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  • Domestic Sexual Labor in Plautus
  • C. W. Marshall (bio)

The plays of Plautus and Terence provide a rich database that can be used to document the variety of forms that sexual labor manifested in the Roman republic.1 Even though the contexts are fictional and the plays consistently represent adaptations of Greek originals, for the plays to be meaningful there must exist some correspondence between the world depicted in the plays and the city in which they were performed.2 Women occupying a wide range of socio-economic positions are presented as sex workers (meretrices), and the range of attitudes to the labor they provide allows meaningful contrast between them as individuals. Three categories define this labor in financial terms: the meretrix can be a noncitizen but free entrepreneur surviving on the fringes of society (e.g., Asinaria, Bacchides, Cistellaria, Truculentus); she may be a slave who is to be sold for a profit (e.g., Rudens, Curculio); or she may be rented for short-term contracts (e.g., Persa, Pseudolus).3 In the case of the latter two categories, the slave’s owner may be considered a leno (a dealer in sex slaves, a term often translated as “pimp”), even if he identifies primarily with another profession. This article considers a fourth category of sexual labor that appears to fall outside of this Roman economy of prostitution (as described by McGinn 2004): the domestic slave used for sex.

Since slaves lacked most rights (any legal obligation or recompense was due instead to their owners), they were available for sexual use at any time by their master or anyone he may choose. The domestic slave was particularly vulnerable since, in the urban context presented in the plays, she lives in the same building as someone who can rape her regularly and against which she has no legal recourse.4 I am therefore defining domestic sexual labor more narrowly than does Sharon James,5 confining myself to situations where there is no exchange of money or objects of value for sexual acts.6 Even if the owner uses terms such as “love” when he speaks to his friends, or happens to treat her modestly (as the pimp Cappadox does Planesium in Curculio7), there should be no doubt that this continues to be forced sexual activity and, therefore, rape. Since the owner’s rights over the woman are absolute, the direct continuity between forced sex and other types of violence cannot be understated.8 [End Page 123]

Of course, a slave woman’s situation may change at the master’s whim. At any time she may be sent to provide sexual favors to a houseguest as a gift, for money, or with an eye to a sale;9 or she may one day be seen as too old or sexually undesirable. This is evidently the fate of Scapha in Mostell. 199–202:

vides quae sim et quae fui ante.nilo ego quam nunc tu ***                                                        200*** amata sum; atque uni modo gessi morem:                   200aqui pol me, ubi aetate hoc caput colorem commutavit,     201reliquit deseruitque me. tibi idem futurum credo.

You can see who I am and who I was before. No less than you now I *** I was loved; and I devoted myself to just one man. When this head changed color because of old age, he left and deserted me. I believe the same will happen to you.

Even if these women are not kept primarily for the purpose of sexual gratification of their owner, they may be put to that use at any time.

In some plays, a domestic relationship represents the concluding narrative situation: inasmuch as it offers a positive conclusion (by which I mean one that in general aligns audience sympathies with the sexual outcome for the play’s adulescens), any sense of a supposedly ‘happy’ ending is focalized exclusively in terms of male satisfaction, with no regard for the woman’s legal status or preference.10 For example, in Plautus’s Pseudolus, Phoenicium begins as one of many sex slaves owned by the pimp Ballio. Ballio’s opening song includes instructions to all his sex slaves, including identifying the specialized clientele that each of the...


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pp. 123-141
Launched on MUSE
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