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Recovering Publilius: Male Slave Rape and Social Reform

Anise Strong

University of Western Michigan

In their discussion of Rome’s mythical origins, modern Roman social histories often highlight the rapes of legendary women like Lucretia and Verginia and the political revolutions caused by their assaults (Joshel 1992). However, several parallel stories of male slave rape victims are generally ignored or restricted to discussions of same-sex sexual activity. In 313 BCE, Gaius Publilius, a young and handsome debt-slave, supposedly complained publicly in the street about his master’s attempted rape and assault upon him. As a result, the Romans eliminated debt slavery for citizens (Livy 8.28).  Livy’s story and similar accounts like Valerius Maximus’ tale of Veturius (6.1-9) clearly echo earlier female rape narratives. Nevertheless, scholars have often seemed reluctant to discuss male rape victims. Rape in Roman history is usually described as a crime perpetrated solely by men upon women, despite the ancient evidence. These assumptions and erasures have created problematic gaps in the discussion of the relationship between rape and social change in the Roman world.

Roman legal texts are clear in defining rape and harassment in terms of the citizenship and social status of the victim, rather than their gender (Gaius, Institutes 3.220).  Even slaves, if they were otherwise characterized as virtuous, innocent males, could receive some degree of social and legal sympathy if they resisted sexual assault. Their resistance and revenge affirmed their potential rights to bodily integrity and their own virtus. Furthermore, like the more famous female rape cases, the injustice wrought against these male survivors could provoke legal reform. For instance, Tacitus recounts the murder of an abusive master, Pedanius Secundus, by his slave over sexuality-related offenses. Mass public protests resulted as a response to the planned execution of all four hundred of Pedanius’ other slaves as implicit co-conspirators. (Tacitus 14.42-5).  While these particular slaves were all eventually killed, the laws were then changed to protect future victims of harsh masters. Pliny’s account of the abusive Largius Macedo’s murder suggests a similar case of abuse and revenge (Pliny 3.14) Meanwhile, Gaius Gracchus noted as a point of pride that he did not rape other men’s slave-boys.

Joshel and Arieti have established the key framework of Roman rape narratives and the legal and political reforms that resulted from elite men’s abuse of female citizens. Their scholarship has established key links between Roman conceptions of citizenship and the importance of bodily integrity. However, modern analyses can often represent legendary women like Lucretia and Verginia as the passive rape victims from whose dead bodies revolution is hatched (Beard 1999). By reintegrating the stories of figures like Publilius back into this larger pattern, we can compare and examine how low-status slave men were able to claim agency and seek revenge upon their abusers. Through their survival and public denunciation of rape, these men could directly seek social change to protect other male sex slaves. A new unified narrative that includes the rapes of both boys and women and the legal reforms that resulted will further illuminate broader Roman views on bodily integrity and sexual violence.

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Slavery and Sexuality in Antiquity

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