Opinion

Labor Day as the Romans do

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HERE IN THE MODERN United States, we tend to believe we've achieved a kinder, gentler workplace that honors 9-to-5ers with a special day off in early September, especially when compared with the workaday world of the past. But 2,000 years ago,

workers in Athens, Rome and other cities around the Mediterranean got far more recognition -- and time off -- than we do. Their calendars were crowded with occupation-specific festivals.

Most of these celebrations had an essentially religious base -- either to say thanks or as appeasement. Plumbers, for instance, didn't have a "Plumbers Day." Their holiday honored their patron god -- Saturn, most likely, whose symbol was lead. Most drainpipes connecting Romans to their lavish supply of clean water were made of lead -- plumbum in Latin. In later Roman times, state priests, the Senate and/or the emperor decreed additional festivals as national holidays.

Job-holders would celebrate their patron god's day as well as most national holidays. Slaves had time off for their festival in August but few of the major holidays. Someone had to do the work.

One big holiday, celebrated each May 15, was the feast of Mercury -- deity of merchants, grain dealers, orators, pro athletes and travelers. Although largely portrayed with winged feet these days, Mercury used to sport a money purse. More than a messenger, he was the god of trade, commercial success and that delicious notion, profit. During the Mercuralia, merchants made pilgrimages to his well in Rome, where they sprinkled themselves and their goods with water, a tradition they believed would enhance their bottom line.

The goddess Minerva, known as Athena in Greece, was patroness to many: horn players, teachers, artists and doctors. At her three-day spring shindig, horn players wore masks and wandered the city in groups, providing a brassy interruption to everyone's workday.

Each June, bakers and millers threw parties, decorating millstones and donkeys with garlands of violets and small bread loaves to honor Vesta, goddess of flour as well as the hearth. Men in the military got liberty on multiple dates dedicated to the war god Mars and the goddess Fortuna of the Baths, who presided over the safety of troops. (Good luck and bathing might seem an incongruous pairing. Bathing, however, served as preventive medicine because most "treatments" of the day, including dove's dung mixed with ink and boiling vinegar for wounds, ranged from ineffective to ghastly.)

The liveliest career day was the Aphrodisia in June, a festival for the patron goddess of call girls, celebrated throughout Greece. Roman prostitutes held their revels in April, later co-opting the goddess Flora's six-day event, which came to rival the Saturnalia for X-rated behavior. Not to be outdone, the male hookers of Rome held their own salacious celebrations on April 25.

Even slaves got cut some slack. Their festival fell on Aug. 13 each year, when they ate themselves into a stupor at the Temple of Diana on Rome's Aventine Hill. And every non-free worker looked forward to Saturnalia (its tenacious popularity later transformed by the early church into Jesus' birthday), five days of hullabaloo at winter solstice. During it, feasting and gambling were freely allowed, and the roles of master and slave were reversed.

From our perspective, the ancient workforce was a peculiar mix of free men and women, freedmen and slaves, often working side by side and receiving the same wages. Oddly enough, it all functioned.

Workdays and times were organized differently 2,000 years ago. No weekends, much less three-day ones. The two-week summer vacation? Unheard-of. The daily grind was, in fact, daily, beginning at dawn and ending around 3 p.m. Break time, however, was always in sight. By AD 165, the number of festival days, imperial birthdays and other labor-optional days reached 135. Emperor Marcus Aurelius tried to stop vacation inflation, but it was a doomed endeavor. In time, the runaway holiday calendar rose to 177 days of leisure.

When the western half of the Roman Empire crumbled in AD 476, more was lost than good plumbing. The number of workers' holidays began to shrink. Today, the U.S. is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation or holidays. 9 to 5, indeed. Saturn help us, we're headed for XXIV / VII.

Vicki Leon is the author, most recently, of "Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns, and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World."

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