What did people do for a living in Ancient Rome?
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Roman Economy

olive pressing
a mosaic of farmers (probably enslaved)
pressing olives to make olive oil

April 2017 - Most people in the Roman world were farmers. Some of the people who worked on farms were slaves, but most of them were free. They grew wheat and barley and olives and grapes and apples, figs, onions and celery. Mostly they sold what they grew in markets in the towns, and bought food in the market to eat, as most farmers do today. And they paid taxes, as farmers do today. Roman farmers paid their taxes partly in money and partly in food.

Roman glass
Roman glass bowl

With the money they got from selling their crops, these Roman farmers also bought clothes and furniture and tools. They bought flip-flops and baskets, clothes, glass drinking cups, pottery dishes, and animals to sacrifice to the gods.

Roman coins
Roman bronze coins

A lot of these farmers lived in small villages or on isolated farms, but a lot of them also lived in bigger towns, and walked out to their fields every day. In villages, people mostly lived in mud-brick apartment buildings with courtyards, and they did their cooking on braziers in the courtyards. People who lived in town often lived in small apartments, with no courtyards, and didn't have kitchens, so they bought most of their food from street vendors or in fast food restaurants.

Rich people and their slaves also lived in the towns. Some of these rich people owned a lot of land, and rented it out to poorer farmers, or made their slaves farm it. Some of the rich people ran businesses, making clothes or tools in factories. Some poorer men in the towns taught school, or were doctors, or carried water, or ran bakeries, or begged. Women in the towns sold things in stores, or worked as wet-nurses or waitresses, or begged. Women didn't generally teach school in ancient Rome, but many women worked at home or in big spinning, knitting, and weaving factories, making clothes for rich people to sell. Many of these people working in towns were also enslaved.

amphora
a Roman amphora,
used as a shipping container

Roman people didn't have to just buy things that were made locally. Traders sailed across the Mediterranean Sea bringing papyrus from Egypt, glass from Phoenicia, steel sewing needles from Syria, pork sausage and salt from Austria, tin from England, fish sauce and cooking pots and dishes from North Africa, and olive oil from Spain. Even ordinary farmers could afford a lot of these things.

Some traders went even further, into the Indian Ocean or across West Asia, and traded with people in India or in West Asia to get Indian cotton, pepper, cinnamon and medicines, and even silk that came all the way from China. But these things were expensive, and only rich people could afford them.

Learn by doing: grow an herb garden
More about farming

Bibliography and further reading about the Roman economy:

Medieval economy
Silk Road
Islamic Economy
Ancient Rome
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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