Date of this Version
Published in Maria Mossakowska-Gaubert, ed., Egyptian Textiles and Their Production: ‘Word’ and ‘Object’ (Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods) (Lincoln, NE: Zea Books, 2020).
For almost the last 100 years, various ancient historians have suggested that organisations comparable to the “putting- out” system existed in the Roman Imperial period. They are most commonly believed to have occurred in textile production. As early as 1913, Theodor Reil assumed that the production of textiles in Roman Egypt was organised through the putting-out system. This idea can subsequently be traced through more than a century to recent publications. However, as this assumption is rarely based on genuine source material, it seems appropriate to get to the bottom of this hypothesis. In this context, special attention will also have to be paid to the question of large textile companies and the professional title of ἱστωνάρχης, which has been associated with the putting-out system in the past.
In order to avoid terminological blurring, let us briefly outline what is understood in economic history and modern economics by the term “putting-out system”. This term is used to describe a form of economic organisation that is mainly typical of modern textile production, in which craftsmen who are not independent produce goods at home. A merchant-entrepreneur provides the resources and/or raw materials. He is also the one who collects the goods after completion and markets them centrally. This production system was particularly frequent in the production of bulk goods, which were in high demand and could be produced in a decentralised manner without either complex technical equipment or costly investments in the necessary production material. The skills required in the putting- out system were usually low. Work in the putting-out system was especially common in rural areas, where only narrow agricultural yields could be achieved and where it was an important additional income for poorer farming families. While wages were often very small, they were available in those phases of the year when there was no work on the fields. The depressed living conditions endured by most of those employed in the system are illustrated by Thomas Hood’s poem The Song of the Shirt from 1843. Another condition for the putting-out system to exist was for labour to be paid as piecework, since working at home made the monitoring of time impossible. From the point of view of economic rationality, the advantages of this kind of production are obvious: a large number of products could be produced according to season or demand without the necessity of having central workshops, and especially without the investments connected with their construction. Central to this is the separation of capital and labour characteristic of a capitalist system: the merchant-entrepreneur bears the entire financial risk, since he has to lay out his capital in order to procure the materials and work equipment and pay the workers, before trying to sell the products they have produced on the market. However, he also has the exclusive and unrestricted right to dispose of the work products. Resulting from this, he also has a decisive influence on the production process and he determines production output and workforce wages. Another premise for this decentralised way of manufacturing goods is that the putting-out system is advantageous only as long as the production processes were short and did not require a division of labour.
In this paper, we will begin by exploring the genesis of the idea of a Roman putting-out system in Classical scholarship, before the individual characteristics of publications about textile industry (briefly outlined above) are compared with the available ancient sources on the Roman textile economy of the Imperial period. For this, the papyri from Egypt are of central importance. They provide a particularly good impression of the complex conditions of the Roman textile industry, since many thousands of documents have been preserved from the province of Egypt, which offer more insights into the ancient realities of normal everyday life than any other source. From contracts, letters, receipts, petitions and the like we get an almost voyeuristic view into the economic, social and legal realities in this province, and thanks to these texts we are informed much better about Egypt than all other regions of the Imperium Romanum or the rest of the ancient Mediterranean world.
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