Province of Pannonia Superior
August 28th, 165 CE
Explaining things like this was work, Paula Atkins told herself. For starters, you had to control the impulse to anger.
But I’m glad the Prof talked us into saving the Roman Empire. Sort of. Because that implies changing it. If I was just living here without that, it would drive me to drink or suicide.
“It’s a model,” Paula said to the carpenters. “One-quarter the size of the real thing.”
She held up four fingers of her right hand and one on her left; she thought the townsman—his name was Quintus—sighed a little, and the local man frowned and then nodded.
Explaining things like this was like teaching, but less interesting. Still, it was worthwhile…
“Ah, like the unarota?”
That was the name they’d come up with for wheelbarrows: it meant ‘one-wheel’.
“And the thing for threshing, mistress?” he said. “There was a model of that, too.”
There was a chorus of smiles from everyone except the freeman, and he seemed to understand why they were happy about it.
Beating out the grain with flails was hard work and boring, tossing it in a breeze to get rid of the chaff was hard work and boring, scraping it up and putting it in bins and sacks and large plaited baskets and big earthenware jars and carrying and stacking them was even harder work and boring, and it took most of their otherwise-free time in winter.
In England there had been mass riots when threshing machines were first introduced, while Queen Victoria-to-be was still a princess. That was because the farmworkers had been paid for the hand-threshing. Miserably underpaid, but they were rural proletarians hired by the day or week or task who needed every single half-penny to buy food over the winter slack-season.
The slaves here would just have less of an unpleasant task, and get fed about the same anyway, whether they were doing something else or not. They liked things that did that, and she approved of their priorities.
It had been a good thought to do those first; it won pleased, amazed respect from the workforce here. To them, lord Artorius and his helpers had come to lift burdens from their backs. Threshing the old way had taken up about a quarter of their total labor-hours per year.
The vilicus approved too, because the faster the grain was threshed the faster his master got paid, since Josephus had contracted for the whole surplus and paid upfront for it as he got it loaded on his hired wagons. A small nick of several things involved with that stuck to the vilicus’ palm, a known if unacknowledged perk.
He was probably pulling a sack out of a hole somewhere every night and smiling as he fondled it.
“Yes, like those. And it comes apart like this, see? Just make all the parts in the same proportion, but four times bigger.”
Oh, if only it was that simple! From what Jem said, there’s going to be a lot of fiddling and jiggling and fitting before it functions. And that’s with Type A!
What it was a model of was a spinning wheel, late 19th-century style, the final refinement and oddly enough developed in Canada for backwoods farm-households in Quebec. It stood on a workbench, in one of the workshops around the second courtyard of the pars rustica of the estate.
Adzed wooden pillars surrounded the interior of the court to leave a shaded portico, with a waist-high adobe wall joining them, but the surface they enclosed was gravel or pounded dirt or severely practical herb-and-truck gardens. There was a fountain—also plain, and women were carrying water away from it in clay amphorae or wooden buckets, gossiping as they did. Chickens pecked, dogs scratched, cats drowsed in patches of sun, children ran around shouting when they weren’t corralled for chores, and work proceeded at a steady but not very fast pace.
The harvest had been a rush working can-to-can’t in the hottest time of year, and nobody did more than grumble. If untimely rain spoiled the grain, or delay meant it shattered and fell out of the ears, the workers would have less to eat for the next year. The interval between getting the grain in and the fall plowing and planting (and the vintage) was for catching your breath and catching up on other things you’d put off like repairs and laundry.
There was a heavy smell of sap and cut wood and sawdust here in the open-sided carpenter’s workshop lit by the strong morning sun; tools hung from pegs and racks, some surprisingly modern-looking, and shapes of seasoned wood were stacked up on the rafters overhead. The tools included a back-and-forth woodworking lathe powered by a bow-and-string arrangement, in turn powered by the estate carpenter’s pubescent son-apprentice.
She made a mental note to suggest a foot-pedal and flywheel arrangement to replace that. They didn’t have crankshafts here but didn’t find them difficult to understand, and in the original history they’d have been invented in the next few hundred years.
Underneath that woody scent was what she thought of as a slummy smell, of body odor and dirty feet and sweat soaked into wool. Though not too bad, at least not now that she’d been here a while and her nose had adjusted; these people washed twice a week or even more, in a suite of baths more crowded and much more basic than the ones attached to the pars urbana. They didn’t have enough clothes to wash them often, but they did launder them occasionally.
And it was still much better than Vindobona, because there were far fewer people packed together.
And they have that latrine with running water under it. Luxury, in a way.
There were actually two carpenters here; one belonged to the villa and had his son and a couple of assistants who handled the rough work under his supervision, while the other was the young freeman named Quintus from Vindobona. He’d been trained in furniture-making and so was valuably good at fine joinery, but hadn’t been able to set up his own shop yet before he was recruited by Josephus and Josephus’ contacts.
They gave each other covert jealous looks, but they both had what would be considerable sums to them riding on this going right, which greased things. The freeman would get the tools they’d bought and be able to rent enough space to get his own shop going and marry next year. The slave would add to his peculium, the fund that slaves were allowed to have here. Slaves could own property, in practice if not in strict legal theory. They could also save up to buy themselves, if they were ambitious.
In fact the freeman was nodding to himself as he looked at the model and traced things with his fingers.
He muttered under his breath: “And if these catch on… I wonder how much I could charge for one? More than I could for a good-quality table and set of reclining benches, I bet… hummmm.”
Some slaves even owned slaves themselves… though that occurred at a much more exalted level than the pars rustica of an estate in a remote border province.
There was a woman present too, a middle-aged mother with a twelve-year-old girl beside her and a boychild toddler standing gripping the skirt of her tunic and sucking his thumb; he wore nothing but a string around his neck with a bead on it and had a runny nose.
Well, Ubba there is middle-aged by local standards. She’s probably only five or six years older than me, but I bet she had her first kid two or three years after puberty though she’s only got those two living. She’s popular and well-respected here in the pars rustica among the other women, though, and they’re the ones who do the spinning and weaving and sewing.
The mother was standing frowning as she looked at the machine. Her hands were busy, as were those of the older daughter, apparently needing no conscious attention, spinning thread with a distaff.
That meant a stick with a big hank of—badly—bleached carded wool on it in her left hand, wool that still had bits of the spiky teasle-seedpod used to comb it out in it. Her right supported a spindle dangling from the thread. She was drawing the loose wool fibers out of the distaff, deftly joining them to the end of the thread and twisting it, applying an occasional boost to the weighted spindle to keep it twirling. When there was enough thread that the spindle nearly touched the ground, she wound it onto the bobbin part and started all over again.
Paula had noted…
Just like that play of Aristophanes, she thought, blinking at the eerie thrill of it.
… that most women here who were walking between tasks, or watching children, or anything else that didn’t require their hands, had a spindle and distaff going. When they did have to stop and do something else, they just thrust both into the rough cloth girdle that confined their calf-length tunics, and automatically resumed when they could. The distaff held enough carded wool for a full day’s spinning, or two or three interspersed between other tasks.
Girls as young as six or seven did it too, with their elders correcting them at need, and old women with bent backs and a few remnant teeth often sat gossiping in the sunny parts of the courtyards of the pars rustica with spindle and distaff in their gnarled fingers. She’d even seen women doing it while sitting on one of the holes in the disconcertingly open-plan latrine, doing their other business too and chatting with the neighbors.
Which latrine was disconcertingly close to the kitchens, apparently because they both used running water.
“This spins, mistress?” the woman said, nodding at the model.
Most of the staff—
Slaves, Paula reminded herself. They’re slaves. She just called me era, which is the word slaves use for ‘mistress’.
—were born here and spoke Latin, though except for the educated upper-echelon house-slaves who’d mostly come with the ladies from Sirmium they had a heavy local accent.
And they salted the Roman tongue with loanwords from the Celtic dialect spoken in Noricum and its neighbors before incorporation into the Empire; a fair proportion of them were descended from those folk. The others had ancestors from virtually everywhere, coffled in and ending up here at one time or another. A sprinkling had been bought from traders more recently, or had been infants whose impoverished parents exposed them in some cemetery or on some rubbish-heap where they’d been snapped up by slave-dealers.
Keeping up numbers was hard. There were occasional manumissions, the odd runaway—almost always a young man—and children died with dismaying frequency.
Apparently many of the free tenants still actually spoke the old Celtic tongue, but most of them knew Latin too. Latin-speakers here expected other people to talk to them in their own language, and not doing that could cause endless friction. Which made learning it worthwhile even if you lived where you’d been born, and essential if you had dealings with anyone from outside a half-hour’s walk.
As far as sheer physical looks went, the coloring and features, they looked like Central or Balkan Europeans. Shorter than in her day, fewer living oldsters, many more kids, and nearly all wiry-slim. And maybe a bit less in the way of blonds and redheads than modern Austrians, though she wasn’t sure about that.
Except that they didn’t hold themselves the same, or walk the same, or…
The owners, the family of Sextus Hirrius Trogus, were Gallic by descent too, as the last name, the cognomen, indicated, but long ago Romanized. Before Julius Caesar’s time in fact, and far to the west.
Slaves, she thought again with a shudder. I don’t know what creeps me out more, just the fact, or the way everyone here takes it for granted. At least it doesn’t have anything to do with your skin color.
Her mouth quirked. A couple of times small children had run up and rubbed a finger on her to see if the black came off or tried to touch her hair, and been hauled away by the ear and smacked on the bottom by apologetic mothers worried that the odd, rich stranger staying in the pars urbana would get annoyed. But that was about the sum of it.
People here knew in the abstract that people looked different in different places, or at least the literate ones did and the rest told fantastic stories about far-off lands where people had fur or only one eye or foot or no heads and faces in their stomachs, but it just didn’t matter much. Not compared to whether you were slave or freedman or free-born, or whether you were a Roman citizen (which freedmen who’d been owned by Roman citizens were, sort of, and their children completely so), or rich or poor.
There were ethnic stereotypes here in plenty, or regional ones, held with innocent unselfconsciousness as something everybody knew.
The northern barbarians were big, blond, stinky-filthy, and dumb as rocks with murderous short-fuse tempers; Greeks were sneaky and clever and talked too much and liked their sheep far too much; Jews were sneaky and clever and given to fits of religious mania; Italians were toffee-nosed, party-hearty lazy snobs; Britons were hayseed hicks on the edge of the world; and people from Syria—the Middle East—were greasy treacherous gutless-wonder lickspittles.
None of that applied to her. Except the ones about women, of course. But being free and rich by local standards and a guest of the family helped there. And the vilicus had passed the word that they were supposed to do anything she said. Up to and including stripping down, painting themselves green and then hopping about going ribbit-ribbit, on pain of a flogging, or for the freemen from Vindobona, loss of money they wanted dearly.
Because I’m black I’m a curiosity here, but it isn’t important. I’m black but I’m living before the concept of race the way we used the term was even invented. And that feels just as odd as the rest of it.
Almost as weird as the living, breathing slaves all around her.
“Yes, it spins,” Paula said to the woman with the distaff, hauling herself out of the academic temptations of introspection. “It is a tool for spinning thread, from wool or flax.”
Cotton was a very, very expensive import here; unless they were maidservants to the ladies of the house they’d rarely see it and never touch it. And the house-servants and field-workers moved in different circles, though with some overlap.
Paula reached out and pushed the model’s treadle down with one hand, repeating the motion until the parts all moved, the wishbone-shaped flyer whirling around the spindle with a rising hum as the wheel picked up speed.
“The woman using it sits on a stool here, and moves this with her foot; it’s called the treadle.”
The adolescent girl blurted: “She can work sitting down all the time?”
Her mother reached out without looking around and rapped her on the head with the end of her distaff, medium-hard.
“Mistress,” the girl added, wincing and rubbing the spot.
All three adults moved their lips as they whispered the word treadle to themselves to set it in memory, several times over.
“The wheel turns the flyer here—”
More whispered memorization.
“—and bobbin, like this, at different speeds. That’s why these little wheels the cords from the big wheel run on are different sizes. You hold the thread at a constant tension, feeding in more fiber from the distaff rod here as it goes. Through the hole here, then it runs over these hooks on the spinning flyer and winds itself on the bobbin. You take off the bobbin when it’s full and put on another.”
The explanation went easily enough. She’d actually used a spinning wheel… though not often… at demonstrations by hobbyists, just to get a little hands-on feel for it. It was a bit useful in her field, which focused on women’s history; she’d only narrowed it down to classical women’s history since her undergrad days, that was going to be—
Was going to be, she thought glumly.
—the subject of her dissertation. Though she’d started on Latin in high school, and was spending some time here picking up Greek from Fil and Mark.
The woman grunted as she traced the path Paula had described with her eyes and then her finger, shoving her spindle and distaff into her girdle and pushing the treadle herself and tracing the path of the thread.
“Uh! So that… that flyer thing, some’ow it do what your fingers do with this, mistress?”
She indicated her distaff and bobbin again.
“Sic, ita,” Paula replied, an emphatic double affirmation.
It will probably be a lot more difficult to get people doing it properly. There’s parts you have to learn with your fingers and eyes, the tensioning and such, and I’m no expert.
Textiles in general and spinning in particular were generally women’s work, probably because it was finicky, boring, and could be interrupted at will. Usually at a man’s will, or for children.
And, surprise, surprise, it doesn’t pay well, even if you’re not a slave.
“Why, mistress?” the woman asked after another moment of contemplation, during which she resumed her own spinning, as automatically as breathing. “That looks tricky, that wheel thing do, and this—” she moved her hands to draw attention to the thread moving smoothly through her fingers “—is simple. Everybody knows how to do’t.”
Everybody female was implicit.
Paula nodded with an encouraging smile. She’d had to yell and threaten now and then, but hated it and the way it made the slaves cringe: on the other hand, positive reinforcement seemed to work here too.
Provided you didn’t come across as an easy mark.
“Well, the reason is that an hour’s work with this machine spins ten times as much as you do with a distaff in the same hour, and it spins very tight thread.”
The estate carpenter grunted. “Like the threshing engine can thresh better ‘n quicker, mistress? An’ th’ unarota carries more stuff faster, an’ superwine—”
He grinned and smacked his lips. “—gets you good an’ drunk faster?”
“Just so, my good man.”
She showed them all a swatch of worsted wool cloth, taken from the Prof’s suit-jacket. They exclaimed, passing it from hand to hand, rubbing it, touching it to their faces or lips and holding it up to the light.
“This cloth’s fit for the Lady Julia’s stola, ev’n if it ain’t silk!” the woman said. “Can we spin thread loike this wit’ the wheel thing? Mostly the cloth we make here ’bouts is just f’ the familia rustica.”
Which words meant all the slaves of the estate. They grew their own food and made their own clothes—of coarse, slightly lumpy undyed woolen cloth, mostly—and shoes for winter and many of their tools, too, and their housing. There were the carpenters here, and two blacksmiths who could double with other metals, and part-time bricklayers and tile-makers and leatherworkers and potters. What came in from the outside was mostly luxuries for the pars urbana, some of the fancier tools, and basics like bar-iron. The free tenants often came to the villa’s pars rustica too if they needed to buy specialist services.
“It’s a spinning wheel. And no, not quite like this, but very good,” Paula said.
Now for my cunning blow.
“Your masters will pay you an as for every ten full spindles of thread you make when these machines are ready… when you make the thread properly, it will take time to get the knack, I warn you. For every bobbin above the amount you did before with your distaffs.”
The slave woman—and the slave carpenter—both exclaimed, delighted. And the freeman’s brows went up.
An as was the equivalent of a penny, the lowest-value coin in common use, and struck in copper. There were four of them to a sestertius, the next coin up and made of brass or orilachrium as they called it here, and four sestertii to a silver denarius. A soldier in the Legions got about eight-tenths of a denarius a day; after allowing for stoppages he would make about one and a half to two sestertii. When Quintus the freeborn carpenter here had his own shop, taking slack times and others with a lot of orders together and depending on how hard and well he worked, he’d probably clear about the same.
Though the soldiers got paid regularly three times a year, and banked most of it with the unit’s signifer, who put it in the legion’s strongbox.
The owner’s family wouldn’t be out of pocket much making a nominal payment like that; thread was readily saleable, and with enough spinning wheels… say twenty or thirty… the estate would be producing a surplus fairly quickly, and selling each bobbin-full for well over an as each. But rural slaves like these just didn’t see much coined money at all, and Paula could see she was thinking that if the machine really did make ten times as much thread, then…
And the women will get it, Paula thought. It’s a small step, but a beginning.
She looked up at the sun; she’d already become accustomed to using that, or a sundial. Their phones were just too conspicuous if you whipped one out to check the clock, and they’d all been helping each other to become conscious of it. Nobody wanted to be burned at the stake or thrown to the lions or whatever it was that Romans did with convicted sorcerers… though to be fair, apparently the law only forbade harmful magic, like prophesies of the Emperor’s death.
Black magician, that’s me.
“I have other tasks now,” she said. “Remember, you carpenters, that there will be a denarius to split between you for every day under fourteen it takes until the first spinning wheel is ready… provided it works. Call on me if you have problems. After you master the spinning wheel, we will start on the treadle-worked flying-shuttle loom.”
That model was still in her suite; it was of the type British handloom-weavers had used up until the 1830’s, when power-looms were perfected and hand-weaving no longer paid enough to keep you alive.
The advantages over the local loom were even greater than with the spinning wheel vs. distaff. The estate sold most of its wool clip, well over three-quarters, and it was quite good wool from good-sized sheep, nearly as good as modern merino. The Danube’s legions and auxiliaries and their dependents made a ready, steady, well-paid market. When the spinning wheels and looms were done, they could make as much cloth as they had before in one-tenth the time… or nine-tenths more, and sell it. That would finance other things.
Her next task was the prandium. Which was lunch.
More or less by coincidence, Romans in this period ate a light breakfast and lunch and had their main meal around sundown, the same pattern she was accustomed to. The food here was exotic but usually quite good at the level of the villa-dwelling aristocracy… in many ways like stuff from an organic health-food outfit, apart from sanitation. And she’d still shed some weight, slowly but consistently. No sugar except occasional honey, somewhat coarse wholemeal flour even for the aristos, plenty of veggies and fruit and lean meat—even the pigs here were usually leaner than twenty-first century ones—and lots of exercise.
You didn’t need to put aside time for a walk, here, and you most certainly didn’t need a steppercizer; she was probably walking two or three miles a day, and they’d never heard of elevators or escalators.
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