Body Count

The Greek word to soma, "body," functioned as a synonym for ho doulos, "slave." Wills and other listings of property frequently designated slaves as bodies. As part of the settlement of an estate in Egypt in 47 C.E., three sons agreed to a division of four slaves or, literally, four slave bodies, ta doulika somata. In its specification that the brothers who received female slaves as their portion of the inheritance also inherited the future offspring of those slaves, the settlement attests to the pervasive use of female slaves for breeding the next generation of human chattel.6 In this context the designation of fe male slaves as (reproductive) bodies has particular resonance. Some ancient testators stipulated which slave(s) each heir inherited. Other testators allowed their heirs to divide the enslaved bodies, often constituting a significant portion of an estate, impersonally. The appearance of slave bodies in census returns is a curiosity that underscores the ambivalent legal status of slaves: classified as things, classified as persons. A household lists two enslaved bodies in its 202-203 c.e. census declaration: "Elpis . . . aged 26, having a scar on the left shin, and half of a slave Sarapammon born in the house of Isis also called Memphis, 20 years old, whose other half belongs to Kroniaine and Taorsis in the Syrian quarter."7 Counted as a person, Sarapammon merits inclusion in the census. Counted as a thing, Sarapammon appears as jointly owned property.

In a wide variety of contexts, slaveholders relied on slaves as body doubles. We see one such instance memorialized in the bylaws of a fraternal society. The purpose of the society was to help members set aside funds, which would be used to pay the head tax levied on all adult males. In specifying the penalty for members who fell behind in payment of dues, the bylaws indicated that a slave could stand in to receive the owner's punishment. The bylaws referred to slaves who absorbed their owners' penalties as somata, bodies. "If anyone is in default and fails in any respect to pay the dues . . . Kronion shall have authority to seize him in the main street, or in his house, and hand over him or his slaves [bodies]."8 While imprisonment of a slave deprived the slaveholder of the slave's personal services and productive labor, the slave, not the slaveholder, endured the actual privations of prison. Prison conditions could be severe. Writing in 7 c.e. to Athenodoros, a wealthy but feckless citizen, a woman named Tryphas, in a position to address him bluntly, insinuated that because Athenodoros had neglected to pay some fines, two of his slaves had been imprisoned and were in danger of death.9 Tryphas referred to the slaves imprisoned in Athenodoros's stead as bodies, ta somata.

Although I have been translating to soma literally, as "body," I am not certain that ancient audiences would have heard the expressions ta somata and ta somata doulika as references to bodies or slave bodies. If the metaphor were no longer live, those who used the expression ta somata simply intended to say "slaves." Many contemporary scholars take this position and routinely translate to soma as "slave" rather than "body."10 A diminutive of to soma, to somation, is the term regularly used in the papyri to refer to the exposed infants so often raised as slaves. Again, I am not certain that ancient audiences would have heard the expression to somation literally as "little body." If the metaphor were no longer live, those who used the expression to somation simply intended to say "foundling." It may be relevant, however, that slaves are referred to literally as bodies in some contexts but not in others: when they are listed as property, for example, but not when their actions are described. In grammatical terms, to soma is more likely to serve as an object than a subject. Moreover, references to plural slave bodies are more frequent than references to a single slave body. We cannot know whether such word choices distanced ancient speakers and writers from the humanity of their property. To twenty-first-century readers, allusions to human beings as bodies underscore the coldness of ancient calculations involving human property. The author of the Apocalypse may be emphasizing the bitterness of the slave trade when he lists the luxury products sold by the merchants of the earth: fine linen, olive oil, horses and chariots, bodies (somaton), and human souls.11

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