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Dangerous Liaisons: Sex, Slavery, and Violence in Classical Athens

Allison Glazebrook

Brock University

This paper looks at sex and slavery within the context of sexual violence more broadly. While there has been recent scholarly interest in sexual violence, there is a tendency to view such violence as a single category, without attention as to how sexual violence might differ for different groups. In order to examine the question of such violence more fully, I explore and compare the construction of sexual violence in the case of domestic slaves in relation to free citizen women, and also sex slaves in classical Athens.

Until recently, scholars have focused on the issue of consent in sexual relations, arguing that consent was not a concern and thus not a focus of lawsuits (Omitowoju 2002). Interpretations of Lysias 1, On the Death of Eratosthenes, for example, have also led to questioning whether or not ancient Athenians recognized a sexual crime as sexual assault (Harris 2004). More recent work into sexual violence has focused on an ‘unofficial view’, its relation to modern terminology, like ‘rape’, and the recognition of such violence as an ‘embodied event’ (James 2014; Gardner 2013). The work of Kathy Gaca has brought the issue of sexual violence and warfare into view (2011). In general, the focus of such studies is the application of the category ‘rape’ to free Athenian/Greek women. A recent study of Menander’s Epitrepontes, however, examines how sexual violence might be viewed differently in the case of prostitutes (Glazebrook 2015). The current paper adds to this discussion by looking specifically at how sexual violence played out in the case of female domestic slaves through an examination of laws used in the case of sexual assault and references to accounts of sexual relations with such slaves. Recognizing rape as a category that is useful for thinking about ancient victims of sexual assault, it also considers whether ‘rape’ is a term that can be applied in the case of slaves and, if so, under what circumstances, and how such violence compared with violence against sex labourers.

In Xenophon’s Oikonomikos, for example, Ischomachos juxtaposes having sex with an obliging wife versus a female slave who is compelled to have intercourse with her master (10.12). The contrast between hekousa (willingly) and anankazomene (being forced) marks sex with free women versus slaves as different. While Ischomachos grants some sexual autonomy to the wife, the slave is instead under compulsion to comply to her master’s advances. At the same time, Ischomachos appears to offer sex with female slaves as a reward to male slaves for good behavior (9.5). The female slave is more sexually accessible than the wife, but there are still limits on that access, since the master controls all sexual contact with her. In the case of sex slaves, however, sexual accessibility is normally granted to anyone who can pay and not restricted to a sub-group defined by the master. Violent sex emphasized their availability and was rarely indictable as a sex crime ([Dem.] 59.33, 67; Plut. Sol. 23.2). These examples suggest that sex with domestic slaves was somewhere in between sex with a wife and sex with a sex labourer, and thus the context of sexual violence and the designation sexual assault were different for slaves compared to these other two groups. They further map out a continuum of sexual violence in ancient Athens, as well as what constitutes a violent sex crime, with sex with free women (wives and other female kin) at one end, sex slaves at the opposite extreme, and domestic slaves falling somewhere in the middle. This paper considers how such distinctions affect definitions of sexual violence and begins to explore the circumstances of and general attitudes towards such violence in the case of female domestic slaves. 

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Slavery and Sexuality in Antiquity

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