According to the conventions of stand-up comedy, there are certain professions that render a person worthy of mockery—being a lawyer, a banker, a politician, or a priest are all positions that can earn the scorn of others in society. For bankers, the satirical heat has been turned up since the financial crash of 2008, and for priests the horrifying sex scandals of the past thirty years fuel much of the cheap shots about pedophilia. Making fun of lawyers and politicians, however, has always been the norm.
But there’s a difference between following a career path that makes one the butt of jokes and playing a role that makes one a social pariah. Two thousand years ago the stakes were much higher: in addition to high-status professions that elicited ridicule there were low-status careers that marginalized a person so completely from society that they were barred entrance into the most leveling social club of them all: public cemeteries.
In her extraordinary book Trade and Taboo, University of Iowa professor Sarah Bond describes the way that participation in certain trades marginalized people from ancient society. The denigration of some of these careers might make sense to us (sex work is stigmatized to this day), but as it turns out many people performed important jobs in the ancient world and yet found themselves pushed to the fringes of society because of it.
Arguably the most easy to understand stigmatized profession was that of the funerary worker. The funerary trade was a vital part of the ancient economy, but the Romans believed that corpses were full of pollution; pollution that emanated from the bodies themselves meant that funeral workers were excluded from life in the ancient city. They worked at night and could not participate in religious rituals or perform sacrifices. A first century c.e. inscription from Puteoli in Southern Italy describes how there were restrictions on where those who buried the dead could live, when they were permitted to bathe, and the circumstances upon which they could enter the city. If they did enter the city walls they were required to wear distinctive caps in order to mark them as members of the ostracized group.
The obsession with death pollution can help explain why it was that praecones, crier-auctioneers (an auctioneer/town-crier hybrid), were also socially marginalized. Criers were a critical means of disseminating information in the largely illiterate ancient world, but the practice of selling one’s voice was stigmatized because of the frequency with which criers were tasked with announcing deaths and funerals. It seemed to people in the ancient world that criers were profiteering from events, and that led to them being viewed as a threat. The most tangible result of this was that criers were prevented from holding municipal office.
Sound was not the only sense that could be polluted. The sensitivities that surrounded smell meant that ancient tanners (leather workers) were ostracized. In order to soften the hides, tanners used noxious-smelling astringents (including urine). As a result, tanneries in Rome were often located outside of the city, in locations where the smell was less bothersome to the people of the city.
So far, this makes intuitive sense: very few of us want to live next to foul-smelling industrial plants. What’s interesting about it, though, is that while many things in the ancient world smelled atrocious, tanneries were especially singled out by ancient authors. Moreover, as geographically removed as the archeological evidence suggests tanners were, the literary evidence exaggerates the distance even further. What we can conclude from this is that the social stigmatization outstripped the physical reality. Tanners may have been physically pushed out of city centers, but they were socially forced into further exile.
Then there were the purveyors of luxury foodstuffs. The famed Roman orator Cicero wrote that professions that catered to voluptas (sensual pleasure) were the least respectable of all. Fishermen, cooks, bakers, and butchers were seen not only as debased but also as effeminate. The prejudice was so strongly ingrained in Roman society that they were excluded from the late antique Roman military. Over time, and because of their centrality to the continued success of the military (everyone needs bread, after all), bakers would rise up the social hierarchy. But for many the character and manliness of those engaged in the luxury food trades was eyed with suspicion.
This wasn’t an anxiety that dissipated with the fall of the Roman Empire. The fourteenth-century Tuscan nobleman Lapo da Castiglionchio was dismayed by the luxurious gastronomical treats of the Papal court and remarked upon the number of sausage-makers and gourmet food vendors who had taken up residence there.
While some professions were viewed with contempt because of attitudes towards dead bodies and financial profiteering, others were legally immobilized by the emperor precisely because of their importance to the state. Bond shows how Roman authorities restricted the social liberties of mint workers because their role in facilitating the dissemination of money was essential to the state. There were some perks to these jobs: in the later Roman empire mint workers were exempt from military service and, by the sixth century, actually became high status. But in the early empire controlling low-level workers was about controlling the empire.
It wasn’t only the Romans who stigmatized certain professions. Early Christians inherited their prejudices and viewed participation in certain trades as precluding a person from joining the movement. The Apostolic Tradition, a third-century text attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome, has its own list of unacceptable careers for prospective candidates for baptism. These include prostitute, brothel keeper, garment trimmers, gladiators, charioteers, artists, actors, soldiers, teachers, and politicians. The rationale for excluding these professions was largely that they were associated with idolatry, sexual immorality and violence, but they demonstrate our shifting sense of those career paths that are socially and religiously acceptable.
But this isn’t even about perceptions of sexual immorality; professional stigmatization in ancient Rome had legal and, thus, social repercussions. It was not only prostitutes who were shut out of the marriage market; the social taboos that surrounded working with the dead pushed funerary workers to the margins of the society. The disjuncture between economic interconnectivity and social affluence meant that people who performed vital tasks for the empire could be shuffled out of sight. They became socially and politically vulnerable, even though they were critically important to the social world that they served. Bond argues that shadows of Roman prejudice are long and that the social disrepute calcified by Roman law took centuries to dislodge.
Books like Bond’s force us to reassess both how we think about the social valuation of professions in general and, by extension, our willingness to accept the professional commodification of different kinds of bodies. We use the concept of selling one’s body almost exclusively to refer to sex workers. But it is positively Victorian to limit our concerns about the way that labor impacts people’s bodies and social status to only the use of a person’s genitalia. If our concern is to prevent exploitation (rather than merely stigmatize), then the physical and social health of miners, metal workers, and American football players should be of equal concern.