It may seem strange that many people who the Romans would have admired, cheered on, and even rioted for would have had all shared a low legal status in Rome, and been considered infamis. (See the section on infamia.) Our texts show us, though, that the Roman elite (who authored almost all of our literature from Rome) sneered at a wide range of profession. In the Late Republic, even as society was shifting because of the Civil Wars, Cicero described what he considered ‘respectable’ and acceptable professions for a free born Roman in a work written for his son, Marcus. His son went on to be noted for his ability to drink large quantities of wine, and not a great deal else, and in his undergraduate days in Athens cost his father a fortune. It should also be noted that Cicero was also accused of being the son of a fuller, that is a person who cleaned cloth by means of human urine.

1.150 Now in reference to trades and other ways of making a living, that is which ones are to be considered fitting for a gentleman and which ones are low-class,[1] we have been taught, in general, as follows. First, those means of livelihood are rejected as undesirable which incur people’s ill-will, as those of tax-collectors and money lenders.[2] Unbecoming to a gentleman, too, and vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery. Low-class r we must consider those also who buy from wholesale merchants to retail immediately; for they would get no profits without a great deal of downright lying; and verily, there is no action that is meaner than misrepresentation. And all mechanics are engaged in vulgar trades; for no workshop can have anything liberal about it. Least respectable of all are those trades which cater for sensual pleasures: fishmongers, butchers, cooks, and chicken keepers, and fishermen, as Terence says. Add to these, if you please, the perfumers, dancers, and the ludus talarius.[3]

1.151 But the professions in which either a higher degree of intelligence is required or from which no small benefit to society is derived—medicine and architecture, for example, and teaching—these are proper for those whose social position they become. Trade, if it is on a small scale, is to be considered low class; but if wholesale and on a large scale, importing large quantities from all parts of the world and distributing to many without misrepresentating your wares, it is not to be greatly criticized. Rather, it even seems to deserve the highest respect, if those who are engaged in it, satiated, or rather, I should say, satisfied with the fortunes they have made, make their way from the port to a country estate, as they have often made it from the sea into port. But of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a free man. But since I have discussed this quite fully in, my Cato the Elder, you will find there the material that applies to this point.

Cicero, On Moral Duties 150-151

  1. The Latin word is sordidi (singular sordidus) which has a lot connations involving dirtiness.
  2. This did not apply to members of the elite lending huge sums. Brutus, the assassin of Caesar, made a fortune lending out money in the province of Cilicia, when he was there on official dutues, at rates of 50%.
  3. We’re not actually sure what this was, except it was apparently worse than earning your living as a dancer going by its placement in the sentence. It could be a form of dice playing (Romans gambled a lot, but gambling was also illegal) or a sort of dance in a long gown that reached down to the ankles. (Men were supposed to wear tunics that ended around the knees, and longer tunics were associated with effeminacy.)


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