Book Review by Ursus
"Working IX to V" is a survey of a variety of professions in the ancient Greco-Roman world. The work is divided into ten topical chapters, with each chapter containing around fifteen or so professions consonant with the topic. The descriptions of the various professions provide a brief overview, each ranging from one to three pages in length. In the margins on the book are various illustrations of caricatures of the professions under study or the symbols they used to identify themselves, usually punctuated by tongue-in-check quotes meant to be humorous.
The chapters are divided as follows:
1: professions conducted by slaves
2: religious vocations
3: the food industry
4: military and public safety professions
5: artistic vocations
6: business professions
7: the entertainment industry
9: professions that attracted a certain infamy, such as tax collecting.
10: jobs that were doomed to fail when imperial civilization collapsed, such as Augustan postal service couriers
In the ending bibliography, the author states she spent three decades of research into the subject, and lists the primary and secondary sources that fueled her inquiry. Most of the entries do seem solidly backed up by historical merit. There may be a few exceptions though: the entry on legion soldiers declared they adhered to a vegetarian diet, and we now know that was not quite the case. In her introduction she also states: "The Roman Empire was all about business." Oh, really? That may have been true of Carthage, but I believe Rome was about a lot of things besides business, especially since the ruling Senatorial order was forbidden from engaging directly in commerce.
This is a broad study of ancient careers. Some of the entries were news to me. For instance, I did not know the busy port town of Ostia employed teams of salvage divers to rescue shipwrecked goods. Nor did I realize that armpit hair pluckers were such a booming enterprise with the Romans.
While backed in scholarship, the book is lighthearted in scope, reflecting the author's background as a 30-year veteran journalist and author of 28 books for the general public. Vicki Leon's most famous tomes seem to be a series of books entitled "Uppity Women." Set in various historical eras, she tells the story of "remarkable yet unsung" females. In her introduction to Working IX to V, Ms. Leon states she became a confirmed book worm enthusiast of classical history at the age of ten, followed by several years of travel through the Mediterranean world and some study of Romance languages. She lectures to university audiences on myriad topics and travels frequently. Indeed, Working IX to V probably would make a good travel companion.
The central problem I have with this work is directed to the prose. The author has adopted a cynical, sassy voice which was probably meant to win over the general reader as opposed to the academic. Or maybe 30 years of journalism produces a certain writing style in its practitioners. Unfortunately I found this tone of the book to become progressively boorish and annoying with each chapter. It was almost condescending in nature. But perhaps I am simply too used to more academic books; others may find it witty and charming.
Overall, I believe "IX to V" has merit for the limited goals it sets for itself. This will not be the deepest, most meaningful book on Roman history you have ever read. But this is a "culture and daily life" book with a very focused theme, and one that someone of any background can digest. Available at a cheap prize from Amazon.com, it provides some informal yet informative reading.
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