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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 2

In November’s column, I evaluated how the Roman comedy of Plautus and Terence bears out, mutatis mutandis, Harriet Jacobs’ claim in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that American slavery “makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched.”  In this month’s column I trace the path from slavery through citizen cruelty and licentiousness to the central problem of the genre’s plots, the rape of unwed citizen girls.

When viewed through the lens of Jacobs’ assertions about the corrupting influence of slavery on the free as well as enslaved, Roman comedy demonstrates a pattern in correspondence with her testimony.  Unfettered sexual access to the bodies of enslaved women, men, and children makes citizen fathers and sons cruelly licentious — as with, for instance, the over-the-top lecherous old man trying to get his hands on the title character of Plautus’ Casina.  The husbands’ sexual depravity, developed from how easy it is to abuse enslaved persons, estranges them from their wives, and makes the wives wretched, like Cleostrata in Casina.  This dynamic makes comedy’s meretrices, whether free non-citizen sex workers or enslaved prostitutes, the natural enemies of the genre’s wives: see, e.g., the meretrix Bacchis’ profound anxiety about speaking with a citizen wife in Terence’s Hecyra.

The sons’ sexual depravity leads to a breakdown of the social divisions between free and enslaved.  Many of the genre’s young men — for whom sexual violence against enslaved persons was acceptable, according to Roman elite male ideology — rape citizen girls.  Citizen girls become victims of the same sexual violence against enslaved women that Plautine and Terentian citizen males don’t think about twice.  Particularly noteworthy is Chaerea of Terence’s Eunuchus, who disguises himself as a eunuch to get into Thais’ household in order to rape the long-lost citizen girl Pamphila, currently being kept under the guise of an enslaved girl until her brother Chremes can retrieve her.  When still disguised as a eunuch and confronted by Thais and Pythias (enslaved to Thais) about raping a citizen woman, Chaerea says, “I thought she was a fellow slave,” as if this remark alone could justify his actions.

And thus are the citizen daughters of Roman comedy “contaminated.”

This contamination, as I pointed out in November’s column, is passive, because citizen girls in Roman comedy and in its Greek models lack, as a general rule, voice and agency.  They do not speak and often do not appear on stage, even when the action of the play or the crisis that motivates the plot centers around them.  The title character of Casina, for instance, who begins the play enslaved but will (we are told in the play’s prologue) be recognized as a citizen soon enough, never shows up.  Casina has a voice only by proxy in the exaggerated tall tales of the enslaved woman Pardalisca, who tells the lecherous old man that Casina is inside with a sword — no, two swords! — and is threatening to kill him, his enslaved sidekick, and herself.  Both Hecyra and Eunuchus, two Terentian plays in which the genre’s stock rape plot is scrutinized and problematized, have silent, invisible citizen girls who are victims of sexual assault and whose status and future are put at risk by their rapists’ violent, licentious behavior, because Roman and Greek citizen ideology held that a girl who had had premarital or extramarital sex, whether consensual or not, was unmarriageable (except to the man with whom she had sex) and therefore, in elite male views, socially worthless.

The actions of comedy’s men — kidnappers, pimps, lecherous old men, young citizen rapists — put these girls at risk.  And it is largely men who resolve the crises that result, to the extent that what they do can be called resolutions.  Women such as citizen wives or (in Terence) non-citizen free meretrices do advocate for the free girls under their protection, or offer information that leads to resolution.  But again the girls themselves play no role; they are, always, silent.

There’s a striking moment at the end of Plautus’ Persa in which a formerly enslaved woman (Lemniselenis) is emphatically, aggressively silenced by the male protagonist (Toxilus) who is responsible for purchasing her freedom from the pimp (Dordalus).  When Toxilus tells his friends he wants them to beat up Dordalus, Lemniselenis says there’s no need, and that she doesn’t think it’s fair.  Toxilus’ reply: “watch out for trouble [caue ergo sis malo], and obey me.  It’s proper for you to listen to my command, ’cause without me and my assistance, he’d’ve made you a streetwalker straightaway.”  With caue ergo sis malo, Toxilus threatens Lemniselenis with violence; and then he justifies his authority to silence her with a grisly insinuation of the abuse she might face if he withdraws his patronage.  (This moment is part of a pattern of enslaved persons aspiring not only to freedom but also to slave-ownership and slaveholder-like behavior: compare Gripus in Plautus’ Rudens, or how in Plautus’ Mostellaria the formerly-enslaved meretrix Philematium threatens her enslaved maid Scapha with violence.  In American history, there are instances of formerly enslaved slaveholders, a phenomenon dramatized in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World.)  Lemniselenis, understandably, complies and falls silent.

Being silent is a concern in Jacobs’ work, too.  She says in the preface to Incidents, “it would have been more pleasant for me to have been silent about my own history.”  Later in the same text, after she invokes the image of the Cup of Sin and Shame, she directly addresses her readers by asking “[w]hy are ye silent, ye free men and women of the north?”  In an 1852 letter to Amy Kirby Post, the women’s rights advocate and abolitionist who’d urged Jacobs to write her autobiography, Jacobs says, “[w]hen I first came North, I avoided the Antislavery people as much as possible, because I felt that I could not be honest and tell the whole truth.”  And perhaps most forcefully, in an 1857 letter to Post, she wrote that “woman can whisper — her cruel wrongs into the ear of a very dear friend — much easier than she can record them for the world to read.”

For Jacobs, being silent is a privilege, a luxury that she cannot in good conscience afford once she is free at last (the title of Jacobs’ final chapter).  The position of enslaved women in the South was particularly precarious, and yet Jacobs realized that the so-called “free” society of the North was not particularly open to talk of sexual predation and abuse.  Thus she shies away from recording her own “cruel wrongs.”  Thus she uses the metaphor of the bitter cup.  Thus, after describing the effects of slavery upon slaveholding fathers and sons and wives and daughters, she underestimates (in a striking adynaton) the power of her own words: “And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation.”

In fact, Jacobs and her peers give detailed accounts of the sufferings and degradation of American slavery.  In Roman comedy, on the other hand, we are limited to the rare interrogation scene or reference to slave-torture, the occasional comic routine of enslaved characters arguing over who can endure more whippings, the insights we can formulate through inference or through reading between the lines, and the “hidden transcript” examined by Roberta Stewart.  The commonalities in this respect between slavery in Roman comedy and in American history can help our students engage more deeply with the study of Plautus and Terence — and can also show the relevance of the ancient world to our understanding of modern American life and society.  Would that we had “able pens” such as Jacobs herself possessed to describe life in slavery in the ancient world!

Incidentally (so to speak), I’ve composed a musical setting of excerpts from Incidents for orchestra and narrator, premiered in 2006 by the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra.  Thanks to Sharon L. James, Serena S. Witzke, James J. O’Hara, and Patrick J. Dombrowski for their comments on drafts of this column.

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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