The Prestige Makers: Greek Slave Women in Ancient Indian Harems—Attendants, Courtesans, and “Amazon” Armed Body Guards

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 11:30 AM
Room A601 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Kathryn Hain, University of Utah

It seems impossible that enslaved women could endure the long trip from the Mediterrean to Central India in early Antiquity, a distance of 4,000 miles or over 1000 hours of walking according to google maps.  Yet Greek and Roman records of slave acquisitions, sales, or trade with India set against mentions of Greek or Yavana (western) women in Indian harems reveal that it was possible, even normal, to transport captive Greek women to India.  This paper will use Sanskirt, Pali, and Prakrit texts to analyze how these Greek female slaves were viewed and used as elite slaves in Indian society. 

A Prakrit text, Antagada-dasio, describes a royal Jain household which included Greek ‘Yavana’ women as household slaves along with many other ethnicities as early as the 5th century BCE-The Persian Era. These women were described wearing their ethnic clothing and communicating in sign language showing that ethnic diversity was valued by royals.  Greek/western women appear in other Indian sources from antiquity mentioning Greek female slaves serving as harem attendants and as female units of armed body guards that surrounded the ruler in and outside of the harem walls. Did using women in quasi-military units result from the Amazon legends that followed Alexander the Great into India?  Other sources hint that numerous Greek women worked in India as topless dancers, entertainers, musicians, and courtesans.  The Greek women in texts give a view of multi-ethnic elite female slavery in ancient India.  Their racial and ethnic differences made them exotic.  The distant peoples that they represented demonstrated their owner’s imperial ambitions.   Greek slaves, whether used as concubines, courtesans, or personal body guards, provided prestige for Indian rulers who used female slaves to demonstrate their imperial ambitions and sophistication. 

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