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Strategies of Control: The Rationale of Classical Athenian Slave-Owners in Dictating the Sexual Lives of their Slaves

Jason Porter

University of Nottingham

My paper will examine the restriction by Athenian slave-owners of the sexual relationships of and between their slaves, and the reasons for which, in various circumstances, they found it advantageous to allow or facilitate them. Primarily, my paper will emphasise the provision of sex as a privilege withheld or awarded to slaves by their masters to ensure their loyalty.

On the basis of the Oikonomikoi by Xenophon and Pseudo-Aristotle, scholars such as Hans Klees have noted that within the household of their masters, the sexual relationships between slaves were sometimes controlled, and used by their master to ensure their continued loyalty (1998, 156-7). Both sources focus on the advantages to a slave-owner of the children arising from these relationships, but only note their value as an incentivising reward for (Xenophon, Oikonomikos 9.5), or as leverage over (Pseudo-Aristotle, Oikonomikos 1344b), their parents (Pomeroy, 1994, 297-300).

Other scholarship has pointed out that sexual relationships between slaves outside the households of their masters could take the form of a family unit, if only in a de facto sense (e.g. Menander, Epitrepontes, 246ff; cf. Vlassopoulos, 2015, 113-4). This, it has been observed, appears to be one of the privileges held by so-called “independent slaves” (Fisher, 2008; Kamen, 2013, 35). Incentivisation, I will argue, was also a key component of the logic behind slave-owners’ decisions to provide partners to their independent slaves. Comparisons between independent Athenian slave families and comparable slave families in other historical societies (such as those discussed in the recent study of the Arabian Gulf: Hopper, 2014) can help to demonstrate how this might have worked in practice.

Furthermore, in less affluent slave-owning households with only one or two slaves, unlike those described in the Oikonomikoi, providing slaves with sexual incentives from the members of the oikos would often have been impossible for masters. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that male slaves often had sexual relationships with Athenian sex-workers (e.g. Aristophanes, Wasps, 500-1), relationships which were facilitated either by the indirect, or direct, involvement of these slaves’ masters, who allowed them the money and the time to pursue them. Indeed, throughout history, sex-workers have often made a living from large groups of displaced servile labourers who were denied sex through conventional couplings.

My argument will also consider several economic reasons through which masters might have profited economically from sexual relationships between their slaves. Perhaps most obviously, there are the reproductive capabilities of enslaved women, which were utilised by slave-owners in many other societies to renew their dependent labour force and generally increase their property. Nevertheless, I will argue that this was of minimal importance to classical Athenian masters, owing to the relatively low cost of imported Athenian slaves. More relevantly, the provision of a wife (or, in certain situations to be considered, a husband) to an independent slave might form a labour contribution to the slave’s business, whose continued success would benefit their master.  

On the whole, however, I will argue that the facilitation of sexual relationships of slaves was normally a financial sacrifice on the part of masters, in order to maintain control over certain slaves whose labour they could not, or could not effectively, control through the threat of violence alone. The desire which enslaved persons had for sexual relationships and family is a key emphasis of this paper. The ability of some slaves to acquire these things in return for continued loyalty demonstrates their ability to influence, at least to a degree, the conditions of their slavery. But the concessions made by masters in the implicit negotiation therein also demonstrate one aspect of the way in which the exploitative practice of slavery continued to function successfully in classical Athens, to the benefit of its slave-owning class.

Session/Panel Title:

Slavery and Sexuality in Antiquity

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