The Dignity of Labour: image, work and identity in the Roman world

Immediately beyond the Porta Maggiore in Rome, at a busy intersection, lies the impressive tomb of Eurysaces, a baker who lived through the last days of the Roman Republic. In the ensuing centuries, his lavish funerary monument was swallowed up by the Aurelianic city walls and remained largely hidden until it was exposed by demolition work in the mid 19th century. There it remains, largely unloved and unnoticed by the millions of tourists who flock to Rome each year. Yet Eurysaces is part of a rich Roman tradition celebrating working life in funerary art and inscriptions, albeit one that is often overlooked, with many images languishing in museum storerooms rather than being on display to visitors.

Ferris’s scholarly yet accessible book exploits this material to produce a detailed study of workers and their self-representation in the Roman world. Through him, we meet a wide range of workers, from Eurysaces with his monumental tomb, to more modest individuals such as Lucius Aurelius Hermia, a butcher from the Viminal hill. The book is lavishly illustrated and Ferris proves to be an adept, entertaining, and often witty guide, sprinkling his writing with colourful personal anecdotes and comments, and treating the reader to lively vignettes of the often-neglected working lives of men, women, and children of the Roman world.

Review by Claire Holleran. 
The Dignity of Labour: image, work and identity in the Roman world, Iain Ferris, Amberley Publishing, £20 ISBN 978-1445684215.