Labor in the Ancient World – Summary

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.
Bertrand Russell-Ch. 1: In Praise of Idleness

I was able to get my hands on a copy of Labor in the Ancient World, the last in a series of five colloquia published by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University edited by economics professor Michael Hudson. What follows is a brief summary of some of the major themes and takeaways that I thought stood out.

One of the recurring themes in the book is that the concept of work as a “disutility”—that people are inherently lazy and will not lift a finger unless compelled to do so by either the threat of bodily harm and/or starvation on the one hand, and necessity of remunerative reward on the other (i.e. the carrot and the stick)—is pure hokum. This is entirely a fabrication of the modern pseudoscience of economics which is designed to make human behavior subject to mathematical modelling, but it has no basis in actual reality:

In the late 19th century neoclassical economics transformed the subject into “the Calculus of Pain and Pleasure,” by introducing the concept of utility, and creating a theory based on the assumption that each individual aims to maximize their own utility. By introducing a mathematical component, the new theory offers… “a basis for distributing income that is independent of political decisions or moral judgments.” The discussions about class struggle and distribution of wealth, which previously dominated the economics debate, became obsolete. Ever since, the mathematical component has become the norm in mainstream economics.

Rigged: How Mainstream Economics Failed Us All (The Minskys)

Cultures without an official government or any coercive apparatus are able to build large monuments as an expression of their shared culture, as we saw. This ranges from the Ahu of Easter Island, to the marae of Tahiti, to the henges of Northern Europe, to the temples of Malta, to the living megalithic tradition of Borneo. In addition, the spectacular works of art from the Ice Age, from rock art to bone carvings, testify to what Thorstein Veblen called “the instinct of workmanship.” Rather than inherently lazy, people are inherently active. The difference is that people do not wish to do work that is boring, dangerous, or repetitive, at times and places and for durations not of their own choosing.

We know from recent psychological studies that intrinsic motivation for work requires three major components: mastery, autonomy and purpose. People have, quite literally, always “worked,” they just didn’t have “jobs.” People work for a complex variety of reasons that don’t simply boil down to simplistic mental calculations of pleasure and pain, as this post points out:

Work itself can have an intrinsic motivation. Work is such a key part of who we are that when people introduce themselves they usually state their occupation directly after their name as part of their identity (“I am a . . .”). People want to have a skill in life and to achieve something. For many people, work can provide this sense of achievement. Throughout my career I have seen a lot of hard workers, even in jobs that weren’t glamorous or well paid (some weren’t even paid). There is an urge among most people to do a good job, regardless of how much money they’re getting. After all, why do I write this blog? I’m not getting paid or any other benefit. Nor is it easy, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you how many hours I put into this blog post. I write it because I love writing and I’m proud of the end result (well, most of the time).

Even if we didn’t need money, people would still work. It defines us, gives us meaning, a sense of achievement and something to be proud of. Money alone can’t motivate people if they have no control over their job or feel that it serves no purpose. The evidence shows that it can often make things worse.

What Motivates People to Work? (Whistling in the Wind)

Indeed, we must distinguish between labor and compulsory labor. The presence of large stone monuments and other earthworks long before anything like literate, urban civilizations–in the case of Gobecki Tepe, even before plant domestication–testify to the fact that labor could not have been coerced. Nevertheless, there were certainly individuals who used “extra-institutional” means and “free-floating power” to influence communities and organize labor, especially via religion.

We also saw that a work feast was the principle way of marshaling collective labor in ancient times–not wages or threats of punishment. As someone who has helped many people move over the years, I can testify that beer and pizza are still a potent way to marshal voluntary labor even our own time. As Michael Hudson describes:

“By the time written records appear in the third millennium BC, labor had long been mobilized for large building projects that must have involved entire communities. From the early Neolithic through the Bronze Age, this mobilization was organized on different principles from those of the modern world. In view of the ever-present option of flight, it must have been on a voluntary basis. Members of the community were self-supporting on the land, not obliged to compete to find work.”

“Also, the most archaic employment of labor could not have been based on barter or market sales of crops or handicrafts, because (apart from working to produce its one subsistence) labor initially was organized to construct public ceremonial sites and buildings, irrigation works, and to serve in the military. No exchange value was initially involved. And when free labor did come to be organized for commercial purposes, the process was initiated mainly by chieftains, temple and palace officials, whose fortunes merged in a symbiotic relationship with these large institutions.” [LAW: 650]…Being organized communally…the ‘output’ of labor was not marketable or had exchange value. The work produced social value, creating ceremonial building, city walls, irrigation systems and roads as ‘social capital.’ Hence, modern supply and demand curves for labor and its remuneration based on the market value of its output are not relevant.

Several major themes emerge in the papers of the book, which I summarize as follows:

1. Corvee labor appears to have been the first tax, and was based on land tenure. Corvée is defined as:

“unpaid, unskilled manual labor extracted in lieu of taxation in the form of money or goods…it generally entailed involuntary service and normally involved a great mass of people from a given locality.”

Corvée was related to land tenure – in order to farm a given piece of land, one needed to supply labor to the larger community. This could have been anything from irrigation works, to temples to city walls. Military service was also a part of this. Labor conscription was timed so as not to interfere with the harvest.

Property rights–at least regarding land– were based on reciprocal obligations to the community from the very start. Thus, there is no inherent “natural” right to private property without corresponding social obligations. That concept began in England with John Locke, and was used as the philosophical basis for the Enclosure Movement.

A common theme of…this volume is that supplying labor was the prototypical ‘tax’ obligation, leading land tenure to be defined in fiscal terms. ‘The man responsible for the tax was the ‘owner’ as far as the state was concerned. Property ‘belonged’ to its holders in the sense of having the right to administer it in order to meet public obligations. This is the reverse of Locke’s justifying land ownership by the labor that landlords put into the land by clearing and improving it…Land rights were linked to the holder’s obligation to supply corvée labor for [public works], as well as for the military. [LAW: 652]

Instead of outright ownership of the land by individuals and families, land appears to have been distributed by usufruct in many traditional cultures – one had the right to the use of the fruits of the land, but it was not alienable; it still nominally belonged to the entire community. These topics are covered in more detail in their previous volume, Urbanization and Land Use in the Ancient Near East. Usufruct is defined by Wikipedia this way:

The holder of a usufruct, known as a usufructuary, has the right to use (usus) the property and enjoy its fruits (fructus). Fruits refers to any renewable commodity on the property, including (among others) actual fruits, livestock and even rental payments derived from the property. Unlike the owner, the usufructuary did not have a right of alienation (abusus), but he could sell or lease his usufructory interest.

…In indigenous cultures, usufruct means the land is owned in common by the people, but families and individuals have the right to use certain plots of land. Land is considered village or communal land rather than owned by individual people. While people can take fruits of the land, they may not sell or abuse it in ways that stop future use of the land by the community. The oldest examples of usufruct are found in the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses directed property owners not to harvest the edges of their fields, and reserved the gleanings for the poor.

Land ownership in many Near Eastern cultures appears to have been superficially similar to the Iroquois/Huron system of ownership, which is typical of many traditional cultures that also do not recognize the alienability of land by solitary individuals, or it’s absolute status as “private property:”

The Iroquois had an essentially communal system of land ownership. The French Catholic missionary Gabriel Sagard described the fundamentals. The Huron had “as much land as they need[ed].” As a result, the Huron could give families their own land and still have a large amount of excess land owned communally. Any Huron was free to clear the land and farm on the basis of usufruct. He maintained possession of the land as long as he continued to actively cultivate and tend the fields. Once he abandoned the land, it reverted to communal ownership, and anyone could take it up for themselves…

The Iroquois had a similar communal system of land distribution. The tribe owned all lands but gave out tracts to the different clans for further distribution among households for cultivation. The land would be redistributed among the households every few years, and a clan could request a redistribution of tracts when the Clan Mothers’ Council gathered…

Economy of the Iroquois (Wikipedia)

As a matrilineal society, women’s councils (Clan Mothers) made the decisions regarding land use and redistribution in Iroquois society. In Mesopotamia, this role was performed by the temples; in Egypt all land was nominally owned by the Pharaoh’s household. Corvée duty in exchange for land tenure appears to have been remarkably common in cultures around the globe, enough for us to say that it was the “original” tax:

Outside the ancient Near East corvée was practiced–to offer just two examples–among the Incas and in ancient China. The Inca corvée, called mit’a, “turn” or “season” was a community service of specific duration (up to ten months per year) used for public projects such as the construction of roads and monumental architecture. All able-bodied citizens were required to perform it. Like the Mesopotamian corvée, the mit’a obligation extended to military service…one month of Chinese corvée was due from all free male citizens between the ages of twenty-two and sixty-five. This labor was in addition to two years of obligatory military service. ‘It was also possible in certain circumstances to pay for a substitute to perform the work.’

Wikipedia adds:

The obligation for tenant farmers to perform corvée work for landlords on private landed estates has been widespread throughout history. The term is most typically used in reference to medieval and early modern Europe, where work was often expected by a feudal landowner (of their vassals), or by a monarch of their subjects. However, the application of the term is not limited to that time or place; corvée has existed in modern and ancient Egypt, ancient Israel under Solomon, ancient Rome, China and Japan, everywhere in continental Europe, the Incan civilization, Haiti under Henri Christophe and under American occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), and Portugal’s African colonies until the mid-1960s. Forms of statute labour officially existed until the early twentieth century in Canada and the United States.

Piotr Steinkeller speculates that the first instance of regular corvée labor may have been necessitated by the need to maintain irrigation works:

I submit that the beginnings of the corvee coincided with the introduction of irrigation-based agriculture on the alluvium, which must have happened sometime during the Obeid period. This suggestion will probably raise some brows, since there has been a tendency lately to downplay the role of irrigation works and their social dimensions in the growth of Mesopotamian urbanism…the growth of Mesopotamian civilization was predicated on the presence of large-scale irrigation networks, which, as the need for surpluses steadily increased due to population growth and various other societal pressures, became progressively more and more extensive and complex. An obvious consequence of these processes was the development of ever more efficient and centralized instruments of control, which were necessary to ensure the coordination and smooth running of all the component parts of the system.

All these facts argue strongly that organized collective labor existed in Mesopotamia already during the Obeid period, and that its ‘invention’ was directly connected with the appearance of extensive irrigation networks. It is impossible to say which of them came first. In all probability these two phenomena developed more or lass concurrently, with the needs of agriculture dictating the use of labor force [sic] above that of a single family, and with the availability of labor so created enabling further expansion of the irrigation works. This spiral process led to the formation of village clusters based on a shared irrigation system and subordinated to a single agency of control, eventually resulting in the appearance of urban centers and city-states.

Which leads to the next point:

2. The coordination and management of labor required the birth of a managerial class. This managerial class became ever-more sophisticated as civilizations became denser and more urbanized. Chiefs and Big Men organized labor, later with the help of scribes and bureaucrats attached to their households who were often remunerated with grants of land in exchange for their services:

“One of the byproducts of the Neolithic monument building was…a managerial class. This role originally would have been played by chieftains as calendar keepers and organizers, dealing with outsiders, and centralizing some forms of specialized labor in their own households. Already by Pre-Pottery Neolithic B these men ‘held religious authority that legitimized their right to rule’.”

“…’Supernatural sanction, confirmed and certified by specialist practitioners, offered not only the legitimacy of rule, but the structure of order within the earliest villages.’ Social status was sanctified by authority centered on the individuals responsible for allocating resources, organizing rituals and mobilizing labor for building monuments and temples and other public works. Authorities ‘presided over ritual centers, the nascent forms of the later temples that became the focus of centralized political and economic power.’”

This association of elites with ritual centers became the nucleus for the urban/commercial centers of later cultures. Cities grew up around ritual centers–a concept explored in more detail in the Urbanization and Land Use volume.

We have seen that redistribution involves symmetry and centricity, and these two concepts determined the nature of city-states. We can think of these as sort of centrifugal and centripetal forces. The hubs in this scheme were the temples and palaces, and they became the centers of wealth. This made temples and ceremonial centers ‘scale up’ to become cities, and it was here where redistributive chiefs evolved into kings and rulers. These cities established symmetrical relationships between the city and the countryside, such that everyone was able to obtain what they needed. Market exchange appears to have played a marginal role in ancient cultures. The Urbanization volume tells us that alienable land (buying and selling real estate) began in the cities first, and that rural land was more, not less, valuable than urban, unlike today. In the countryside, land plots were occasionally sold, but for the most part was passed down through generations. Usufruct rights could be temporarily surrendered through debt, however.

It appears that one of the major purposes of the city state model in ancient Mesopotamian culture was to distribute the products of diverse ecosystems throughout the group. So, for example, a fishing village might give up surplus fish, and a farming village might give up surplus grain, and each received the surplus goods of the other in return. Thus, a core purpose of centralized locations such was to aggregate the produce from different ecological zones, as described by Professor Steinkeller:

As I would define it, the “temple state” was an integrating organizational scheme that brought together economic resources and social groups distributed among different ecological zones. It is clear that already in the Pre-Sargonic period rural populations of southern city-states were fully incorporated into the state economy This was true, as well, of individuals residing in and exploiting the most marginal ecological niches.

To make clearer what I have in mind, let me present, by way of illustration, a description of the so-called “vertical” economy of Andean societies under Inka domination, which, in my opinion, offers an instructive parallel to the southern Babylonian situation.

In the Andean economy, each community was divided into three of more groups, which were distributed among different ecological zones. To take the community of Chupaychu as an example, at 3,200 meters was the center or mother village of Chupaychu, where the ceremonial, political, and religious sites of the community were located and where the nucleus of the population lived and grew maize and tubers. In Puna, at 4,000 meters, small groups extracted salt and were engaged in the large-scale breeding of llamas and alpacas. In the Montana, a zone situated several hundred meters above the Amazon, some other families cultivated cotton and were engaged additionally in the collection of timber and coca leaves. In this arrangement, members of each group, though permanently domiciled in the ecological zone they were exploiting, retained all rights to fields belonging to the central village. In this way, each society formed a string of ecological and economic islands scattered around a center.

I would argue that the southern Babylonian city-states showed a similar type of organization, in which segments of a community, permanently domiciled among various ecological zones, at the same time retained full rights to fields and other resources belonging to the mother community. This is precisely the situation…in the city-state of Girsu/Lagash in the Pre-Sargonic period (and later, in Ur III times). There the “marginal” professional groups like sea-fishermen, salt-collectors, and foresters, though residing deep in the countryside, were regularly granted subsistence fields and other forms of alimentation by the temple estates with which they were institutionally associated. Because of this, the economy of Girsu/Lagash and other southern city-states could be described…as “horizontal” or, perhaps more aptly, as “cross-ecological.” [UAW: 291-293]

With the rise of writing as an information-processing technology, managers acquired considerable control over surplus labor and resources. Such ‘capital allocation’ appears to have been seen as having beneficial effect, allowing the “economy” to expand much more effectively that could have from isolated villages alone. These technologies began with tokens, and then proceeded to clay seals, “envelopes,” and finally to written clay tablets:

Managerial innovation was as important as material technology. Above all, writing was required for account keeping. Babylonian training exercised called for calculating the labor time and hence food needs (easily converted to silver value) for corvée labor to make bricks and construct walls, move earth and dig canals. From prehistoric Uruk to Ur III Babylonia we find a labor-time/dietary basis for economic planning by accountants calculating monthly food needs per worker, categorized by male, female, older and younger children.

Egyptian sources suggest that scribes were not from elite families. Their profession was independent from property owning. But their planning and writing functions helped support authority and economic control. In fact, only large complex institutions could have created the measures needed for market exchange to develop. Weights and measures, money and salaries had to be standardized, along with prices and remuneration rates, to schedule the flow of food and raw materials. [LAW: ]

3. Regular feasting was an essential feature of corvée labor. Work feasts go back to the very beginnings of human culture. As we saw earlier, feasting, and the debt/credit relationships engendered by them, may have kicked off the spiral of inequality in transegalitarian cultures and led to the emergence of the first Big men elites. We know that feasting was clearly done at ceremonial complexes such Stonehenge and Gobecki Tepe- evidence for such activities is plentiful. Whole villages may have been inhabited only at certain times of the year during such work times.

No doubt maintaining Neolithic practice, corvée activities had to attract and hold their participants. For Babylonia…rulers emphasiz[ed] their efforts to promote ‘public joy’ in corvée projects by invest[ing] such occasions with an atmosphere of feasting and plenty.’ This made the tasks ‘something closer to a prebend, an opportunity, a festival’ with the benefit of group membership and identity…what was being built was not just monuments and palaces but communal identity–a ceremonial expression of creativity–and great feasts and drinking parties when projects were completed…an Egyptian causeway scene [shows] ‘the completion of the king’s pyramid by the dragging and setting of the capstone (pyramidion) with a celebration of feasting, singing and dancing’ by the work crews, ‘perhaps a special feast out of many regular feasts we know so well from tomb and temple texts…We see racks of hanging meat, to be shared and consumed for the occasion.'[LAW: 652-653]

Indeed, the idea that the pyramids were built by unfree labor under whip-wielding overseers has long been debunked. These were skilled laborers in the employ of the Pharaoh, supplemented by the “musclepower” of the corvée, which was timed so as not to interfere with the harvest. Workers were given food and drink, and even medical care, by the authorities when called up. As Sir Leonard Wooley writes, “The building of the colossal tombs of the Egyptian kings was as much an act of faith as was the building of the great cathedrals of mediaeval Europe, and its object was not simply to minister to the vainglory of the ruler but to take out, as it were, an insurance policy for the country.” Which raises the next point:

4. There was a shortage, not a surplus, of labor in the ancient world. Most families were fairly self-sufficient in their daily needs. As Michael Hudson points out: “…the labor problem down through the Bronze Age was a shortage, not a modern ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ driven off the land. The organization of work to build basic infrastructure could not have been to coercive, because its participants would have run away. The corvee had to be organized with widespread assent.” As Piotr Steinkeller describes:

The fundamental difficulty of making free individuals to relinquish their labor [sic] is responsible for the fact that all ancient economies (and likewise modern underdeveloped economies of the Third World) were faced with a shortage of labor. This shortage was nearly always chronic, and often profound. A widely held view in economic history is that a shortage of labor resulting from a high land-to-population ratio (low population density) invariably led individuals to force others to work for them. Thus…economists have speculated that slavery and various forms of bondage (such as the sefdom of pre-modern Russia) invariably were adopted due to the shortage of labor vis-a-vis low population densities…In the context of bondage, the usual way of obtaining labor was debt-servitude, a pracice that is in use even today.

5. Slavery appears to have played a relatively minor role in the ancient Near East. Although commonly depicted as “slave states,” laboring under “Oriental Despotism” such ideas are outmoded. Most people worked either for themselves on family farms or in craft guilds, or for a salary-granting institution. Most war captives were killed or maimed, with only a few, mostly women, kept as slaves. These women were primarily domestic workers (and some must certainly have been sex workers). Women were no doubt easier to control due to their lower physical strength and aggressiveness. The ability to keep a large, hostile ethnic group in permanent subjugation was simply not present as this early stage, and flight was an ever-present option.

The major role of slaves appears to have been in domestic service. The only major industry to utilize large amounts of slave labor was mining–hazardous, dirty work where exposure to toxic substances meant premature death. Note that such techniques were used by Spanish conquistadors over Native Americans to obtain the precious metals that drove the Spanish money economy (co-opting the Inka mit’a system for their own purposes).

One common method of extracting labor from other human beings, which was widely practiced both in ancient and modern times, is enslavement. Slavery is by far the most economical way of obtaining labor, since it comes essentially free (except for the cost of acquiring a slave and the subsequent outlays to maintain and to police him), and since it makes labor available at all times. In addition, slavery is self-reproducing.

However, in the period before classical antiquity (Greece and Rome) slavery played only a marginal role in the economies of early states. Although slaves are documented in Mesopotamia and Egypt since the end of the fourth millennium B.C., their numbers were always small, and therefore this type of labor was never of much economic importance. In Mesopotamia slaves were predominantly those of the domestic of patrimonial variety. They usually worked as servants, and only rarely participated in productive labor or were trained as craftsmen.

[In Ur III Babylonia]…most of the foreign slaves…were women, who had been acquired by state institutions as part of foreign military operations…Although primarily employed as weavers and in grain processing, these females intermittently worked as agricultural workers as well, most commonly maintaining irrigation systems and assisting with the harvest. They also served as carriers and occasionally even as boat-towers…due to the absence in early states of security mechanisms allowing the utilization of large numbers of male slaves in productive labor, male prisoners of war were rarely turned into outright slaves. if they escaped slaughter–which was the usual method of dealing with them–they were blinded, and only then put to work, at certain specialized tasks. In Babylonia, such blinded captives usually worked in orchards as gardeners’ helpers, drawing water from the wells and irrigating fruit trees and vegetable plots.

Later, in the Classical World, money and debt servitude were adopted, but the clean slates were not brought along, and debt slavery expanded to huge proportions which threatened social stability and military security. Along with chattel slavery, debt slavery helped drive the plantation agricultural system of the late Roman empire (latifundia), which produced surplus export commodities for trade such as wine and olive oil.

These [debt] amnesties ended by Classical Antiquity. And the condition of slaves worsened as their role shifted from that of family members to being put to work in large-scale agricultural and handicraft production. In Athens slaves were foreign, and public labor was drudgery performed mainly by non-citizen metics. Dispossessed Roman citizens became mercenaries, fighting to extend the empire that had expropriated them for debt. Industry was associated with servile labor, mainly by the dependents forced into clientage on the estates of large landowners. ‘The very wages the laborer receives are a badge of slavery,’ wrote Cicero. By imperial Roman times a quarter of the population was reduced to debt bondage or slavery, ending up being housed in barracks on landed estates as economic life de-urbanized.”

Which leads to the next conclusion:

6. The major means of compelling unfree labor was debt. Indeed, unfree labor was of a piece; the Mesopotamian terms for ‘slave’ did not distinguish between debt and chattel slavery, although debt slaves were not considered “property” and could not be sold. Consider that with debt, no coercion is required, people will willingly work to pay of their debts out of their misguided sense of morality, as David Graeber pointed out in Debt: The First 5000 Years. In The Creation of Inequality, anthropologists Flannery and Marcus hypothesize that debt may have been the thing that caused rank-based societies to become stratified. In fact, the creditor and debtor classes may have been the very first classes in history to emerge!

Agrarian and personal usury became a major means to obtain labor services through debt bondage, and in time to pry away and rights. Local “big-men,” tamkarum merchants and palace collectors sought control of labor at the expense of central palace fiscal authority that sought to maintain land tenure rights/obligations as a means of assigning responsibility for providing corvee labor and service in the army.

7. Working for pay was marginal. Unlike today, where we need to sell out labor power to an employer willing to buy it as a condition of mere survival (unless you’re lucky enough to inherit wealth, that is), such exchanges in Mesopotamia were largely ad-hoc and voluntary, and did not constitute a true “labor market” in the modern sense of the term.

Well-to-do citizens could hire surrogates to perform their corvée duty–typically younger brothers or other relatives. Unlike manual labor for construction, handicraft work was typically remunerated on a piecework basis. Weavers worked at home, much like those in England before power looms were introduced. But by neo-Babylonian times, piecework labor by skilled craftsmen became more frequent, as did seasonal harvesting work.

It is clear that hired labor was predominantly used for unskilled tasks. the most common among those were harvesting, preparation of fields for cultivation, weeding, reed-collecting, irrigation works, transportation, and brick-making. However, there are also fairly frequent mentions of the hire of craftsmen, such as carpenters, reed-workers, leather-workers, felters, potters, and boat-caulkers.

How and from where was the hired labor obtained? … In the contexts of provincial economies, many of the hired workers were subordinates of temple households and other local organizations (such as the households of governors), who…were liable for corvée. After their corvée service was over, during the remaining part of the year, these individuals routinely hired themselves out for wages, most commonly, to the same institution they were associated with, and to which they owed their corvée.

The fact that during the Ur III period large numbers of free individuals regularly traded their labor for wages might perhaps suggest to some scholars that already at that early date their existed, in however rudimentary from, a “labor market.” Such a conclusion would be a gross simplification, however, since the Ur III hires were contracted for the most part within an institutional setting, with both wages and the mobility of hired workers being closely regulated and controlled by the state. Free agents they certainly were not…

Wages paid by the temples were not set by supply and demand, but on what was needed for survival–a minimum wage if you will. Initially, salaries were paid out directly in commodities, but later, as prices became standardized in the temples, wages were paid out in silver.

Third millennium temple and palace records show manual labor being paid at standardized rates, ranked by sex and age (and in time by occupation). The basis for most salaries was what adult men, women and children needed for basic sustenance. Schoolbook exercises calculated the food needed per worker, denominated in grain or bread equivalents directly convertible into standard weights of silver money. By Neo-Babylonian times such wages were paid directly in silver.

Ancient Pay Stub Shows Workers Were Paid In Beer (NPR)

Remuneration was done in three ways. For lower-strata “blue collar” workers, their remuneration came in the form of (1) a yearly (or monthly, weekly etc.) salary paid by the institution they were attached to, and (2) supplemental wages made by hiring themselves out to either institutional or private employers (what we might call “overtime” or “moonlighting”). For higher-ranking workers like administrative/managerial personnel (e.g. scribes), their remuneration came mainly in the form land allotments that their home institutions granted them in exchange for their services.

The first type – the wages—was commonly called še-ba, or “barley allotment,” with variations depending on what was given (e.g. siki-ba: “wool allotment, ì-ba: “sesame oil allotment’). These have typically been called “rations” in most history books about Mesopotamian society, but this is highly misleading, as Prof. Steinkeller elaborates:

In spite of its general acceptance and apparent usefulness…the word ‘ration’ is highly inappropriate as a description of še-ba, primarily because it misrepresents the social reality behind this phenomenon…The še-ba was a salary (monthly or yearly) that a given employee received from his home institution as a payment for services rendered, and not a form of organized alimentation…the amount of grain received as še-ba by individual worker families greatly exceeded their caloric needs, thus demonstrating that the allotment was actually consumed by a given family…Moreover, while še-ba is usually mentioned in connection with the lower-ranking employees, not infrequently it was given out also to administrators, scribes, messengers, elite soldiers, and various other individuals holding the status of free citizens. There are also instances where the employees usually compensated with land allotments are given še-ba instead. All these facts assure that še-ba was a form of salary or wages.

Another reason why še-ba is a bad translation…is the fact that, as universally understood, “rationing” denotes an artificial restriction of demand or consumption, an economic phenomenon that not only has nothing to do with the reality behind še-ba, but also one that taints negatively the nature of the relationship between the recipients of še-ba and the granting party. Because rationing by its very nature is restrictive–and therefore arbitrary and manipulative–that relationship unavoidably is perceived as an exploitive one. Neither applicable here is the nuance of “ration” as used in military contexts, since, unlike the še-ba, which was a regular form of compensation, military rations are issued ad-hoc to sustain soldiers on particular assignments of short (usually daily) duration.

And last but not least, the translations “rationing” and “ration” should be avoided for the simple reason that, outside of ancient Mespotamian studies (and to some extent Egyptology and Mycenaean studies), such terminological usage is practically unknown. Although similar forms of remuneration in kind existed in many other ancient civilizations, both in the Old and New Worlds, I could not find, in the pertinent historical and anthropological literature, any instances of the use of this terminology in reference to similar phenomena…In my view, the best rendering of še-ba and the related terms is “x allotment”.

It is important to note that translations of words are difficult, and have given us a distorted picture. When we translate words, we put them in the context of our own society, which distorts what those words meant to the people of the cultures who originally wrote them. This is a common theme in the Urbanization volume as well. As Prof. Ogden Goelet observes:

I think that even the most devoted scholar of ancient Egyptian grammar would admit when pressed that the single greatest impediment towards understanding most Egyptian texts lies not in our imperfect comprehension of their grammar, but rather our imperfect grasp of Egyptian vocabulary. By now it is a well-worn truism among Egyptologists that the Egyptians were intensely religious, yet had no word corresponding to our term “religion;” that they had a highly developed aesthetic sense, yet had no single word for “art;” that they ran a stable, complex, and highly bureaucratic society, yet had no equivalent to the term “the state.” The common theme behind all these observations is that we frequently fail to realize that the Egyptians might have viewed the world entirely differently from the way we do. Even common terms in our language like “town,” “city,” and even “temple” might not have precise equivalents among the Egyptians, because concepts such as these are often heavily dependent upon social constructions.

8. Elites often attempted to siphon off public labor for their own purposes. While labor obligations were owed to the temple and palace households as the proto-state, it was not uncommon for local elites and administrators to attempt to subvert official control and abuse both corvée labor and debt servitude for their own purposes. Local authorities used labor obligations to feather their own nests rather than for the public good. This trend became more pronounced during periods of central state weakness or breakdown:

Throughout history local authorities have sought to divert labor for their own purposes. Sometimes the central authority deters this power grabbing, as in England’s Star Chamber in the 16th and 17th centuries against aggressive local nobility. But the Bronze Age “Intermediate Periods” saw central power wane vis-a-vis that of local clan heads, chieftains and “big men.” Writing of Egypt’s first Intermediate period, Goelet finds that ‘the power of local elites apparently outweighed that of the monarch. The end result was that the status of mrt-laborers and other lower class individuals generally had declined from being serfs bound to the land to becoming purchasable chattel…Palaces remained dependent on local officials or contractors to supply labor, resulting in a political tug of war.

Assyriologists have found a similar reliance of Ur III and Babylonian rulers on local clan heads or lu-gal “big men” acting as contractors to supply labor and military support, especially in Mesopotamian “intermediate periods.”…as temple and palace activities were increasingly privatized in the hands of merchants and leasors of land or public enterprises, the resulting mixed economies had what today would be called a conflict between public and private interest.

This echoes a common theme in Hudson’s work – the breakdown of collective institutions, with their protections for the social order and debtors vis-a-vis creditors, and its replacement with the arbitrary rule of powerful individuals, did not typically result in an outpouring of “freedom” but it’s exact opposite—oppression, for most people. Note that this is the 180-degree opposite of the libertarian version of history heavily promoted by mainstream economics. Economic ideology is inherently biased against both labor and collective institutions in general, even while pretending to be an objective “science.” For example, we can see how well the rolling back of state protections has worked out for most people under Neoliberalism.

9. Labor to produce commodities for export was first organized by temples. Public institutions were essential for the first markets to develop. Prof. Hudson notes that the earliest public institutions were not debtors as in our own time (e.g. ‘national debt’), but rather creditors. Temples, as we saw, established price schedules to standardize tax levies, which eventually evolved into price schedules. They also undertook long-distance trading expeditions on behalf of the whole community.

In order to trade, one must have something to trade. Mesopotamia specialized in high-quality “value added” goods, and it is the employment of labor under the aegis of temples in the Industrial arts and crafts, that the idea of full-time dependent “employees” first takes place.

Southern Mesopotamia needed to trade to obtain metals and stone not found in local soils. Meeting this challenge required workshops to produce exports, mainly by dependent and proto-wage labor overseen by a temple or palace hierarchy, from foremen and scribe accountants to chief administrators. A merchant class was required to organize and conduct this trade, and also credit formalities to reimburse the large institutions for their advance of goods.

Skilled and specialized craft labor and technology were centered in temple and palace workshops but also worked “off the books,” evidently on a piecework basis for whoever could pay for their services. It seems that wives and daughters from the free community also earned money working at weaving or other handicrafts in addition to their household work on the land…Textiles were Mesopotamia’s major export and the employment of non-slave labor is best typified by the widows and war orphans assigned to weaving and other handicrafts in its temple and palace workshops. In contrast to the public infrastructure created by corvée labor, commodity production for trade aimed at gaining a monetary surplus by what today’s economists call profit centers.

Although they were only a small part of the labor force, skilled craftsmen required a broad range of collateral support activities to supply raw materials, schedule their deliveries, and provide tools. This large scale required management, oversight, account keeping and credit, and therefore was centered in the temples and palaces (and on large estates whose owners usually were associated with the temples (or the royal family).

Again, this squares with the idea that the first markets were not locals exchanging their goods and services for money, but were centered around long-distance trade for luxury items, as Carroll Quigley notes in The Evolution of Civilizations (although Quigley incorrectly emphasizes slavery in his account):

At least three times in history a society organized in small self-sufficient agricultural units has shifted to an urbanized commercial society by the growth of a demand for luxury goods of remote origin within the self-sufficient agricultural units. This occurred about 4000 B.C. in western Asia; it occurred after 900 B.C. in Classical antiquity; and it occurred after A.D. 1000 in Western civilization. Without a little thought on the subject we might be tempted to believe that a tradeless society consisting of self-sufficient agricultural units would begin to develop trade by the growth of local trade in necessities, but history and logic demonstrate quite clearly that the earliest commerce to appear in a tradeless society is in luxury goods of remote origin. There would be no possibility of any local trade in necessities among units that were self-sufficient in necessities. Only later, when remote trade in luxuries has given rise to urban concentration of commercial people who lack necessities, does such local trade develop. EoC: 290

Finally, I thought this post from Stack Exchange by Mark C. Wallace does a great job of explaining labor organization in ancient Rome, which is fairly typical for most agrarian societies prior to the Industrial Revolution:

The modern definition of unemployed is “having looked for work recently”. I’m not entirely sure that definition is appropriate for Rome. Modern Western Liberal Democracy is organized around the notion that “companies” provide employment, and that people seek employment. Unemployment results in a dramatic decline in economic and social status.

Although there were workshops in Rome, and there were teams that organized to perform tasks that no individual could, I’m not aware of anything that resembles the modern limited liability corporation. Roman politics and economics were based more on relationships than on companies. Romans belonged to a family, and to a tribe, and usually to some kind of patron/client relationship. Depending on their social class, they may have also belonged to one or more social organizations (e.g. burial society). If someone wanted to work, they would rely on these connections to find them employment. “Unemployment” didn’t really result in the kind of economic and social decline we find today because these social bonds provided a safety net. If for some reason you were isolated from your social network, that might be a definition similar to “unemployed”, but there were mechanisms (adoption, social organizations, etc.) that made the social networks fairly resilient.

…the proletariat lived off the dole. There was no real reason for them to look for work.

I believe, although I can’t check right now that the Aristocracy never worked; I believe the notion that work was unbecoming to the Aristocrat reaches back as far as Ancient Rome. Although they were never employed, they couldn’t be unemployed because they would never seek work. (Obligatory exception: The Aristocracy was obliged to engage in public service, including a number of civic offices).

Tradesmen looked for work, but they weren’t unemployed, they were just tradesmen looking for work. Technically, the self-employed can never be unemployed, it is just that their business is going through a slow spell.
Slaves never looked for work. Many were employed to perform tasks that were mere displays of wealth – for example some were chained to the doors of houses to act as gatekeepers.

Slavery also prevented unemployment in a different way; if for any reason your economic status declined precipitously, you could sell a relative, or ultimately yourself into slavery. You probably only wanted to do this if you had a marketable skill.

The ultimate bottom rung of the ladder was to be sold to a latifundum – a farm. I haven’t researched these very much, but my impression is that a slave on a latifundum may be the only historical example that is more horrifying than American chattel slavery.

How did ancient Rome deal with the unemployed? (History Stack Exchange)
What these ancient forms of organizing labor show us is that work does not need to be compelled by the threat of destitution, that “jobs’ are not required to keep society going, and that there are other means of organizing human labor besides the narrow options were are giving by economists.

5 thoughts on “Labor in the Ancient World – Summary

  1. I haven’t finished reading the whole post yet, but the idea that ‘feeding people beer and pizza for helping you move house’ is related (conceptually or spiritually or whatever) to ‘stone-age man hosting a feast to build a monument’ struck me as oddly beautiful and profound. In a ‘whoa dude, that’s deep’ sort of way, and I haven’t even smoked any weed…

  2. I keep thinking of that episode in Asterix. As I remember it, Roman slaves had no rights except the right to work. The Gauls take pity on the overworked slaves by giving them magic potion, which means they finish their work in a fraction of the allotted time. Having no work to do, the slaves then exercize their right to work, and go on strike.. :DD

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