'Working IX to V' in Ancient Rome and Greece You think you hate your job? In ancient Rome or Greece, you might have been an armpit plucker, or a hairdresser who used urine and pigeon droppings to make your clients look good.
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'Working IX to V' in Ancient Rome and Greece

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'Working IX to V' in Ancient Rome and Greece

'Working IX to V' in Ancient Rome and Greece

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If you woke up this morning already dreading the workday, think of this. At least you're not an ornatrix. An ornatrix was a hairdresser slave in ancient Rome, responsible for keeping a master or mistress well quaffed. In those days, hair treatments required ingredients like decomposed leeches, urine and pigeon droppings. Ornatrix is just one of the professions described in a new book about ancient Greece and Rome. It's called "Working IX to V." That's nine to five written in Roman numerals, of course.

Author Vicki Leon is here in our studio to talk to us about this whole other world of jobs. Good morning.

Ms. VICKI LEON (Author, "Working IX to V"): Good morning to you.

MONTAGNE: How different was this world of work?

Ms. LEON: Well, you know, in some ways, it was vastly different, because, obviously, it depended greatly on slave labor. But slavery back then wasn't based on race or color or religious preference. It was something that happened to an awful lot of people. They might have been captured by pirates. But a huge number of them were turned into slaves through war

MONTANGE: And conquest.

Mr. LEON: In conquest, and even as non-combatants.

MONTAGNE: So, this slave workforce, it was a sizeable percentage of the workforce, but it was also - ran the gamut. I mean, you write there would be a, you know, a Greek doctor. That might be a prized slave, or an intellectual.

Ms. LEON: It did run the gamut, and a great many of the slaves - because they were well educated, and in some cases, more educated than their masters - they tended to be given positions of great trust, for example, like banking or a scribe.

MONTAGNE: I started out with an ornatrix. Was that a hairdresser in a weird sense, like a hairdresser today?

Ms. LEON: Very much so. The Romans especially were, you know, fashion mad. And besides the great hairdos, you know, these towering dos, they were slaves to fashion, in fact. They wanted their whole bodies to be near smooth, and so that led to some very bizarre job specialties, like the polisher guru. The polisher guru, you know, took pumice and other abrasive materials, and you polished their clients to a, you know, rosy glow. But the strangest one of all has to be the armpit plucker. The armpit plucker - which was, generally speaking, a man -had to have very good nerves to sort of confront all that hideous shrieking that went on as he was doing his work.

MONTAGNE: Then there was a slave who - you call it the forerunner of the Blackberry. That's the nomenclature.

Ms. LEON: Yes, the nomenclator. He served as a personal assistant device by whispering in his master's ear the name, personal details about the person who was coming up to greet him, and so that the senator or that fat cat could greet him like a long-lost friend. Some wealthy people, you know, some particularly pretentious wealthy people, had a nomenclator to keep track of all their staff.

MONTAGNE: And the ancient world was full of superstitions, which created a whole other line of work for people. And there's one job you describe, it's the very unusual job - not one we'd have today, I don't think - polarius.

MS. LEON: Oh, the polarius. That is one of my favorites. The polarius kept charge of a batch of sacred chickens. And most of the time, he probably just sat around and watched them. But when a battle was in the offing or some major decision was about to happen in the military, all the brass would gather round.

The polarius would ceremoniously open the cage, and he would throw out some special feed for the chickens. If they started eating very greedily and the corn actually fell out of their mouths, that was a great omen. But if those chickens started doing like chickens do, you know, just squawking and flapping their wings, that was a terrible omen. And so the battle was called off or the maneuver was called off, and the polarius went back to putting the chickens back in their cage.

MONTAGNE: Now, orgy planners. I don't know why, but I always presumed orgies were semi-spontaneous. But they were actually - there was a job as an orgy planner.

Ms. LEON: Yes, the original orgy planners were priests and priestesses, believe it or not. They began as religious celebrations. And, of course, they had, you know, the standard, you know, intoxication, drunks and frenzy, you know, uninhibited dancing and sexual free for all. But it wasn't until later Roman times that they had what I call corporate orgy planners that worked for, you know, the big boss, like Nero. That's what we know.

MONTAGNE: There was another unusual job one could make a career of, and quite a lucrative one, in importing toxic Mediterranean snails.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEON: Yes. You must be talking about the murex, then.


Ms. LEON: The murex is a beautiful little meat-eater of a creature. It ejects a neurotoxin, and that's how it kills its prey. And that neurotoxin, when it's exposed to the air, turns purple - a beautiful shade of purple. The people who collected this and sold it, it was 20 times more valuable than its weight in gold. And so consequently, the people who were the sellers of purple - that's what they were called - they could make enormous fortunes. However, the people who actually produced it, they had to fish for these little creatures and then pull them out and let the flesh rot, preparing this rather nasty stew. It was described as a singular stench among stenches, the murex workplace, which it could not have been very nice.

MONTAGNE: And those are probably slaves - again, the...

Ms. LEON: They probably were, or certainly they were, you know, very humble working people.

MONTAGNE: Vicki Leon, thank you very much for joining us. This has been really fascinating.

Ms. LEON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Vicki Leon is the author of "Working IX to V," about prized professions of the ancient world. Read an excerpt and hear about celebrity chefs and charioteers at npr.org.

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