Sarah E. Bond – Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean

Sarah E. Bond – Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean

It reads like a dry Ph.D thesis, but interesting nonetheless. Roman commercial taboos mostly centered around the body. Actors and singers had low social status not for being lowbrow, but because they were selling their bodily abilities for money. Even town criers were held in social contempt for selling their voices. Funeral workers were disdained for handling dead bodies—though this pre-germ theory taboo probably made sense for public health. Tanners’ dirty work—leathermaking process involved urine—kept them in low esteem. Moneymakers, in particular the workers who physically smelted and minted the coins were in a weird place, simultaneously shunned and held close to the emperor, and were forbidden to marry women from higher social classes. Cooks and other food workers were also held at arm’s length. They were still necessary, especially the ones who worked for the upper classes Bakers had especially low status, for the more pleasure their food gave, the more disdain they were given.

This ancient, nearly universal disdain for commerce ties into Deirdre McCloskey’s thesis about what caused modern prosperity. Cultures that disdain commerce and wealth remain poor. Those that value it prosper. The particular values and taboos vary from place to place, and there is a large subjective element—some of Rome’s seem strange to us, just as ours would seem strange to them.

But negative views of such earthly things as money and bodies had predictable results. While rich for its time due to its large trading network, Roman per capita GDP was roughly one thirtieth of today’s, and the pace of technological improvement was slow. Roman body taboos likely played into its disregard for individual human beings, from the Roman legions’ harsh discipline to gladiatorial combat to astonishingly high levels of everyday violence.


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