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  • The Usefulness of an Onesimus:The Sexual Use of Slaves and Paul's Letter to Philemon
  • Joseph A. Marchal

Bitinna, I am a slave: use me as you wish.

-Herodas, Mimes 5.6

You are her master, with full power over her, so she must do your will whether she likes it or not.

-Chariton, Chaereas and Callirhoe 2.6.2

For fourteen years I pleasured him; it is no disgrace to do what a master commands. I also gave my mistress satisfaction.

-Petronius, Satyricon 75.11

I like sex that is easy and obtainable.

-Horace, Satires 1.2.119

Unchastity is a crime in the freeborn, a necessity for a slave, a duty for the freedman.

-Seneca, Controversies 4, Praef. 101

The proper "background" to Paul's all too brief arguments in the letter to Philemon has long proven elusive. The difficulty in articulating an adequate contextualization [End Page 749] for this letter might be remedied, however, if one were to begin considering the sexual use (χρῆσις) of slaves in antiquity as providing some relevant historical clues or rhetorical cues. Indeed, a few interpreters have begun to consider this element in examining Pauline materials, but rarely have they done so with concentrated effort on the letter to Philemon.2 As reflected in the quick sampling of ancient selections opening this article, various sources show that this use of slaves was both ubiquitous and unexceptional for the centuries preceding and following the creation and circulation of Paul's letters. Nevertheless, an appreciation of this ubiquity is itself far from ubiquitous among Pauline scholars, since the limited considerations of the sexual use of slaves have yet to extend to understanding the terminologies of use and the figure of Onesimus in Paul's shortest letter.

Each of the opening selections reflects the expectation that slaves' bodies will be accessible and available for sexual use, whether directly or more implicitly, given further context. A couple of the quotations communicate this expectation by seemingly presenting more idealized depictions of slaves willingly offering to comply with the master's desires, thus exemplifying their default status as erotically available, while the rest reflect that the will or desire of the enslaved is almost entirely inconsequential. This lack of interest in the slaves' will is reflected also in the casual, even flip remarks quoted both above and below. Such an indifferent and often humorous attitude to the sexual use of slaves (and freed slaves) indicates how utterly conventional and uncontroversial such use was in these slave societies. When Greeks, Romans, and Judeans do place limits on or offer moralizing condemnations of some sexual uses of slaves, their focus is not on what some in the twenty-first century would call homosexual (or "same-sex") erotic contact but on containing elite women's practice in order to preserve matronly chastity and patrifamilial honor.3 Such concerns stress that the perspective of most of our sources is primarily ordered and oriented around those of the freeborn and slave-owning ranks.

These perspectives do manage to indicate some of the social conditions and expectations for slaves in the Roman imperial era. However, since the study of slavery is too often seen as divorced or isolated from the study of sexuality (and vice [End Page 750] versa), the relevance of the sexual use of slaves has often been obscured, and not only in Pauline studies. In the interpretation of the letter to Philemon, this disconnect is all the more stark, given the richly troubling exegetical possibilities raised by Paul's argumentation and the vital importance of finding suitable context(s) for the slim epistle. Philemon is a letter that discusses the utility of Onesimus and selects arguments in an effort to gain the consent of an owner. I suggest that these kinds of rhetorical choices signal the letter's place within, rather than distance from, the imperially gendered slave system reflected in the opening quotations and the following discussion. Paul's punning characterization of Onesimus and seemingly deferential appeal to the autonomous authority of a slave owner take on different hues in light of the sharp shadows of the sexual use of slaves.

I. The Use of Slaves

The second volume...


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