BMCR 2022.03.42

Slavery and sexuality in classical antiquity

, , Slavery and sexuality in classical antiquity. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2021. Pp. 336. ISBN 9780299331900 $99.95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

It is widely acknowledged that studies of slavery in antiquity are hindered by a lack of perspectives of enslaved people in the sources. Consequently, the experiences of enslaved individuals have often been viewed somewhat objectively, based upon matter-of-fact accounts provided by slave owners themselves. Deborah Kamen and C. W. Marshall’s recent collection of essays on the sexual lives of slaves adds to a growing body of research that uses comparative analysis and reading ‘against the grain’ to illuminate the personal experiences that are so often rendered inaccessible.

Slavery and sexuality in classical antiquity challenges the tension between the slave as a sex object and as a subjective individual. An explicit emphasis on sexual autonomy is pertinent; establishing that slaves had a sexuality of their own, and that expressions of that sexuality were not always coerced, is one of the strengths of this volume. Indeed, the editors use their opening discussion to consider what we mean by slave ‘agency’ and the extent to which that can be framed within modern parameters. This is highly relevant for how we approach matters of consent and subjective concepts of abuse, and is usefully highlighted at this early stage. The introductory chapter establishes the wider issues at play in the study of ancient slavery and sets the tenor for subsequent chapters to follow.

Emily Wilson opens her chapter by noting the differences between Homeric depictions of enslaved women and enslaved men. She argues that for women, rape was considered a standard component of their experience, yet modern discussions assign a higher degree of autonomy to Homeric slaves than the original text would support. There follows an insightful discussion on how rarely sexual desire on the part of female characters is made explicit and how often the brutality of enslaved rape is left out of the poem. A brief digression on the sexual abuse of male slaves is quick to dismiss the contribution those experiences might make to the wider discussion and is remarkable in its divergence from an otherwise empathetic approach to the subject of abuse. A number of case studies of enslaved women from the Odyssey detail female slaves’ sexuality and agency, culminating in a discussion on the hanging of Odysseus’ female household slaves. Discussions of the motivations behind both Odysseus’ and Telemachus’ treatment of those women and of how a demographically varied ancient audience might have received that episode form a sensitive and compelling conclusion to the chapter.

Kathy L. Gaca uses comparative approaches to provide evidence for the abuse of female war-captives in classical Greece. Her overarching argument is that the control of female slave sexuality was the preserve of the despoina and that her husband having sex with household slaves brought the tradition of ‘martial rape in ravaging warfare’ from the military campaign into the home. Gaca emphasises the brutality of the abuse with an equally brutal vocabulary. The use of expansive compound adjectives occasionally reads rather clumsily, but it is a refreshing choice that forces the reader to approach the abuse face-on. Despite presenting a somewhat speculative interpretation of the evidence, Gaca offers a new way of considering the treatment of slave women in antiquity that highlights the uncomfortable reality of her subject matter.

Thus far, the focus has been on the implicit nature of sexual abuse in the sources. Kelly L. Wrenhaven changes tack and presents an overview of the overt sexual abuse that can be seen in Greek art. Images of slaves at symposia are discussed, emphasising the violence that is clearly depicted therein. Likewise, images of female prisoners of war detail the point of transition from free citizen woman to enslaved sexual object. The artist’s evident sympathy with the suffering that these women anticipate challenges the reader to consider how opposing attitudes to sexual abuse can be reconciled within one artistic culture. A final analysis of male slaves in art details how their sexual abuse represented a source of shame and emasculation for the victim. The enslaved male nude is contrasted with the citizen male aesthetic, confirming the slave’s ‘social impotence’ whilst expressing none of the sympathy that was seen in the previous examples.

Jason Douglas Porter reveals the dynamics and sexual negotiations that took place between slaves and their owners. Sex between slaves was restricted due to the risk of mortality through childbirth (and consequent loss of property), but case studies from the plays of Menander are given as evidence that slaves did attempt to have a semblance of family life.

Comparative evidence for slavery in Rome, the U.S. and the Arabian Gulf is used to support the notion of a two-way negotiation around sexual relationships, concluding that owners permitted sexual relationships to control slaves, whilst slaves took advantage of their owners’ reliance on them to negotiate access to those same sexual relationships.

Rafal Matuszewski discusses the sexual abuse of male slaves from the perspective of classical Greek homoerotic traditions. The potential for emotional relationships that was inherent in Greek pederasty may have also facilitated genuine affection from slave owners towards slave boys. In support of his argument, Matuszewski examines literary, dramatic and artistic examples of boys being sexually abused, before offering examples from legal cases. A quarrel over a slave boy detailed in Lysias suggests that more intense romantic feelings towards slaves could have developed. The central argument for this chapter is that slave boys could have become the object of an owner’s affections through their sexual abuse, and there was little they could do to avoid such unwelcome advances.

C. W. Marshall continues the theme of problematic emotional attachment from the enslaver towards the enslaved by analysing a fragmentary defence speech given by Lysias. The speech concerns the shared ownership of an enslaved woman by both the prosecutor and defendant. Importantly, the events detail an apparent emotional attachment between the prosecutor and the woman, thus revealing Athenian attitudes towards such attachments. The hints at the woman’s personal motivations offer an insight into the life of an enslaved woman in Athens, with an individuality demonstrated through her emotions, motivations and personal relationships.

A further legal discourse by Allison Glazebrook details the sexual abuse of an enslaved Olynthian woman. Demosthenes’ calculated emphasis on the freeborn status of the woman is discussed as a means of eliciting sympathy from the jury whilst discrediting his political rival Aeschines, who was among the abusers. Careful treatment of Demosthenes’ language alongside a compelling argument for an alternative translation for apollunai in the speech offers some intriguing conclusions about the sexual agency of free and enslaved women. A final point concerning the complicit role of freeborn women in the sexual abuse of the enslaved raises the expectations of the reader, but is left undeveloped in an otherwise excellent chapter that concludes the Greek section of this volume.

The Roman section opens with Katharine P. D. Huemoeller’s analysis of male slaves claiming sexual agency during the rebellion of Spartacus and the Sicilian rebellions alongside an Etruscan slave revolt at Volsinii. Virtus plays a central role, being claimed by the rebels when they assert their sexual autonomy by raping freeborn women, but it is also weaponised by being denied to their erstwhile captors. Given that the argument centres around a characteristically Roman moral ideology, this is most illuminating in detailing Roman responses to, rather than the rebels’ motivations for, the sexual abuse of women during those revolts. The conclusion emphasises that we do not know how the slaves would have constructed their own gender identity, raising some compelling thoughts for future research.

Whilst ostensibly being concerned with the rape of male slaves, Anise K. Strong’s chapter predominantly focusses on victims of citizen status. Nonetheless, observations on freeborn attitudes towards male sex slaves are well made and an alternative reading from Pliny raises some intriguing possibilities. The concluding paragraphs are a little confused. An assertion that male rape victims could testify without risk to their reputation runs contrary to an earlier reference to Quintilian that implies the opposite. Similarly, the idea that male victims are disproportionately believed in modern society (a view supported by lyrics from a Taylor Swift song) contradicts a point about the difficulties male victims encountered during the #metoo movement. The final suggestion that we could learn from how Romans treated male rape victims and apply this to female victims nowadays seems tangential to the chapter’s main content.

Sarah Levin-Richardson gives a comprehensive overview of the archaeological evidence for sexual abuse from Pompeii. There is an engaging analysis of how anthropomorphic lampstands emphasised the availability of slaves for sexual abuse whilst simultaneously contributing to their degradation. The analysis of frescoes and living spaces is similarly enlightening and gives a considered depiction of how domestic slaves were continuously reminded that their bodies were available for sexual abuse.

Ulrike Roth takes a sensitive approach to a difficult subject when she suggests a new interpretation for Trimalchio’s account of his own sexual abuse. The challenges involved in using recent case studies of abuse victims as comparative evidence for the experiences of abused children in antiquity are treated carefully, and the similarities between those studies and Trimalchio’s account are made clear. The inclusion of child sexual abuse in Cena Trimalchionis demonstrates its prevalence in Roman society, and Roth argues that Trimalchio’s boasts are a typical response to sexual trauma that attempts to mask his abuse with bravado.

A further fictional representation that elucidates the sexual abuse of slaves is found in Apuleius. William Owens focusses on his depiction of Psyche, noting the similarities between her behaviour and that of real-life slaves, thus potentially eliciting sympathy in Apuleius’ readers towards their own ancillae. Psyche’s actions engender a thoughtful consideration of her suicidal behaviour, and comparative accounts from more recent times support the suggestion that this may have been a common phenomenon in Roman slavery. A final point comparing the tale of Cupid and Psyche with a fabula anilis is a thought-provoking conclusion to the chapter, providing a touchingly human insight into the slave experience.

Matthew J. Perry concludes the volume with an overview of the legal means for control over the sexuality of Roman slaves. A discussion on the social and ethical implications of sex slavery leads into an examination of the legality of sexual control and the gradual restrictions on legally sanctioned abuse. Perry’s discussion of the economic benefits for slave owners who allowed for (but still controlled) familial relations between their slaves recalls Porter’s earlier points on Athenian slavery, lending some continuity to the various independent studies within the volume. However, Perry ultimately stresses the lack of control that slaves had over their sexuality. Resistance or accommodation of abuse did not constitute an ‘either/or’ choice for the individual. Instead, they represent two ends of a spectrum that slaves had to negotiate, taking advantage as and where they could.

Perry’s conclusion is not only relevant to his own chapter, but also neatly encompasses the various, sometimes conflicting, views that are expressed throughout this volume. Approaching something as complex as slaves’ sexuality requires us to move away from viewing slaves exclusively as passive victims of their abuse. They maintained an identity, including a sexual one, that lived on despite their lack of legal recognition. As such, this volume and its contributors have illuminated not only the abuses that slaves suffered, but also the dynamic personalities that they demonstrate throughout the sources. Consequently, this is an invaluable addition to the study of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean. It elevates the experience of individual slaves and affords them an agency that is often overlooked. Likewise, their abuses also illuminate freeborn attitudes towards victims of abuse, including ones of genuine affection. Various methodological techniques for uncovering the voices of silenced individuals are employed by the authors, thus creating not only an informative and complex approach to the subject, but also an exemplary model for future scholars.

Authors and titles

Introduction: Mere Sex Objects? C. W. Marshall & Deborah Kamen
1. Slaves and Sex in the Odyssey. Emily Wilson
2. Controlling Female Slave Sexuality and Men’s War-Driven Sexual Desires. Kathy L. Gaca
3. Slaves and Sex in Classical Greek Art. Kelly L. Wrenhaven
4. The Sexual Agency of Slaves in Classical Athens. Jason Douglas Porter
5. Same-Sex Relations between Free and Slave in Democratic Athens. Rafał Matuszewski
6. Love-Sick in a Different Way: Sex and Desire in Lysias 4. C.W. Marshall
7. Female Sexual Agency in the Enslaved “Olynthian”: Demosthenes 19:196-98. Allison Glazebrook
8. Sexual Violence in Republican Slave Revolts. Katharine P. D. Huemoeller
9. Male Slave Rape and Victims’ Agency in Roman Society. Anise K. Strong
10. Sex and Slavery in the Pompeian Household: A Survey. Sarah Levin-Richardson
11. Speaking Out? Child Sexual Abuse and the Enslaved Voice in the Cena Trimalchionis. Ulrike Roth
12. Reading Apuleius’s Cupid and Psyche from the Slave’s Perspective: The Tale of Psyche Ancilla. William Owens
13. Control of Roman Slave Sexuality: Authority, Profit, and Resistance. Matthew J. Perry