DAY FIVE: Confronting Gender-based Violence in Ancient Rome: The Sexual Violation of Pubescent Boys

In this post, Ulrike Roth explores evidence from the ancient Roman world to raise questions about our preparedness to confront the issue of sexual violence against children, then and now.

Ulrike Roth

Featured Image: Warren Cup, c. 15 BCE–15 CE; Jerusalem. © The Trustees of the British Museum, London/UK (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Although only recently given fuller scholarly attention, gender-based violence was a given in ancient Roman society over the long millennium of its existence, from before the middle of the first millennium BCE to the middle of the first millennium CE. Take the sexual violation of male teenagers in the context of slavery. Deeply disturbing from a modern vantage point, sexual interactions between free adult men and enslaved pubescent boys are repeatedly reported in the surviving sources as forced upon the youngsters, with a focus on youths up to 14 years of age. While taken for granted by many, not everyone agreed.  In fact, despite its prevalence we can find ancient voices exposing and condemning the practice as exploitation.

In the 60s CE, Seneca, the former tutor and advisor of the Roman Emperor Nero, publicly criticised the sexual violation of boys by their enslavers:

Another, who serves the wine, must dress like a woman and wrestle with his advancing years; he cannot get away from his boyhood; he is dragged back to it; and though he has already acquired a soldier’s figure, he is kept beardless by having his hair smoothed away or plucked out by the roots, and he must remain awake throughout the night, dividing his time between his master’s drunkenness and his lust; in the chamber he must be a man, at the feast a boy.

Seneca, Moral Letters 47.7

Elsewhere, Seneca refers to the abused as ‘luckless boys’, and calls their abuse ‘shameful treatment’ (95.24). A wall painting from a dining room in the ancient city of Pompeii, in southern Italy, likely visualises this ‘treatment’ of enslaved boys for sexual purposes: while three servants assist various dinner guests in the foreground, another, possibly North African boy, appears embraced by an adult figure, seated in the centre-right at the back of the room.

Wall painting from the House of the Triclinium in Pompeii (V, 2, 4), 50–79 CE.
Courtesy of: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (Naples/Italy), via Wikimedia Commons.

The overlap between the serving function of boys at banquets and their exploitation for sexual purposes is powerfully brought out in full-size sculptures displayed in many an elite Roman home. Intended to appear sexually alluring, the naked ‘dumb waiter’ cast in bronze – such as the statute known by its find-spot as the ‘Xanten Youth’ – underscored the commodification of enslaved boys who could be forced to satisfy their enslavers’ every desire. The tension between Seneca’s critique and these artistic representations that catered to the enslaver’s sexualised gaze is unmistaken.

‘Xanten Youth’, c. 50 BCE–100 CE (Xanten/Germany); without serving tray.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Antikensammlung / Johannes Laurentius (CC NC-BY-SA)

What makes approaching this material especially tricky for the modern scholar seeking to identify gender-based violence in the ancient Roman world is the fact that same-sex relations between males of different ages were not in themselves frowned upon in antiquity, particularly in culturally Greek contexts, and that they were regularly consensual in nature. Indeed, there is no reason to think that all or perhaps even most of these relationships were framed by the coercion of the younger male. A prime example often cited by modern scholars for such a consensual relationship is that between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the much younger Antinoos, a youth from Bithynia (in modern Turkey), with whom the Emperor slept. Known for his love of Greek practices, Hadrian even publicly idolised Antinoos, and deified him after his premature death in 130 CE, aged 19.

Relief portrait of Antinoos (on a modern slab), c. 130 CE; Louvre (Paris/France).
Courtesy of: C. Raddato (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Much of the relevant evidence for studying gender-based violence is therefore open to different interpretations – from consensus to abuse. This makes pinpointing occurrences of sexual violence difficult. But history books and museum exhibits ignore these uncomfortable ambiguities when they only talk about Antinoos as the Emperor’s lover. They ignore the signs that he might well have been the victim of what we would now call sexual abuse. Could a provincial boy from Bithynia really have said no to the Emperor’s advances? Could abusive dynamics explain his mysterious death in the Nile, possibly by suicide? We don’t have a shred of evidence from Antinoos to know what he felt.

He shares a mute and muted destiny along with the ranks of enslaved individuals whose voices we just don’t hear. But when privileging a consensual interpretation of Antinoos’ sexual interaction with the most powerful man of his day, we are only listening out for one side of the story.

The same holds for the imagery on the Warren Cup that heads this blog. What are we witnessing? Male homosexual love-making? Perhaps even a consensual sexual act between a slaver and a boy enslaved to him? This has been the view of several modern scholars. What do visitors to the British Museum who see the Cup make of it? If slavery defined the two figures’ relationship, how can a focus on a consensual reading be justified?

How, to ask the question more broadly, is one to talk about this kind of Roman evidence with individuals who have experienced sexual violence if we marginalise in our interpretations the very real possibility, even probability, that sexual violence drove many interactions between enslaver and enslaved in the Roman world?

Confronting the more disturbing settings that lurk behind some of the most aesthetically pleasing relics from the ancient Roman world is not about ignoring the many other interpretative options, to pass anachronistically judgement on a dead society; it’s about contributing to a debate that we, today, must have. Trying to uncover the tracks of abusers is, after all, the same challenging task today. Acknowledging the ambiguities in the ancient evidence, and listening more carefully to the signs of abuse in it, helps to ingrain in our mindsets the kind of sensitivised attitude that is so essential in identifying, and combating, sexual violence today.

Author’s Bio:

UIrike Roth is an Ancient Historian, researching and teaching at the University of Edinburgh. She specialises in the study of slavery, primarily in the ancient Roman world, and has recently directed a 3-year project on child slavery in the Roman Empire, funded by the Leverhulme Trust: ‘Enslaved childhoods in the Roman world’.

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