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I am looking for a Latin word for "entrepreneur" or "self-employed" or something in that direction. My question is two-fold:

  1. Was there a word in classical Latin for someone who owns their own business as opposed to working for someone else? I am not looking for words for individual professions, but a broader word. (If you think there is no such word, that makes a nice answer, too.)

  2. What would be a good word to use for this in today's Latin? My dictionary offers ergolabus and redemptor operis, but they sound more like a contractor or freelancer to me. I would not use these words for someone who runs their own ice cream bar, but I may of course be mistaken. Perhaps something like caput operis sui?

  • Redemptor is indeed the translation given by all dictionaries I checked. – Luc Sep 5 '17 at 15:23
  • @Luc Interesting. I wonder if it has the sense I'm looking for after all... Was it redemptor alone or with something else? My dictionary only gave it as redemptor operis. – Joonas Ilmavirta Sep 5 '17 at 15:27
  • In French-Latin dictionaries, I’ve generally found redemptor. I’ve also found operis conductor but I think it is more related to a maître d’œuvre, a project manager? – Luc Sep 5 '17 at 15:41
  • As far as I know history, in antiquity, most businesses (apart, perhaps, from agriculture, were small) were formed by a master (the entrepreneur, self employed) and a small number of apprentices: smiths, carpenters, shoemakers, saddlers. So having a profession/craft must have meant by default that you were self-employed. – Rafael Sep 6 '17 at 21:12
  • @Rafael I agree, entrepreneurial status came automatically with many professions. It is still true today, but with a far smaller fraction of all professions. The phenomenon did exist, but it is not clear (from what I had seen before Tom's answer) whether there was a word for it. – Joonas Ilmavirta Sep 6 '17 at 21:27
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For 'entrepreneur', or even 'businessman', just as in English, there are few words in Latin of such broad meaning. With the senatorial ranks officially forbidden to engage in commerce, it was left to the equestrians, who were content to manage business both for themselves and for others. Within the equestrian order there seem to have been two broad categories of businessman, the negotiator and the mercator, either of which, as 'someone owning their own business,' may answer your requirement; there is a distinction between the two that depends on the circumstances.

While the business of a negotiator was more usually money, the basic business of the mercator was commerce — a trader, wholesaler etc. Both categories included speculators seeking profit through commercial astuteness and, by and large, their activities were conducted outside of Rome. Business was (of course) operated through the all-pervading patron-client system, downwards through all the citizen classes.

The word negotiatores is often equivalent to the 'bankers' (argentarii) or 'lenders at interest' (feneratores) at Rome, but it still included many who speculated in commodities of every kind, from corn and oil to rare materials and works of art. It wasn't used in the Urbs — probably because the senatorials had to avoid the taint of 'merchant' that the word implies.

The mercatores, on the other hand, tended to be contractors (for both labour and commodities — including slaves and wild beasts) or simply traders, shippers and wholesalers. A key distinction is that a notionally independent mercator might be dependent on financial support from (locally) a negotiator in order to manage his affairs.

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