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  • Witnesses and Participants in the Shadows:The Sexual Lives of Enslaved Women and Boys
  • F. Mira Green (bio)

The fate of many women and children captured in a war with Rome was enslavement and prostitution.1 Even if some individuals living in slavery never worked in a brothel, Roman authors make it clear that slaves’ sexual lives were often employed to serve the needs and desires of the free.2 Because the sexual lives of prostitutes and enslaved persons overlapped in many important ways, any discussion devoted to sexual labor in ancient Rome cannot be purely confined to those who sold their wares as prostitutes. In fact, it is likely that most slaves could expect at one time or another during their enslavement that their slave owners (or other free persons) would employ either indirectly or directly their sexual experiences and lives.

Unfortunately, there are no documents from the Roman world which allow modern scholars to know how a slave experienced or thought about his or her sexual relationships.3 Rather the sources we have about slaves’ sexual lives were written from the perspective of slave owners, and Latin authors’ writings indicate that free persons viewed slaves’ sexual lives in instrumental terms. For instance, Roman sources on prostitution are commonly concerned with the financial benefits, but also the fuzzy moral situations, which the sale of sex provided Roman men who owned a brothel; additionally, these sources point to assumptions about men who visited (too frequently) brothels.4 Outside of the brothel, slave owners also expected financially to take advantage of enslaved women’s sexuality.5 Indeed, Roman writers viewed slave women’s sexual reproduction as the primary means of the slave population’s growth in Rome.6 In addition to gaining from female slaves’ reproductive abilities, agricultural writers indicate that they relied on sex with enslaved women to keep their male slaves in line (Varro, Rust. 1.17.5, 2.10.6; Columella, Rust. 1.8.5).

The instrumental use of slaves’ sexual lives, however, is not limited to these economic benefits. In fact, Roman wall paintings, mosaics, and literature make transparent the multifaceted ways in which slave owners and other free persons relied on slaves’ sexual experiences to meet their [End Page 143] social, physical, and emotional needs and desires. In this paper, I examine the layered nature of sexual relationships between free men and enslaved women and boys in ancient Rome. First, I explore the visual language that Romans employed in wall paintings and mosaics to represent slaves as observers of others’ love acts or as sexual participants. To do so, I start with an examination of erotic scenes from Roman homes and then move to those found in Pompeii’s purpose-built brothel. Next, turning to Roman literary sources, I look at Latin authors’ accounts of slaves’ sexual lives in order to consider Roman assumptions about the instrumental use of slaves’ indirect or direct sexual experiences. Throughout this study, I assert that Roman male slave owners—either intentionally or unconsciously—imagined their slaves as substitute audiences and witnesses during their sexual acts with others. Yet, in their own relationships with enslaved persons, Roman men also envisioned slaves as instruments meant to fulfill their own sexual needs and desires. Indeed, when they sought avenues that allowed them to indulge in fantasies and needs outside of traditional sexual relationships, they frequently turned to enslaved women and boys.

In order to frame my discussion, I rely on William Fitzgerald’s claim that slaves were a “third presence” who faded in and out of visibility and that Roman slave owners often treated their slaves as shadows of free humans; that is to say, that free individuals’ relationships with the enslaved were impressions of those that the free had with one another. Yet, despite their resemblance to, or reflection of, relationships between free people, the relationships between enslaved and free were structured around the convenience, needs, and desires of free persons (Fitzgerald 2007, 124–7). Employing Fitzgerald’s argument, I contend that similar to his own shadow, a Roman man presumed that the sexual experiences of slaves were dependent on his life, and the form of those relationships could be changed or...


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pp. 143-162
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