The sexual exploitation of the unfree within the households of the late- and post-Roman world profoundly affected wider society in ways that necessitate a large-scale, multi-contextual collaborative investigation.
During this transformative period, Christianity established itself as the defining institution of the Latin West and Greek East; complex Islamicate societies emerged in the Near East, North Africa, and Spain; and Jewish communities developed a unique network across the region. As dynamic forces swept across these diverse societies and overturned longstanding customs, beliefs, and practices, the household stood firm as the fundamental unit of social organisation – a microcosm in which identities (male/female, slave/free, adult/child, local/foreign) were formed and reinforced.
Unfree people living in these domestic contexts were particularly vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Neither was this incidental to their condition. The shame associated with their sexual use at the hands of those who held power over them helped maintain the institution of domestic slavery and stabilise wider social hierarchies during an era of headlong change, though in ways that are only poorly understood.
This research project will reconstruct the motivations and justifications behind the sexual exploitation of domestic slaves, identify how the lived experience in the household shaped the content of our sources, reveal how a common Roman inheritance impacted later practices, and explain the similarities and differences found within Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities across the region. By approaching the sexual exploitation of slaves as a social practice with its own particular logic and rationale, and by analysing the whole of the greater Mediterranean world as a single, interconnected cultural zone, this project will overcome divides in scholarship to dramatically advance our understanding of slavery and wider society from the 4th to 9th centuries.
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