The Labor Market in Antiquity

… τῶν πεντακλίνων γράψω τὰ κυμάτια,
ἐμαυτῷ πάντα παρέχων, δραχμῶν γ.

…I’ll supply all the materials myself and paint
the little moldings in the room with the five
couches for three drachmas.

Zenon Papyrus (Cairo) 59445, c. 255 B.C.

The news has been filled lately with accounts of stormy relations between management and labor in a variety of industries. “Downsizing” of the corporation and the “leaning” of the American work force are fancy euphemisms for ugly practices that we all hear and read about in the news. But how deeply can those of us fortunate enough to have or have had good jobs appreciate the objective reality of a lost job — or a job never gained?
In these times of turbulent financial constraints, many institutions of higher learning and companies large and small seem overly fond of contract hiring. Against the backdrop of anxiety and uncertainty all over the American job market, it may prove interesting to consider some examples of contract hiring and labor relations in the ancient world.
Nonliterary documents and notices on recovered papyri throw some delightful as well as disturbing light on aspects of the ancient “job market.” These instruments do not figure among the great literary achievements of antiquity, and we don’t hear much about them; they were not composed for any larger purpose but the ephemeral if urgent one of dealing with jobs and labor.  They have come to light by chance in such disparate locations as village garbage dumps and mummy-wrappings. They often have the compelling immediacy of people’s lives on the go or subject to forces utterly beyond their personal control.
A certain woman, Didyma, for example, hires herself out in 13 B.C. (Egyptian Documents, Berlin Museum, Greek papyrus 1107) as wet nurse for a foundling child (παιδίον ἀναίρετον paidion anaireton); the contract stipulates that during the 16-month period of her employment she exercise due care of both herself and her charge, avoid intercourse and pregnancy, and not injure her milk in any way (μὴ φθείρουσαν τὸ γάλα mē phtheirousan to gala). Explicit provisions are spelled out for forfeiture of salary as well as assessment of punitive damages against her should she somehow fail to live up to her part of the bargain.
Isidora, the employer, in her turn agrees to a payment of monthly fees, plus a supply of oil, as long as Didyma’s job performance remains satisfactory.  Both parties are illiterate (γράμματα μὴ εἰδυίας grammata mē eiduias), so each is represented by her guardian brother in the formal filing of this labor contract.
From the early third century A.D., we have something straight out of the offices of Actors Equity. A certain individual subcontracts (Cornell papyrus 9) a castanet dancer (κροταλίστρια krotalistria) to hire two other women entertainers and do a six-day gig in his house for some kind of major blast. He’ll pay them a set amount of cash, some barley and 20 loaves of bread. He’ll also throw in a free roundtrip ticket, so to speak — by mule. The employer further agrees to safeguard any and all clothing and gold jewelry (χρυσᾶ κόσμια khrūsa kosmia) the women bring for the performances.
More sobering for our full understanding of what antiquity was all about — the grand literature and beautiful temples and high intellectualizing aside — is a contract (Zenon Papyrus [Cairo] 59003) for the sale in 259 B.C. by one Nicanor to a certain Zenon of a 7-year-old Babylonian slave girl (παιδίσκην Βαβυλώνιον paidiskēn Babylonion) named Sphragis (“seal mark”) for 50 drachmas to a problematic fate we don’t even want to guess at.

And in the year 129 A.D. (Oxyrynchus papyrus 95), a 25-year-old female slave named Dioskourous “with no physical markings” (ἀσήμου asēmou) is sold in a complex transaction involving some sort of “abstract” tracing a history of her former owners, sales taxes paid, and surety that she had neither epilepsy nor any property liens outstanding on her.
Today, although with seemingly ever increasing frequency media reports pop up about a modern sex-worker trade in some parts of the world (not entirely excluding our own), it is still difficult in the extreme for us — even with our own shameful and relatively recent history of slavery — to appreciate how pervasive and systematic the dependence on slaves and the trade in human beings was throughout all of antiquity.
That deracinated Babylonian girl child of 2,300 years ago — stripped forever of freedom and native name, stamped with the foreign seal of Greek, sold off like so much millet — stirs me in a way very strange and different from the poetry of Homer or a danseuse gracing a Corinthian vase. But it is clearly a healthy corrective never to forget forgettable little Sphragis, for she is an apt and (for me) powerfully moving emblem of nameless millions of wretched human beings, at varying levels of servitude, in her own and subsequent ages all the way up into 2011 who made and make possible so much else for so many others who have as well as have not a percipient awareness of their ubiquity — these horrors, too, offer a most cogent and forceful lesson that we should insist that classical antiquity make for us right along with all its intellectualizing “glory-that-was-Greece-and-grandeur-that-was-Rome” panache, however inadvertent that instruction.

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