In reading about Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings I learned how he basically took her on as a concubine when they lived in Paris. It seems that this sort of thing was commonplace in the antebellum south.

I wonder if institutionalized sexual abuse was a feature of previous slave systems.

Did slaves in Ancient Rome suffer as much sexual abuse? How about in Athens? Were the Spartans sexually abusive to the Helots?

  • 2
    It was certainly portrayed that way in HBO's Spartacus (it was fiction though). Given that the Romans and Greeks weren't exactly a different species than Southerners, I see no reason whatsoever not to assume they behaved the exact same way when presented with the same situations. Or to turn it around, if they were treated differently than US slaves, that's prima facie proof that their status was different.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 16:15
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    It almost certainly varied by time period and culture. But it's hard to believe that it it didn't happen to some extent in every culture with slavery.
    – user15620
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 16:55
  • To refine your question, I suggest a little research on slavery in North Africa and slavery in the Muslim world. That may provide more context to a related institution of slavery that (in its later stages) ran in parallel with slavery in North America (in colonies and later in the US) -- though as a system it was centuries older than on the western side of the Atlantic. Not sure it is accurate to characterize having a concubine as sexual assault/abuse within the context of that time, though from our modern context I understand how it would be characterized that way. Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 17:55
  • T.E.D. In fact slaves in Ancient Rome were treated quite differently. They could earn their freedom, eventually join the army...etc. In addition, slavery in those ancient societies was not drawn strictly along racial lines. There's good reason to believe, therefore, that there could have been different social conventions and/or taboos surrounding those relationships. Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 22:00
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    What exactly "institutionalized abuse" means needs to be specified. There has almost certainly never been a culture with slavery where at least some sexual abuse of slaves existed, yet I doubt you will find any culture where at least some masters did not sexually abuse their slaves. Religion/culture is going play a big role, for instance, I'd expect more abuse in pagan Rome (where sex outside of marriage was not a big deal) than in Christian Rome (where sex outside of marriage was discouraged.)
    – user15620
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 1:43

1 Answer 1


Without going into nauseating detail, slaves by definition have no freedom, and no freedom of choice. From Johnston's The Private life of the Romans

  1. Legal Status of Slaves. The power of the master over the slave, dominica potestās (§ 26), was absolute. The master could assign to the slave laborious and degrading tasks, punish him even unto death at his sole discretion, sell him, and kill him (or turn him out in the street to die) when age or illness had made him incapable of labor. Slaves were mere chattels in the eyes of the law, like oxen or horses.

The book The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Volume 1; Volume 7 By Junius P. Rodriguez mentions specifically Athens, Rome, of course, the Visigoths, and the Hebrews as cultures which had laws concerning sexual behavior with slaves or concubines. A Wikipedia page also covers both modern and Historical sexual slavery and includes info on Asian and Arab slavery. Another wiki page discusses the Bible and its references to slavery and rules concerning selling daughters as concubines.

So yes, slaves have been used sexually throughout the history of slavery.

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