Because of the traditional reluctance of the Roman elite to engage personally in profit-oriented economic activities other than agriculture (Cic., Off. 1.151), entrepreneurs of all kinds formed a distinctive social class and would tend to act as non-advertised agents for those who may have had the needs, the means, and the willingness to operate businesses on a larger scale than the individual, subsistence-level enterprise. However, the concept of agency was foreign to Roman law, because acting on behalf and in the name of someone else smacked of magic. Consequently, agents were, at least originally, legally dependents, as slaves or sons and daughters in power, whose lack of legal personality enabled them to better their principal’s economic condition and eventually to engage both their delictual and contractual liability, under certain circumstances. The key to such a legal arrangement was the formal appointment (praepositio) of business managers (institores).
The social worlds of artisans and craftsmen were structured around skill on both conceptual and practical levels. On a conceptual level, artisans employed skill (τέχνη / ars) as a crucial component of the identities they constructed for themselves—identities that differed distinctly from perceptions of artisans among the elite, who dismissed most craftsmen as “base” manual labourers. On a practical level, the importance of apprenticeship as a tool for the acquisition of skill had a profound impact on the social profile of artisans and craftsmen: while it ensured that skill could be acquired by both free and enslaved artisans, it limited opportunities for women and for children born into households of low economic status. From an economic perspective, the small workshop remained the backbone of artisanal production. The ubiquity of small workshops in the economy can be explained best as the product of artisans’ efforts to respond to the risks created by product markets in which demand was inherently seasonal and uncertain. With some exceptions, artisans sought to mitigate their exposure to risk by minimizing fixed costs, while nevertheless preserving the ability to expand their output in periods of elevated demand. This was true even in industries that fostered specialization in discrete and technically demanding stages of a vertical production process: in these industries, artisans typically coordinated their production not within integrated firms, but rather within subcontracting networks.