Sexual labor in ancient Rome was not purely confined to those individuals who sold their wares as prostitutes. Indeed, most enslaved persons could expect at one time or another during their enslavement that their slave owners would employ—either indirectly or directly—their sexual experiences and lives. Thus, any discussion about sexual labor in antiquity needs to consider enslaved persons’ sexual vulnerability and slave owners’ instrumental use of their slaves’ sexual lives.
This paper examines the layered nature of sexual relationships between free male slave owners and enslaved women and boys in ancient Rome. In order to frame my discussion, I rely on William Fitzgerald’s claim that slaves were a ‘third presence’ who faded in and out of the Romans’ visibility and that Roman slave owners commonly treated their slaves as shadows of free humans (Fitzgerald 2007). I argue that slave owners simultaneously used enslaved persons as shadow audiences during elite sexual encounters with others and as blank canvases upon which the elite painted their emotional and physical needs and desires.
My argument develops along two lines. First, I assert that Roman male slave owners—either intentionally or unconsciously—imagined their slaves as substitute audiences and witnesses during their sexual acts with others. Masculinity and status at Rome were defined by public performances, which inherently required an audience to witness a man’s actions (Parker 1999, Edwards 1997). Additionally, Roman men sought to demonstrate their privileged status not only through their public duties but also through their ability to penetrate weaker bodies during sexual intercourse (Habinek 1997, Parker 1997, Walter 1997). Because Roman sexual relationships were wrapped up in demonstrations of social status, and because the slave’s subjectivity was viewed as instrumental, elite men imagined and relied on enslaved individuals to act as shadow audiences during their sexual interactions. Yet, in their own relationships with enslaved persons, Roman men also envisaged slaves as instruments meant to fulfill their sexual needs and desires (Apuleius 2.7, Martial 4.7. Martial 5.46). When they sought sexual avenues that allowed them to fulfill fantasies and needs outside of traditional sexual relationships, they frequently turned to enslaved persons. Similar to his own shadow, a Roman man presumed that the sexual lives of the enslaved were dependent on his own life, and that the form of those relationships could be changed and/or distorted at any moment based upon his needs.
A comparison between a mosaic from the Villa at Centocelle and a wall painting from the House of Caecilius Iucundus at Pompeii that depict sexually suggestive scenes to Pompeii’s well-known Lupanar sexually explicit paintings showcases the distinctions between slave as shadow audience and slave as sexual partner. I then briefly explore descriptions of sexual activities with enslaved persons found in elite authors’ works, finishing my paper with Ovid’s two poems involving Corinna’s slave, Cypassis (Ovid Amores. II.7 and II.8). I conclude with these two poems because they speak to complexity of enslaved persons’ sexual roles in relationships with the free and the likelihood that their roles as witnesses and participants frequently combined.