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Top 10 Ancient Jobs That Sucked Big Time

by Jamie Frater
fact checked by dickensgirl

Work is getting harder and harder to find these days. No matter what your area of expertise, the recession is sucking us all dry. With the abundance of jobs and skilled workers for those jobs, the situation is exacerbated. This was not the case in ancient times where some jobs were so repulsive that no one would want them – except the scum of society or those who had nothing to lose. This list looks at ten of them.




The nomenclator held a vitally important job. He was, effectively, a living-human-calendar cum address book. Now these days we have our iPhones, our Blackberrys, and all manner of digital devices to remember the people we are introduced to at meetings or (more embarrassingly) those we meet when we drink a little too much at a work party. We have all, no doubt, had that experience where we meet a person, take down their number and name, promise to contact them soon, and, in the sober light of day, wonder who the hell they are. The ancients had a much better way of dealing with this. They dragged a slave to their parties and forced him to remember the names and numbers. Now the most important difference between the iPhone and the nomenclator is that the nomenclator could tell you who the guy was, what you talked about, and whether he is worth contacting. He can also clarify whether that gorgeous lady you met was made gorgeous by beer googles or not. Frankly, if it weren’t for an exorbitantly high minimum wage, we would all be better off tossing the iPhone and taking on a modern nomenclator. But alas, who would want the job? Who would want to be paid two bucks an hour to remain sober while everyone else was partying on down? Not me that’s for sure! Having said that, just in case I am wrong and this job does appeal to some, if there is anyone living in the Wellington region who is looking for low-paid under-the-table work and wants to go to some great parties (whilst remaining sober), check out the Listverse About page and contact me.




Okay – be prepared for a sensitive topic. Recently we have had a rather unfortunate event wherein abortion was discussed on a list that caused quite the kerfuffle (it’s an English word – find the definition here). You may wonder why I mention it but if you read on you will understand. A slaver was a gentleman (used in the most liberal sense of the word possible) who sold slaves – for work or pleasure. He would either travel behind armies (who were off fighting in battle) so he could capture the losers and sell them to rich Greeks as slaves, or (and this is where we connect up with the awkward list of the last few days), he would buy “unwanted” boys (but only the handsome ones) from parents so he could castrate them and sell them as lovers to wealthy Greek men who had a taste for young flesh. They provided (in rather a repulsive way) an alternative to adoption to those parents who didn’t want their children. The downside to this (somewhat repellant) career choice, was that despite the demand for handsome young boys, the slavers were often murdered by those who didn’t approve of their trade.




The job of a hairdresser (ornatrix) is so often looked down upon these days. And it was no less so in the ancient times. But honestly, a modern hairdresser really ought to appreciate her job – because she has it so much better now than ever in the past. Picture this: your imperial queen is balding and blonde, but the fashion this week is dark lustrous locks. If it were today, you would either shove a wig on the lady or glue in some extensions. This was, sadly, not an option for the work-weary ornatrix of days gone by. In order to provide your mistress with her coal-colored mane, you had to work with a mixture of bile, rotten leeches, and squid ink (the rotten leeches made for an especially rich black). But it gets worse. Occasionally fashion would demand blonde hair and your mistress is a natural brunette. There was no peroxide in those days. To give her a lovely golden hue you had to mix pigeon poop, and ashes together in the hopes that the chemical combination would strip out the healthy color of her hair. Oh – and to set the color – you had to pee on her hair. Worse still was being a slave with beautiful hair – this would often be cut from your head and fashioned into a wig for a rich harridan.


Vestal Virgin


Let us start with the job description: “Teen female virgin wanted for thirty year service. Must be Roman, having all limbs, and not the child of a slave”. This was the job description of the vestal virgin. These attractive and fully-limbed girls were to spend thirty years giving service to Vesta – goddess of the family. They had to keep the vestal flame burning and were in a position of great honor – the only female priests in Ancient Rome. Now if one of these pretty young girls absent-mindedly forget to keep the fire going, she would be flogged till she bled. If, the heavens forbid, she slipped up in the area of virginity, she was buried alive. Oh – and to make matters worse, the lazy vestal virgin who slept in and let the fire go out was not just likely to get a flogging: letting the fire go out was a sign of loss of virginity. In other words, she got flogged, then buried alive – just for sleeping in!



Surgical Forceps Found At Pompei

We have all seen the ridiculous Book of British Smiles (see item 8) on the Simpson’s and while that may be something of a myth, socialized dental care doesn’t seem to be particularly efficient. But imagine the mouths of the Romans who didn’t brush their teeth, ate craploads of rotten fish sauce (see item 2), and spent a huge amount of time feasting and vomiting. Now imagine one with an abscess or a toothache and being the dentist who had to deal with that. Now those of us who are very fond of wine are okay – as it was commonly used as an anesthetic, but when things got really bad, the poor dentist had to take drastic measures. This (sadly) involved taking a red hot poker to the gums after the tooth was ripped out, and stuffing more rotten fish into the resulting charred hole. One can’t help but wonder who had it worse – the dentist or the patient!


Wine Maker


Speaking of my favorite subject wine, What job could be better than that of the wine maker – harvesting the grapes in the early hours while the dew still drips from the vines, pressing the fat grapes with one’s feet whilst singing bawdy epic songs, and finally, after fermentation, drinking the delicious nepenthe on the terrace of an evening? Hmm – perhaps drinking wine that wasn’t laced with lead! That’s right, unfortunately the Romans didn’t understand the dangers of lead and they regularly sweetened their wine with sugar of lead (much in the same way as we fill our drinks with a variety of cancer-causing sugar replacements these days). To make matters worse, they often served their “lead-wine” in lead cups! The average Roman who enjoyed a quaff or two, consumed up to one gram of lead per day!




Praegustator: in other words, a taster. Following on from wine we have food. Now who wouldn’t want to be paid a handsome sum every day for doing nothing but chowing down on the emperor’s dinner? Daily tastes of peacock, swamp hen, wild boar, the list is virtually endless. But, as is to be expected on this list, there is a caveat. Most of the emperors were dicks and a lot of people wanted them dead. And in those days before guns (or the possibility of getting close enough to fire a bow and arrow) the easiest way to kill someone was to poison them. So, forgetting the lead-laced wine which would have eventually taken its toll anyway, the emperors were certain to be dished up a plate of some rancid poisonous delicacies at least once or twice in their career. Herein steps the praegustator (the pre-taster). This poor schmuck was the guy who had to have a mouthful of everything the Emperor planned to eat. Needless to say, history has shown us that more pre-tasters died than emperors.




Most of us are aware of the experience of going to the gym to lose a few pounds. The burning ache in the shoulders and arms when our personal trainer forces us onto the satanic rowing machine with no desire other than to make us feel bad because we dragged them out of bed at 6am. Now fortunately for us we are paying the bills so we can tell the trainer to shove off and stop after three minutes. And that brings us to the poor unfortunate souls who had to row the Greek war boats during the good old ancient days. First of all, most were slaves and were paid nothing more than a daily meal. Secondly, when that nasty burn set in they couldn’t just stop and demand a latte break. They would get flogged. Imagine your innocuous personal trainer pulling out a cat’o’nine-tails when your arms started to ache. Imagine being flayed because the chubby guy on the machine next to you is going half a mile faster than you. That was the life of the rower.


Armpit Plucker

Ancient Greek Clowns

I was tempted to say nothing about this item as the title is disgusting enough! But, alas, I would feel like I were cheating were I to stop there. Some years ago I was a student of pugilism. We were a small class of teenaged boys being taught by an ex-Soviet Nuclear submarine commander who had emigrated to New Zealand (he had some amazing stories to tell which I may one day share here). He worked us hard. Now I was a teen who was very concerned about personal hygiene. Sadly the same was not true for the majority of my class. The gym smelt like someone had sprayed body odor especially to “man” us up. This is not a new thing. The ancients were incredibly fond of their sports (often naked or with nothing on but the foreskin gripper – the kynodesme – see item 9). Because these athletes were working out all day in the hot sun and were aware of the natural ability of hair to retain unpleasant odors, the men (young and old) went through a daily routine of having their underarm hairs plucked out by the armpit plucker – after all, they were most likely to spend the evening in very close company with others at the public baths. Now the armpit plucker was not the same as a modern beautician who plucks eyebrows – these were professionals who were dealing with incredibly hairy armpits full of smells that one doesn’t want to think about at all. No amount of grappa could prepare you for this job.




Latin is an amazing language – it manages to make everything sound lovely. For example: pedacabo – pronounced “ped-a-cah-bo” – it just rolls right off the tongue. Unfortunately it means “one who is anally penetrated.” Delator is similar. In modern English, the delator might be called a snitch, a rat, a fink, an informant, a stoolie, and a huge variety of other unpleasant names for a person who is, basically, a nark. These were men whose sole job in life was to tell on their neighbors. For every little misdemeanor. They make the Nazi Youth look good! These bastards even reported people for failure to pay their taxes! Unfortunately power often goes to our heads and these sneaky scumbags started making stuff up because they were paid regardless of the truth behind their accusations. If there was ever going to be a social pariah, these were the guys who were it. The most famous delator (though not Roman) was, of course, Judas.

fact checked by dickensgirl
Jamie Frater

Jamie is the founder of Listverse. When he’s not doing research for new lists or collecting historical oddities, he can be found in the comments or on Facebook where he approves all friends requests!

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