In addition to working at tasks we now consider stereotypically unskilled female work (cooking, cleaning, basic textile work, child care, etc.), as the majority of slave and freedwomen did, and at less stereotypically female jobs (porter, pedagogue), some slave women were trained in more skilled tasks. Funerary inscriptions tell us of specific occupations. They worked as hairdressers, dressmakers, ladies’ maids, and attendants on upper class women. Upon their manumission, some freedwomen became involved in the small-scale textile industry or sold things at the market for a living. Others were trained as midwives, clerks, secretaries, or readers. Caenis, for example, was Antonia Minor’s secretary before she was freed.
Many slave and freedwomen worked in more public jobs. They were actresses, flute-players, dancers, barmaids. We even have some (scanty) evidence of enslaved female gladiators. Many were forced into prostitution.* The infamia of having been a prostitute carried over if a woman was freed.
Upon manumission, a slave became client to her former owner, now her patron. In addition to the usual reciprocal relationship between patron and client, a freedwoman still owed her patron service (unless she had been a prostitute), so long as she still had enough time to make her own living.
Slave and freedwomen were everywhere in Ancient Rome. It was a society built on the exploitation of slaves and could not exist without it. Unsurprisingly, however, they remain one of the least talked about groups of people in Roman society.**
*It was possible for a slave owner to prevent the female slave he was selling from being prostituted. The ne serva was a clause included in the contract that not only prohibited her new owner from doing so, but required them to include the same clause if they sold her. In earlier centuries, if any subsequent owner violated that clause, she reverted back to her first owner. During the later Roman Empire, by which point it had the force of law, violation of the ne serva freed her.
**With the possible exception of prostitutes. You know, because of the long tradition of older, privileged men writing about them.
"Occupations of slaves and freedwomen in Italy" (no. 335) in Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Maureen B. Fant, trans. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: a Source Book in Translation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. New York: Schocken, 1995.
McGinn, Thomas A.J. Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.