Roving reporter Ryan and Oxford historian Lydia took Nat Geo’s trusty time machine back to the first century CE to get the word on the via about life in the Roman Empire.
Here we speak to carpenter Gaius Valerius Silvanus about the important role of woodworking in building the great city of Rome itself.
Salvē, Silvane! Tell us, what does a carpenter like yourself do here in the city of Rome?
Well, first I should say that there are many different types of carpenters and woodworkers in Rome. While we all practice the ars fabrilis, really what we do is quite different.
I am a conductor, or contractor. I oversee the construction of large houses and buildings, a position of authority I’ve achieved after countless years demonstrating my craftsmanship and ability, first as an apprentice and then as a foreman working under a contractor myself. Now, the manual work I oversee is performed by slaves and apprentices, who are themselves often supervised by other specialists I employ.
We have many different specialties. My brother Lucius, for instance, is an excellent faber navalis, a shipwright. He helps maintain the triremes that have allowed the powerful Roman navy to conquer all challengers in the Mediterranean. And my neighbor Marcus is a plostrarius, a maker of the wagons and wagon wheels used to transport merchandise throughout the city and beyond. There are many other woodworkers, including those that make furniture, chests, and boxes, and those who specialize in buying and selling wood. All of us are members of the collegium fabrum tignuariorum, the woodworkers’ guild.
You see, wood is one of the most important resources we have in all of the Empire. While the wealthy families of this city may look down on us common craftsmen, their homes, chariots, ships, bridges, and household items are made of wood and crafted by us. From the largest aqueducts to the smallest hair combs, this empire is essentially built from wood.
What types of wood do you use to build such works?
I typically work with the wood of the silver fir, the abies alba. It is common in this region, and grows large but not so large that it is impossible to fell. Some woodworkers will also use maple or birch, and for smaller handcrafted items, we will often use buxus, or boxwood.
Because these trees only grow outside of the city, I don’t go to chop them down myself. Instead I purchase the wood I need from the abietarius, who specializes in procuring and selling wood to craftsmen like myself. What he cannot sell for proper woodworking he sells as firewood, which we use in our homes. We also use the wood to fire pottery and create charcoal to forge iron and bronze.
As cities around the empire grow, I am hearing that the abietarius and his men have to travel further and further into the countryside to obtain timber, as the trees surrounding Rome are simply gone. This is worrisome, as it is taking much longer to obtain both wood for building and firewood and the price has increased significantly.
What are some of the most important tools for your work?
Tools are precious to a Roman carpenter, and each of mine are handmade and actually quite valuable. Back in my officina I have many tools, some of which I use everyday and some of which I need but once or twice a year.
The ones carpenters use most often are the malleus and the clavus, what you would call a hammer and nail. I also have a number of regulae—rulers—for measurements. Different specialists use a range of tools. Those working with heavy beams and timbers use a large saw called a serra, while those whose work is more detailed—like the pectinarius, the comb maker—would use a scobina to carve and shape the wood. Some of the tools we use in Rome don’t even look so different than those that you carry today.
You’ve clearly mastered the art of carpentry, but you mentioned that you still don’t get a lot of respect from the city’s wealthy elite. Why is that?
Life in this Empire is guided by social structures, especially in the city of Rome. You can find everyone from the lowest slave to the emperor himself here.
Work for us carpenters, while we are free citizens, revolves around serving the wealthy ruling class. Not all of them are patricians. In fact, the majority of the men in the Senate come from plebeian families. Still, those at the top are so caught up in the scandal and intrigue of the palace, their constant power struggles, and avoiding any real work that they hardly have time to notice the carpenters building their villas.
2,000 years from now, what should people remember about carpenters in the Roman Empire?
I am sure that nowhere else in the world is there a carpentry practice as advanced as what we have here in Rome right now. I’m willing to bet it stays that way for quite a while. I hope that we Roman carpenters are remembered as highly skilled craftsmen who took great pride in the detail and execution of our work.
Inside the Carpenter’s Studio
Roman carpenters typically worked from small workshops attached to their insulae, the cramped, connected dwellings that housed all Roman urbanites but the wealthiest elite. Despite limited space, most carpenters had dozens of tools, many of them particular to their woodworking specialty.
Little House on the Volcano
While historical accounts often reference the fine craftsmanship and detailed work of Roman woodworkers, little remains of their handiwork in the modern world. Most of what we now know about Roman houses, for example, comes from the remains of towns like Pompeii and Herculaneum, both preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Rome’s more famous ruins are made of marble, which better withstands weathering and erosion.
to work alongside an expert or master in order to learn a particular skill.
a pipe or passage used for carrying water from a distance.
person who builds or repairs wooden structures.
carbon material made by burning wood or other organic material with little air.
member of a country, state, or town who shares responsibilities for the area and benefits from being a member.
manager responsible for the day-to-day working on a construction site.
quality of work produced.
ruler of an empire.
person who is owned by another person or group of people.
person who oversees a project, especially construction.
to form or make by heating and hammering into shape.
organization of people with related interests, goals, or careers, especially one formed for mutual aid or protection.
series of manipulations or secret plotting.
done by a person, not a machine.
process of determining length, width, mass (weight), volume, distance or some other quality or size.
goods that are bought and sold.
military ships and crew.
large home or mansion, often the home of a leader or dignitary.
a noble or person of high rank.
common or low-ranking person.
wood in an unfinished form, either trees or logs.
to move material from one place to another.
impressive residence or estate.