Wisconsin (2021) h/b 317pp £92.95 (ISBN 9780299331900)

This collection of thirteen essays (ranging from Homer to Justinian) makes an impressive and highly readable account of the sexual lives of ancient slaves.  Punches are not pulled and the grim reality facing these ‘speaking tools’ is amply demonstrated.  The book’s focus is on slave sexuality but the volume is scholarly rather than salacious and there is not a whiff of prurience anywhere in the often sad but sometimes inspiring material which is adduced.  Slaves were, it seems, both sexual objects but also sexual subjects, being routinely abused, but also sometimes seen entering into relationships with other slaves or with freeborn people including their owners.

Slaves were everywhere in the ancient world, and the discussion here separates the different categories.  There were those captured and enslaved in war—such as the anonymous Olynthian woman brilliantly analysed by Allison Glazebrook in Demosthenes 19, who was allegedly abused by Demosthenes’ political rival Aeschines when both men were on an embassy to Macedonia in 346BC.  Demosthenes paints the woman as free and ‘virtuous’ and milks the Athenian sympathy for their ally Olynthus.  The passage is a masterpiece of pathos: a freeborn woman is brought passively into the symposium where she is beaten by a slave for refusing to sing—singing being something a decent citizen would not know how to do in the manner demanded.  Kathy L. Gaca compares and contrasts ancient with modern examples of martial andrapodizing,  while Kelly L. Wrenhaven finds war-captives to be especially notable in Greek works of art, imparting a degree of sympathy not usually extended to people enslaved from birth—and especially so when the war-captive was an iconic figure such as Cassandra. Emily Wilson reminds us that even royal Trojan women in Homer face the threat of slavery and violence, ‘just as mortal men are only a short way from death’ (p.20).

The economic aspect of slavery is seen both from the Greek and the Roman perspective.  Jason Douglas Porter argues that slaves in ancient Greece were relatively inexpensive to buy and that their sexuality needed to be controlled. It would not (after all) pay the slave owner to risk the health and life of his female slaves by letting them produce babies who would themselves be unproductive for several years.  Slaves were, however, people: and Ischomachus in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus recommends allowing ‘good’ slaves to form sexual attachments to other slaves, thus giving them more investment in their labours if they were working for their own family as well as that of their master.  In the final chapter Matthew Perry looks at the same factors in the case of ancient Rome with a judicious account of how far slave sexuality was controlled for purposes of breeding, and it is surprising that he does not discuss the castration of slaves which was significant enough to be debated at the highest level. Babies born to slaves were slaves, irrespective of their paternity, and became the property of the mother’s owner who could thus increase his stock of slaves (p.257), even though (as in Greece) childbirth was a risky matter both medically and economically. Roman slaves could not legally marry but might live together in contubernium—a form of common-law marriage which kept slaves well behaved as they faced the threat of being forcibly split up.

Slaves were put to work in the sex trade, and prostitutes were almost always slaves, as is shown by Pompeian graffiti. Slaves were often the sexual playthings of their owners, and Sarah Levin-Richardson shows how the evidence from Pompeii demonstrates this dreadful fact by making use of the evidence of four large lampstands, representing attractive males, which both advertise and revel in the abuse of slaves. She also points to frescoes which eroticized scenes of corporal punishment and would reinforce slaves’ sense of their vulnerability. Nor was it only static images which slaves had to endure: the fresco from the peristyle of the house of Caecilius Iucundus shows a slave standing by and watching an erotic encounter between a man and a woman on the couch.

The abuse of slaves is found as early as Homer, and Emily Wilson’s eloquent chapter on the Odyssey teases out the tangled web of arguments surrounding the death of the slave-girls who slept with the suitors in Book 22—girls who are regarded as victims of the suitors’ predatory lusts when the narrative emphasis is on the suitors’ wickedness, but who are treated as willing agents when their death needs to be justified.  Were the women looking to feather their own nest once the new masters took over the household? Was their death a just punishment for their treachery (as is implied in Telemachus’ words at 22.462-4), or was it part of Odysseus’ urge to eradicate the memories of women who have ‘secret knowledge of the household under previous ownership’ (p.32)?  Homer, as always, eludes easy analysis and the crucial element of the scene is the way it is heart-breakingly focalised through the eyes of the women—their weeping, their moving of the dead suitors and cleaning of the house before their own death, culminating in the unforgettable simile of the hanging women being compared to birds caught in a net.

Creative literature after Homer also abounds with slaves, but this is of varying degrees of usefulness.  In chapter 2 Kathy Gaca contentiously argues that the mistress of the household (despoina) rather than the master (despotes) was in charge of who had sex with whom, urging that the returning hero would not be expected to behave in the household as he did on the battlefield.  Her use of Greek tragedy—Agamemnon and Herakles were both killed by wives after they brought concubines into the home—to  support this is unconvincing:  Clytemnestra had better reasons than sexual jealousy for killing a husband who had killed their daughter, and Deianeira never meant to kill her husband at all.

Ulrike Roth examines child sexual abuse in Petronius, with similarly inconclusive results.  Trimalchio tells us his rags-to-riches life-story and describes in detail his abuse at the hands of his master—a tale which Roth sees as a fictionalised ‘speaking out’ about child abuse even though (as she admits) Trimalchio is far from demanding victim status and is actually full of bravado.  He claims sexual agency in satisfying his master’s wife with a crude and highly male verb (debattuere 69.3) and his subsequent relegation to the countryside was a punishment for his having upstaged his master in the bedroom.

William Owens looks at the ‘Cupid and Psyche’ fable in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, urging that Psyche’s subjection to servility (just as that of Lucius in the main narrative of the novel who is made to work as an animal) both shows and promotes readerly empathy with the plight of slaves in real life.   The Metamorphoses is of course hardly realist fiction, and the tasks which Psyche has to perform are absurdly difficult and way beyond anything demanded of real slaves, but the language used (and the empathy expected) is evidence of the sort of feelings which were held by some more enlightened Romans—most notably Seneca, whose absence from this book is inexplicable and who would have provided better evidence than either Petronius or Apuleius.   

There were also slave-owners who fell in love with slaves and set up home with them, as a fascinating 2nd century BC inscription from Delphi (pp. 6-7) suggests: a slave-owner here manumits a slave girl and two slave males whose names lead us to think that they are his sons by her, and we can imagine the family unit being regularised and them all living happily ever after.

Oratory is always good evidence for the social historian as the speaker must always be plausible to his audience, and surviving lawcourt speeches give us excellent examples of this slave-love in action.  Rafał Matuszewski analyses the facts behind Lysias 3 and Hyperides’ Against Athenogenes to show that, while freeborn males formed romantic attachments to younger enslaved males, such attachments were deeply embarrassing to the freeborn lover; C.W. Marshall looks at the love-triangle in Lysias 4 where two men dispute the ownership of a slave woman.  This case goes way beyond mere property-disputes:  the woman clearly had her own emotional feelings in that she wished to be loved by both men (4.8) and the men (being liturgists) were rich enough to buy each other out but were consumed by jealousy of each other. The defendant alleges that the prosecutor was δύσερως (‘unhealthily passionate’) towards the girl, assuming that the jury would accept recreational sex with slaves but would feel that for a man to develop emotional ties to a slave was unhealthy.  In this speech the prosecutor claims to have freed her, leaving him able to enjoy her as a pallake—a form of free relationship between citizen free male and non-citizen free female which still retains some of the asymmetry of the free-slave sexual relationship but which would only happen if he regarded her as a lover rather than a mere object.  A gold armband found in Pompeii (illustrated p. 202 and inscribed ‘master to his slave-girl’), also seems to suggest affection for the slave girl who was given it—although the lack of a name also suggests that it may have been more of a token—and reminds us that it was not unknown for slave girls to use their sexual desirability to promote their manumission in Roman households, just as some slaves in Greece may have used their sexual attractiveness to their master to procure more favourable working conditions.

These were the exceptions, of course, and life for the enslaved was more often carnage than carnal.  Katharine Huemoller looks at slave revolts where slaves raped freeborn women, thus turning the tables on their sexual oppressors and reversing the sexual power-structure at play in Roman society.  The instances of rape in the revolt of Spartacus were clearly this kind of score-settling, but those in the First Sicilian Slave War in 135 BC and in the revolt in Volsinii in 265 BC are more subtle:  in both cases the slaves exercised discretion in choosing their victims and even set out demands for reform.

Anise Strong looks at male rape in early Roman history, focusing on the assault of young Publilius—a citizen who had to sell himself into slavery when his late father’s debts bankrupted him. He was bought by a greedy and lecherous money-lender who tried to have his evil way with the youth and flogged him when he refused. Publilius appealed to the crowd and then to the senate, persuading them to pass a law banning debt slavery for Roman citizens, so that enslaved citizens were protected from abuse, but lifelong slaves continued to be available for sex. Publilius in this case escaped being raped and went from victim to hero: but slaves continued to be victims of rape since they were property rather than persons and consent was a luxury they did not possess.

The book has a general index and a very full bibliography and is impressively produced and proof-read throughout, with citations in endnotes at the end of each chapter.  Catharine Edwards once remarked that ‘slaves are irresistibly good to think with’ and every page of this excellent book proves her right, showing that while uncovering the truth about ancient slavery is painful it is necessary if these abused men and women are finally to be given their chance to speak.

John Godwin