A Hierarchy of Violence? Sex Slaves, Parthenoi, and Rape in Menander's Epitrepontes

By Glazebrook, Allison | Helios, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

A Hierarchy of Violence? Sex Slaves, Parthenoi, and Rape in Menander's Epitrepontes


Glazebrook, Allison, Helios


Scholarship on prostitution in ancient Greece, specifically classical Athens, commonly ignores the violence surrounding sexual labor. Whereas violence is central to discussions of prostitution in the modern context, the focus on the ancient hetaira as a courtesan has obscured the reality of Greek prostitutes, many of whom were slaves and vulnerable to abuse. (1) It is not just the obvious fact that prostitution could at times be violent--women, girls, and household slaves in general were at risk for sexual violence more broadly (as comic plots attest and as ancient warfare demonstrates (2))--but that such violence was constructed differently for sex laborers than other social groups: the prostitute body is deemed an accessible body and that accessibility normalizes sexual violence against it and creates a double standard of violence. (3) It is this construction of violence that I begin to explore here by comparing two narratives of sexual assault as recounted by the sex slave Habrotonon in Menander's Epitrepontes. In comparing the two narratives, I place special emphasis on the narrative voice (a shift from third person to first person), the intended context for the narrative (a private conversation between slaves versus a conversation at the symposium), and the identity of the victim (a citizen girl versus a sex slave). Also important is the fact that the narrator of both accounts is the same person, the sex slave Habrotonon.

The plot of Menander's Epitrepontes (The Arbitrators) is typical of New Comedy in that the plot hinges on the rape of a young citizen woman by an unknown and inebriated assailant at a night festival (in this case the Tauropolia). (4) The victim becomes pregnant from the rape. The rapist, discovered to be a wealthy young citizen, does the right thing by acknowledging his child and uniting with the mother. All ends happily. Specific to the plot of this play is the fact that when the action begins, the victim, Pamphile, is unknowingly married to her assailant. Charisius, her husband, has discovered the pregnancy, though not his role in it, and left the marriage to take up with a slave prostitute, Habrotonon. Habrotonon, in turn, discovers that the father of the child is Charisius. Hoping to acquire her freedom, she reveals the child to Charisius, who then happily reunites with his wife.

As noted by Hunter Gardner (2013) and Sharon James (2014), the Epitrepontes is unique in that it presents details of a sexual assault and its effect on the victim. (5) Habrotonon recounts the event as follows (486-90):

   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

   Although being there with us, she [Pamphile] wandered off. Then
   suddenly she ran up alone crying and pulling out her hair [in
   grief]. Oh gods--she had totally ruined her light cloak, very
   beautiful and fine; for the whole thing was a tattered rag.

Pamphile is described here as hysterical after the encounter, crying and pulling out her hair. The violence of the event and its effect on the victim are further highlighted by her torn clothing. This vivid account leads Gardner and James to conclude that Menander and most likely Athenian society more broadly recognized a "rape victim" and acknowledged sexual violence as an "embodied event" (Gardner 2013, 134; James 2014, 33). Ancient Athenians, they argue, had a concept of sexual assault akin to our modern understanding of rape.

In addition to the absence of descriptive victim accounts, discussions of rape in classical Athens are hindered by the lack of specific terminology referring to it. (6) There is no single term for 'sexual violence' in classical Greek: bia (force), (7) hubris (outrage), and moicheia (adultery) are the legal categories under which sexual offences might fall. (8) Bia and hubris, however, also refer to other forms of violence and other types of crimes. In addition, rape victims are never noted as 'victims of hubris,' only the kurios (guardian) is. …

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