The Story of Work 3. Work and the Romans


What is Work?

Here we move on from the Greeks to the answers the Romans gave to the question of what ‘work’ is.

While it has been a commonplace to regard the Romans as mere imitators of Greek philosophy, there were significant differences in their thinking about work. For example, in a passage that might well have become a justification for Florentine bankers 1200 years after him, Cicero, a key figure both in Roman and Christian culture, praised trade as long as it was conducted justly on a large scale, something the Athenian philosophers would never have done:

Trade, however, if it is small, should be considered sordid; if large and copious., bringing many things from everywhere and distributing to the many, empty of puffery, it is not to be much disparaged and, and if the trade is satisfied by the venture [itself] or rather content [with the venture itself i.e. it is not motivated by greed] – such as when often bringing goods from the sea to port and from the port to the countryside, even by the best judgement [such trade] seems praiseworthy. But of all the things from which gain is acquired, nothing is better than agriculture, nothing more pleasing, nothing sweeter, nothing more worthy of a free man.[1]

Mercatura (‘trade’) was a form of what the Greeks called ergon. Ergon was translated simply enough into Latin by opus (itself often translated into English as simply ‘work’, though better considered as ‘the results or aims of work’). The technē required for opera was, in Latin, ars (which gives us our term ‘art’ in the sense of skill).

More complicated were the Latin translations of ponoslabor (obviously the root of the English word ‘labour’) – and of poiesis. Labor for a start did not carry the same shameful load of standard Greek ponos. For even if slaves were indeed associated with labor, the term was often regarded by high-status texts as honourable, manly, even virtuous and heroic. Indirectly, we can see this in the Cicero passage above where agriculture is placed as the top of the hierarchy of worthy occupations. For the Greeks, by contrast, the ponos of agriculture would have been unworthy of the free man. While (inspired by Max Weber) it is usual in histories of the idea work to focus on philosophical and religious texts before economic ones start to be written, Cicero’s praise of agricultural labor suggested I also examine texts concerned with activities where slave labor would be fundamental, such as manuals concerned with architecture.

What I found, much to my surprise, was an absence of labor in either noun or verb forms. In the whole of one of the few such practical manuals to survive from the ancient world, Vitruvius’s De Architectura, the single appearance of labor says that it is as essential to the good architect as learned theoretical knowledge.[2] Opus in Vitruvius, similarly used only once in the entire treatise, refers to the finished building – exactly, the results of work.[3] Texts concerned with military operations and construction are interesting for the same reason. As in Vitruvius, labor is not worthy of mention: only results – opera – have any importance at all.[4] Buildings and fortifications seemingly build themselves, the labor of slaves and low-ranking soldiers seem beneath the threshold of written registration. It is agricultural labor that is the exception.

Roman mosaic depicting agricultural work, from Saint-Romain-en-Gal (first quarter of 3rd century AD), Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

The reason for this was the mythical conviction that agriculture was the basis of Roman potency (gender and political potency are one here). From there, the implications of labor could be extended out to the work that enabled civilisation itself. This logic is legible in some very well-known lines that the hugely influential poet Virgil wrote in his poem in praise of agricultural life, the Georgics (29 BCE). Ten lines listing the discovery of agriculture, fire, astronomy, carpentry, metal-working and the arts are summed up with the phrase labor omnia vincit / improbus,[5] usually translated through variations on ‘hard work overcomes everything.’ Labor may still be improbus (a word of very general but always negative associations –  ‘excessive, shameless, greedy’ ‑ which aligns with the Greek associations of ponos – it does not mean ‘hard work’ in our sense at all), but it also enables civilisation. It’s interesting to take into account time (word order) when we read this phrase, for the location of the two words labor improbus at the beginning and end of the grammatical unit, with improbus even cast into the beginning of the next line of poetry, first glorifies labor – ‘[physical] work conquers all’ and only secondarily acknowledges its shame according to the Greek tradition. Crucially, labor in the Georgics is closely allied to ideas of virtus (the virtues outlined by the Greek philosophers). The fact, too, that the Georgics quotation echoes Virgil’s most famous motto of all – ‘Love conquers all; let us too yield to love’ (Omnia vincit amor; et nos cedamus amori), a line that had appeared in his previous poem, the Eclogues (10.69) – suggests, at least according to one critic, that we attend to labor as one of the fundamental forces that constitute the world.[6] More certainly, we often find the Georgics quotation in a culture that saw itself as inheriting the mantle of the Roman empire: it appears almost 800 times in the British Newspaper Archive, used mainly as motto for organisations and companies, with the ‘improbus’ unsurprisingly often dropped.[7]  

In the Aeneid, too, Virgil’s best known and most influential poem, there is a very famous passage where the hero Aeneas plans to descend to the underworld to consult his father. That is easy to do, says the Sybil from whom Aeneas requests help, but it’s not so easy to return: hoc opus, hic labor est: ‘this [is] the task/ aim, this is the labour [you must endure to achieve that aim].’ In place of technē, the proto-Roman Aeneas must mobilise his equivalent as a ruler, his virtus – his manly virtue (cf. Barsella, commented on here).

Aeneas and the Sybil, as imagined in c. 1646 by the artist Francois Perrier, now in the National Museum, Warsaw.

Likewise, in his rhetorical speeches, Cicero repeatedly uses labor to define heroic, manly efforts in non-physical contexts. It is not that the term had lost its associations with manual work, but rather was being used metaphorically in these cases to link the body and soul, a usage that will assume greater importance in Christian rationales for the various kinds of work. [8] Like the Georgics and Aeneid quotations, Cicero’s usage tilts the terrain in favour of the much later re-evaluation of labour as fundamental to society that we shall see in Hobbes, Locke and Adam Smith.  

Unlike labor, poiesis was not only translated but also transliterated in Latin: Horace simply uses the Greek and its related terms in Roman script for his Ars Poetica, which is always translated into English as ‘The Art of Poetry.’ More importantly for my purposes,  poiesis was carried over and broekn down into Roman critical and rhetorical writing by two Latin terms, inventio (‘discovery, finding’) and eloquentia (‘eloquence’).

The rhetorical treatise Ad Herennium (which the middle ages thought was by Cicero, and accordingly given huge weight) defines inventio as ‘the thinking up of things that are true or like the truth which will likely win the case.’ While one can imagine that some remnant of divine inspiration may remain in inventio (though the purpose of inventio is fundamentally victory in a court of law), the other elements of rhetoric described by the Ad Herennium are more obviously techné-based: the arrangement of the argument, its style and the orator’s memory and delivery.[9] While the vital importance of suasion was certainly acknowledged in Greece, this conception of the practical, forensic and political utility of poiesis is different in emphasis. It is certainly very far from either the religious ‘gateway’ state of the artist or the lowly activities of the craftsman’s erga and technē.

bust of Cicero, Vatican Museum

The social and political usefulness of art is even more pronounced in the second Latin term associated with poiesis, eloquentia.  Cicero (the real one this time) assigns to the birth of eloquentia the same effects that Virgil assigned to labor:  no less than the birth of civilisation. At the beginning of De Inventione (which became a textbook right through to the Reformation and beyond), Cicero imagines a wild tribe amongst the fields before the beginning of history. A vir … sapiens (‘wise man’) amongst them, realising the values of agriculture and virtus, persuades his colleagues of their advantages. This act of persuasion begins civilisation and is, crucially, an act of wise government. Rather than some gateway state to the divine, eloquentia is here ‘deliberative oratory,’ the key tool, the real technē of praxis, persuading the populace of the best course of action.[10]

Praxis, meanwhile, had become for Cicero the realisation of civic duty (officium), a set of actions to be guided by the virtues[11] and, as many readers have noted, performed selflessly for the good of the republic and its citizens at large.[12] He redefines the virtues somewhat so that ‘justice’ is preoccupied by affirming communal and private resources[13] and adds to the list above a virtue he says is especially connected to ‘justice’: ‘beneficence, which we can also term benignity or liberality,’ a term indeed that will slide in later humanist thinkers into ‘benevolence’ (benivolentia, literally ‘wishing well’).[14] Guided by these virtues, the work of political leaders comprised the wise navigation of the ship of state and all within it. They were its gubernator (navigator), its ‘rightener’ or ‘director’ (rector), its guardian (tutor), its estate manager (procurator). They should take advice and act in council.[15] As Cicero explains at length in De officiis, their job was to protect and maintain, not innovate (and so like Plato’s Guardians). Unlike in Plato’s Republic, political leaders should accomplish their duties through the evocation of caritas (affection) in citizens. They should rule through consent, not through fear and coercion (hence the importance of eloquentia).

That Christian thinkers, for whom caritas came to have specifically religious connotation, were to reinterpret De officiis and hold it in very high regard can be no surprise. The next post will turn to them to continue the story of work.

Return to Introduction.

[1] Mercatura autem, si tenuis est. sordida putanda est; sin magna et copiosa, multa undique apportans multisque sine vanitate impertiens, non est admodum vituperanda, atque etiam, si satiata quaestu vel contenta potius, ut saepe ex alto in portum, ex ipso portu se in agros possessionesque contulit, videtur iure optimo posse laudari. Omnium autem rerum, ex quibus aliquid acquiritur, nihil est agri cultura melius, nihil uberius, nihil dulcius, nihil homine libero dignius (Cicero, De Officiis, Book 1: 151 at

[2] See

[3] See Cf Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, where opus refers to completed defensive ‘works’ ( ).

[4] See e.g. Hyginus, De Metatione Castrorum (‘The Construction of [Military] Camps,’ date uncertain) at

[5] Virgil, Georgics, Book 1, lines 146-7.

[6] See R. Jenkins, ‘Labor Improbus,’ The Classical Quarterly 43, no. 1 (1993), 243-248.

[7] See e.g. Morning Herald (5 August 1847: 6) where we learn it was the motto of the Blackburn, Darwen and Bolton Railway.

[8] The usage typically includes the efforts Cicero himself had made in the lawcourts that gave him his good reputation: see Pro Marco Caelio at .

[9] ‘Inventio est excogitatio rerum verarum aut veri similium quae causam probabilem reddant.’ Ad Herennium. Book 1,ii.3.

[10] This is an idea certainly found in Greek rhetoricians, but it was argued against by the most influential of the philosophers. On this debate, see, e.g. Ian Worthington, ‘Rhetoric and Politics in Classical Greece: Rise of the Rhetores,’ in A Companion to Greek Rhetoric, edited by Ian Worthington (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 255-71, and indeed the whole of the volume.

[11] Cicero, De officiis, Book 2, 18 (

[12] See e.g. Malcolm Schofield, Cicero: Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 16-18 and elsewhere.

[13] For example, ‘the first task  of  justice  is  to prevent  anyone  from harming  unless  provoked by  an  injury, and then that  things held in common should be used communally, and private things by their [owners]’ (iustitiae  primum  munus  est, ut  ne  cui quis noceat  nisi lacessitus  iniuria, deinde  ut  communibus pro communibus  utatur, privatis  ut  suis (De officiis, Book 1.20,,0474,055:1:20 )

[14] huic  coniuncta  beneficentia, quam eandem  vel  benignitatem  vel  liberalitatem  appellari licet (De officiis, Book 1.20,,0474,055:1:20 ). On the twentieth-century humanist replacement of beneficence (‘doing good’) with benevolence (‘wishing well for others’)  – encouraged by its use by Adam Smith ‑ see Jean Mercier Ythier, ‘Distributive justice and benevolence: The welfare state as practical, distributive, liberal social contract.’ Revue d’économie politique 123, no. 5 (2013), 737–61.

[15] Schofield, Cicero, 87-9.



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