

Eudaimonis to her daughter Aline, greetings. Above all, I pray that you may give birth in good time, and that I shall receive news of a baby boy.

You sailed away on the 29th and on the next day I finished drawing down (?the wool). I at last got the material from the dyer on the 10th of Epeiph. I am working with your slave girls as far as possible. I cannot find girls who can work with me, for they are all working for their own mistresses. Our workers marched through all the city eager for more money.

Your sister Souerous gave birth. Teeus wrote me a letter thanking you so that I know, my lady, that my instructions will be valid, for she has left all her family to come with you. The little one sends you her greetings and is persevering with her studies. Rest assured that I shall not pay studious attention to God until I get my son back safe.

Why did you send me 20 drachmae in my difficult situation? I already have the vision of being naked when winter starts.

Farewell. Epeiph 22.

(Postscript): The wife of Eudemos has stuck by me and I am grateful to her for that.

(Address on back): To her daughter Aline.

In the second paragraph, Eudaimonis refers to the family weaving business, which she would appear to run on Aline’s behalf while she was on maternity leave (so to speak, if such a blatant anachronism can be permitted).

Things were not going too well for Eudaimonis during her stint as acting manager: she reports a highly disruptive walk-out, threatening the functioning of the entire operation, staged by her workforce to protest their wages publicly, visibly, and audibly for the entire city to witness.

Attempts on Eudaimonis’s side simply to replace her workers with ad-hoc cover failed: no one made themselves available – not an indication of good reputation or competitive pay in Eudaimonis’s and Aline’s business, but also, as has been speculated, consequence of the economic crisis caused by the Jewish-Roman (Kitos) War at the time.

It is unknown how this local event of industrial action was eventually resolved. It shows quite clearly, however, the importance of competitive pay – and the power that lies in unity when it comes to making a positive impact on the conditions offered by one’s employer.

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Strike, Legal Action, and Delusion

Photo from a 1913 bakers’ strike in France (with soldiers called in).

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.

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United we stand, divided we fall

A Latin inscription from Beirut, dating to the third century A. D., records a conflict between shipowners from Arelate (Arles) in Gaul and the Roman government:

[- – – I]ulianus naviculariis / [mar]inis Arelatensibus quinque / [co]rporum salutem / [qu]id lecto decreto vestro scripserim / [- – -]S[- – -] proc(uratori) Augg(ustorum) e(gregio) v(iro) subi/[e]ci iussi opto felicissimi bene valeatis e(xemplum) e(pistulae) / exemplum decreti naviculariorum ma/rinorum Arelatensium quinque cor/porum item eorum quae aput me acta / sunt subieci et cum eadem querella la/tius procedat ceteris etiam imploranti/bus auxilium aequitatis cum quadam de/nuntiatione cessaturi propediem obsequi / si permaneat iniuria peto ut tam indemni/tati rationis quam securitati hominum / qui annonae deserviunt consulatur / inprimi charactere regulas ferreas et / adplicari prosecutores ex officio tuo iu/beas qui in urbe pondus quo susce/perint tradant // – – – – – –  / Maxi[- – -] / utique [- – -] / et ex[- – -]tor ex[- – -]/cianu[- – -]/nes pr[- – – ha]vicula[ri- – -] / feci / eiusdem [- – -] / legi decret[um naviculariorum – – -]/tes hom[ines – – -]/tiones [- – -] / est ut [- – -] / coni[- – -] / non [- – -] / SES[- – -] / ST[- – -] / R[- – -].

(CIL III 14165.8 (cf. p. 2328.78) = ILS 06987)

In the translation of Fik Meijer and Onno van Nijf:

Claudius Julianus to the navicularii marini (marine shippers) of the five corpora (associations) of Arles, greetings! What I wrote, after reading your decree, to . . . a . . . s . . ., vir egregius procurator of the Augusti, I have ordered, and I want it to be added (thereafter). Fortunate people, may you prosper! Copy of the letter (from (J)ulianus to the procurator). I have added a copy of the decree of the navicularii marini of Arles belonging to the five corpora and likewise (a copy) of the documents from the courtcase conducted before me. And should the same dispute continue further, and the other (navicularii) appeal to justice with what amounts to a formal complaint that they will soon cease to comply with their obligations, and if the injustice continues, I request that provision be made for both a guarantee against fiscal loss in the books and for exoneration of the people providing services for the annona, and that you order the marking of the iron bars, and that escorts from your staff be provided, who will hand over (details of) the cargo weight that they ‘have taken on board’.

As far as one can tell on the basis of this fragmentary text, the navicularii marini, who played a role in Rome’s food supply (annona), felt short-changed or defrauded by Roman state authorities or its corrupt representatives. (Mention of officially administered ‘marking of the iron bars’, among other things, would suggest that previously fraudulent measures were in applied or misappropriation and embezzlement took place.)

In response to the injustice they encountered, the marine shippers relied on their corpora, their corporations or trade unions, so to speak, and made a powerful representation.

They sought, and obtained, a legal decree from the governor, and, to increase pressure on the Roman government, they threatened to disrupt the provision of previously agreed services, should the injustice continue (cessaturi propediem obsequi / si permaneat iniuria) – a veritable threat of industrial action, jeopardising Rome’s food supply.

Threat of such collective action, rather than individual complaints, was enough to gain a favourable outcome – an outcome that was advertised even far away from Arelate, at the other end of the Mediterranean.

There is strength in numbers when one wishes to fight against unfair treatment, and only slaves without the means or the power to revolt have to render services at a cost solely determined by their masters.


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On strike!

Tibicines, professional flute-players, held an awkward position within the society of Republican Rome.

On the one hand, they were admired for their skills and regarded as quintessential for maintaining the sacred order of the state. Unsurprisingly, due to their quintessential role in many central aspects of religious and cultic life, they enjoyed many privileges, several of them introduced as early as the Roman Kingdom.

On the other hand, like most artists, they held little actual influence, and they were an easy target for ridicule, not least due to their presence at holidays, feasts, and celebrations on occasion of which copious amounts of alcohol were consumed.

In 311 B. C., however, as the Roman historian Livy reports, the following, remarkable incident occurred (Liv. 9.30.5):

I should omit, as an incident hardly worth narrating, a little thing that happened in that same year, but that it seemed to concern religion. The flute-players, angry at having been forbidden by the last censors to hold their feast, according to old custom, in the temple of Jupiter, went off to Tibur in a body, so that there was no one in the City to pipe at sacrifices.

The flute-players’ established right to feast in the temple of Jupiter appears to have dated back to Rome’s legendary second king, Numa Pompilius, as Plutarch reports in his Quaestiones Romanae on the same incident (ch. 55):

This sort of men (as it seems) had great privileges accruing to them from the grant of King Numa, by reason of his godly devotion; which things afterward being taken from them when the Decemviri managed the government, they forsook the city.

Whether it was the censors (as Livy says) or the Decemviri (as Plutarch claims) who chose to interfere with what the flute-players regarded as their sacred entitlement, we cannot know. In fact, Ovid gives yet third version of the story in his work Fasti (6.657–664):

In the times of your ancestors of yore the flute-player was much employed and was always held in great honour. The flute played in temples, it played at games, it played at mournful funerals. The labour was sweetened by its reward; but a time followed which of a sudden broke the practice of the pleasing art. Moreover, the aedile had ordered that the musicians who accompanied funeral processions should be ten, no more.

Whatever may have happened, the flute-players clearly felt that they were confronted with a withdrawal of long-enjoyed privileges and potentially a significant threat to their livelihoods. Consequently, they chose to withdraw to Tibur (Tivoli) and to go on an indefinite strike – after all, why should one show gratefulness, or even tolerance, in a situation in which such proposals are made, when there is no apparent need for such measures other than the desire of a few (usually significantly better-off) leaders to present themselves in a certain light?

The strike of the flute-players, to the mind of the Romans anyway, was a very dangerous situation indeed. It posed a supreme threat to the sacred order and therefore the well-being of the city of Rome herself.

Livy continues his report (9.30.6–10):

Troubled by the religious aspect of the case, the senate dispatched representatives to the Tiburtines, requesting them to use their best endeavours to restore these men to Rome. The Tiburtines courteously undertook to do so; and sending for the pipers to their senate-house, urged them to return.

When they found it impossible to persuade them, they employed a ruse, not ill-adapted to the nature of the men. On a holiday various citizens invited parties of the pipers to their houses, on the pretext of celebrating the feast with music. There they plied them with wine, which people of that profession are generally greedy of, until they got them stupefied. In this condition they threw them, fast asleep, into waggons and carried them away to Rome; nor did the pipers perceive what had taken place until daylight found them – still suffering from the debauch – in the waggons, which had been left standing in the Forum.

The people then flocked about them and prevailed with them to remain. They were permitted on three days in every year to roam the City in festal robes, making music and enjoying the licence that is now customary, and to such as should play at sacrifices was given again the privilege of banqueting in the temple.

These incidents occurred while men were preoccupied with two mighty wars.

One can almost feel from this just how intense the situation must have been when the flute-players faced the people whom they had deserted in anger, with an acute need to make a decision – to carry on striking, or to do what was expected of them for the common good (and what they, of course, enjoyed).

Ovid’s version of this stand-off, as well as the events that led up to it, is even more intense (Fasti 6.669–692):

At Tibur there was a certain man who had been a slave, but had long been free, a man worthy of any rank. In his country place he made ready a banquet and invited the tuneful throng; they gathered to the festal board. It was night, and their eyes and heads swam with wine, when a messenger arrived with a made-up tale, and thus he spoke (to the freedman): ‘Break up the banquet without delay, for see here comes the master of thy rod!’ Immediately the guests bestirred their limbs, reeling with heady wine; their shaky legs or stood or slipped. But the master of the house, ‘Off with you all!’ says he, and when they dawdled he packed them in a wain that was well lined with rushes. The time, the motion, and the wine allured to slumber, and the tipsy crew fancied that they were on their way back to Tibur. And now the wain had entered the city of Rome by the Esquiline, and at morn it stood in the middle of the Forum. In order to deceive the Senate as to their persons and their number, Plautius commanded that their faces should be covered with masks; and he mingled others with them and ordered them to wear long garments, to the end that women flute-players might be added to the band. In that way he thought that the return of the exiles could be best concealed, lest they should be censured for having come back against the orders of their guild. The plan was approved, and now they are allowed to wear their new garb on the Ides and to sing merry words to the old tunes.

Prima facie Ovid seems to provide a rationale for the use of peculiar garments worn in his own times. But in doing so, he offers much deeper insights into the dynamics of such strikes. With a powerful collegium (‘guild’), and thus essentially the ancient equivalent of a modern-day trade union, in the background, and the need to escape the blame of being traitors to the cause (or ‘scabs’, as one would call it now), individuals still need to make difficult, personal choices – weighing up their own interests against the common good.

Ovid (and other authors) suggest that the flute-players, in response to the booze-fuelled trap into which they fell, came up with a cunning plan that allowed the strikers to preserve face when finding their way back into the society from which they chose to withdraw in response to the shabby treatment that they had received.

Yet, and this is also clear from Ovid, and even more so from Livy’s account: the harsh, collaborative, action was a successful response to an act of profound injustice – a threat to established rights – and repeated acts of disrespectful behaviour towards their profession, which, though easily ridiculed for its faults, played a central role in its society.

At the beginning of his report, Livy suggests that the story as such would not be especially worth mentioning at all, if it were not for its religious implications.

Livy’s final statement, however, reveals another aspect to it: haec inter duorum ingentium bellorum curam gerebantur, ‘these incidents occurred while men were preoccupied with two mighty wars’.

In other words, this was a completely needless (and ultimately futile and costly) conflict, caused for no good reason, that distracted much energy from the much bigger challenges that one should have focused on instead – collectively.

To gain collective support against much bigger challenges, of course, requires leaders who are not just looking after their own benefits and economic gain for only a few at the expense of the many. It requires leaders who, beyond cheap lip service and meaningless rhetoric, value the contributions of those on whose labour the general prosperity of our society rests, leaders who honour contracts and established rights, and leaders who are prepared to defend the dignity of those whom they were appointed to serve.

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