Hyperallergic: 'How Foreign Women Have Been Tokenized Since Ancient Roman Times'

Published 12 April 2021 in Insights


'How Foreign Women Have Been Tokenized Since Ancient Roman Times'

By Nandini Pandey

Hyperallergic - Art

Published 6 April 2021

We can see the Atlanta shootings within an even longer history of desiring, dehumanizing, and discarding foreign women.

Like many Asian-American women, I’m still profoundly shaken by the March 16 murder of eight people in Atlanta — six of them Asian women. The suspect’s reported explanation that spas were “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate” continued the work of his gun in robbing these women of individuality and humanity. By treating them as faceless fodder for “sex addiction,” to be dispatched at will, the shooter amplified a message that Asians hear every day: We’re interchangeable, expendable bulk goods, without names you need bother to learn. Our lives, liberties, and happiness are contingent on yours. We’re not entitled to happy endings.

Asians are arguably the most diverse group in America, ethnically and socioeconomically. Aware of my relative privilege, I’ve struggled to process the murders of Korean and Chinese women who had less than me, don’t look like me, yet with whom I feel unexpected kinship. This is the secret power of anti-Asian bias in the United States. The one thing we have in common is our shared status as its targets. We’re on the receiving end of the police comment that the shooter “had a bad day, and this is what he did.” We hear the message of the 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents reported in the US since March 2020. It doesn’t matter where we’re from, where we work, how far up the ladder we’ve climbed. Atlanta confirms that everything we’ve earned, you can take in a heartbeat.

In moments that confront us with our shared fragility, it’s some comfort to look to the past. Commentators have processed the shootings as part of America’s long history of anti-Asian discrimination, the media’s sexualization of Asian women, and misconceptions about massage parlors. But as an Indian-American professor of classics, writing a book about diversity in imperial Rome, I see the Atlanta shootings within an even longer history of desiring, dehumanizing, and discarding foreign women.

Before race was invented, before Orientalism had a name, the Romans also commodified and exploited “exotic” women from inside and outside their empire. Women’s bodies became proxy battlegrounds where men reenacted the violence, inequality, and toxic masculinity that sustained Roman imperialism. These ancient habits of mind remain armed and dangerous today. But Rome also helps us imagine a future when Asians aren’t perpetual “others” in America, no matter how many generations we’ve been here. A future when we don’t just serve, but live, American dreams.

Rome’s empire, like the Unites States’ own, was built on violence, slavery, and oppression. Before Christ was born, Rome had forcibly incorporated people across Europe, Asia, and Africa into its multiethnic empire. It fed on the exploitation of women, poor and enslaved people, and non-citizens, with Asian women overrepresented among service workers. Misogyny and xenophobia were endemic. But despite Rome’s “white” image in modern media, racism was not. People of any color, from pale Britons to Black Africans, might wind up enslaved — or find paths to citizenship. So Rome helps pick apart what’s unique, and not, about Asian women’s intersectional identities in modern America.

In its narrowest sense, “Asia” was what Romans called western Turkey, a province since 133 BCE. But in classical antiquity, as today, the continent became a generic conceptual home for people who were exotic enough to excite, yet safe enough to exploit. By the height of its empire, Rome’s Asian territories encompassed Anatolia, Syria, Judea, and the rest of the eastern Mediterranean, where Greek, rather than Latin, was the language of state. These ancient civilizations had already attained wealth and sophistication when Rome’s ragtag founders were being raised by wolves. They served as buffers and trade routes between Rome’s expanding empire and the “barbarians” outside, people most Italians couldn’t tell apart. They regularly confused Parthians with Armenians, and thought of Chinese and Indian people primarily in terms of the silks and spices they could supply. Then, as now, westerners snatched up imported eastern commodities, then complained about the trade deficit.

So when Romans thought of Asia, it was as a source of “temptations” that they both desired and feared would corrupt their masculine, militaristic culture from within. These luxuries included imported culture, goods, and services — or all three combined, in human form. Greek and Asian hairdressers, bath attendants, and flute-players were the ancient equivalents of immigrants who work long hours for low wages at restaurants, nail salons, and spas. And the steady westward traffic of enslaved Asian women, via conquest or international slave markets in the eastern Mediterranean, meant that their bodies bore the brunt of local men’s desires and anxieties.

The Romans weren’t the first to commodify exotic women. But they turned tokenization into an art form. From Rome’s earliest days, generals paraded captive people and art through the capital city as evidence of distant victories. On money and other media, women’s bodies stood in for foreign lands, symbolically dominated by Rome. One coin marking Vespasian’s brutal suppression of the Jewish revolt in 70 CE shows a mourning woman sitting beneath a palm tree, a man looming triumphant above her. She represents the 97,000 individuals sold into slavery from Judea that year to serve people like him. Coins like this, and bodies like hers, paid soldiers for their help subjecting foreign cultures, then spread the wealth to other members of Roman society. 

Sestertius of Vespasian (71 CE), in the “Judaea Capta” series, S C in exergue, to right, Jewess in attitude of mourning, seated left beneath palm tree; standing left, captive Jew with hands tied behind back captured weapons behind. (by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.)

Such images also circulated the erotic thrill of conquest far and wide. In one relief from Aphrodisias, in western Turkey, a naked Emperor Claudius is poised to deal a death blow to a female Britannia. She’s slumped between his legs, one breast exposed like an Amazon warrior: the ancient equivalent of snuff porn. Another shows Nero hauling off an unconscious Armenia, naked except for a Phrygian cap. This accessory’s origin in a different part of Asia reminds us that cultural ignorance never stopped mass murder.

Elsewhere, submissive women symbolized conquered lands through stereotypes that even the illiterate could read. Romans could collect and finger them all in one set of coins marking the emperor Hadrian’s travels:  Asia with her ship’s rudder, Africa with an elephant headdress, Greece and Gaul on their knees. Today, it’s through curry and sushi, laundry and spas, that Americans learn to dominate Asians, not as conquerors but as customers who are always right. The murders in Atlanta proves how easily men can transform the women who provide these services back into commodities again, to be consumed and discarded once desire expires.

“Britannia being conquered by Claudius,” Relief from the Sebasteion, Aphrodisias, Turkey, (1st century CE) (image by Francesca Tronchin via Flickr; used by author’s permission)

Asian women have a long history, too, of being abused for their unwanted role as currency of conquest. In Juvenal’s third satire, an Italian man complains that the Syrian river Orontes was flowing into Rome’s Tiber, discharging a human flood of harp-players and prostitutes. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that many of these immigrants were traded naked on the auction block, their place of origin hung on signs around their neck, to satisfy local demand for jobs that many preferred to avoid.

The poet Ovid, by contrast with Juvenal, positively delights in the ethnically diverse women that the capital offered men on the prowl. He even teaches readers how to coerce vulnerable women into sex, using an enslaved Asian hairdresser as a model. But at least Ovid’s pick-up map of Rome, like Roman conquest and slavery, didn’t discriminate by ethnicity. Compare the online forum RubMaps that, according to the Washington Post, categorizes sexual experiences at massage parlors according to “Masseuse Ethnicity.” The spas attacked in Atlanta listed “Asian” as their biggest or only type.

If Rome offers one small ray of hope to Asian women, for all its horrors, it’s a reminder that the intersectional discrimination we face is not permanent, within our family or global histories. Asian and African migrants to Rome were no more likely to be harassed than blonde Europeans. All coded as equally “foreign” in a society that fetishized difference without systemic discrimination. Plus, thanks to Rome’s remarkable practice of freeing, enfranchising, and including former slaves, local demographics were constantly diversifying. Immigrants and their ethnically mixed children swelled the citizen roster. A 2019 genetic analysis confirms what racist historians long suspected: that Roman veins flowed with “Oriental blood.” Such genetic mixing was a symptom of forcible dislocation but also of intermarriage, integration, and upward mobility.

Foreign women’s bodies were powerful agents of change in this process. Enslaved immigrants were regularly manumitted by citizens who exploited, loved, or married them. What they lacked in the ability to say no, their children gained in citizen status, with all its rights and opportunities. No ethnic, neighborhood, or even household lines divided free from enslaved people, and no stigma attached to interracial relationships. The Emperor Caracalla, who extended citizenship to all free men across the empire in 212 CE, was himself the child of a Syrian mother and a Libyan father. Nobody asked him the question that second-generation Asian-Americans still hear from our fellow citizens: No, where are you really from? 

Today, Asians bear a divisive reputation as “model minorities” but are never fully accepted into American culture. Our sense of unwelcome crosses geographical and socioeconomic borders. At a March 18 solidarity event co-hosted by the Asian and Asian-American Classical Caucus and the Women’s Classical Caucus, some of the most brilliant and accomplished scholars I know anonymously answered the question, “How does it feel to be an Asian woman in academia?” Their heartbreaking responses: “Invisible.” “Fetishized.” “Marginalized.” “Taken for granted.” “Exploited.” “So damn tiring.” “Defined by everyone except yourself.”

How far have we come, really, since Rome? Asian women in antiquity were commodified, tokenized, and exploited. But though the historical record privileges elite male voices over theirs, we know they were lovingly remembered and actively expressive. One Roman epitaph to a mother from Asian Nicaea, enslaved and freed by a female doctor, was dedicated by two loving children with Eastern names. And the Aphrodisias reliefs, in the heart of Roman Asia, are among many monuments sponsored by Asian women with influence and status. Even women on the edges of empire enjoyed the sense of belonging, prosperity, and ownership that Rome’s world conquest conferred.

Rome gives us perspective, too, on the rising tide of fortune across generations. The Roman general Pompey built a portico featuring female statues of 14 nations he subdued, several in Asia. A woman enslaved through these conquests might view effigies of her people as emblems of misfortune. But over her lifetime, she might become one of the lucky few to buy back her personhood, in exchange for coins featuring stereotypes of women like her. Over generations, her children and even her people might gain citizenship, keep fleshing out Rome’s once generic image of their kind. So, these statues were signs of their capacity not just for domination but inclusion — all the more if they wore Phrygian caps, a sign even now of liberty regained.