In the ancient world, all manufactured goods—everything from ships to individual nails—were made by hand. This required people skilled in a variety of crafts, such as metalworking, stone-masonry, carpentry, and textile weaving. Although there may have been some craftswomen in ancient Greece and Rome, most skilled workers who earned a living by practicing their crafts were men.
Craftsmen made shoes, dishes, lamps, and hundreds of other things that are used in daily life, as well as more specialized items, such as extravagant gems. For example, potters produced thousands of vases and bowls that were an important part of trade across the ancient world. Some craftsmen made statues, wreaths, and other objects for religious worship, while others manufactured the equipment needed for war. So vital were craftsmen to armies that Roman legions* had their own corps of skilled workers to make everything from military boots to Weapons and Armor.
* legion main unit of the Roman army, consisting of about 6,000 soldiers
Crafts of the Ancient World. Some crafts, such as leather making and pottery manufacture, were long practiced by ancient peoples. While the Greeks and Romans excelled at these skills, they added few new techniques to those that had already been developed. Other crafts were invented in Greek or Roman times. For example, Greeks in western Asia invented a new kind of metalworking around 625 B.C. when they began minting coins. By striking disks of hot silver or electrum (a mixture of gold and silver) with a bronze stamp on which an image had been carved, they were able to produce many identical coins. Similarly, many early cultures knew how to make glass from melted sand, but because it was costly and hard to transport, it was not widely used. In the first century B.C., Syrians discovered the technique of glassblowing, in which a craftsman blew into a tube and shaped a piece of glassware from the bubble that formed on the other end. Glassblowing enabled craftsmen to produce glassware faster and cheaper than ever before, which in turn enabled glass merchants to reach a wider market in the Roman world.
Crafts often depended on and influenced one another. For example, the availability of inexpensive glass led to a growing popularity of mosaics, pictures made of tiny bits of colored stone and glass. By the A.D. 100s, the craft of mosaic making had expanded enormously throughout the empire. In the same way, when the Greeks began constructing large stone temples in the early 500s B.C., stonemasons, who cut and shaped stones, became more important, as did workers who plastered and painted stone walls.
Leather making, or tanning, also supported many other crafts. Tanneries, where animal hides were turned into leather, were usually located outside of town or in the poorest districts because the tanning process produced such terrible odors. Tanners produced sheets of leather, which leather workers then turned into sandals and slippers, leather flasks, workmen’s aprons, harnesses, and the writing surface known as vellum or parchment. Glue makers made glue from hides and bones, which was used by woodworkers to hold furniture together. Another very specialized craft related to tanning was the manufacture of rope from tough strands of tendon called sinews. These sinew ropes were a vital part of the siege catapult, a device used to hurl large rocks into enemy fortresses.
Women throughout the ancient world made fabric in their homes for their family’s clothing. Home production of textiles continued through the Roman era, but workshops in the Roman empire also produced pieces of cloth and ready-made clothing that people could buy. Linen cloth produced in Egypt was shipped around the Mediterranean Sea for use in clothing and in the sails of ships. One mystery concerning ancient craftsmanship is that almost no information has survived regarding the making of rope and sails. War fleets and cargo vessels used huge quantities of rope and sails, but scholars know little about how the Greeks and Romans crafted these goods.
Because many places lacked metals, merchants had developed a far-reaching trade in ores and finished metal goods, even before the rise of Greek civilization. Perhaps more than any other craft, metalworking led to contacts among peoples of different cultures and geographic regions. Among the most prized trade items of the ancient world, finely crafted metal objects were transported great distances. Jewelry and metal cups from northern Europe, Syria, and Egypt ended up in Greece and influenced the work of Greek craftsmen. In the same way, Roman craftsmen copied designs from Irish and German jewelry and metalwork.
Crafts were a major part of the ancient economy. The prosperity of some regions depended on the number and quality of its craftsmen. Because Athens had high-quality marble and clay for masons and potters and abundant silver ore for metalworkers, the city became one of the busiest craft centers of the Greek world. Rome built up trade based on crafts, importing raw materials, such as iron and wool, from its provinces and exporting finished goods, such as tools and ready-made clothing, in return.
LEAVING A NAME
Few ancient craftsmen achieved individual recognition, and even fewer are remembered by historians. Most were obscure in their own time. Still, craftsmen displayed their pride in their work by signing the gold and silver dishes, pottery, statues, coins, gravestones, and even city walls they made. A daring sculptor named Theophilus added his name to the heel of a huge imperial statue. Alxenor, another sculptor, carved "You have only to look and see!" on one of his marble panels. And, in an attack on a rival, a Greek vase painter named Euthymides wrote on one of his pots: "Euphronios never did it like this."
The Craftsman's Life. Most craftsmen learned their crafts from their fathers. Several generations of the same family often practiced the same trade. For example, many of the shipwrights who built the warships of Athens were related, and the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles is thought to have been the son of one sculptor and the uncle of another. Roman records indicate that many architects were related to carpenters or to other architects.
If a craftsman had no sons, he acquired apprentices or bought slaves to help him in his workshop. Many skilled workers were slaves earlier in their lives, having bought their freedom with the money they earned through practicing their crafts. Training started at a young age, with apprentices often spending several years running errands, sweeping floors, and fetching water, before learning the craft. Some teenage boys were considered qualified or even expert craftsmen. Roman grave markers mention 16-year-old sculptors and 11- or 12-year-old jewelry makers.
Most workshops were small. The establishment of a furniture maker, blacksmith, or shoemaker often consisted only of the master and a helper. Some crafts required larger workforces. One Athenian vase painting portrays a pottery workshop with eight people performing different tasks. One man is making a large vase on a pottery wheel that a young boy, an apprentice or slave, is spinning. Another man carries a newly made vase outside to dry, while others prepare to light a fire in the kiln, or pottery furnace. Large operations, such as shipyards, mines, and stone quarries, were often owned by investors who hired craftsmen and bought slaves to work for them.
A master craftsman needed to understand every stage of his craft. A carpenter might cut his own timber, season it, and shape it into finished goods in his workshop. Sculptors often worked on their chosen material from start to finish. They selected their stone in quarries, supervised the stonecutters, carved the blocks of stone into statues, and finally installed the statues in the settings chosen by their purchasers. Some craftsmen had to know how to work with more than one material. A maker of armor, for example, had to use both metal and leather, and a jeweler might work with ivory, gold, and glass. Certain crafts made a wide range of products. For example, some pottery shops produced costly, one-of-a-kind items for wealthy clients, while others mass-produced bowls and jars for everyday use.
In Rome and other large cities, the market for crafts was large enough that some skilled workers could specialize. For example, a shoemaker could make only women’s slippers and a metalsmith could make only trumpets. In small towns and villages, though, a skilled man might not be able to make a living as a carpenter but would also have to be the local blacksmith.
The Craftsman in Society. While today people often regard crafts and arts as two different things, the ancient Greeks and Romans made no distinction between an “artist” and a “craftsman.” Painters and sculptors had the same professional and social status as boot makers and blacksmiths.
Different crafts did, however, bring different monetary rewards. In Rome, stonemasons, carpenters, blacksmiths, and boatbuilders earned twice as much as unskilled laborers and shepherds, while shipbuilders, mosaic makers, and marble pavers made even more. Wall and picture painters could earn three to six times as much as unskilled laborers. Famous painters, sculptors, and jewelers commanded much higher fees from wealthy patrons*.
Craftsmen were united through professional and social ties. In Rome, they formed collegia, associations whose members worked in the same or related crafts. With their collegia, craftsmen celebrated public holidays, such as religious festivals and the emperor’s birthday. The collegia also provided proper funerals for their members. Craftsmen might also achieve status by holding offices within the collegium, but the real value of membership was in the companionship and respect that craftsmen found in the company of fellow craftsmen. Members of Quintus Candidus Benignus’s collegium displayed this sense of fellowship in the words they inscribed on a memorial marker they put up after his death: “He was a builder of the greatest skill.... Great craftsmen would always call him master.... No one could excel him.... He was sweet-tempered and knew how to entertain his friends—a man of gentle and studious character, and a kindly spirit.” (See also Coinage; Art, Greek; Art, Roman; Dyes and Dyeing; Gems and Jewelry; Gold; Marble; Mining; Sculpture, Greek; Sculpture, Roman; Ships and Shipbuilding; Textiles.)
* patron special guardian, protector or supporter