Laurie Venters

PhD Researcher

Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies
Research Associate in Research Area E Gender (and Intersectionality)
Adenauerallee 18–22
D-53113 Bonn

Venters_Laurie 2.jpg
© Barbara Frommann

Academic Profile

Jeopardy Chanced: The Sexual Agency of Female Slaves in Ancient Rome, with
Comparisons to Han China

Both classical Rome –– defined here as roughly the four centuries extending from the mid Republic (ca. 264 BCE) to the end of the Severan lineage (235 CE) –– and the Western 西 (206 BCE–9 CE) and Eastern Han 東漢 (25–220 CE) dynasty witnessed the extensive application of unfree labour.
Despite substantial variances in the organisation and use of bonded manpower, it is possible to
foreground commonalities in the life experiences of servi and nubi 奴婢 (slaves, in Han
terminology). Critically, Roman and early Chinese law authorised the prerogative of slave owners
to sexually manipulate their dependents. Erotic relationships between master and slave were
frequently coercive, inflicting, we might assume, lifelong psychological trauma. However, it would
be misrepresentative to equate victimhood with powerlessness, undermining the volitional
amplitude of unfree women and girls.
My dissertation purposes to explore one category of agentic behaviour germane to female slaves in the Roman world, namely sexual agency. In brief, sexual agency concerns the aptitude of bonded women to navigate erotic relationships with their master, as well as resist bodily domination and attempts to curtail their individual subjectivity. As will be demonstrated, sexual agency can be viewed as a trans-historical behaviour, observable in a myriad of heterogeneous societies where slaveholding was prevalent. To evince the intercultural value of sexual agency –– as a theoretical framework –– I turn to Han China, highlighting kindred expressions of servile faculty in a coincident, though decidedly unique, social environment. Comparison here serves not only to elucidate those features peculiar to ancient Roman and Chinese slavery, but underscore how similar historical circumstances engendered like-minded agentic stratagems. Three broad research questions guide my inquiry. Foremost, how might female slaves have capitalised on the venereal interests of their master? Second, in what ways did enslaved women and girls attempt to refute masterly control over their bodies? And finally, how did societal differences influence the exercise of sexual agency?

Ph.D. in Ancient History, University of Bonn, Germany

M.A. Ancient History, University of Leiden, Netherlands

B.A. History, Royal Holloway University of London, UK

Research Associate in Research Area E Gender (and Intersectionality), University of Bonn, Germany

  • Laurie Venters, “Lightening bonds: servile resistance in early imperial China,” The Historian
    (2023), 1–28.
  • Laurie Venters, “Fettered by your Tresses: The Sexual Agency of Brothel Slaves in the Roman
    World,” in Legacies of Slavery and Contemporary Resistance, eds. David W. Bulla et al.
    (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2023), 106–124.
  • Laurie Venters and Alexander Rothenberg, “Trammelled stars: the non-autonomy of female K-pop idols,” Celebrity Studies (2022), 1–17.
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