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Minding the Mistress: The Household Power Struggle to Control Female Slave Sexuality in the Ancient Mediterranean

Kathy Gaca

Vanderbilt University

To rightly understand conflicting ancient Mediterranean strategies to control female household slave sexuality, we should reexamine what motivated the proverbial anger of freeborn mistress-wives (despoinai) toward master-husbands (despotai) who coerced sexual services from their domestic female slaves.

Despite the prevalent view that freeborn men had open sexual access to female slaves under the same roof (Cohen 2014), masters with a freeborn mistress did not have this entitlement. By the late Middle Bronze Age, the mistress, along with her master, was the manager of war-captive and other domestic female slaves (Batto 1974, Sasson 2015). Critical among her tasks was to control sexual and procreative access to them. The mistress should give her consent before any man, including the master, had sexual relations with them, and she consented for reproductive purposes that gained her approval. In Genesis, for example, the biblical Sarah, thus far infertile, gives the slave Hagar as surrogate wife to Abraham, and Hagar produces a son, Ishmael (16:1-16). In these mistress-run sexual dealings, female slave volition was disregarded as immaterial from the socially empowered freeborn perspective. As seen in Sarah’s hand-off of Hagar, the only recognized female sexual volition was that of the mistress in league with her master. Her will was paramount.

It accordingly was wrong for masters to copulate with female household slaves without their mistresses’ approval. Laertes refrains from sexually using his fourteen-year-old slave Eurycleia, for his wife Anticleia disapproves and would be furious if he disobeyed (Od. 1.428-33). Similarly, in Xenophon’s model household, the master tells his freeborn mistress-wife that no household slave should reproduce without her permission (Oec. 9.5). Thus, when some Etruscan men forced their young female slaves to be naked serving maids (Timaeus fr. 1a-1b), this was an outrage of household decorum. Mistresses did not allow domestic female slaves to be whores for their menfolk.

The anger of mistresses was thus not merely that of “the woman scorned” when masters sexually imposed themselves on female household slaves. The mistress was trying to stop the master from usurping her established power as their sexual gatekeeper. Greek legend is replete with this struggle of freeborn mistresses when the masters try to transfer their ravaged war-captive slave concubines from their army camps to their households. In response to such provocations, Clytemnestra axes Agamemnon and Hermione’s cousin Orestes has Neoptolemus stoned. Deianira, outwardly non-violent yet named ‘Mankiller’, terminates Heracles’ mortal life. The Lemnian women, working together, kill their husbands along with the men’s Thracian war-captive slave concubines.

As seen in the shared motivation of these legendary murders, masters were trying to transfer to their households the ravaging army-camp ethos of salacious sexual force (aselgeia, bia, e.g., Polyb. 5.111.1-7) used to rape and enslave young female captives. This indicates that ravaging was the acquired sexual taste inciting masters to defy their mistresses and assert sexual tyranny over female household slaves. The mistresses, however, did not want this salacious violence to gain entry. Penelope’s suitors exemplify the brazen transfer. While courting her, they repeatedly rape the female slaves in her domain (Od. 22.35-41), as though this sexual tyranny were their entitlement as prospective master of the house. Penelope, in line with her mother-in-law Anticleia, sees their behavior otherwise. If she married one of them, he would be insufferable, sexually mauling the female slaves against her will and acting as though he were entitled to do so. What is more, the dissolute master would probably not be acting alone. To incite the salacious pack mentality reminiscent of ravaging, he would invite his comrades over for drinking parties. Together they would behave like the Etruscan men and Penelope’s suitors, ganging up on female household slaves and treating them as coerced army-issue whores. Mistresses were hostile to this transfer. Masters were of divided opinion and behavior. Those who wanted the transfer lusted for it and were called “woman-crazed” (gynaikomaneis, mulierosi); those who did not favored minding the mistress.

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Slavery and Sexuality in Antiquity

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