Rape in Ancient Societies

Introduction

One way to understand the view of ancient men is to rely on the insights provided by a gifted writer. Shakespeare is still relevant in the 21st century as he was during his time because of his ability to penetrate human nature. He does not only understand human nature but he is also a master when it comes to explaining it in terms and images readily understood by common men.

Shakespeare has another talent and it is his ability to look into ancient history and draw inspiration from there. One of his important works that relates to this topic is the play entitled The Rape of Lucrece. In this play Shakespeare sheds light on the mentality of the rapist and victim in ancient times.

The most poignant part of the play is when Lucrece, after securing an oath from husband and father to avenge the wrong done to her, committed suicide.[1] This is an important scene because it shows the way society view the victim of the rape. Even if the rapist was the evildoer, the act itself has somehow transferred his wickedness into the victim, forcing her to kill herself. It has to be pointed out that rape is a crime that is difficult to prove.

In a time when there were no scientific means to prove sexual assault it is difficult for a woman to build a clear case against a rapist especially if there were no witnesses. Going back to the story of Lucrece, her suicide was necessary to prove to everyone that she did nothing wrong. In the words of one commentary, “her death is to function as the ultimate sign of her innocence.”[2] Her family believed her story.

It was Tarquin who forced her to sin against her body and therefore there was no need to commit suicide. However, her reputation suffers because at the time of the sexual act, although it must be considered rape, she allowed it to happen. Shakespeare wrote this play based on what he knows about ancient societies such as Greece and Rome.

Before going any further it is important to have a clear understanding of the nature of rape. Jane Gallop, in The Daughter’s of Seduction has this to say:

The notions of integrity and closure in the text are like that of virginity in a body. They assume that if one does not respect the boundaries between inside and outside, one is ‘breaking and entering,’ violating a property. As long as the fallacies of integrity and closure are upheld, a desire to penetrate becomes a desire to rape.[3]

The above statement also reveals an important feature of the act of rape that it begins in the mind. It begins with desire and the rapist is guilty even before he has committed the act. This must serve as a strong deterrent to rape. But the status of women in ancient societies was so low that men can were able to do what they please. Sexual assault was not as clearly defined and many of the guilty were left unpunished. It is now time to examine if the Greeks have a better understanding of the violent nature of rape.

Ancient Greece

The Greeks are known for their wisdom but even their enlightened rulers and philosopher did not develop laws to protect women from rape and the consequences of rape. They did not create laws that acted as a deterrent to violating the consent of women. They did not create laws to send a message that their society honors women in the same way that it honors the men. There were laws about rape but the focus is to protect the property and the reputation of the husband.

Women in ancient Greece did not directly benefit from these laws because these laws are dependent on their relationship to a man. They have to be a wife, daughter, mother, or a palleke, a slave-woman kept for the purpose of bearing children.[4] In other words the crime of rape must be punished to deal with the offense made against husband and father but not to the victim of the said crime.

The idea that laws about rape were created for the benefit of men was made clear in the story of Euphiletus trial on the murder of Eratosthenes. Euphiletus said that he knew that Eratosthenes was seducing his wife and when he caught them in the act of adultery he killed him.

The plot thickens when Euphiletus found himself on trial for the murder of an adulterer when their law justifies the murder of a person caught seducing a pallake. Euphiletus added that if the law justifies this act then how much more the husbands murderous rage against an adulterer.[5] Euphiletus went on to explain why seduction is more dangerous than rape and he said:

The rapist incurs the hatred of his victim, the seducer corrupts the very soul of the woman and gains greater control over her than her husband has. The seducer thus gets the entire household under his control, making it impossible for the husband to know the father of his wife’s children.[6]

Euphiletus made an interesting point with regards to the laws against adultery, rape and seduction. But the importance of his statement is on how it sheds light on the mindset of ancient Greeks when it comes to their women. As one can observe rape was made evil not because it violated the women but because the act can produce unwanted children.

Thus, it can be interpreted as an act disadvantageous to the husband and protector of the female victim. For instance, in the case of a rapist attacking a man’s daughter, the rapist must be made to answer for his crime because the moment the daughter conceives after the rape, she would bring dishonor to the family. At the same time it raises a problem when it comes to the responsibility of taking care of the child. There is no one who can help her raise the child.

A rapist caught in the act of raping a man’s mother has to be punished because the act has brought shame to the family. There is also a possibility that the rapist has sired a child and this can be the root cause of a destructive family struggle later on. The same thing can be said about the raping the wife and the pallake. The end-goal is to erase all doubts that the children sired by these women are the legitimate heirs and not sired by a rapist and seducer.

It is very clear that although Rome has sophisticated laws to deal with rape and seduction, all of these laws are for the benefit of men. Women are valued primarily as a bearer of children. Thus, their rights do not extend far from how they are perceived by the men in their household. These laws reveal a significantly different mindset when compared to the ideals of human rights and women’s rights in the 21st century.

The concept of rape against women follows the same pattern as that of ancient Greece. The following statement clarifies the way sexual offenses were viewed during this time: “Sexual offenses by men involving women (rape, adultery, seduction, even sexual insults) were offenses against men’s authority over their household members.”[7]

In ancient Greece adultery and rape were not clearly distinguished and the punishment was the same most of the time.[8] There is a simple explanation, “the victim of both crimes was not the person attacked but the man whose house she dwelt.”[9] Aside from the need to protect the family lineage these laws were created to protect the property of the men in a male-dominated society.

Ancient Rome

When Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates were formulating great ideas, Rome was still an unknown entity in the Western world. However, centuries later when Rome began to consolidate power to become a superpower in Europe, not much has change when it comes to how men treated women. According to one commentary:

As is often true in patriarchal societies, the roles and identities of women in ancient Rome were generally seen as inseparable from those of the men to whom they were related. Roman women’s lives were expected to make a neat transition from the position of daughter and sister to that of wife and mother.[10]

A Roman myth called the Rape of the Sabine Women reveals how women are viewed in this ancient society. In the said myth the Romans wanted to form an alliance with a neighboring tribe called the Sabine. But this tribe was clearly not interested with the proposal. Thus, the Romans abducted the daughters of the Sabine people and forced them to be their wives.

Technically, they were raped, but the reaction of the women provided a glimpse into their mindset when it comes to the relationship between men and women. In the aftermath of the abduction the Sabine tribe declared war on Rome but their captured daughters pleaded with them and begged “not to force a choice between their family of birth and their family of marriage.”[11]

In this instance, rape became a prelude to marriage demonstrating once again that if the male relatives of the victims of rape are unable to redeem their honor then the woman’s value was lost forever. In this case their value was redeemed by agreeing to be married to their captors.

This particular myth was in reference to the early days of Rome. It is important to find out if there was a significant change that occurred when Rome became a Republic. But just the same, the laws against rape were created to protect the honor of the male relatives. As a matter of fact the insult done to the woman is also considered as an insult to the male relative.[12]

If the male relatives took matters into their own hand and kill the rapist, the prosecution against them was known to be very lenient.[13] Nevertheless, nothing can be done to restore the victim’s value. The offense of rape was considered a capital charge and therefore the punishment can be death, banishment or diminution of the civil status of the rapist.[14]

Everything was done to prove to the world that the family’s honor was redeemed and that the male relative will not lose face in public. But nothing can be done to restore the value of the victim.

The idea that an unmarried Roman girl has to be chaste has frightening consequences for the rape victim because: “Chastity was a vital element in the girl’s value for marriage, and if she had been violated before, her future was irrevocably spoiled. It got worse if she conceived during the rape.

She lost her value as an object of exchange between families and could redeem herself only by death.[15] It is time to find out if much has change after the passage of thousands of years. It is important to determine if modern societies were able to see the value of women beyond their relationship with a man.

Modern Times

There is a major difference in the way modern people view rape compared to the mindset of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the ancient world rape is not just an act committed against a woman, it is an act committed against a woman under the supervision of a male relative. As a result, analysis of Greek and Roman literature will reveal that in their ancient societies adultery and rape are seen as a similar offense against the head of the household.

The modern view of rape is a sexual act committed without a woman’s consent.[16] But ancient Greece and ancient Rome had a different view than modern societies as pointed out by Harris: “our concept focuses on the absence of the victim’s consent … ancient authors, on the other hand, had very different notions from ours about women’s power and ability to grant consent and were more interested in questions of honor when it came to judging acts of sexual violence.”[17] Although modern societies have a more sophisticated view of rape there are certain things that remained unchanged.

Sex crimes still abound today. Rape is still a serious problem in the modern world as it was in ancient times. Rape still devalues women to the point that victims do not report rape to the authorities. A female victim of rape will find her value diminished even to the point that she may find it hard to find a husband.

Society still frowns on the victim even if it is not her fault. The laws of the modern world, however, offer more protection to the women regardless of her status.[18] She does not need the help of a male relative in order to defend her honor in court. Nevertheless, society still views a victim as damaged goods.

When comparing ancient and modern societies one can see that the major difference is in the way women had liberated themselves from the clutches of a male-dominated world. Wives and daughters still believe in mutual respect when it comes to their relationship with husbands and fathers but the men can no longer treat them as if they were their property.

The change in perception also created unexpected results such as the freedom of women to associate with men. In ancient times certain rules of conduct were in place to protect the honor of the family. The mere suspicion of undesirable behavior between man and woman must be dealt with swiftly either by a forceful dissolution of the relationship or marriage. But in the 21st century women can choose to have relationships with any man they would like. The unintended consequence is the emergence of a new form of rape called date rape.

In layman’s terms date rape occurs between two people that are dating.[19] It can also happen between two acquaintances that happened to meet in a party.[20] The act is technically rape but the major difference is that the male perpetrator is known to the female victim. Rape can occur by the use of violence or by drugs.[21]

The rapist can put a drug into a girl’s drink and when she passes out he takes advantage of her. It is also important to point out that date rape or simply rape can be the culmination of a series of violent acts. In other words the man can abuse the woman until the violence ends up in rape.

It is of crucial importance to discuss date rape in the examination of the evolution of rape from ancient times to the present. Date rape is a remote possibility in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The reported cases of violence committed by boyfriends against their girlfriends can only occur in the present time.

Violent men and sex predators are dealt with swiftly and decisively in ancient Greece and Rome. The swift resolution of the problem is based on the fact that men are responsible for the women under their care. They will not allow stranger and other men to even come close to their daughters and wives if they are not assured of their true intentions.

Much has been said about the abuses committed in a patriarchal society. There is no need to elaborate the fact that laws must cater to both men and women. However, something has to be done to develop a strong bond between families. It is not wise and practical to go back to ancient practices but one thing has to be made clear, they know how to protect their women. Today, sexual violence is on the rise and women are left to fend for themselves.

Conclusion

There is not much difference between ancient Greece and ancient Rome when it comes to the way they deal with rape. Their laws were specifically designed to protect the honor and the property of the male relative. Rape, adultery, and seduction are all the same when the act is committed by someone who is not related to the female.

In modern times women are no longer treated like property by their husbands and fathers. Women are free to mingle with other men. But this new found freedom has created a weakness that sex predators and unscrupulous men are willing to exploit. Something has to be done to strengthen the bond between family members without recreating the social structures of a male-dominated society. Bibliography

Edwards, Catharine. Death in Ancient Rome. MA: Yale University Press, 2007.

Gagarin, Michael and Elaine Fantham. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Harris, Edward. Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Athens. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Harris, Edward. “Rape in Antiquity: Sexual Violence in the Greek and Roman Worlds.” Diotima. Last modified 2007. http://www.stoa.org/diotima/essays/rape_harris.shtml

Larmour, David. Rethinking Sexuality: Focault and Classical Antiquity. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Orr, Tamara. Frequently Asked Questions about Date Rape. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2007.

Parrot, Andrea. Coping with Date Rape and Acquaintance Rape. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 1999.

Quay, Sara. “Lucrece the Chaste: The Construction of Rape in Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece.” Modern Language Studies 25, no. 2 (1995): 3-17.

Schnabel, Stephanie. The Theme of Rape in Elizabethan and Jacobean Literary Text. Berlin: Verlag, 2006.

Wilkins, Jessica. Date Rape. New York: Crabtree Publishing, 2011.

Sara Quay, “Lucrece the Chaste: The Construction of Rape in Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece,” Modern Language Studies 25, no. 2 (1995): 3
Catharine Edwards, Death in Ancient Rome (MA: Yale University Press, 2007), 181.
Quay, 3.
Harris 286.
Ibid.
Edward Harris, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Athens (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 284.
David Larmour, Rethinking Sexuality: Focault and Classical Antiquity (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), 132.
Ibid.
Ibid.
Michael Gagarin and Elaine Fantham,The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 249.
Ibid.
Stephanie Schnabel, The Theme of Rape in Elizabethan and Jacobean Literary Text (Berlin: Verlag, 2006), 10.
Ibid.
Ibid.
Ibid.
Edward Harris, “Rape in Antiquity: Sexual Violence in the Greek and Roman Worlds.” Diotima. Last modified 2007. http://www.stoa.org/diotima/essays/rape_harris.shtml.
Ibid.
Ibid.
Jessica Wilkins, Date Rape (New York: Crabtree Publishing, 2011), 7.
Tamra Orr, Frequently Asked Questions about Date Rape (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2007), 23.
Andrea Parrot, Coping with Date Rape and Acquaintance Rape (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 1999), 49