Archaeology and the Pompeian Labour Market
While few would doubt that there was a consistent pattern of migration from the Italian countryside to the city of Rome in the Republic as well as in the first centuries of the Empire, there is much less certainty when it comes to migration from the countryside to the other towns of Italy. As John Patterson pointed out, the evidence does not really allow us to choose definitively between a model in which ‘stepwise’ migration was the norm, as was the case in Early Modern Europe, and a model in which, as happened in Latin America in the late 20th century, peasants migrated directly to the ‘primate city’, skipping the smaller cities altogether. Yet, the issue is of, of course, of key importance when one is talking about urbanisation, migration and labour, and a more detailed understanding of the migratory patterns would not only add to our understanding of the social history of Roman Italy, but also to that of the individual cities of the peninsula.
This paper will try to discuss how Pompeii fits into this picture: was there substantial migration to Pompeii and if so, how are we to know? Patterson believed that the way to prove or disprove the ‘stepwise’ migration model lay in understanding the presence or absence of population growth in the towns of Roman Italy. Observing that many small towns of Italy do not seem to have grown in the Empire, he stated that they did not ‘receive substantial permanent populations of migrants’ in this period. Yet, to focus on population sizes alone is a risky strategy: if migration was really stepwise, it can easily occur without archaeologically visible population growth of those towns that received migrants from the surrounding countryside and lost migrants to larger cities. Absence of growth is not absence of migration. Hence, the key question is not whether the towns of Italy grew in size, but whether we have reason to assume that they were – like Rome – attractive destinations for prospective migrants that were seen to provide socioeconomic opportunities.
This is also true for Pompeii. As Patterson himself points out, population estimates for Pompeii vary with an error margin of about 400%, and as far as I know there is no real scholarly consensus as to how the Pompeian population developed between the second century BC, when the town seems to experience a period of extreme building activity and urban growth, and, say, AD 60. My best guess would be that population increased at a very slow rate, as the urban area seems to become more densely built up in the central parts of the city, but I would not really bet on it - there are also developments pointing to the opposite direction, such as the dismantling of houses in favour of horticulture in the eastern part of the town. In general terms, I would be tempted to think the population was roughly stable. The picture is a bit more complicated for the last two decades of the town’s existence, when there is evidence of significant seismic disruption and of the abandonment of some houses and plots, but also of vibrant building and reconstruction activity that suggests that Pompeii was recovering rather than giving in to its seismic troubles when Mount Vesuvius finally struck. So, judging from its development as a town, Pompeii would not seem to have had a strongly positive migration rate after the second century BC – or perhaps after the establishment of the colony in 80 BC, though the impact of that political event on the town’s population is unclear and is hard to read off the archaeological record.
Yet, this does not mean that there was no migration, and the question to be discussed in what follows thus is whether we have reason to assume that Pompeii, as a town, provided economic opportunities to outsiders that made it an attractive destination. This is what makes it relevant to have a thorough look at the Pompeian economy and, more specifically, to the Pompeian labour market. Was there, in Pompeii, during the first century of our era, a labour market that was open to outsiders? Or was the town’s economic system, essentially, closed, and could one only get in through well-established family or patronage connections that migrants more often than not may have lacked? Essential for our understanding of this issue are two things. First and foremost, it would need to be possible for newcomers to find – within a reasonable amount of time – some paid form of work in existing shops or workshops – so one key question would be whether to which extent shops, workshops and other businesses in Pompeii actually hired strangers. Secondly, it would help if there were possibilities for newcomers, without strong ties to the elite, to start their own businesses once they had found a way of financing the process of starting it up – so the other key question would be whether newcomers could easily hire on the city’s commercial property market.
Before we start exploring these questions - one general, obvious, but often overlooked thing about Pompeii: Pompeii was not Rome, and there is ample evidence suggesting that the town’s economy functioned in a completely different way. Yet, Pompeii neither was an average town in an average province, and it was situated in an environment, that, from the second century BC onwards, was colonized by the Roman senatorial elite, who built rich villas on the coast of the Bay of Naples, and strongly stimulated the regional economy by massively spending on conspicuous consumption. This is a key factor in the economic history of Pompeii that is too often forgotten, and that may have made economic investment in the town much more rewarding than it was in many equally sized cities elsewhere in Italy, such as Spoletium in the Apennines or Paestum further to the south. It is also likely to have increased the town’s attractiveness to migrants. Any scenario that will come out of the following analysis can thus best be seen as an ‘optimistic’ scenario for the attractiveness of towns in Roman Italy.
It is good to briefly consider how Pompeian scholars have dealt with the issues at stake here in the past. While no one has really discussed the issue of labour and migration, there have of course been people who have studied the history of commerce and production in Pompeii, and it is relevant to briefly discuss their ideas and the possible implications of these for labour and migration.
For most of the twentieth century, the dominant idea was that expressed by Maiuri in his Ultima Fase Edizilia di Pompeii, published in 1942. Maiuri focused exclusively on the last two decades of the town’s existence and saw, in this period, a major transformation in which a noble, patrician elite left the town after the AD 62 earthquake, while their houses were occupied by a different class of people who turned them into shops and workshops. Maiuri has a strongly negative undertone in his writing and essentially saw the transformation as a sign of strong decline. Yet, in terms of labour market and business opportunities, it may be argued that his picture rather suggests the opposite: even though the patrician elite left Pompeii, the city apparently had a flourishing economy with ample room for new initiatives. With respect to migration, the implication of Maiuri’s picture would be that, after the AD 62 earthquake, Pompeii would have become an attractive destination, with lots of cheap property available to newcomers.
Yet, Maiuri’s picture was, rather convincingly, destroyed by Wallace Hadrill in the early 1990s, whose work suggests that there was not such a big transformation in the last years of the town’s existence, but that the picture emerging from the archaeological record reflects the ‘traditional’ way of organizing things – houses, even elite houses, were and always had been closely related to commerce and manufacturing, which took place in the shops surrounding their entrance, and in the workshops built on their property or even within the houses themselves.
Wallace-Hadrill puts a lot of emphasis on the social structures surrounding the atrium houses and their property, and, though he does not explicitly state this, he strongly suggests a commercial world dominated by the elite and their dependants, who occupied the shops and workshops surrounding their atrium houses. By implication, this would be a stable, closed economic system in which labour was, basically, assigned to people by the elite on the basis of pre-existing social ties, and the key migrants to enter the local Pompeian labour force, practically, would be slaves bought on the slave market – if you can call these people ‘migrants’.
Wallace-Hadrills work is, still, a landmark in Pompeian studies, and it had a deep impact in scholarly thinking on Pompeian social history in many ways, including the social background of economic life. While Wallace-Hadrill never excluded the possibility that other scenarios coexisted alongside the one he emphasized, subsequent scholars have clearly privileged elite households and their social dependents in their accounts of the social structure of the Pompeian economy.
A key example in this respect is the work by Henrik Mouritsen on the freedmen in the Pompeian Economy, which he discussed in a 2001 article and in his recent book on The Freedman in the Roman World. Mouritsen envisages an almost completely closed system, where it would be hard for outsiders to find accommodation and commercial facilities, and where newcomers would face strong competition from established families. Even the well-known letting notices on the walls of the Insula Arriana Polliana and the Praedia Iulia Felicis are explained away: these would be let out to subcontracters, who would then fill the tabernae with their own economic independents. So, while Mouritsen does not explicitly make this point, it clearly follows from his analysis that Pompeii cannot have been a very attractive destination for migrants.
While Mouritsen based his picture on Pompeian epigraphy and did not really consider the town’s archaeology, archaeologists have been equally happy to embrace Wallace-Hadrill’s model and approach trade and industry with the central role of the elite in mind. Important in this respect is the work of Damian Robinson, who discussed, in a 2005 article, the organization of trade and industry in Pompeii. Robinson focused on three industries – the textile industry, the baking industry, and the hospitality industry, and sees, in each of these a substantial role for the city’s upper class – in the sense that shops and workshops were integrated into or directly attached to elite houses. He then goes on to suggest that the real involvement of the upper class would have been higher still as they would also have had properties not directly attached to their own house elsewhere in town. Robinson, however, rightly noticed that the Wallace-Hadrill paradigm has unduly marginalised the role of independent commercialists, and he observes that a considerable proportion of the town’s economic activity was not in the hands of the elite, but in the hands of more everyday people. Yet, as the rhetorical focus of his paper is strongly on the role of the elite, his analysis does not really present a picture in which these ‘independent commercialists’ seem to have had massive economic opportunities – let alone migrants.
In a way, all of the above makes sense, and it is easy to find examples in support of a model in which Pompeii had an economy driven by local elites which played an active role in the commercial establishments attached to their houses. The question is not whether this picture is correct because to some extent it is a credible picture of Pompeian society. The question is, however, to which extent it is the full picture. Even if one assumes that a significant proportion of the Pompeian economy was organized in atrium houses and through elites and their direct social dependents, this does not exclude that there were other scenarios as well, and the existence of these scenarios can have a huge impact on the attractiveness of Pompeii for migrants – even if they only make up a proportionally rather limited part of the total economy.
If we look at the Pompeian market for jobs, there is the obvious problem that the archaeology does not tell us the really crucial thing – which is to which degree Pompeian shops and workshops needed people on a regular basis. I am assuming that they did, though, and especially if Cameron Hawkins is right in his idea that urban craftsmen and traders had to deal with sharply fluctuating and unpredictable demand, this will also have had an effect on the extent to which they needed people to help them meet demand. The best strategy in an unstable market would be to keep regular staff at a minimum and hire people when they needed them. These people would not need to be highly skilled – many of the tasks they could perform in shops and workshops were easy and they would be surrounded by people who knew the tricks of the trade. You do not need extensive training to be able to shape loaves of bread in a bakery, or to trample clothes in a fullery. Yet even for more structural ‘jobs’ it is not hard to envisage at least some demand – for instance people that died or left a shop would need to be replaced, and if workshops would enhance their capacity they would also need more manpower.
The latter is an aspect that was long overlooked, but recent studies of workshops by Monteix, Borgard and myself have made clear that actually many of the workshops in Pompeii were not built in one go but were built and then extended one or sometimes several times. An interesting example is this bakery, which originally had just two mills, but had two more mills added during two subsequent extensions, which also saw the kneading and bread shaping room enlarged and relocated to a different place in the house.
Another example is this fullery, which was built with four fulling stalls in the peristyle and subsequently extended with another three fulling stalls along the south wall of the portico. Such extensions clearly created vacancies for manpower that would need to be filled in.
If we assume there was at least some regular demand for labour at Pompeii, the next question is how this demand was met. Again, the archaeology does not tell you how free and independent shopkeepers and manufacturers were, when they needed people, to recruit them. There were undoubtedly cases in which an elite patron of a shopkeeper not only had a decisive say in who was hired, but also played an active role in the recruitment process and may have filled the vacancy from within his own network, thus withdrawing the ‘job’ from the market.
Such a scenario is perhaps especially likely when the patron had a clear interest in who was working where because he had social obligations towards certain people in his network, or because decisions by his dependents would have a direct impact on his social prestige. In general, patrons may have been more interested in structural positions than in short-term jobs. As far as prestige is concerned, this of course was clearly relevant when it came to shops and workshops directly surrounding the main entrance of an elite house, which were often visibly connected with the house through the architecture of the façade, and thus played a role in the social identity of the house-owner. The best example of such a situation is, of course, the House of the Faun, where the tufa façade connects the five shops around the two entrances of the house. If the owners of this house cared about their social status, they will have had clear ideas about what they did and did not want.
Yet, such scenarios should not be over-emphasized. Eye-catching though houses like the House of the Faun, or the Insula Arriana Polliana are, if you look at the total body of shops and workshops, they present a rather small minority. Many shops and workshops in fact belonged to much smaller complexes – the standard, throughout Pompeii’s history, is that of an atrium house with two shops, such as here, along the Via Consolare. The important thing to note is that these medium-sized houses with 10-15 rooms on the ground floor and a surface of 200-400 square meters generally seem to have been independent: they are tailored to the specific tastes and needs of their inhabitants, and have independent histories. They were, in all probability, in general, owner-occupied. Yet, their owners were no big players in the urban community, nor did they necessarily have access to the stock of slaves and freedmen needed to always be able to fill and refill the tabernae – even if they wanted to exercise control over what happened in the tabernae around their house’s entrance, they may not always have been able to. Moreover, many of the Pompeian workshops were situated in houses of this size, and the owner-occupiers of these houses simply may not have had the cash to instantly buy a slave on the slave market when some vacancy needed to be filled in. This created vast possibilities for outsiders on the labour market.
Moreover, there also were tabernae that were not related to atrium houses at all but were part of some other type of property. Pompeii’s three major public bath complexes, for instance, had rows of tabernae between their core buildings and the street – most spectacularly in the case of the Forum baths, which had tabernae on three sides, but also in the case of the Stabian Baths and the Central Baths. The macellum was equally surrounded on two sides by rows of tabernae. These complexes may have been rented out by the local government, and while elite networks may have played a role to some extent, the shopkeepers were, in everyday business, much less dependent on them.
Further, throughout the city, there were independent rows of tabernae. Best known is the north side of insula VII 12, which had a row of seven independent tabernae which you can see here, but there are several other examples. The fact that these shops were not physically or visually related to the house of the owner of the property has two important consequences that are likely to have had an impact on the degree of independence shopkeepers had to recruit their own people:
- First, control over the taberna was less urgent, as what happened in these tabernae did not affect the personal image of the owner too directly – one could not immediately see to who the complex belonged.
- Second, control was more difficult, as one would physically need to go to the place to oversee what happened in the tabernae. This is something that one may do frequently, but not necessarily continuously.
So if people in these tabernae needed to fill a vacancy, the question really is how interested the owner of the property would be to help them out unless he would have somebody to offer.
Last but not least, it is important not to forget the communication situation in the cities of Roman Italy: tabernae had wide openings and thus, in principle, an open relation with public space. Moreover, while their openings could be closed off by wooden shutters, they needed to have them open during working hours because they did not have any other source of light. A considerable part of everyday economic life in Pompeii was thus not only visible and audibile, but also directly accessible to outsiders. There was a low communication threshold, which means that information about job opportunities would be able to spread relatively easily through the city, and that people in search for jobs would be able to find possible vacancies without much trouble. Thus, all in all, though it is incredibly hard to quantify this, there are, outside elite circles, perhaps more labor possibilities for outsiders than past literature suggested.
When it comes to business opportunities, the landscape is off course roughly similar in the sense that we are dealing with the same kinds of buildings and units that we have just seen. The question though is slightly different as the issue is now how easy it would be for ‘outsiders’ to conquer their own permanent place in the commercial landscape of the city. Of course, this does not necessarily need to be something that is directly relevant for migrants on the day they enter the city, but I would say that the prospects of eventually – that is after a shorter or longer period of time – starting one’s own business were a determining factor in the attractiveness of Pompeii as a destination for migrants. One scenario would be that migrants ended up in patronage networks of the elite and at some point were given the possibility to start their own business, yet this would not only cost much time in building up network ties, but migrants would also face strong competition from other network members with closer ties to the ones making the decisions – especially slaves and freedmen. The more interesting scenario is the one in which migrants, with the help of some capital, or some investor, found a shop to rent on the free rental market – and whether there is evidence that such an open rental market existed.
CIL IV, 138 (VI 6)
Insula Arriana | Polliana Gn Alleii Nigidi Mai | locantur ex K Iulis primis tabernae | cum pergulis suis et coenacula | equestria et domus conductor convenito Primum Gn Allei | Nigidi Mai ser
CIL IV, 1136 (II 2)
In praedis Iuliae Sp f Felicis | locantur | balneum Venerium et nongentum tabernae pergulae | cenacula ex Idibus Aug primis in Aug sextas annos continuos quinque
As I briefly mentioned above, Mouritsen has recently cast doubt on the scale of this ‘free’ rental market and has suggested that the two famous letting notices for Pompeii actually were not aimed at individual renters, but at subcontractors who would handle the economic exploitation of the property and then would fill them with their own dependents. There is two arguments against this. In the first place, Mouritsen’s interpretation of the letting notices is debatable, as I think it is based on a rather peculiar reading of the evidence – which I am going to discuss in a minute. Secondly, and more importantly, it is important to note that these notices do not cover the whole width of the rental market for commercial properties.
There are several problems with Mouritsen’s reading of these two texts. In the first place, Mouritsen seems overly deterministic in his reconstruction of what these texts actually say. Neither of these text implies that the units on offer had to be rented together. The main reason why Mouritsen thought this was the fact that they came on the market at exactly the same moment, which, he assumes, indicates that they had been rented out for a fixed term to one entrepreneur in the preceding period. Yet, the question is whether there was a preceding period: one rather obvious possible reason that these apartments may be available in large numbers at the same time is that they were all empty because they had just been refurbished or because the entire complex had just changed ownership. In AD 79 Pompeii, with all the reconstruction works going on throughout the town and the presumed instability of occupation related to ongoing seismic activity, this is a very serious possibility.
The second argument behind Mouritsen’s interpretation is the idea that the apartments in the Praedia Iulia Felicis were all rented out for a period of precisely five years, which was something that could not have applied to each of the individual humble dwellings advertised, but only to the property as a whole. However, this, arguably, is misreading an offer for a contract. These texts were no juridical texts: they announced the availability of rental property, and they were a starting point for further negotiations. For instance, no prices are mentioned. Rather than a standard rental period, the five years mentioned may be seen as something that was on offer: you could immediately rent for up to five years. This indeed may be a relatively long period, and the fact that it was so explicitly advertised might tell us something about the situation on the Pompeian property market in the years preceding the earthquake – for instance, that property was widely available and had to be advertised relatively aggressively – by offering the possibility to claim it, directly, for a long time.
Yet, thirdly, and most importantly, Mouritsen completely overlooks the communicative setting in which these texts were produced. They were painted on the outer walls of the property and were clearly aimed at passers-by, who would see these texts and then might ask for further information. The really crucial question is whether this is a useful strategy if you are looking for just one person who will rent the entire property. My answer to that question would be firmly negative: if you are looking for an entrepreneur to manage the entire complex, the façade is not the place to advertise it in this way – as the only result would be that you would need to turn down many prospective tenants. Rather, you paint an advertisement on your façade because you have a couple of units available that are rented independently of one another to private individuals.
So if we reject Mouritsens interpretation and read, like most scholars have done before, the letting notices as evidence for more-or-less open market letting to outsiders, the implication is that there was an open market for commercial space – at the very least in the form of the tabernae in front of the Insula Arriana Polliana. This brings us to the second problem with Mouritsens idea that there was not really a free rental market for commercial space: the Insula Arriana Polliana and the Praedia Iulia Felicis are, as has been argued above, relatively a-typical within the entire spectrum of Pompeian commercial space. Even a very restrictive reading of the letting notices such as Mouritsen’s would not necessarily have implications for all the smaller houses in the city, for the tabernae attached to public buildings, or for the independent rows of tabernae. Indeed, the fact that the only written evidence for letting tabernae out on the open market comes precisely from the group of buildings for which it relatively was – for the reasons I discussed earlier – a less likely scenario suggests that it was a far more common than Mouritsen suspects. Mouritsen’s observation about the scarcity of letting notices is not an argument: especially in the case of unoccupied tabernae, letting notices could easily have been written on the wooden shutters – which have not been preserved.
One group of units for which ‘open’ letting out, despite private ownership, may have been particularly common is made up by the tabernae in independent tabernae buildings. These buildings were, from the second century BC onwards, built throughout Pompeii, and the – in my eyes – most likely scenario for their construction is that they were realized by an investor, who bought the ground, built the property and then let the individual units out. While it is not to be excluded that he manned the shops with his own dependents, there is something to say for a scenario in which they would be rented out through the market: especially the larger complexes may have been too large to be filled entirely through the closer personal networks. As these complexes became more numerous in the first century AD, the rental market also may have grown, and it may have become easier for outsiders to find commercial property on the open market.
To conclude, the obvious platitude is that the evidence is slim and you can go several directions with it, but what I hope to have shown is that, in general a city like Pompeii would, under normal circumstances, have been able to absorb a certain number of immigrants each year. It is, of course, completely impossible to quantify this, but regionally, it may, during the first centuries BC and AD, have been one of the more attractive destinations for migrants.
This may have been even stronger the case in the last decades of the town’s existence. It is highly likely that after the seismic events of the early 60s AD property prices fell and occupancy rates dropped – at least temporarily. Some properties were permanently abandoned, and some people indeed seem to have left Pompeii. Not all houses were immediately rebuilt after an earthquake, but large complexes that were refurbished or those that changed hands would have sought tenants and quite a lot at one moment. Rather than filling them from their own dependents, proprietors may have resorted to the market. While I would not want to go back to Maiuri’s picture of a town in decline, it may be useful to see the letting notices on the wells of the Insula Arianna Polliana and the Praedia Iuliae Felicis in this context of an urban property market in flux, in which, compared to earlier periods, lots of commercial properties had become available for rent in a relatively short time span. This also made the labour market more open to outsiders and made Pompeii, perhaps paradoxically, given the seismic turmoil, a rather attractive destination for migrants.
More structurally and in general, one could argue that the Pompeian evidence could possibly connect well with the idea that at least some of the migration was stepwise, though admittedly, more work would need to be done to develop this argument further.
This working paper was presented at the 'Moving Romans'-conference at Leiden University, on June 1st, 2012.
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