Meager Returns: Agricultural Wages in Roman Egypt
In February 247A.D, Eirenaios the manager (phrontistes) of a unit of the large estate belonging to Aurelius Appianus in the Fayum part of Egypt recorded in his account book that for the month he had employed 500 days of labor from workers unaffiliated with the estate. He paid them 2 drachmae a day. Unlike payments made to permanent employees of the estate, the casual laborers are anonymous. There is no indication even of how many different workers performed the labor. The workers on the Appianus estate are in fact typical of casual laborers in surviving sources: they are anonymous and poorly paid. Unfortunately little attempt has thus far been made by modern scholarship to determine how these men (and perhaps occasionally women) lived. This paper will attempt to shed some light on the identity of these unknown Egyptian laborers and also the economy in which they functioned.
The traditional story about agricultural wage labor throughout the Empire is that it was not used much by the large and medium sized farms because they relied primarily on slaves or contract tenants. The surviving Roman agricultural handbooks advise estate owners to avoid using hired labor as much as possible. In Egypt, however, it is clear that wage labor played a major role on the commercial estates. For example, on the Appianus estate in the 3rd century A.D at least half of the work performed was done by casual laborers throughout the year. If one assumes that the Appianus estate is even somewhat typical, then understanding who wage laborers were is critical to modeling the functioning of the rural economy in Roman Egypt and that of the entire Roman Empire.
Columbia University, 2007.