A couple of days ago, Verne Troyer died.

At 81 cm (2 ft 8 in), Troyer was one of the shortest men in the world, his Wikipedia entry claims; he is likely to be remembered, most of all, for performance as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films.

Little people have long had their place in public and private entertainment.

In Roman times, they often featured as ‘freaks of nature’, being the object of ridicule and abuse.

Among the most remarkable stories in that regard is that of Zercon.

Zercon is introduced as a ‘court-jester’ by the late-antique Greek historian Priscus of Panium in his description of the court of Bleda, the brother of Attila the Hun.

Zercon, of Moorish origin, quickly became a token gift to provide amusement for the high and mighty due to his overall appearance as well as his stammer (τραυλότης) (Prisc. frg. 13.2 (I p. 287) Blockley):

Διὰ δὲ κακοφυίαν σώματος καὶ τὸ γέλωτα ἐκ τῆς τραυλότητος τῆς φωνὴς καὶ ὄψεως παρέχειν (βραχὺς γὰρ τις ἦν, κυρτός, διάστροφος τοῖς πόσι, τὴν ῥῖνα τοῖς μυκτῆρσι παραφαίνων διὰ σιμότητος ὑπερβολήν), ῎Ασπαρι τῷ ᾽Αρδαβουρίῳ ἐδεδώρητο . . . καὶ Ἀττήλας μὲν οὐδὲ τὴν αὐτοῦ ἤνεγκεν ὄψιν· ὁ δὲ Βλήδας ἥσθη τε λίαν αὐτῷ φθεγγομένῳ οὐ μόνον γέλωτος ἄξια, εἰ μή γε καὶ βαδίζοντι καὶ περιττῶς κινοῦντι τὸ σῶμα.

Because of his physical deformity and the laughter which his stammering and his general appearance caused (for he was rather short, hunchbacked, with distorted feet and a nose that, because of its excessive flatness, was indicated only by the nostrils) he was presented to Aspar, the son of Ardabur (. . .). Attila could not stand the sight of him, but Bleda was most pleased by him, not only when he was saying amusing things but even when he was not, because of the strange movements of his body as he walked.

The amusement that Zercon provided is described as follows (Prisc. frg. 13.3 (I p. 289) Blockley):

τότε δὲ διὰ τὸν τῆς εὐωχίας καιρὸν παρελθὼν τῷ τε εἴδει καὶ τοῖς ἐσθήμασι καὶ τῇ φωνῇ καὶ τοῖς συγκεχυμένως παρ᾽ αὐτοῦ προφερομένοις ῥήμασι (τῇ γὰρ Αὐσονίων τὴν τῶν Οὔννων καὶ τὴν τῶν Γότθων παραμιγνὺς γλῶτταν) πάντας διέχεε καὶ ἐς ἄσβεστον ὁρμῆσαι γέλοτα παρεσκεύασε πλὴν Ἀττήλα.

Now, during the banquet he came forward and by his appearance, his clothing, his voice and the words which he spoke all jumbled together (for he mixed Latin, Hunnic and Gothic) he put all in a good humour and caused all to burst into uncontrollable laughter, except Attila.

To the modern scholar, Zercon’s extraordinary level of multilingualism, in conjunction with an apparent communication disorder, is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this report.

To Bleda and his court, however, Zercon was little more than a freak, whose presence serves the sole purpose of entertainment.

There is, however, evidence, for rather more sympathetic treatment – and in this context one must mention the funerary inscription of Hector, a Phrygian performer and (arguably, though by no means certainly) the slave of Vespasian’s wife Flavia Domitilla.

The following piece, dating to the second half of the first (or early second century?) A. D., was discovered inscribed in the city of Rome (CIL VI 10098 (cf. p. 3906) = VI 33961 = CLE 1110 = ILS 5172, EDR 109247; image source here; for a detailed discussion in French see here):

Qui colitis Cybelen et qui Phryga plangitis Attin
dum vacat et tacita Dindyma nocte silent
flete meos cineres. non est alienus in illis:
Hector et hoc tumulo Mygdonis umbra tegor.
ille ego qui magni parvus cognominis heres
corpore in exiguo res numerosa fui:
flectere doctus equos, nitida certare palaestra,
ferre iocos, astu fallere, nosse fidem.
at tibi dent superi quantum, Domitilla, mereris
quae facis exigua ne iaceamus humo.

In English translation:

You who worship Cybele and mourn Attis the Phrygian, when there is time and when the heights of Dindymon lie silent in soundless night, weep over my ashes. There is no stranger in these: I, Hector am covered by this tomb, a shade of Mygdon no less.

A little heir of a big name, I myself was a versatile thing in a tiny body: I was taught to control horses, to fight in the resplendent palaestra, to make jokes, to deceive cunningly, to recognise trustworthiness.

So – may the Gods grant you, Domitilla, whatever you deserve, as you allow us to rest under more than just a thin layer of soil.

Praised for his skills in the same way other performers were, this piece, though full of hardly subtle references to Hector’s dwarfism, at first would appear to paint a sympathetic picture to a distinguished artist.

At the same time, one cannot help but notice the reference to the cult of Cybele – seemingly a reference to Hector’s Phrygian origins (though one that typically combined spectacular performances with infliction of self-mutilation) – as well as the final couple of lines which are, unsurprisingly, about the benefactor behind the tomb: Domitilla.

Considering the presentation of this memorial, it would therefore not seem to be entirely unreasonable that Domitilla, too, saw the freak of nature in Hector – a spectacle for others to behold, a versatile thing (res numerosa), but still just that: a thing.

So why bother and write an epitaph?

The inscription gave Domitilla one last chance to benefit from her little play-thing – a final opportunity to represent herself as benefactor and good patroness, a final way to derive personal gain from Hector’s abilities (in which she presumably had invested a fair amount).

The struggles of the artist, by contrast, remain unseen.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Poetry, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

An arrogant boss, an overwhelmed manager, a botched valuation, and the exploitation of workers

In the so-called Zenon archive, a cache of some 2,000 papyri from Philadelphia (Fayyum), covering a time-span from 263 to 229 B. C., there is a complex deposit that starts with a letter from one Panakestor to Zenon, the Egyptian official from whom the archive derives its name (PSI V 502, translation from here):

Panakestor to Zenon greeting. If you are well, and other matters are turning out in a satisfactory way for you, that would be as we wish. We too are well. Please remember us, and when you find a suitable moment with Apollonios, remind him about the notes I gave you in Memphis, and you said that you would take care of it. Be sure to remind him that he should get instructions from the king, as he agreed with us; for I know that if you want, everything will be achieved for us. I have appended for you a copy of the letter sent to me by Apollonios, and also a copy of the letter I sent to him. Farewell. Year 29, Pachons 15.

Apollonius was the chief financial administrator of Egypt under king Ptolemy II. Philadelphus, who led Egypt, now the successor state to a province of the realm that Alexander the Great had created, to renewed cultural heights.

The aforementioned Panakestor worked in what one might call Apollonius’ middle management (as it has been presented in this excellent piece). And Apollonius, it turns out, was not happy with how Panakestor had handled his job:

From Apollonios to Panakestor. I was astounded at your negligence that you have written nothing, either about the estimation or about the harvest of the grain. Write to me now how each matter stands. Year 29, Artemisios 23, Pharmouthi 30.

Apollonius, as this piece suggests, in the best top-down managerialist tradition, was expecting constant reports and updates on unpredictable matters – including a forecast of the harvest(s) that could be expected.

Panakestor had passed Apollonius’ request on to the farmers, the experts in the field (quite literally) – and this is where Hellenistic Greek bureaucracy hit the brick wall of Egyptian farmers who were accustomed to a very different system.

Ancient Egyptian management (stock photo). (Image source:

Here is what happened according to Panakestor, trying to suppress his indignation towards Apollonius’ original letter, and seeking a constructive solution:

From Panakestor to Apollonios. I received your letter on 14th of Pachons from Zoilos, in which you write that you are astonished that I have sent you nothing concerning the estimation or the harvest of the crop. I happened to be present in Philadelphia on the 16th of Phamenoth and wrote at once to Zoilos and Zopyrion and to the royal scribes to join me and help manage the operation. Now, Zoilos happened to be making the inspection rounds with Telestes; he was therefore unavailable, but the royal scribes and Pauēs, Zopyrion’s assistant, came twelve days later. Together we went out into the fields and spent five days measuring the land by farmer and by crop.

We completed this, sent for the farmers, and announced your order to them. We then thought it right to call on them to make an estimation, just as you directed, or to work with us and draw up plans for an alternative. They said that they would inform us when they had considered the matter. Four days later they sat down in the temple and said they would not make an estimation, justly or unjustly, but would rather abandon the crop, for there was already an agreement that they should give you a third of the produce. Damis and I said many things to them, but we accomplished nothing; so we went to Zoilos and asked him to come along with us, but he said he was busy with the dispatch of the sailors.

Therefore when we returned to Philadelphia after three days we decided that since, as is written for us in the memorandum, they would not allow us to conduct an assessment or make any progress, we should ask them to give us their own assessment of their liability, whatever seemed appropriate to each of them. They gave us the assessment, which we sent to you previously. After arranging this, we were occupied in measuring the land planted with sesame and trees, in the company of the royal scribes, who gave us their account on the 22nd of Pharmouthi. Therefore please do not charge us with any negligence, because it is not easy for anyone working for you to be negligent. That should be clear to you from the fact that the corn was brought in, even though there was not much supply in this area.

{Addressed}   To Zenon.

{Docketed}   From Panakestor, a copy of his letter to Apollonios. Year 29, Daisios 14, in Alexandria.

Pushed hard by his line manager, and trying to do the conscientious thing, Panakestor first tried to implement the required estimation or a workable alternative.

He tried to align the workers through multiple stages of conversation. They in turn considered the request and then rejected it, threatening a walk-out and strike action, potentially resulting in a major loss of crops, should they be required to co-operate. In order to work around that, Panakestor even tried to enlist the services of others – to no avail.

In the end, Panakestor obtained information structured in a traditional way, and this is what he passed on to his better. He even accomplished other tasks, and brought in the required shares, against all the odds – only to be charged with negligence.

Were the Egyptian workers insubordinate and resistant to change, refusing to take part in what modern-day division heads might call a review of efficiency and effectiveness?

One might spin it that way, but Panakestor’s version allows for a very different take on the matter.

It is quite clear from one statement in particular –

‘they sat down in the temple and said they would not make an estimation, justly or unjustly, but would rather abandon the crop, for there was already an agreement that they should give you a third of the produce

– that the workers’ concern was something else: the fear that collaboration with a system that required forecasts and targets would force them into an impossible situation. In this impossible situation, it is no longer reality and experience that determines the course of the world, but made-up, fictive managerial figures and planning charts, imposed not actually for planning purposes, but as a means to exercise power and control, shifting the risk from the employer to the employee.

This is confirmed by another, later phrase in the text –

‘we decided that since, as is written for us in the memorandum, they would not allow us to conduct an assessment or make any progress, we should ask them to give us their own assessment of their liability, whatever seemed appropriate to each of them.’

The eternal dilemma for the middle manager is that they have a decision to make: do they wish to be the head of the unit that has been entrusted to them (or for which they were elected), or do they wish to be the rear extension of the upper levels, from which they cannot expect any gratitude. Panakestor tried to be a bit of both, and it made his life miserable.

The quintessential message for those who do the work on the ground is: do not ever allow managers with knowledge of planning and no understanding of realities to take over your core business.

Once you do, a neverending misery of constantly shifting goalposts in the name of effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability planning begins.

Posted in Labour disputes, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Advice, Conciliation, Arbitration

It is difficult to find solutions in conflicts in which emotions run high, and it requires insight on either side of such conflicts that presumably not all demands can be met. At the same time, it requires a desire to reach out with genuine respect for certain red lines that have been drawn – as well as for a sense of basic dignity that allows either party to leave the conflict with their heads held (relatively) high.

In Egypt, in A. D. 153 or 154, there was a violent revolt in the context of which the prefect, Lucius Munatius Felix, was killed.

Subsequently, the riots were suppressed, but many had fled and abandoned their accustomed lives and jobs in fear of retribution – a chaotic walkout, so to speak, effectively leading to a standstill in the economy as well as in the everyday running of the province.

In A. D. 154, most likely, on the 29th of August, Munatius’ successor, a man called Marcus Sempronius Liberalis, from Acholla in North Africa originally, issued the following edict (BGU II 372; translation A. C. Johnson – P. R. Coleman-Norton – F. C. Bourne):

Marcus Sempronius Liberalis, prefect of Egypt, proclaims:

I learn that, because of the recent unpleasantness, some persons have abandoned their homes and provided for themselves a living elsewhere, and that others, avoiding their compulsory public duties because of their impoverishment at the time, are still living away from home through fear of the proscriptions made at that time. Accordingly, I urge all persons to return to their homes, to reap the first and greatest fruit of prosperity and of the care which our lord the emperor displays to all men, and not to wander without hearth or home in an alien land. That they may do so with greater zeal and pleasure, they shall know that anyone who is still held back for these reasons will experience the good will and generosity of our greatest emperor in permitting no inquiry against them nor even against others who were proscribed by the strategi for any cause whatsoever. For these persons also are urged to return to their home . . .

. . . those persons who voluntarily unite with fugitives who have chosen a life of criminal brigandage. That they may realize that I exhort not only these persons but also others to return and that I am taking steps to this effect, they shall know that I have issued orders to the most excellent epistrategi, to the strategi, and also to the troops sent by me for the security and peace of the countryside, to check their raids at their inception by taking the aggressive with careful planning, to pursue at once the raiders: and the criminals caught in the act need no further examination beyond their participation in the raid, but they are not to trouble those persons who were once proscribed but who are living quietly and attending to their own farming. Accordingly, all persons shall return without fear, and the time limit shall be within three months of the posting of this edict in each nome. If anyone after this great manifestation of my clemency is found wandering away from home he shall be arrested and shall be sent to me no longer as a suspect, but as an acknowledged criminal.

Year 18 of our Lord Antoninus, Thoth 1.

The message – and its associated red lines – are perfectly clear: go home and get on with your previous lives and jobs, you have three months!

But language matters.

There are incentives, to sweeten the deal (‘that they may do so with greater zeal and pleasure’, ἵ]να δὲ τοῦ̣το προθυμ[ότ]ε|ρ̣ο̣[ν κ]α̣ὶ̣ ἥδιο[ν π]ο[ιή]σ̣ω̣[σιν), the promise to experience ‘the good will and generosity of our greatest emperor’ (α[ἰσ-]|θ[ή]σεσθαι τῆ[ς] τοῦ μ[εγίσ]του Αὐτο̣κ̣ράτορος εὐ[μ]ε|ν[εί]ας καὶ χρη[σ]τότητος ἐ[πι]τρεπούσης):

  • the prospect of reaping the fruits of prosperity vs. a life on the run (π]ρῶτον καὶ μέγιστ[ον] | κ[α]ρπὸν τῆς εὐετ[ηρίας)
  • benefitting from imperial protection (τῆς τοῦ κυρίο[υ] ἡμ[ῶ]ν |Α[ὐτο]κράτορος περὶ πά[ντας] ἀνθρώπους κη[δε]|μ̣ονίας ἀποφέρεσθαι)
  • a general amnesty (μ[ηδ]ε|μίαν πρὸς α[ὐ]τοὺς ζήτησιν ἔσεσθαι), resulting in a life free from fear of further prosecution

The prefect, a successful, seasoned, and well-connected Roman knight, chose to put a time limit of three months on his offer.

Similar to the unknown official who dealt with the building workers’ strike at Pergamon (discussed here), Liberalis asserts philanthropia, ‘the love of humankind’, as the theme of his offer: με]τὰ τὴν τοσαύτην μου φιλαν|θρωπίαν, ‘if anyone after this great manifestation of my clemency...’, as the translation has it.

What is different in the present case, however, is that this ‘philanthropy’ does not seem to have come with a catch: this offer genuinely appears to reach out with a wish to make peace. It offers impunity, protection, reward, and a desire to move – elements designed to sweeten the deal that the prefect was hoping to make, without entirely removing the pressure to revert to law and order following the upheaval.

Those who decided to walk away have a choice, and their choice does not only have implications for their own future lives, but – crucially – for that of the future prosperity of their entire community.

Leaders with an understanding of this, like Liberalis, will be mindful of their people’s collective power and thus avoid pettiness and retaliation without being seen as weak, paving the way to move forward.

Posted in Labour disputes, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Abusive working relationships

Many strikes do not leave any substantial traces in the historical record.

In other cases, the historical record proves extremely hard to read.

The following instance is one such example – to show just how sketchy the evidence can be sometimes.

A frequently mentioned instance of an ancient ‘strike’ that fits the narrative about a strike-prone Eastern Roman Empire is the strike of building workers of Pergamon.

The sole piece of evidence for this event is a Greek inscription that has been read as follows (IGR iv 444 = MDAI(A) 24 (1899) 197.62; text from here):

[- – – ἀν]θύ(πατος) (vac.) λέγει·
[- – – ὅ]σοι μὲν παρῆσαν, ὅτε περὶ τῶν
[- – -]αν τῆς τῶν ἔργων κατασκευῆς
[- – – ὅπως – – -] ἴδω πρὸ ὀφθαλμῶν αὐτοὺς
[- – -] φιλανθρωπίᾳ κέχρημαι καὶ α-(?)
[- – – ὅσ]οι δὲ τῷ μὲν μὴ ἀντειπεῖν πρὸς
[- – -] ὅθεν γεινωσκέτωσαν ὅτι, ἐὰν
[- – – γεινώσ]κ̣ειν αὐτοὺς ὡς καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους
[- – – τ]όκους αὐτοῖς ἀπὸ τοῦ χρόνου
[- – – ἐ]κτελέσαι τὰ ἔργα· τοὺς ἐργε-
[πιστάτας – – -]ων ἀποθέσθαι παραχρῆμα
[- – -] προιεῖσιν τριβῆς ἐν τ̣[- – -]
[- – -]κότες, εἰ δ’ ἄρα καὶ εὐ̣[- – -]
[- – – ἐργε]πιστάται ὅσον ὑπὸ [- – -]
[- – -]νη καὶ γεινωσκέτ̣[ωσαν – – -]
[- – – μισθ]ὸν λαμβάνειν ἐπ̣[- – -]
[- – -]οιντο ἐκ τοῦ  [- – -]
[- –]ο ἐπ[- – -]
– – – – – –

Although at first glance this may appear to be a substantial chunk of text, it just so happens that very little useful information can actually be derived from it due to the text losses that have occurred.

The opening line makes it clear that this is the edict (λέγει – ‘he states’) of a proconsul (ἀν]θύ(πατος)), whose name does not survive, but who presumably was the provincial governor at the time (probably during the reign of Hadrian).

The proconsul appears to have visited a building site.

In the text he mentions those who were present (ὅ]σοι μὲν παρῆσαν; — ὅτε περὶ: when he was there, perhaps?) and somehow occupied with the construction of the works (τῆς τῶν ἔργων κατασκευῆς) – something he witnessed with his own eyes (ἴδω πρὸ ὀφθαλμῶν αὐτοὺς).

For the benefit of those individuals, it would appear, he chose to exercise benevolence (φιλανθρωπίᾳ κέχρημαι). He may have extended the same policy also to those who chose not to raise their voices in anger (ὅσ]οι δὲ τῷ μὲν μὴ ἀντειπεῖν).

What follows is rather less clear. One might deduce, however, that the proconsul decided to dock a day’s pay from those who (presumably) were found to be on strike, or otherwise protesting, for the time they were not working (τ]όκους αὐτοῖς ἀπὸ τοῦ χρόνου), thus failing to work towards completion of the works (ἐ]κτελέσαι τὰ ἔργα).

Finally, the proconsul addresses the site managers (τοὺς ἐργε|[πιστάτας), equipping them with instructions that are not altogether clear, but may have related to additional walkouts (ἀποθέσθαι παραχρῆμα), friction (τριβῆς), and docking (?) of salary (μισθ]ὸν λαμβάνειν).

The scaremongering rhetoric has not changed much over time. Still employers talk about their generosity and benevolence and suddenly discover their deep concern for health and safety and security. Yet they feel right docking pay for work they expected to be completed during disputes as well as using their alleged concern to rid themselves of confrontational voices that they don’t want to hear and listen to.

The Greek term for generosity and benevolence used by the proconsul in this text is philanthropia, literally ‘the love of humankind’.

One might think that the proconsul had a warped sense of love and a narrow definition of humankind.

But that would mean to miss the quintessential point.

This is rhetoric.

It is designed to inspire a sense of fear and dependence on goodwill, nothing to do with love and care – and the limits of his alleged love are reached as soon as there is a disagreement.

He thinks such ‘love’ can be unilaterally ’employed’.

This isn’t love.

This is an expression of a toxic, abusive relationship in which the abuser wants to force their ways on the abused while maintaining the pretence of a deeply held care, expecting gratefulness for the abuse itself.

One mustn’t fall for such rhetoric.

Posted in Epigraphy, Labour disputes, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Debased and changed beyond recognition

Bankers, money-lenders, and money-changers do not carry a particularly high reputation in present-day discourse when it comes to virtues such as ‘honesty’ and ‘trust’ – which is strange, to a degree, as the entire sector fundamentally relies on belief in these two qualities.

In an earlier blog piece I commented on the so-called monetariorum bellum, a ‘revolt among the mint-workers’ that apparently took place during the reign of emperor Aurelian in the 270s A. D. in response to increasing debasement of Rome’s coins.

This was by no means the first time the bankers in the Roman empire had ever staged a revolt against the system, however.

There is a fascinating papyrus from Oxyrhynchus which relates an event that happened about one decade earlier, in A. D. 260 (P. Oxy. xii 1411):

From Aurelius Ptolemaeus also called Nemesianus, strategus of the Oxyrhynchite nome. Since the officials have assembled and accused the bankers of the banks of exchange of having closed them on account of their unwillingness to accept the divine coin of the Emperors, it has become necessary that an injunction should be issued to all the owners of the banks to open them, and to accept and exchange all coin except the absolutely spurious and counterfeit, and not to them only, but to all who engage in business transactions of any kind whatever, knowing that if they disobey this injunction they will experience the penalties already ordained for them in the past by his highness the praefect. Signed by me. The 1st year, Hathur 28.

As it seems out of character for bankers (and, in fact, anyone) to go out of business just for the sake of it, one must ask how come that the bankers and money-changers of the Oxyrhynchus district chose to take this extraordinary step – again (‘they will experience the penalties already ordained for them in the past‘)?

Two reasons have been discussed first and foremost:

  • an increasing level of debasement affecting the Roman coinage system, rendering the imperial coins in question, if not worthless, at least rather less valuable than they once were, and/or
  • an increasing level of risk to deal with counterfeit money, as the types who claimed to be, and also those who actually were, Roman emperors at the time was changing at a breathtaking pace, meaning that it was impossible to tell whether it was still possible to rely on the actual currency of imperial coins submitted for exchange (a point made, e. g., by S. L. Vennik here [p. 83-4]).

As bankers are notoriously risk-averse when their own profit is at stake (as opposed to that of others), chances are that the answer involves both aspects to some extent rather than only one of them.

The impact of the bankers’ strike, so to speak, was substantial, and it affected the local economy to such an extent that a complaint was made to the authorities – whence the injunction came about.

There are many aspects that one might wish to explore further. The one that strikes me most, however, is the extent to which the bankers of Oxyrhynchus were forced to resume their operations.

On the basis of what the papyrus says, they were required to accept everything from everyone ‘except the absolutely spurious and counterfeit‘ (πλὴν μάλ̣ι̣σ̣[τα] | παρατύπου καὶ κιβδήλου, as the original Greek has it).

This expression certainly gives some credence to the view, mentioned above, that the constant regime changes were partly to blame for fading trust in the validity of the coins in circulation (certainly on the side of the bankers themselves): with usurpers coming and going, who even has the right to issue coins and thus to generate money for themselves?

It is easy, of course, to understand why the provincial government had to act in this case, considering the central role of the bankers for the local economy to function.

For that to work, however, and for that to work at a time where the money professionals would rather shut down their operations than to take further risks, the local leadership chose to interfere with essential security and quality standards at any cost, effectively legitimising counterfeit money (unless it was of absolutely appalling quality).

A devastating decision, no doubt, to those whose entire business model ultimately – at least in theory – relies on honesty and their customers’ trust in it.

Posted in Labour disputes, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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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