An idle thought about ancient otium

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An otiose-looking Cicero from a 14th-century manuscript (Troyes, Bibliothèque Municipale, 552)

The opposition between work and rest goes back as far as history can see. In the Bible, it goes back to Creation itself. God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. In ancient Rome, the opposition work-rest was captured by the concepts of otiumnegotium. Not every Roman who wrote about this and whose writings survive meant the same thing. However, the two terms were understood to be in opposition. Otium denoted the leisure time spent away from the civic duties and activities associated with negotium, the time devoted to work and business as part of one’s profession.

While the meaning of negotium was clear – it meant work, but not manual labour, which overlapped with servile work –, otium remained an ambivalent term, whose meanings ranged from commendable intellectual pursuits (outside of working hours) to hours spent in downright idleness, hence the Latin word otiosus for idle, which gave ‘otiose’ in English, meaning useless. The English word business, the quality of being busy, stands in perfect contrast to otium understood as idleness or inactivity.

The more otiose among us will be pleased to know that a certain understanding of the two concepts placed otium first and negotium second, which inverts our own understanding of work and free-time. For the Romans in the late Republic (1st century BC), negotium was a denial of otium: nec’/g (not) + otium (leisure). First came leisure, then work, unlike us, who following the book of Genesis, think of leisure as a follow-up to work. For those Romans, work is the absence of leisure: Mihi nec otium est (I have no free time!), which makes leisure the normal state of the citizen. The author of Homo Ludens would surely agree, as would most Romans, nay, Italians, today. The quintessentially Italian dolce farniente (literally ‘sweet idleness’) should be seen as the rightful heir of the ancient otium. 

The earliest attestation of otium, however, is not in opposition to negotium, but to bellum, to war. Otium was time spent by soldiers away from war, in peacetime activities. This early understanding of otium as repose from war (and later, by metonymy, from urban work), might help understand the ambivalence of the term struggling between the worthy pursuit of non-lucrative projects and the anxiety around idleness as a source of potential disorder. Anything can happen during those hours of inactivity.

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