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That cage of obscene birds: Slavery and sexual violence in Roman comedy and in the Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl of Harriet Jacobs, part 1

In May’s column, I discussed how the image of the bitter cup in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura offers a rich interpretive contrast to the bitter Cup of Sin and Shame in Harriet Jacobs’ narrative of freedom.  In this month’s column, I explore what Jacobs’ narrative can teach us about Roman comedy.

Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) combines autobiography with broad lessons about slavery, based both on the narrator’s own life and on the sufferings of other enslaved persons that she witnessed.  “You may believe what I say,” she says early in her text, “for I write only that whereof I know.  I was twenty-one years in that cage of obscene birds.”  Jacobs draws readers towards more active opposition to slavery through the specific and the general — and through appeals not only to human(e) decency but also to her readers’ particular identities.  Thus she connects the plight of enslaved women to free women readers: “I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse.”

Thus also she points out the repercussions of slavery for free as well as enslaved persons:

I can testify, from my own experience and observation, that slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks.  It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched.

This remark, mutatis mutandis, offers a new, productive way of viewing slavery and violence in the Roman comedy of Plautus and Terence.  They are, I believe, causally connected.

Slavery, Jacobs claims, makes free fathers cruel, free sons violent.  Frederick Douglass’ narrative similarly refers to “the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder” and describes a slaveholder as “a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding.”  Slavery not only is the product of a cruel society, but also produces cruel people — the act of slaveholding and the role of “master” actually cause slaveholders to be more brutal and violent.  In the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, as Serena Witzke has pointed out to me, one of the colonists’ grievances against the king was that he had made them purchase human beings and so turn themselves into tyrants.

Plautus’ and Terence’s free citizen men are casually violent towards those they hold as slaves.  Three examples: at the opening of Plautus’ Poenulus, Milphio contrasts the present kind words of Agorastocles, the man who holds him in slavery, with yesterday’s whippings.  Callicles in Plautus’ Truculentus seems to take pleasure in violently interrogating two women, one of whom is not enslaved to him.  In Plautus’ Captiui, a slaveholder brutalizes a young man whom he does not know is his own long-lost, citizen-born son.  He treats him as merely another person enslaved to him.  (For more on slavery and violence in Plautus, see chapter 3 of Roberta Stewart’s book, plus Kathleen McCarthy’s book and Amy Richlin’s forthcoming Plautine Comedy as Slave Theater.)

Slaveholding entails not just violence, but lechery, too.  Jacobs says slavery makes free fathers sensual, free sons licentious.  Douglass refers to the “glaring odiousness” of the fact that enslaved women’s children are by law enslaved: “this is done too obviously to administer to their [slaveholders’] own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father.”  The master’s sexual profit, so to speak, can also bring material profit, in the form of new enslaved members of his household.

Plautus and Terence adapt plays of Greek New Comedy focused on the begetting of citizen children, and so they don’t show slaveholders reproducing with enslaved women.  But they do regularly present citizens sexually profiting from slavery.  Hanno of Poenulus, searching for his long-lost daughter, hires enslaved prostitutes and questions them about their identity — while spending the night with them.  And the horny old man of Casina contrives to marry off the enslaved title character to his enslaved crony Olympio, with the aim of getting sexual access to Casina for himself.  As Patrick Dombrowski points out to me, a likely long-term result of this plan would be that Olympio and Casina would have children, providing the slaveholder with uernae to add to his property.

Competitions between father and son for sexual access to an enslaved girl in Plautus’ Casina and Mercator resonate with Jacobs’ explanation of how, when an enslaved girl “is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents.  If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will.”  The violent side of the coercion is explicit in Jacobs — and in the violent premeditated offstage rape in Terence’s Eunuchus — but remains mostly implicit in Plautus.

Jacobs writes that slavery “contaminates the daughters.”  Jacobs tells us that free daughters, prematurely sexualized because of the sexual exploitation they witness, select enslaved men to partner with; if a daughter subsequently has a child, “the infant is smothered or sent where it is never seen by any who know its history.”  In Roman comedy, the “contamination” is not so much active — for unmarried citizen girls almost never speak and generally lack active roles in Greek and Roman comedy — but rather passive, corrupting victimization.  More on this in January’s column, but for now I’d cite the unnamed daughter of the citizen glutton Saturio in Plautus’ Persa: she is put at grave risk when her father and his patron Toxilus disguise her as an enslaved prostitute for sale to the play’s pimp.  Instead of actively seeking sex with enslaved men, the daughter herself becomes an enslaved, sexualized object.

Finally, Jacobs says, slavery “makes the wives wretched.”  Douglass describes his mistress as “a kind and tender-hearted woman,” one who didn’t realize “that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so.  Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.”  The role of slaveholder makes women violent, too.  But slaveholding wives additionally grapple with the fact that their husbands often engage in (coercive) sexual activity with their own enslaved women or girls; often, it seems, such wives directed their anger not at their husbands, to whose power the wives were subject, but instead to the enslaved women abused by their husbands, who were subject to the power of both husbands and wives.  (We might find echoes of mythic Hera and Zeus in American historical practice.)  In the National Humanities Center’s excerpts about sexual abuse by slaveholders from narratives of freedom (PDF), there’s a recurrent motif of wives prompted to cruelty against enslaved women by their rapist-husbands’ infidelity.

Roman comedy has plenty of examples of citizen wives made wretched by slavery and its resultant licentiousness: Cleostrata in Casina, Dorippa in Mercator, Artemona in Plautus’ Asinaria, and on and on…  In an allied genre, Roman elegy, there’s a similar redirection of anger from the citizen male towards the enslaved woman sexually exploited by the male.  In Ovid Amores 2.8, e.g., the elite citizen male speaker addresses Cypassis, who is enslaved to his girlfriend (a free non-citizen sex worker) and whom he’s coerced into sex.  In the poem, he threatens Cypassis that he’ll tell her mistress they’ve been sleeping together.  The implication: the mistress will therefore treat Cypassis violently, as she has in the past.

In January’s column, I’ll follow what might be a causal pattern in Roman comedy between slavery, citizen moral corruption, and the genre’s rape plots.  In the meantime, check out this video featuring Lynn Thomas and Sandra Joshel, about ancient Roman slavery and American slavery.

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad's picture

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Assistant Professor of Classical Languages at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He's also one of "those gaming people" in Classics pedagogy. He can be contacted at

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