W. Grainger after T. Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, 1801, wood engraving.

Classical Names and Concepts Used in the Service of Slavery

Susan Wegner

W. Grainger after T. Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, 1801, wood engraving.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century in America, the classical world seemed to influence everything, from politics and aesthetics to the naming of enslaved individuals. 

Many enslaved men in the colonial period bore the names Bacchus, Virgil, Hannibal, Jupiter, Titus, Cato, Cicero, Hector, Cupid, Primus, Augustus, Scipio, Nero, Hercules, and Caesar, while enslaved women and girls in New England and beyond received classical slave names such as Venus, Diana, Phoebe, Juno, Daphne, Dido, and Flora. One of these Venuses worked in the home of Benjamin Wadsworth, President of Harvard College (in office 1725–1737), and has recently been honored with a stone plaque outside of the Wadsworth House, the home of Colonial-era university presidents. In fact, Wadsworth’s successor at ​​Harvard, Edward Holyoke (in office 1737–1769), also kept slaves. During the time James Bowdoin II (1726–1790)—in whose honor Bowdoin College was named—was enrolled in the mid-1740s, enslaved people may have cooked or cleaned in service to students at the school as well.

Wadsworth House Slave Plaque at Harvard University installed 2015. Cropped. Original photo by The Royall House and Slave Quarters via the “Read the Plaque” project. link

James Bowdoin II was himself an enslaver. Slavery was not outlawed in Massachusetts until 1783, and Bowdoin’s Boston household included paid and enslaved servants throughout most of the preceding decades. Several of the individuals enslaved by Bowdoin had names drawn from antiquity, including Polydore (after Polydorus, prince of Troy), Cyrus (after the Persian king), and Caesar. The enslaved Caesar’s story illuminates Bowdoin’s values (as well as those of his fellow Boston elites). In 1763, Bowdoin sent Caesar to the Caribbean island of Grenada, knowing full well the brutal plantation labor that awaited him, because, as Bowdoin wrote, “My man Caesar has been engaged in an amour with some of the white Ladies of the town…”.  He asked his brother-in-law George Scott, the Governor of Grenada, to “dispose” of (sell) Caesar via the auction block in punishment.

To give another example of just how common it was for enslaved people to be given classical names, the partial list below demonstrates how frequently the name Venus was used:

  • 1720s–40s: Venus, enslaved in Cambridge to the family of President Wadsworth at Harvard College
  • 1731: Venus, fourteen-year-old enslaved girl purchased in Newport, Rhode Island, by theologian Jonathan Edwards, future president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University)
  • 1756: Venus, enslaved to Reverend Ebenezer Bridge, dies in Chelmsford, Massachusetts
  • 1772: Venus, a servant to Nathaniel Cooper, baptized in Dover, New Hampshire
  • ca. 1776: Venus, “a pauper belonging to Dover.”
  • 1783: Venus, eight-year-old enslaved person taken to Nova Scotia by Loyalist John Herbert
  • 1784 or 1785: Venus, enslaved person, bears a son on the plantation of John Augustine Washington (brother of George Washington)
  • 1792: Venus, child murdered on board a British slave ship
  • 1800: “The negro wench Venus,” bequeathed to Ann, wife of James Pollock, Cumberland County, ​​Pennsylvania
  • 1807: “Venus—a Black” receives a monetary gift from a St. John’s Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
  • 1807: Venus, enslaved to Thomas Craighead (1737–1807) in what is now South Middleton Township, Pennsylvania. 

This last Venus was thought to be the sister of the first known Black woman poet in America, Phyllis Wheatly. Incidentally, Wheatley’s engraved portrait of 1773 may have been made by a Black artist with the classical name Scipio Moorhead ​​who lived in Boston and was auctioned in 1775. In fact, Scipio was common enough as a slave name that Harriet Beecher Stowe chose it for one of her protagonists in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Why choose the names Venus or Scipio? Some scholars have argued that classical names could show off slave-holders’ learning while also mocking those humans held as property by giving them ironic names of powerful ancient rulers, gods, and heroes. Historian Susan Benson characterizes these names as “injurious,” citing Harlem activist Richard Moore’s statement that “slaves and dogs are named by their masters, free men name themselves.” Classical names marked slaves by applying naming forms not used by the dominant class. At the same time, they could carry embedded references; the name “Scipio” refers to the Roman general, victorious in the African campaign against Carthage, and Scipio Africanus played on the African origin of some enslaved people. Cultural anthropologist Sarah Abel asserts that “names like ‘Venus’ for female slaves reflected and licensed the lasciviousness of European slaveowners toward African women, making such behaviors ‘sound agreeable.’”


W. Grainger after T. Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, 1801, wood engraving.

One striking visual remnant from that era displays the repellent distortion of the name Venus as applied to an enslaved figure. The print The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies by William Grainger was commissioned by Bryan Edwards, a powerful supporter of the slave trade, for the second edition of The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, first published in London and Dublin in 1793. In the work, a sexualized depiction of a Black Venus on a shell chariot blatantly distorts the horrors of the middle passage. The Sable Venus is very scantily clad, her nudity accentuated by the jewelry she wears around her wrists, ankles, and throat. The reins of her chariot cross her chest, bringing attention to her breasts at which the bearded Neptune (lower left) stares. An accompanying poem further objectifies the naked figure, comparing her beautiful form to that of Botticelli’s Venus and judging them alike: “No difference, no—none at night…” The writer later describes how the Sable Venus “smil’d with kind consenting eyes” to Neptune’s advances. James Bowdoin III (1752–1811) purchased the fourth edition (1807) of Edwards’ book, in which the image and poem appears, for his library, which he aimed to donate to an institution. As of today, this copy remains in Bowdoin College’s Special Collections. 

Artifacts like these from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries testify to just how mutable the classical heritage could be in America. Reverence for and knowledge of the classical world is not neutral because it has been turned to many purposes, from supporting the institution of slavery to uplifting the moral character and aesthetic taste of young students. Much work remains for today’s students to continue uncovering and analyzing the contrasting uses of classical heritage in early America.

Susan Wegner is an Associate Professor of Art History, Chair of Department of Art and the Director of Art History Division at Bowdoin College


John C. Inscoe, “Carolina Slave Names,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Nov, 1983): 541; Robert Shell cites Robert Semple on slave names in Cape Town in 1804:

"It may here be observed that the whole heathen mythology is ransacked to find the names which are generally bestowed in a manner not the most honourable to those deities at whose altars one half of the human race formerly bowed down.

Thus Jupiter cleans the shoes, Hercules rubs down the horses, and Juno lights the fire. Yet [this] is it not done through any disrespect towards these once remarkable names, as those in Scripture are applied with as little ceremony, and in as unappropriate a manner, Sampson being daily sent for water and Solomon up to Table Mountain for firewood."

See Robert Shell, “Cape Slave Naming Patterns.” South African History Online, Towards a Peoples’ History, August 2, 2016. link


Mark Auslander, “In Search of Venus, an Enslaved Woman at Harvard.” Mark Auslander Blog, September 1, 2020. link


Gordon E. Kershaw cites a letter from James Bowdoin II to Francis Margaret, Dec. 9, 1768, Letter Book, 95, Massachusetts Historical Society. Gordon E. Kershaw, James Bowdoin II, Patriot and Man of the Enlightenment, (Lanham: University Press of America, 1991), 24.


Diary of President Benjamen Wadsworth, Oct 25, 1726. Auslander, “In Search of Venus.”


The receipt for Venus is in John E. Smith, Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema, eds, A Jonathan Edwards Reader (New Haven, 1995), 296–7.


Elise Lemire, Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 49


Tony McManus, “Historically Speaking: Dover Has Its Own History of Slavery.” Foster's Daily Democrat, May 2, 2021. link


McManus, “Historically Speaking.”


Harvey Amani Whitfield, “American Background of Loyalist Slaves,” Left History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Historical Inquiry and Debate (Autumn, 2009): 58.


Mary Thompson, “‘The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret’: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon.”. Journal of Social History. 54, no. 4 (Summer 2021): 1246–7.


Peter Marshall, “The Anti-Slave Trade Movement in Bristol” in Bristol in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Patrick McGrath, (David and Charles, 1972), 206.


William Henry Egle, Historical Register: Notes and Queries, Historical and Genealogical, Relating to Interior Pennsylvania, Volume 1, (1863): 50.


Merri Lou Schaumann, “Venus, slave of Thomas Craighead, was Sister of the first published American Negro poet, Phillis Wheatley” Quoting Carlisle Herald, January 3,1849. link


E. Slauter, “Looking for Scipio Moorhead: An ‘African Painter’ in Revolutionary North America” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, ed. A. Lugo-Ortiz & A. Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres, 2013), 89–116). doi:10.1017/CBO9781139021845.005


Susan Benson, “Injurious Names: Naming, Disavowal, and Recuperation in Contexts of Slavery and Emancipation.” in The Anthropology of Names and Naming, ed. Gabriele vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 178–199.


Sarah Abel, George F. Tyson, Gisli Palsoon, “From Enslavement to Emancipation: Naming Practices in the Danish West Indies,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 61, no. 2 (2019): 332–65. 


Blouet, Olwyn M. "Bryan Edwards, F.R.S., 1743–1800." Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 54, no. 2 (2000): 215–22. Accessed July 18, 2021, link. A critique of the Sable Venus emerges in twentieth century African American poetry of Robin Coste Lewis. Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015), the winner of National Book Award for Poetry. Regullus Allen, “‘The Sable Venus’ and Desire for the Undesirable” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 51, No. 3, (Summer, 2011): 667–91.


 Bryan Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies of the West Indies, (London: Stockdale, 1807), 231.


Kenneth Carpenter, James Bowdoin III as Library Builder," in The Legacy of James Bowdoin III. (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1994), 115–117.