Bodies without Boundaries

Although slaves could be referred to as bodies, the bodies of slaves were not themselves neatly bounded nor defined entities. The bodies of slaves were vulnerable to abuse and penetration. The insult suffered by a free woman who received an unwanted sexual proposition was mitigated if she were dressed in such a way that she could be mistaken for a slave. Plutarch proposed that free Roman youths wear the amulet known as the bulla to prevent adult men from accosting them for sexual purposes.12 The absence of the bulla, by implication, marked enslaved youth as sexual prey. Roman law stated that when a third party abused or insulted a slave, the slaveholder, not the slave, suffered the injury. Abuse of a slave was an attack on the slaveholder's personal dignity, an injury from which slaves were immune because slaves did not possess dignity in their own right. In this context slaves served as surrogate bodies for their owners. The Digest of Justinian preserves the words of the jurist Ulpian, who wrote in the early third century. "Again, a contumely can be affected against someone personally or through others: personally, when a head of household or matron is directly affronted; through others, when it happens by consequence, as when the affront is to one's children or slave."13 We see an application of this general principle in an early third-century petition by a slaveholder who construed the kidnapping of one of her slaves precisely as violence against herself: "For Thonis the curator of Seuthes rushed into my house and dared to carry off my slave Theodora, though he had no power over her, so that I am subjected to unmitigated violence."14 Writing in the second century, the jurist Gaius had delivered a related opinion. He held, however, that a man was not hurt by physical or verbal insults to his slave in the same measure that he would be hurt by similar insults to his wife and children.15

Because slaves lacked protection against a variety of abuses their bodies were consequently ill defined. The vulnerability of slave bodies was inscribed in law. (The reader should remember that the opinions recorded in the Digest do not necessarily reflect legal decisions actually rendered in courts around the Empire. The Digest does record, sometimes with uncanny vividness, the attitudes and preoccupations of its elite contributors.) Ulpian wrote:

Thus, the praetor does not promise an action for every affront in respect of a slave; if the slave be lightly struck or mildly abused, the praetor will not give an action; but if he be put to shame by some act or lampoon, I think that the praetor's investigation into the matter should take into account the standing of the slave; for it is highly relevant what sort of slave he is, whether he be honest, regular, and responsible, a steward or only a common slave, a drudge or whatever. And what if he be in fetters, branded, and of the deepest notoriety? The praetor, therefore, will take into account both the alleged affront and the person of a slave said to have suffered it and will grant or refuse the action accordingly.16

Freeborn persons had license, according to Ulpian, to speak to slaves they encountered as harshly as they pleased and even to subject them to incidental acts of physical abuse.17 For more serious indignities, Ulpian noted that the position of the slave made a difference. In visiting the house of a friend or business associate, a guest would be more likely to vent frustration with a violent gesture directed against the slave who washed feet or disposed of household waste than against the manager of household accounts.

Ulpian observed that some slaves were marked as chattel through fetters or branding, possibly a form of tattooing, often on the face.18 A slave who ran away would be placed in fetters or permanently tattooed to forestall future attempts to flee. In the surviving fragments of the outrageous first-century novel known as the Satyricon, Petronius describes a misbegotten attempt to disguise the leading characters, Encolpius and Giton, as runaway slaves, in order to help them escape detection: "Eumolpus then covered our heads with long block letters drawing the notorious signs tattooed on runaway slaves."19 Ulpian implies that such slaves, whose physical appearance advertised their servile (and renegade) status, warranted no respect of their persons or bodies. The thick bronze collar worn by the nameless slave of the archdeacon Felix proclaimed, "Hold me so that I do not flee." Indeed, Ulpian suggests that, by placing his slave in such a collar, Felix had granted permission to other freeborn persons to treat his slave however they saw fit.

A familiar episode from the Gospels illustrates the vulnerability of slave bodies to violence by third parties (that is, not by their owners). In the scene of Jesus' betrayal to the authorities, the four canonical Gospels agree that someone associated with Jesus cuts an ear off a member of the company that has come to arrest Jesus. The Gospels also agree that the man who loses his ear is a slave of the high priest. John gives the slave the name by which tradition remembers him: Malchus.20 A less-familiar scene from the apocryphal Acts of Thomas illustrates this vulnerability of slave bodies equally well. The apostle Thomas has been enslaved, and his owner takes him to a foreign land. Thomas is seated at table with others, listening to a young woman as she plays the flute. He directs his eyes to the ground. A member of the group, a cup bearer, reaches over and slaps Thomas. Although Thomas turns his gaze to the man, no one else in the group evinces any interest in this casual act of violence against a slave.21

In the Acts of Thomas, the ghastly death of the cup bearer (who is consumed by dogs) implies that God has acted to avenge the enslaved apostle. Such literary partisanship on behalf of a slave who suffers casual violence is rare. Literatures of the Roman world consistently suggest that slaves could not protect their bodies from a range of daily intrusions and insults. Nonetheless, evidence that slaves regularly met such treatment is elusive. We are unlikely to find extensive documentation in the papyrological record. The law permitted freeborn persons casual abuse of slaves who crossed their paths. We therefore cannot expect to discover petitions complaining about such incidents, regardless of how common those incidents were.22 We do, however, encounter occasional complaints by freeborn persons who experienced rude treatment that they deemed more appropriate for slaves. A fragment of a mid-second-century petition drew an explicit comparison. "Of all the injustices in life," the petitioner complained, "the most infamous is that free persons become the victim of overweening pride." The petitioner elaborated on the characteristics of overweening pride, hubris, inappropriately directed against a freeborn person: "to beat and to give a thrashing and to flog the freeborn like slaves."23 Apparently, then, freeborn persons were not entirely exempt from such abuse. When they were so treated, the fact that they were being handled like slaves exacerbated their mental anguish. Pliny recounts a story in which a senator accidentally received a casual slap intended for a slave. Pliny presents the incident as an omen of the senator's imminent and untimely death. The senator, Larcius Macedo, was in the baths. One of his slaves lightly tapped the shoulder of a man, a member of the equine order, to let him know that Macedo wanted to pass. The man turned around to slap the slave and in stead struck Macedo. In Pliny's telling, incidental violence against a slave is an everyday matter. In contrast, Pliny stresses that, with the slap intended for a slave, the senator absorbed a grave insult.24

Differential vulnerability of free and enslaved women to insult provides a context for understanding an incident in the second-century work known as the Acts of Paul. Thecla is a young woman of Iconium who breaks her engagement in order to follow Paul and convert to Christianity. She is the daughter of a well-to-do family, and her fiancé, Thamyris, is a leading citizen. Thecla's household includes a number of female slaves, and her fiance is in a position to host a lavish banquet at his own home. When Thecla visits Paul in prison, she bribes the doorkeeper with her bracelets and the guard with her mirror, thus divesting herself of accoutrements that would signify her status. Paul is expelled from Iconium, and Thecla is sentenced to death by fire. When the fire is miraculously extinguished, Thecla escapes and finds Paul again. Together Paul and Thecla enter the city of Antioch, where a prominent man named Alexander spies them. Smitten with Thecla, Alexander plies Paul with money and gifts, but Paul denies that he knows Thecla—or that she belongs to him. Alexander then physically embraces Thecla publicly, in the open air, an embrace she resists. The scene becomes more plausible when we infer that Alexander has mistaken Thecla for a slave. She is no longer dressed as an elite young woman. Since Paul denies knowledge or ownership of her, she appears to be unaccompanied. Thus, Alexander exerts the privileges of the elite male, who understands himself to have sexual access to a female slave. Thecla responds with the instincts of a well-bred woman whose honor has been besmirched.

Legal consideration of the vulnerability of slave bodies to insults and affronts covered only the injuries that could be visited on the slave by a person who was not the slave's owner. The slaveholders' right to abuse their slaves at will was almost beyond question. Artemidorus considered at length the possible meanings of dancing in dream logic. He noted, "However and wherever a slave may dance [in a dream], he will get a good beating."25 (I treat the brutal but ordinary corporal punishment of slaves at greater length in chapter four.) Rights of the slaveholder over the body of the slave did not terminate at the moment of manumission. If the boundaries of the slave body were ill defined and the boundaries of the freeborn body were clearly demarcated, we may anticipate that the freed body would not be able to maintain perfectly defined and defended boundaries. Ulpian wrote, "We allow a patron a restricted right of punishment of his freedman . . . for the praetor does not have to tolerate his slave, now a freedman, complaining against his master that the latter abused him verbally or moderately chastened or corrected him."26 Ulpian considered the question of whether the husband of a freedwoman could lodge a complaint for insult against her patron. The problem was that both husband and patron had rights over the person of the freedwoman. The patron had an ongoing right to insult or physically correct the freedwoman; a husband was the victim of an insult to his dignity when his wife was abused. Ulpian modified an earlier opinion holding that the husband retained his right to bring an action against his wife's former owner: "For my own part, I have made a note . . . that I do not think that this holds good for every affront; for why should the patron be denied reasonable chastisement, or, provided it is not lewd, berating even of a married woman?" Of course, Ulpian noted, if both husband and wife were former slaves of the same owner, the husband had no right at all to bring complaint against the patron.27

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Responses

  • beniamino
    How slaves were marked?
    8 years ago
  • FETHAWI
    How were former female slaves' bodies abused?
    8 years ago

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