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“The Natural Savagery of Slaves”? Slaves as Sexual Aggressors in Revolt Narratives

Katharine Huemoeller

University of British Columbia

The sexual abuse of slaves in the Roman world was pervasive; as noted by Craig Williams, a catalog of references to the sexual use of slaves would be enormous.  In contrast, only a handful of sources describe slaves as the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of sexual violence.  Though few in number, I assert that these sources can be equally revealing of the intersection between sex and slavery.  In this paper, I examine sexual violence in accounts of slave revolts, arguing that slaves’ acts of sexual aggression are represented as direct responses to abuses they experienced in slavery and, as such, offer insight into some of the consequences of slaves’ sexual vulnerability.

Holt Parker, in his examination of male slaves’ sexual relations with free women, asserts that rape by slaves is conspicuously absent from our sources.  Even in accounts of slave rebellions, where we might expect to find sexual violence as a standard element of war, Parker identifies only one instance, the rape of married women by slaves in the First Sicilian Slave War (Diod. Sic. 34/35.2.12).  I begin by showing that this single case is not, in fact, unique.  Sexual violence and coercion are present in the narratives of the Second Sicilian Slave War and the Spartacus Slave War as well (for example, Oros. 5.24.3, Sall. Hist. 3.66 McGushin).  By far the most arresting account of slaves as sexual aggressors, though, comes from a rather different genre.  Valerius Maximus records that when the city of Volsinii fell into the hands of slaves, they instituted a series of reforms that overturned the existing sexual order: they took the daughters of their former owners as wives, decriminalized the sexual violation of free widows and wives, and required free women to be deflowered by slaves before their marriage to free men (Val. Max. 9.1 ext. 2). 

I next show that the acts of sexual aggression by slaves in these passages are represented not simply as conventional acts of war (Gaca, Ziolkowski), but as retribution for specific wrongs that the men had suffered as slaves.  What was the exact nature of these wrongs? Another shared feature of these passages offers the key.  In every case, the enslaved men direct sexual violence at free women, never at men or boys, and these women are usually identified more specifically by their relationship to free men, whether widow, wife, or daughter.  It is not, I argue, their own sexual abuse that the men are depicted as avenging—though we know well that they were victimized—but that of their wives and daughters.  The enslaved men in these accounts subject the free men to precisely what they had suffered in their enslavement.  Being forced to watch their wives raped before their eyes or wed defiled brides, the free men are denied the male privilege of protecting and controlling female bodies.

These narratives of slave rebellions do not tell us how slaves in second-century Sicily or, especially, third-century Etruria reacted to their experiences of enslavement.  I argue instead that the slaves’ actions in these accounts indicate what was perceived by the authors to be among the most brutal elements of slavery, those elements that were, in other words, the most deserving of vengeance.  Sexual abuse was one such element, and its harm was not suffered by the victim alone.  The sexual vulnerability of slaves is presented in these passages as having far-reaching implications for slaves’ access to normative family and gender roles.

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Slavery and Sexuality in Antiquity

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