Sarah E. Bond. Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 2016.
Grand narratives of history risk overlooking marginalized groups. Rescuing those groups from obscurity has become the goal of many academic endeavors. Yet, the mechanisms of modern capitalism work to conceal from view the laborers that make contemporary life livable, especially in cosmopolitan environments. Correspondingly, scholars of antiquity still frequently neglect to account for those individuals who were responsible for the minutiae of daily life. In Trade and Taboo, Sarah Bond attempts to fill this lacuna by investigating groups of tradesmen who “played varied, vital, and yet largely unnoticed roles within Roman communities” (p.4).
Scholars such as Catherine Edwards have established that certain professions, for example theater and sex work, conveyed upon their practitioners a legal and social label of shame: infamia. Bond chooses instead to look at, in her words, the “rather less ‘sexy’ trades of criers, funeral workers, tanners, mint workers, and bakers,” dedicating each chapter to one of these “unsexy” professions (p.8). Bond’s research reveals that a crucial factor connects apparently unrelated jobs. Although they were essential to the operation of Roman civic society, these professions carried with them a certain degree of disrepute. Her stated goal is to investigate the origins and eccentricities of this social stigma, as well as the impact such perceptions may have had on commercial associations.
Bond locates the roots of such stigmatization within “a number of fluid societal anxieties: social, religious, political, and economic” (p.176). The prevailing need for these services ensured both that trading in them remained a rather lucrative proposition and that the public would view them as somewhat opportunistic. In fact, Bond argues, it is in part because of the indispensability of these professions that they were so stigmatized. The lowbrow, servile nature of these labors disqualified members of the elite from practicing them, but the dependency of civic institutions and day-to-day well-being upon them brought great wealth and power to those within the trade. A dynamic emerges wherein social elites discursively lock these professions into a segregated, lower class while the tradesmen themselves turn to voluntary associations to assure that they can efficiently and profitably do their work. It is tempting to hand-wave away elite stigmas and social oppressions as elevated concerns over propriety or pollution. Bond refuses to do so, revealing instead the intricacies of the economic systems that produce status-based difference.
Readers familiar with Classics will recognize Bond’s methodology for its achingly assiduous gathering of evidence and philological rigor, incorporating literary and epigraphic evidence spanning from the late Roman Republic to the end of the reign of Justinian I in 565 CE. This timespan serves Bond’s desire to take a “longue durée” approach to her study, “in order to step back and view the shifts between the Republic and the later empire” (p.8). Perhaps as a result of this fertile chronological range, a distinct tension between the discourses of intellectual and social history emerges in Bond’s argument, an ambivalence thatremains throughout the length of the monograph. In the case of tanners, for instance, Bond concludes that despite a general disgust stemming from the pungency of their craft, “the stigmatization of tanners was largely a literary tool used to create an other-izing effect in comedy, political invective, and other forms of literature” (p.105). Being a tanner could make one the target of insults from the elite literati, but evidence from legal records suggests that tanners did not suffer codified discrimination. Funerary inscriptions that announce their subjects as tanners also imply that leather making could be seen as a rather respectable trade with which a man could be comfortable permanently associating himself. Helpfully, the book also includes a set of appendices that collate inscriptions by and about the tradesmen that Bond cites as evidence. As anyone who has had to chase down inscriptions in epigraphic collections knows, this is a blessing; the appendices do, however, assume knowledge of conventions of epigraphic scholarship such as abbreviations and textual markup.
Further reflecting her choice of expansive timespan, Bond attributes a significant role to Jews and Christians in the socio-economic conditions she delineates. This is most salient during her chapter on funeral workers, in which she attends to how differing attitudes between Romans and Jews toward death and pollution influenced not only funerary practices but also the status of funerary workers. As Bond herself says, her argument “[demonstrates] how alternate religious views had an impact on the status and role of funeral workers within these societies” (p.96). Roman funeral workers, she points out, were stigmatized for both coming into contact with corpses and purportedly profiting from death and misfortune. Evidence from the Jewish necropolis at Beth She’arim shows how Jewish funerary workers similarly “formed commercial associations dealing in the business of death” (pp.86-88). In contrast with Roman (non-Jewish) contexts, however, working in such a group did not earn a person disrepute. On the contrary, she says, “both the Old Testament [sic] and the evidence from Josephus indicate that the act [of burial] was a pious endeavor, one that was respected within the Jewish community—not stigmatized” (p.90). This attitude carries over to Christian communities and, through its adoption of Christian culture, to the wider empire.
Such social leniency did not extend to all tradesmen. In her conclusion, Bond briefly discusses how the post-Constantinian clergy, now made powerful by the social and economic favor of the curial upper class, began to exclude tradesmen from clerical positions, citing the very same prejudices that animated the Roman elite in past generations. “Increasingly, Church Fathers, councils, and even the emperor began to speak out against clerical engagement in business, and in their articulation of such anxieties, drew from both Christian ideas of worldly concerns, and, increasingly, traditional Roman literary arguments aimed at the evils of profit” (p.168).
With this book, Bond has produced an indispensible resource for those who wish to further investigate the social and economic dynamics of the later Christian and/or Rabbinic ruling class. The evidence and arguments contained within will open up various conversations regarding how the day-to-day operations of ancient Jewish and Christian communities impacted—and were impacted by—the laborers tasked with their urban maintenance. How did these trade taboos both shift and secure the socio-economic relationships between these tradesmen and the learned elite that depended upon them? Did this dynamic have a discernable effect on doctrine as these communities evolved?
Even the most ardent supporters of “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” may find themselves questioning why we, as historians, should careabout the ins and outs of these “dirty jobs.” Do the quotidian realities of antiquity hold any insights of historical “value?” Bond’s book, esoteric as its subject might seem at first glance, is a necessary contribution to our understanding of antique Judaism and Christianity. Trade and Taboo makes an important contribution to our understanding of how the quotidian systems of urban life intersect with the socio-economic anxieties of the privileged classes. Its investigation into the “unsexy” corners of antiquity reminds us that the margins extend much farther than we may at first realize. By considering the disrepute of these professions more closely, we can deepen our understanding of the intersections between faith, status, and economic class in antiquity and beyond.
 Catherine Edwards, “Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome,” in Roman Sexualities, edited by Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 66-95
Alexander D. Perkins is a Theology Ph.D. candidate in the field of Christianity in Antiquity at Fordham University. His dissertation, “Claiming Masculinity: Roman Ideologies of the Body and the Image of the Christian Man in Second and Third Century Christian Apologists,” investigates the appropriation of elite Roman ideologies of masculinity by the Early Christian upper class.