Did The Ancient Romans have Factories?

I just finished watching a very good video of the Roman ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Seeing the wide variety of artifacts, I was struck by the thought that the Romans must have had some kind of rudimentary system for mass-production of these goods. For example, Pompeii was a town of perhaps 25,000, and it had many fine houses, each with wonderfully-made mosaic floors. Surely the Romans must have had mass-production of mosaic tiles. At the peak of their empire, they had a large population, with a fairly affluent middle class-there must have been a huge demand for clothes, cutlery, furniture, plumbing, etc. So did they have factories to make these things? I find it hard to believe that such a huge volume of stuff could be made one at a time, by individual artisans.
I thought factories came in in the 17th century (in Europe and America)-were the Romans actually the first?

Slaves. They had slaves. The slaves outnumbered the owners considerably.

Also, Roman towns didn’t spring up suddenly, necessitating immediate mass production. They grew gradually over a number years and while yes, they probably did make these tiles (and other things) faster than we would do now (if we didn’t use factories and modern machinery), it’s mainly because they were very well practised. Also, there were also a lot fewer career paths available then and therefore a greater workforce in each profession.

Fran

I don’t know why you’d make those assumptions. The “individual artisans” probably weren’t “individuals” as such…they would have owned slaves.

The population of the U.S. in the early 19th century was much larger than ancient Pompeii, but it mass-produced enough cotton products for its people without the need for factories, thank you very much and I think you know what I mean.

Well, it’s sort of a myth that the Romans were incredibly advanced for their time. You can easily find quotes that the Romans had lead plumbing, running hot and cold water, flush toilets and advanced sewer systems, etc. In truth, very few people had the money and inclination to have many of the luxuries like that.

And Roman cities are/were typically pretty old when they were in active use. Thus, things developed over time.

Damn, Francesca…I either need to read faster or post faster.

Or not post at all.

It depends on what you mean by “factories”. A lot of terra cotta pieces were produced from molds. Instead of someone having to carefully mold and sculpt each antefix, with its decorative plate, you just filled it into a mold with the decoration already carved into it, then took it out and let it air-dry before firing it. You do the same thing with bricks. Coins were also produced by stamping with dies. This all looks and feels a lot like modern factories. Of course, slaves did the work, but how different is it, really?

In one episode of “I, Claudius” on PBS they showed Roman book publishing. I always wondered how they did that in pre-Gutenberg days. Answer: Just like Medieval monks. You get a lot of quills and desks in a well-lit room, and a lot of willing labor (you don’t whip scribes – not if you want legible and accurate results).

Not everywhere, not all the time, and not in many, many industries. At any rate, how does Roman reliance on slave labor answer the question? Child labor in the 19th century can certainly be equated to slavery, yet it is difficult to deny that there were factories in England.

Actually, in many places, they did. The Greco-Roman tradition of city foundation is old and venerable. Rome certainly wasn’t built in a day, but the Romans founded some of their mightiest cities from absolutely nothing.

This is curious logic. Population was lower. That is the only detail relevant to the relative size of the workforce.

We know virtually nothing about Roman publishing practices. Some allusive comments are made in the Moral Letters of Seneca and the Odes of Horace. The “scriptorium” in I, Claudius is pure conjecture.

As for answering the OP’s question…I would have to say yes. First of all, not all of the labor was performed by slaves. It was simply too time consuming and expensive to train a large body of slaves to manufacture goods. Much labor was slave-based, but it is tempting to overestimate the importance of slave labor in urban manufacture.

Factories existed in the ancient world long before the rise of Rome. In Demosthenes’ Speech #36 For Phormio, Demonsthenes remarks no less than six times on one of the objects of dispute: a large shield factory.

Section 11.

In his speech Against Aphobus, Demosthenes also mentions a factory:

Another shield factory appears in Lysias’ famous speech Against Eratosthenes:

Lysias’ own family was prosperous from the ownership of yet another shield factory with over 100 employees until it was shut down by the Thirty in 403 BC.

If you are not satisfied with literary references to the factory, perhaps you will be convinced by an archaeological one.

From LD Caskey and JD Beazley, Attic Vase Painting in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A quick search of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites turned up over two dozen references.

A water pipe factory in Piedmont:

A tile factory in Marseilles:

A war factory in Paris:

So yes, there were definitely factories in the ancient world.

MR

Fair enough.

Maeglin:

Yeah, you looked it up. I only had what I could remember. Nyahh!

Seriously, though, as far as the scriptorium goes, it’s hard to imagine another way for them to have done it. I doubt if the Romans had some quick printing or reproducing process that we have no record of or remains of (Kinkos of Ancient Rome? Protomimeograph?), so that leaves only having people copy it out by hand. If you want to see an interesting approach to the whole business (and how you would go about starting up a printing press in Ancient Rome) see L. Sprague de Camp’s classic sf novel “Lest Darkness Fall”.

Cal,

I looked some of it up. The part about Roman publishing I just remembered. :smiley: One of my teachers was a specialist in Roman literacy; naturally, he had the straight dope on publishing as well.

It is easy but problematic to assume that the only way to mass-produce documents is via a scriptorium. What we do know is that documents called exemplars were written and frequently passed around for individuals (or their scribes) to copy. Horace mentions briefly the idea of hanging his works, with the ink still wet, on columns for people to read. This is rather opaque, and it’s quite likely that either Horace is just being his usual metaphorical self or that he is full of feces.

Official documents did come out of a Repiblican or Imperial office, but the details are largely obscure to us.

MR

Another thing I forgot to mention: the Romans must have had some factory-mass production of clothing, if only to equip their large standing armies. I would expect that at the time of the late empire (ca 300 AD) Rome would have fielded and army of at least 100,000 men , at any given time. In addition 9as has been pointed out) such items as swords, shields, body armor were made vis mass-production. This raises the interesting question-why did not the Romans move beyong hand-opersted machines, and develop engines capable of driving more complicated machines? Then the world would have entered the inductrial age some 1500 years before it did-I wonder where we would be today, had this happened. Asdaan aside, a few years ago, a Roman well was discovered in Englans, and at the bottom was found a bikini (made from deerskin). Modern fashion experts examined it, and found it to be quite modern in style. too bad the Romans never advanced beyond the level of the 3rd century!

In Britain ,at least, the Romans had factories making forts and other woodern buildings. These were produced in kit-form and then shipped out to the frontiers for quick assembly.

Maeglin:

you wrote:

It is easy but problematic to assume that the only way to mass-produce documents is via a scriptorium. What we do know is that documents called exemplars were written and frequently passed around for individuals (or their scribes) to copy. Horace mentions briefly the idea of hanging his works, with the ink still wet, on columns for people to read. This is rather opaque, and it’s quite likely that either Horace is just being his usual metaphorical self or that he is full of feces.

Official documents did come out of a Repiblican or Imperial office, but the details are largely obscure to us.

I’m not sure I understand you. Aside from posting your stuff in the pubic square, or having a copy passed from person to person, how CAN you “publish”, aside from using a scriptorium? The former method, however, isn’t suited to long works, and the latter taks a LONG time. This doesn’t jibe with all the references to “publication” I’ve com across in my readings about the Roman world. In articular, I’ve always heard that Julius Caesar “published” his works to romote himelf. That certainly sounds like mass production, which implies a scriptorium.

When I looked up “publish” and “bookseller” on the Perseus Project I found several hundred entries. Granted many of them are late, and in many cases “publish” can mean “post”, but there are a lot of cases where it is hard to square the use with anything but mass publication. The very idea of “bookseller” requires the existence of a large stock of books. In particular, I note the following:

17] librariorum: generally used throughout this and the Augustan period of a mere copyist (scriba; cf. Hor. A.P. 354 scriptor si peccat idem librarius usque), but here of a copyist who is also a bookseller; in later Latin it is used of a true bookseller (bibliopola), who, however, usually employed a staff of copyists; cf. Sen. Ben. 7.6.1 libros dicimus esse Ciceronis; eosdem librarius suos vocat.

(located at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0004&query=commline%3D%23327&word=bookseller . See also http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0021&query=section%3D%2359&word=bookseller .)

Couldn’t you write something once on the right kind of surface with a lot of ink, then press-transfer it to several other sheets? Or press with woodcuttings? There was primitive printing before movable type.

There have been factories since the Iron Age. Metalurgy requires a lot of people operating in concert, and so does sustained pottery operations. To a modern casual observer, the former closely resembles a modern artglass foundry, and the latter a small pottery company. These factory forms of organization were also runnin throughout the Americas long before the Mayans.

http://www.langdale.co.uk/lifestyle/aut00/feature.htm

http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba37/ba37regs.html

Cal,

But we still have little idea what it means to have published books. When we say that JC “published” his works to promote himself, I challenge to single out any Roman scholar of quality who really knows what that means. We don’t know the quantities, we don’t know the content, and we are far from sure about the method.

The “very idea of bookseller” may denote a large quantity of books to us, but this tells us nothing about Roman booksellers.

Fact is, it is easy to make educated guesses. But even Horace, a clerk and scribe in the household of Augustus himself, tells us almost nothing about his job. Except that he didn’t like it. :wink:

MR