When looking back at my essay on the economy of female slaves I found myself thinking about the relationship between a master and his female slave, and what better forum to discuss my thoughts than our class blog?
It’s no secret that this relationship was based on total authority and servility. Roman society placed slaves, more so female slaves, at the bottom of their rigid hierarchical social structure. Slaves had no legal status and were perceived as objects of possible economic worth rather than seen as people in their own right. Female slaves were very much at the mercy of their masters, which led to sexual exploitation within the home. In other instances a master would hire out his female slave to a leno who would then exploit numerous female slaves in the arena of prostitution. For the Romans, the prostitute was a ‘good’ rather than a ‘worker’. This point is demonstrated by Mcginn who sees Roman prostitution as being aimed at “maximum exploitation and therefore maximum profits”. The prostitution of female slaves was seen simply as another means of economic gain. An economic gain, which was based on a patriarchal relationship, and in this way prostitution reflected women’s participation in the economy as a whole.
On the other hand, there are numerous sources that inform us of relationships which were based on sentimental links between slave and owner, for example the affectionate relationship between a child and his nurse. There are varying mentions of nurses, who upon old age, were gifted with land. Pliny writes of Gaius Plinius who awarded his nurse a small estate. Similarly, despite Augustus introduction of legislations that prevented senators from marrying their slaves or freedwomen it did not prevent their continuing relationships. These irregular unions seem to have occurred in Roman society chiefly because people were unable to marry because it was deemed more socially acceptable for them to have a concubinage relationship. (A concubine was a free woman who was cohabiting with a man, without being his wife) More than often these relationships produced no children thus it possible to deduce that they simply shared companionship.
And this brings me to my point; is it really possible for masters and freed female slaves to have relationships based on mutual affection? It is normal to find that a concubine would often have a modest claim to her partners property and Pomperoy even tells us of female members of the imperial household who managed to attain positions of influence as the freedwoman concubines of emperors. Furthermore, It’s likely that a female slave had been sexually exploited by her master, therefore was it actually possible that relationships between masters and freed female slaves were genuine and honest? On the other hand, did these women simply realise that their lives would be easier; that they would be wealthier and have a sense of social standing, by committing themselves to these powerful, high status men? Even more cynically perhaps, freedwomen felt a sense of obligation towards their masters due to the paternalistic nature of the slave/master relationship.