Shame Honor and Slave Bodies

The gender-specific liabilities of slaves placed them "outside the game of honor," in Orlando Patterson's words.99 At its simplest level, honor is a "socially recognized claim to worth."100 Honorable people guard their honor by protecting their persons from both physical and symbolic affronts. As we have seen, the slave is vulnerable to both. Consider, for example, Bruce Malina's synopsis of male honor in the New Testament world: "First of all, male honor is symboled by the testicles, which stand for manliness, courage, authority over family, willingness to defend one's reputation, and refusal to submit to humiliation."101 A slaveholder's claim to the body of a male slave certainly extended to possession of his testicles, and in certain circumstances the slaveholder might assert that right to the testicles through castration. More broadly, the sexual availability of the (young) male slave signified his exclusion from the category of honor. Correspondingly, the male slave had no authority over a family, had no reputation to defend, and was permanently liable to humiliation. A male slave's inability to protect the sexual integrity of his biological female kin further underscored his lack of honor, his dearth of what the Romans called dignitas, a peculiar combination of birth, character, virtues, access to power, material resources, and legal status. (A person's legal status included citizenship status and whether he or she was freeborn, freed, or enslaved.102) In the Acts of Paul, Thecla makes the prominent citizen Alexander a laughingstock when she rips his cloak and removes the wreath from his head, an assault that is precisely an attack on his dignitas.

Since sexual exclusiveness is the mark of female honor, female slaves lived with a state of perpetual shame.103 The ancient Roman festival of slave women, the ancillarum feriae, exploited the distinction between the honor of freeborn women and the inherently dishonored state of slave women. According to Plutarch, the festival originated in the fourth century B.C.E., when Latin allies of Rome demanded Roman virgins and widows in marriage as a sign of Roman submission. At the suggestion of a slave woman, the Romans instead sent a cadre of slave women dressed as free women, who spent a night in the Latin camp and then signaled the time for a Roman attack.104

Anxiety over protecting the dignitas of elite households motivated Roman emperors to draft elaborate legislation regulating and in some cases prohibiting sexual and marital arrangements between free persons and slaves. Although sexual relationships between free women and male slaves were especially suspect, marital relationships between free men and female slaves also attracted the wary eye of the emperors.105

Slaves were certainly not the only persons in the Roman world outside the game of honor. Actors, gladiators, and prostitutes were among those considered infamous. Their infamy, however, suggests an adaptation to the category of slaves, rooted ultimately in a condition they shared with slaves: corporal vulnerability. Catherine Edwards argues:

One striking feature of the legal position of the infamous [actors, gladiators, prostitutes] is their assimilation to slaves, in particular, as regards their liability to corporal punishment. . . . Probably the majority of those who followed those professions were slaves or free noncitizens. But this does not explain the legal stigma attaching to those who were Roman citizens. Many Roman citizens worked alongside slaves as builders, agricultural workers, shopkeepers. What made the infamous like slaves was that they too served the pleasures of others, they too had no dignity, their bodies too were bought and sold.106

That actors, gladiators, and prostitutes shared the dishonored state of slaves, then, ultimately underscores the source of the slave's dishonor: the slave, conceived as a soma, or body, was nonetheless unable to guard her or his body from insult or violation.

By tracing the dishonor of slaves and the exclusion of male slaves from the category of masculinity, have I thereby reinscribed this lack or, more properly, this perceived lack? Because we do not possess a body of literature from the ancient world that we can reasonably attribute to slave authorship, we have few clues to help us understand how slaves perceived their own personhood, in particular, how they perceived themselves as women and men. We do not know how they absorbed or resisted discourses that excluded them from the game of honor. Clement of Alexandria described free women whose male slaves washed and massaged them in the baths.107 The suitability of male slaves as attendants for women in the baths was predicated on the exclusion of those slaves from the category of manhood. Did male slaves who served as attendants in the baths appreciate this logic? If so, did it affect their self-images? In the Acts of Thomas, Charisius is the husband of Mygdonia, who has been drawn into the orbit of the apostle. Charisius mistakenly believes that the apostle is his wife's lover and torments himself: "But that I should suffer such a thing at the hands of a stranger! And perhaps he is a slave who has run away, to my hurt and that of my most unhappy soul."108 The elite man perceives that his shame would be greater if his wife's lover had the status of a slave. Did slaves share or resist such attitudes?

Bits of scattered evidence suggest that many slaves throughout antiquity did form family bonds, including marriages. Such marriages existed at the whim of the slaveholder and had no legal status but would still have been important to enslaved spouses. Our sources again limit our ability to comprehend whether married slaves understood their unions to be subject to the informal rules of honor and shame that governed the unions of freeborn men and women. Under the potestas, or power, of their owner(s), married slaves would have found it difficult to maintain the boundaries of privacy necessary for building or sustaining a sense of personal or family honor. A particularly lurid story that Apuleius recounts in The Golden Ass hinges on the ability of slaveholders to meddle in slave marriages. A slave entrusted by his master with the management of an estate is married to a fellow slave. The male slave-manager has an affair with a free woman, who does not live on the estate. When his wife learns of the affair she avenges herself by burning his account books and then committing suicide. The slaveholder holds the manager responsible. He punishes the slave by covering his body with honey and binding him to a tree trunk. Ants attracted to the honey slowly consume the slave's body.109 Apuleius's interest in the story centers on the slave's gruesome death, leaving other questions unanswered. The story does not specify whether the slaveholder is angry because he disapproves of the slave-manager's extramarital affair or because the affair led to the destruction of estate property: the burning of account books and the suicide of a slave. The slaveholder's arrogation of the right to judge another man's conduct in his marriage is a denial of the enslaved man's masculinity and honor. Apuleius represents the slaveholder not only as owner of the couple but ultimately as owner of their marriage. Again, we have no ancient sources that would help us understand how such attitudes affected slaves' perceptions of their own marriages and families.

Orlando Patterson has argued that there is "absolutely no evidence from the long and dismal annals of slavery to suggest that any group of slaves ever internalized the conception of degradation held by their masters."110 The sources do not permit us to reconstruct in any meaningful way the psychology of ancient slaves, and I am reluctant to project my own voice through them. In a careful study of an obscure event of 101 b.c.e. recorded in an equally obscure book of prodigies by one Julius Obsequens, Shane Butler attempts to decode one slave's act of autocastration, which led to his exile from Rome. Butler's essay illustrates the uncertainties inherent in the reconstitution of voices of ancient slaves. Although castration technically refers to removal of the testicles, popular imagination and occasional practice associates castration with removal of the penis. Butler argues:

A slave's penis was not entirely superfluous, for it was at least valuable as a source of vernae, slaves born within the household. But it was not a phallus—that is, it did not signify the sexual and political domination exercised by adult male Roman citizens. The symbolic superfluousness of a slave's penis was translated into its sexual insignificance, from the master's point of view, from which the only penis that really mattered was the phallus, that is, the one he shared with the other free men of Rome. ... In such an account of Roman sexuality, penises that are not phalluses are meaningless loose ends, and the slave of caepio is to be thanked for neatly trimming one away.

To read the slave's gesture of autocastration in this manner, however, merely reinforces the cultural norm of the slave's corporeal subordination. Butler suggests an alternate reading of the slave's act: "Suppose that the slave borrowed the metaphor that made him an extension of his master, but that he used it for the purposes of his own analogy, in order to see himself in his own genitals at the moment that he made himself master of his own body."111 We are left with a vivid image: a slave cuts off his own penis. However, we do not know whether to read that act as a somatic inscription of the slaveholder's diminishment of slaves' masculinity, or as one slave's rejection of that ideology.

Marilyn Skinner has written, "Clearly, further research on the rhetoric of slavery is in order, with special attention to finding evidence of how marginal populations—women, slaves, and noncitizens—designate themselves in respect to the conjunction of class and gender."112 The bodies of slaves populate the pages passed down to us from the centuries that witnessed the rise of Christianity. These same pages, however, yield little insight into how slaves understood themselves and their agency in the world. We know that slavery marked the body: through shaved heads, tattoos, fetters, and the visible scars of physical discipline. We do not know, however, how slavery marked the person whose body bore these stigmata.

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