- On Reading the Material Culture of Ancient Sexual Labor
Can a single object change how we think about ancient sexual labor? Using the evidence of an artefact excavated near Pompeii, in this article I argue that our material evidence for sexual labor has not been properly appreciated, and that by more fully considering the range of human relationships associated with and enabled by objects, the possibilities for a more nuanced understanding of the entanglements of people, objects, sex, and labor become apparent.
Approaches to the archeology of slavery in the Roman world have advanced greatly in recent years. Far from invisibility, comparative approaches have been harnessed to find the presence of slaves beyond the visual evidence and material culture of restraint (such as chains, shackles, or bullae) to interpret more ephemeral archeological traces including graffiti and leather footwear.1 Despite such advances, a glance at recent works on material culture and slavery in the Roman world reveals that there is still a heavy reliance on textual and visual depictions rather than on material culture.2 However, considering the material production of labor in the Roman world is one way we can access slavery archeologically: from the storage of surplus indicative of a slave-owning household, to places where slaves worked and were held, to landscapes transformed by the labor of the unfree.3
But what can material culture contribute to our knowledge of sexual labor and to the debates surrounding slaves and sex? One way is the study of brothels, as Thomas McGinn has expertly demonstrated.4 Sexual labor within a domestic setting has not commonly been included in the economy of Roman prostitution.5 Nor have historians of ancient labor or archeologists usually considered sexual work (free or unfree) amongst household labors.6 Within the household, a slave had no choice but to participate in any sexual act the free members of the household desired of them. Any slave could be a sex slave.7 Within this asymmetrical power arrangement of masters and slaves engaging in sex, there must have been a range of relationships—from those slaves who lived under constant threat to those who consciously leveraged their own desirability [End Page 163] to try and improve their lot; indeed, these situations might coincide within a single person and complicate issues surrounding what we could consider to be consent. In this short contribution, I hope to show that material culture can be a powerful tool with which to reflect on how we think about sexual labor in the Roman world (and how we, as scholars, often do not). One way in which this is possible is by acknowledging the ambiguities in our evidence, and the multiple narratives that may be drawn from them. Acknowledging ambiguities encourages more reflexive and reflective interpretations, enabling the challenging of, rather than replication of, power structures both within our discipline and in the Roman world.8 Archeological evidence is by its nature material, fragmentary, and complex; this needs to be acknowledged in our treatments of it. Further, we need to consider the possibilities of different agents and their interactions with material culture, rather than privileging a particular viewpoint—usually, the one that most closely mirrors our own.
To focus the discussion, I will concentrate on one particular object that has been prominent within scholarly narratives on slavery: an inscribed gold bracelet from Pompeii.9 This object has been variously interpreted as a love-gift to a slave and as evidence for prostitution. The interpretation of the bracelet as a “love-gift” was initially that of Felice Costabile.10 It appears in the 2013 catalogue for the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit in the British Museum, with the following comment: “We can only guess at the relationship between the [giver and receiver], but the nature of the armlet suggests she was highly esteemed.”11 Jonathan Edmondson, in his chapter on slavery and the Roman family in the Cambridge World History of Slavery, uses this item of textually inscribed material culture from Pompeii to illustrate what he sees as one aspect of household slavery:
On occasion, ongoing emotional bonds developed between a master and his slave. A fine gold bracelet discovered just...