Domestic Bodies Family Life among Slaves

Our sources help us detect the shadowy ghosts of slaves proceeding through the streets of Mediterranean cities in the course of their varied duties or laboring in workshops and kitchens. The sources are less helpful when we try to reconstruct the domestic arrangements of slaves. What kind of quarters did slaves occupy? How did the layout of ancient houses facilitate or impede family ties among slaves? Moreover, how did residential layouts shape the quality of relationships among slaves who succeeded in establishing, at least for a time, stable family ties? Literary sources afford scant cues. Archaeological remains are in need of interpretation.

Sometimes slaves lived outside the households of their owners. We have a glimpse into such living arrangements in a legal petition submitted in 60 c.e., in which a slaveholder named Theon complained that thieves had twice broken into the living quarters of his slave Epicharis, who lived in an apartment of some kind in a house in another district.37 More often, slaves lived with their owners. Larger houses had separate slave quarters—dark, cramped, far less ornamented than the rooms in which the head of the household received guests or conducted business. Smaller households did not have separate accommodations for slaves. Regardless of whether the slaves had their own quarters, however, no corner of the household was off limits to slaves. Attending children, preparing food, working on accounts—the slaves, who were integral to every aspect of the household's function, would have been found in every nook and cranny of a house during the hours of work.38 At night, a slave might have slept in a closet that was also used for food storage or curled up in a corner of an owner's bedroom.

The information we have about ancient slave quarters is, at best, minimal. Evidence so fragile cannot sustain generalizations about the quality of domestic life among those slaves fortunate enough to establish (at least temporarily) family bonds. Michele George notes, "The development of slave families is also problematic. In large households separate suites for slaves with considerable responsibilities may have been usual. However, in houses of average size this would have been impossible, and here slave families must have evolved despite proximity to the free household, and in a cultural context with notions of intimacy and personal space which were different from our own."39 (It seems worth noting that if slaves lived with less privacy than families in modern industrialized societies, so too did slaveholders.) Envisioning the domestic configurations of a family of slaves owned by a modest slaveholding establishment is difficult. Did they enjoy common leisure time? Where did they congregate? Were they able to spend time with one another without intrusions from their owners or, for that matter, from other slaves in the household? The questions become still more complex when we try to imagine the domestic relations among a family of slaves with multiple owners or the domestic relations among a family that included freedpersons as well as slaves.

Our inability to envisage how slaves arranged their family time and space should not be construed as evidence of a failure on their part to do so. Dale Martin has reviewed funeral epitaphs from various regions in the Empire. The dedications of these epitaphs most commonly indicate that an immediate family member (spouse or child) of the deceased was responsible for the memorial. This held true for slaves and freedpersons as well as for freeborn persons. Martin encourages caution, however, in drawing conclusions based on the epitaphs. We cannot easily infer from epitaphs, which employ stereotyped formulas of affection and respect, the actual feelings that ancient family members had for one another. Most slaves from antiquity were not remembered in formal epitaphs, which suggests that the slaves so memorialized represented an atypical cross-section of ancient slaves. Nonetheless, the picture sketched by the epitaphs is remarkably consistent. At least in death and most likely in life, the slaves who dedicated epitaphs to one another valued their life partners and their offspring.40 We do not know when slave families made time for one another or how they managed to find a place for that time together, but epigraphic evidence suggests that many did so.

Martin concludes that "these [epigraphic] studies illustrate the existence and importance of the immediate family for a significant minority of slaves."41 Many more slaves, however, lived and labored under conditions that did not enable them to sustain stable family connections. For example, the sexual demands that slaveholders made on female and young male slaves may have strained family relationships among slaves themselves. Or perhaps not—slaves who cared about other slaves in demand as their owners' sexual playthings did not leave diaries recording their emotional reactions to the intimate violation of their loved ones. Studying architectural remains of private dwellings in Italy and the Eastern Empire tells us only that slaves and slaveholders often shared remarkably close quarters. It does not tell us how the resultant lack of privacy impinged on the ability of slaves to construct their own lives and worlds of meaning.

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