Or you could really go back in time — to life in Ancient Rome


Heidi Schiller

Talk about time travel. Just think about what it would be like to travel back in time several thousand years.

It may sound exciting, but if you thought your job was bad, try plucking hairs from a client’s armpit or cleaning garments in a vat of stale urine.

Both were legitimate nine-to-five gigs in the ancient world, among many others with equally eyebrow-raising cache.

Those financial reports and performance reviews starting to sound not so bad?

California author Vicki Leon has collected a categorical encyclopedia of jobs in the ancient world in her new tome, “Working IX to V.”

On Sept. 20, Leon will bring her knowledge of the Greek and Roman job market to Bellingham as a guest on the Chuckanut Radio Hour at the American Museum of Radio and Electricity.

Leon has been fascinated by the ancient world since she was a kid learning about the subject in school.

“The way things were taught in school bored the pants off me,” she said. “I wanted to know what Romans and Greeks did all day, but I never got a good answer.”

Leon first wrote about the ancient world in her “Uppity Women” series, which focused on the lives of Greco-Roman women. From her research for the series of four books, she collected additional stories of ancient jobs of both genders, and compiled them in “Working IX to V.”

“There were lots of behind-the-scenes jobs,” she said. “It was a complex society with so many different types of jobs. Things you would never know about unless someone rooted them out.”

Some of the careers she dug up sound positively archaic. An “ustor” was an undertaker’s employee that tossed corpses atop burning funeral pyres, followed by their live pet animals.

An armpit plucker was a specialist that plucked the armpit hairs of upper-class Romans. A “foretaster” nibbled on the upper crust’s supper to test for poison — a job that often tasted good until it killed you.

Other ancient jobs were more plum than their dreaded counterparts. A sandal schlepper was a fought-over job among female slaves in which their main duty was to accompany their mistress to dinner parties to slip on and off her sandals.

A “lictor” acted as a ceremonial bodyguard and status symbol for high-ranking Roman officials, but didn’t have to do much other than stand tall and look pretty.

Leon has had her own fair share of odd jobs, including working as a stunt driver for Greek films in the ‘60s and as an egg polisher in Israel, in addition to writing travel guides and working for a publishing company.

But writing about the ancient nine-to-five crunch has been one of her most successful.

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