Female Bodies

The English word slave is unisex; it can refer either to a male or a female slave. The English word slaveholder can similarly refer to a male or a female owner of slaves. Reliance on such unisex terms tends to obscure the gendered dimensions of slavery. Even in situations where the Greek word doulos clearly refers to a male slave, translators are likely to translate this grammatically masculine term as "slave" and not as "male slave." However, the grammatically feminine term doule is typically translated as "female slave" or "maidservant" rather than "slave." (The translation "maidservant" not only highlights gender but also downplays servile status.) The plural form douloi is grammatically masculine. Although douloi can properly refer to mixed groups of male and female slaves, it can also refer to groups entirely composed of male slaves. The gender of the term is suppressed in English, however, except in rare situations, for example, in apposition to a plural feminine form. In Acts of the Apostles, for instance, Peter quotes the prophet Joel: "In those days I will pour out my spirit even on your male slaves and your female slaves."40

More generally, contemporary scholars often presuppose that slaves are male unless otherwise specified—yet this is hardly the case. Perhaps it is even more accurate to say that many scholars have overlooked the gender of slaves and that ancient slaves appear to the modern imagination as neither male nor female. Inasmuch as slaves were identified as bodies, however, their embodiment as male or female largely determined the conditions of their servitude. At the same time, their identity as slaves would condition their experiences and reception as male or female. Roger Bagnall has challenged scholars who assume that males dominated the servile population. Census data from Egypt during the Roman period imply that male slaves were often manumitted around thirty, but female slaves were unlikely to be manumitted until menopause, which for many women took place in their late forties (and many women would have died before they reached that age). The disproportionate number of female babies who were exposed by their parents and raised in other households as slaves may also have affected the ratio of female slaves to male slaves. Bagnall argues that female slaves constituted two-thirds of the enslaved population of Roman Egypt.41 Bagnall has not persuaded all interlocutors of the accuracy of these numbers nor their relevance for the rest of the Empire.42 His arguments nonetheless underscore the necessity of considering the experiences of women in any treatment of slavery during the centuries that witnessed the rise of Christianity.

Pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation were among the somatic experiences that potentially linked slave and free women. Vibia Perpetua, a freeborn woman of considerable privilege (perhaps of curial rank), kept a diary of her time in prison awaiting execution as a Christian.43 Perpetua wrote that she hoped to keep her infant with her so that she could continue to nurse the child. Her father refused to release the baby to her care. Miraculously, her baby accepted the loss of the breast, and she did not ache for her child: "But as God willed, the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor did I suffer any inflammation; and so was I relieved of any anxiety for my child and of any discomfort in my breasts."44 An ancient editor—perhaps Tertullian—appended some concluding narrative material to Perpetua's account. Although Perpetua did not mention her fellow prisoner Felicity, we know from the editor's additions that Felicity was a slave who was pregnant when arrested. She feared that her pregnancy would delay her execution, and her fellow Christians would go into the gladiatorial arena without her. Felicity rejoiced when she endured an early and difficult childbirth. She accompanied Perpetua and the others into the gladiatorial arena. The women "were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one . . . was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts."45 Perpetua's own words stressed the primacy of the experiences of lactation and weaning for a woman awaiting death. The editor who added the account of the martyrs' deaths in the arena equally stressed the effect that Felicity's lactation had on the crowd that witnessed her death. In at least one bloody context, the capacity to produce milk dissolved differences between an elite woman and a humble slave woman.

However common the bodily experiences of childbirth and lactation were for women, though, their social and symbolic meanings differed for free and slave women. A female slave's reproductive capability made her valuable property until menopause. Women's reproductive capabilities seem to have had a pervasive influence on gender-specific patterns of slaveholding. In his manual on agriculture Columella wrote that he rewarded enslaved women who bore many children. When a woman had given birth to three sons, he lightened her work assignment. When she gave birth to another son, he considered manumitting her. (Columella did not mention miscarriages, stillbirths, or daughters in his account of these reward calculations.)46 Petronius gave an exaggerated version of a slaveholder, the freedman Trimalchio, publicly listening to his estate accounts being read:

July 26th: on the estate at Cumae, which belongs to Trimalchio, there were born thirty male slaves, forty females; 500,000 pecks of wheat were transferred from the threshing floor to the barn; 500 oxen were broken in.

On the same day, the slave Mithridates was crucified for speaking disrespectfully of the guardian spirit of our Gaius.47

The situation envisioned by Columella and satirized by Petronius was, however, atypical in the Roman Empire. Large-scale reliance on slaves was characteristic of agricultural practices in Sicily and the Italian peninsula between the years 200 b.c.e. and 200 c.e. but rare outside those geographic and temporal parameters. (Slaves were nonetheless a continuous source of agricultural labor on a more modest scale around the Mediterranean throughout antiquity.) Although we may not encounter such calculated breeding practices in other circumstances, slaveholders were certainly aware of the potential of female slaves to increase household wealth by bearing future generations of slaves. As I have already mentioned, wills and bills of sale specified that the heir or purchaser of female slaves also owned the rights to future offspring of those slaves.

Orlando Patterson has defined slavery as the "permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons," an observation that echoes Moses I. Finley's description of the slave as "always a deracinated outsider . . . in the sense that he was denied the most elementary of social bonds, kinship."48 In the Roman Empire, children born to enslaved mothers were themselves slaves. Unlike the paternal link, which was not acknowledged in any way, legal documents frequently named the enslaved mothers of slaves—but only as a means of identification. To say that a slave had a certain slave as a mother was an identifying marker as would be a reference to a scar, lisp, or limp. This maternal tie had no legal ramifications. The slave who was named as a mother in a legal document had no recognizable claims on the child to whom she had given birth. The slaveholder retained the fundamental right to sell either mother or child or to will mother and child to separate households in a final testament. Many slave mothers nursed and reared their own children, but these were privileges accorded by the slaveholder rather than rights enjoyed by the mother. Even as a slave woman nursed her own child, she increased the wealth of her owner by nourishing the little body that was her fellow property.

Human milk was a valuable commodity in the ancient world. The supply of human milk was inseparable from the physical presence of a woman who not only provided the milk but also held and soothed the baby who consumed it. Despite the warnings of philosophers and physicians that freeborn babies would flourish best when their own mothers nursed them, women in the ancient world who could afford wet nurses routinely relied on them. The second-century writer Aulus Gellius recorded in his Attic Nights the tirade of one intellectual against the employment of wet nurses. Favorinus, a eunuch, had studied with Dio Chrysostom, an eclectic philosopher who purveyed an amalgam of Stoic and Cynic ideas. Gellius recorded an incident in which Favorinus called on a family in which a young woman had just given birth. The young woman's own mother informed Favorinus that she had engaged a wet nurse so that her daughter's pains in childbirth would not be compounded by the difficulties of nursing. Favorinus begged the mother to reconsider: "For what kind of unnatural, imperfect and half-motherhood is it to bear a child and at once send it away from her? To have nourished in her womb with her own blood something which she did not see, and not to feed with her own milk what she sees, now alive, now human, now calling for a mother's care?"49 For Favorinus, consigning care of a baby to a wet nurse was little different from abortion. He believed that a woman passed on both her physical likeness and mental qualities with her milk. Worst of all, he noted, those who wanted to engage a wet nurse were rarely selective, "for as a rule anyone who has milk at the time is employed and no distinction made."50 He particularly condemned the use of slaves and former slaves as wet nurses, since the baby would imbibe their poor characters with the milk.

In wealthy households that included a number of slaves, a wet nurse could be chosen from among the existing slaves, or a new slave could be purchased to serve as a wet nurse. Emotional bonds formed between a nurse and her charge often survived the period of physical dependency. Literary works from the period feature nurses as the closest companions of elite young women, certainly closer than their own mothers. In Apuleius's The Golden Ass, Charite discovers that a bosom friend of her beloved husband had caused his death. Moreover, she realizes that the traitorous friend committed the foul deed in order to displace her husband in her bedroom. Plotting revenge against the villain, she relies on the offices of her faithful nurse. On the night appointed, the nurse welcomes the unscrupulous Thrasyllus to Charite's chambers. As Thrasyllus awaits Charite's arrival, the nurse calmly mixes a sleeping draught into wine and serves the soporific cocktail to him. When she realizes that she has successfully drugged him, she summons Charite, who blinds Thrasyllus before she publicly commits suicide.51 Although fantastic, the story relies on the shopworn but comforting stock character of the faithful nurse. The Acts of Thomas, a Christian work, relies on the figure of the faithful nurse for a less sensational but equally intimate scene. The freeborn woman Mygdonia desires baptism. Like Charite, she chooses as her most trusted confidante the woman who had been her childhood nurse. Mygdonia asks Marcia, her nurse, to make the necessary arrangements for bread, wine, water, and oil. The scene concludes with the nurse herself asking to be baptized.52

How realistic are these works in their literary representations of relationships between freeborn women and the enslaved women who had been their childhood nurses? Epigraphic evidence from Rome memorializes the affection of wealthy Romans for their wet nurses. In a study of epigraphs dedicated to wet nurses, Sandra Joshel reminds us that these one-sided testimonials can only affirm the publicly acceptable sentiments of the elite. They yield no insights into the feelings of the women who had no choice except to dedicate their lives to foster children who were also their owners.53 Joshel's work is a rebuttal of Joseph Vogt's celebration of relationships between freeborn Romans and their nurses. For Vogt, these relationships epitomized the humanity of Greco-Roman slavery.54

One of the recurring difficulties inherent in writing about slavery in the ancient world is our lack of access to texts or other materials that would help us to appreciate the perspectives of the slaves themselves. We do have such evidence, however, from more recent slave societies. Joshel writes: "I draw on the testimony of masters and slaves from the American South to indicate how the nursling's view might distort the nurse and her lived reality. Although the explicit statements of mammies [sic] cannot prove what the Roman nurse felt, their divergence from their nurslings' views suggests the need for caution in reading nurses' epitaphs solely in terms of upper-class views and underscores the value of exploring other lines of interpretation."55 The evidence Joshel marshals suggests that, at least in the American South, enslaved nurses were ambivalent about the babies they fed with their own milk, who grew up as their owners.

Both in the ancient world and in the American South some slaves were enlisted as wet nurses after they had had a chance to nurse and wean their own children. Some women also became available as wet nurses after the death of their own children. Given high rates of infant mortality, this would hardly have been an unusual circumstance. In other cases, the mistress's baby displaced the slave's own infant at the breast. Those who followed the advice of the first-century physician Soranus would even prefer a nurse whose own child was still an infant. Soranus believed that the ideal wet nurse had been lactating for at most a few months.56 Despite the warmth a woman might feel for the baby she suckled, she would still be concerned for the baby she had prematurely weaned or could only nurse when she was sure the little master or mistress had consumed his or her fill.

Regardless of tender emotions, an enslaved wet nurse was still property that could be alienated. In a nineteenth-century memoir, Harriet Jacobs reflects on the deceptive closeness that service as a wet nurse could foster: "My mother's mistress was the daughter of my grandmother's mistress. She was the foster sister of my mother; they were both nourished at my grandmother's breast. In fact, my mother had been weaned at three months old, that the babe of the mistress might obtain sufficient food. They played together as children; and when they became women, my mother was a most faithful servant to her whiter foster sister. On her deathbed her mistress promised that her children should never suffer for anything; and during her lifetime she kept her word."57 At the death of this kind mistress and foster aunt, Harriet learned the identity of her new owner. She was the property of her late mistress's niece, a child of five years. Harriet quickly became the sexual prey of her young mistress's father. The parameters of slave life were similar in the ancient world. A slave beloved by household members for nurturing them in their youth could be sold to another household because of financial need or at the time of estate settlement. Even more commonly, a family that sentimentally retained the old nurse would think little of selling the nurse's own children away from her.

In less-wealthy households, the temporary services of a slave (or sometimes even a free) wet nurse could be purchased. A late second century receipt from Oxyrhynchus acknowledges that the slaveholder Chosion had received payment, including wages, oil, clothes, and other expenses, for the two years that his slave Sarapias had nursed Helena, the daughter of Tanenteris. Sarapias had weaned Helena and returned her safely to her mother. Slaveowners also purchased the services of wet nurses outside their own households to suckle enslaved children when wet nurses were not available within the household. In many cases, these wet nurses suckled infants rescued from the dungheap to be raised as slaves, but in certain circumstances slaveholders hired the services of wet nurses for slaves born within their households. A fragmentary receipt from the second century records that Thenkebkis had received payment for the services of the slave Sarapias in suckling Eudaemon, a male child of Isidorus. Eudaemon's mother was a slave belonging to Isidorus, and so Isidorus's son was also his property. We have no way of knowing why the slave mother did not nurse her own child. Perhaps Eudaemon's mother died in childbirth. Perhaps Isidorus hoped that his slave would become pregnant again and thereby expand his property. Perhaps Isidorus's wife had also given birth, and she wanted a household slave to serve as wet nurse for her own child. Or perhaps Isidorus preferred his sexual partner to be free of the burden of breastfeeding.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

If Pregnancy Is Something That Frightens You, It's Time To Convert Your Fear Into Joy. Ready To Give Birth To A Child? Is The New Status Hitting Your State Of Mind? Are You Still Scared To Undergo All The Pain That Your Best Friend Underwent Just A Few Days Back? Not Convinced With The Answers Given By The Experts?

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