The Tragically Paradoxical Role of Women in Ancient Roman Society

The Tragically Paradoxical Role of Women in Ancient Roman Society

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The Tragically Paradoxical Role of Women in Ancient Roman Society

In nervous preparation for the essay section of my history final, I found myself fascinated by Livy’s anecdotes concerning the common thread of violence against women. Livy, a Roman historian, wrote a significant number of volumes concerning the ride and fall of the Roman Empire. Three stories in particular, the rape of the Sabine women, the rape of Lucretia, and the death of Verginia, shed light on the ancient Roman female as a surrogate victim blamed for her gender and sexuality in relation to men. While considering the themes of March’s Women’s HerStory Month and now April’s Domestic Violence Awareness month, I thought it might be relevant to raise awareness of women’s struggles during this time. Such a reflection would spur progress towards a society that fosters nonviolence and gender equality. One should note how the women involved in these stories face a fundamental and perhaps ethical paradox in their situation.

Many articles in learned journals refer to Livy’s rape of the Sabine women as a myth, but I believe a kernel of truth shines through this supposed fiction to reveal how the aggressive and selfish character of the early Romans imposed themselves on the lives of unknowing, innocent Sabine women. In 715 BC, Rome was experiencing rapid expansion so Romulus, the current leader, faced a problem in his ambition to increase the population. There existed no intermarriage among neighboring communities and consequently, the Romans felt resentful. Due to a shortage of woman, the Romans actually faced extinction at this time. So Rome staged a celebration of the Consualia, a festival in honor of Neptune, patron of the horse. Citizens came from nearby towns such as Caenina, Crustumium, Antemnae, and all the Sabines. However, when the show began, all the able-bodied Roman men rushed through the crowd and seized all the young women. As a result, war broke out between the Sabines and the Romans and it was the woman who actually emerged to unite their husbands and fathers, blaming themselves for the war (while they were the true victims). Livy claims that the nature of a women’s heart caused them to sympathize with their husbands, who had kidnapped them and taken them from their homes. “The men, too, played their part: they spoke honeyed words and vowed that it was passionate love which prompted their offense. No plea can better touch a woman’s heart” (Livy 44).

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During that time, the Sabine women grew to love or at least care for their husbands and in their heart of hearts, they would rather be dead than widows or orphans. The two groups reconciled on the basis of the women’s wishes, but one must pose the question: How is it that the females themselves, the true victims of this crime, were the ones who ended up creating the peace?

A more complex story with similar undertones follows the rape of the Sabine women in Livy’s narrative, the rape of Lucretia in 510 BC. One night, Tarquinius Collatinus and his buddies were drunkenly praising their wives’ domestic service. This praise transformed into a contest of sorts. This idea alone has strong chauvinistic implications: that the conception of a good domestic wife became a reflection of a male’s character among his comrades. The men eventually all rode out to their houses, mostly to find their wives enjoying themselves at various dinner-parties and such. Collatinus found his wife, Lucretia, hard at work on her spinning. Lucretia’s beauty and loyalty induced the lust of another, Sextus Tarquin. A few days later, Tarquin visited Collatia and planned to sleep in the guest-chamber. Later that night, he snuck into Lucretia’s room with the intent to rape her. Despite his threats to kill her if she did not submit, Lucretia resisted. Although the threat of death would not sway her, threats of dishonoring her name forced her to acquiesce. Afterwards, Lucretia wrote to her father and husband to report what had happened and they came at once to find her in agony. Directly after speaking these words, she stabbed herself in the heart. “As for me, I am innocent at fault, but I will take my punishment. Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve” (Livy 99). The tragedy of Lucretia reveals that the societal pressures on women were fundamentally in conflict with themselves. A woman must fulfill her domestic duties and remain chaste, but a crazed lustful man threatening death and dishonor cannot control his sexual desires. Although in a different context, society still struggles with this gender issue today. The feelings of guilt and despair after rape are at least partly a result of the continual pressure and desire to remain chaste and pure. Although Lucretia was forced to surrender her chastity, she felt she herself had failed in losing it.

These same conflicts come into play in a later story involving Verginia, a young girl planning to marry a man named Icilius. She was the object of the lust of the current emperor, Appius Claudius, whose attempts to attract her with money and promises failed miserably. He proceeded to claim the girl as his slave, knowing that her father Verginius was away on military duties. Naturally, Verginius and Icilius took as many measures as possible to resist the capture of their beloved Verginia. Claudius ordered Verginius’ arrest, but he had already taken leave from the military to bring his daughter to the Forum. Desperate and begging for support from fellow citizens, Verginius led his terrified daughter through the crowd. After Claudius refused to heed Verginius’ lamentations and objections, Verginia’s father committed an act of sheer desperation in attempt to protect his daughter from becoming the emperor’s sexual slave. He pulled Verginia aside from the crowd, and telling her it was for her own good, stabbed her. Of course officials immediately seized Verginius and the crowd reacted in cries of surprise, but the point is that Verginia’s father would rather murder her than allow her to remain an abused, dishonored, unchaste victim of Claudius’ lust. Obviously, Claudius’ greed, lust and abuse of power triggered the tragic situation among the family, but the fact that Verginius chose to kill his own daughter as a solution remains even more interesting and questionable. Either way, it seemed inevitable that Verginia would become a victim of the situation, as in all the stories. Why do these innocent females end up dying as a result of crazed selfish men exploiting strong societal values?

All three stories of women in ancient Rome provoke reflection on how societal pressure and sexual violence can trap women and ultimately cause their death. The rape of the Sabine women, although considered a myth, shows how women emerged as the mediators of a conflict wherein they themselves were the victims. The rape of Lucretia elucidates the internal struggle of females in dealing with rape, and the importance of physical chastity at the time. The death of Verginia reveals not only the ruthlessness of a selfish emperor, but also the problematic decision of a desperate father unwilling to surrender his daughter’s chastity. Are these women heroines? Are they cowards? How did they navigate through such narrow social confines? The series of reflections caused by these stories allow us to apply women’s history to our own world, recognizing the tragedies that trap women and bring about fatal consequences.

Works Cited:

Livy, The Early History of Rome. (London: Penquin, 1960)

Further Reading
Wardman A. E. The rape of the Sabines. CQ 1965 XV: 101-103

Small J. P. The death of Lucretia. AJA 1976 LXXX: 349-360

Holleman. A. W. J. Ovid and the story of Lucretia. LCM 1981 VI: 243-244

Holleman A.W. J. The rape of the Sabine women. LCM 1986 XI: 13-14

Donalson I. The rapes of Lucretia. A myth and its transformations. Oxford: Clarendon
Pr., 1982.

Philippides S. N. Narrative strategies and ideology in Livy’s rape of Lucretia. Helios
1983 X: 113-119

Joplin Patricia Klindienst. Ritual work on human flesh: Livy’s Lucretia and the rape of
the body politic. Helios 1990 XVII: 51-70.

Stehle Eva. Venus, Cybele, and the Sabine women: the Roman construction of female
sexuality. Helios 1989 XVI: 143-164

Joshel Sandra R. The body female and the body politic: Livy’s Lucretia and Verginia.

Pornography and representation: 112-130

Brown, Robert D. Livy’s Sabine women and the ideal of concordia. TAPhA 1995 125:

Moses, Diana C. Livy’s Lucretia and the validity of coerced consent in Roman law.
Consent and coercion to sex and marriage: 39-81

Calhoun, Cristina G. Lucretia, savior, and scapegoat: the dynamics of sacrifice in Livy 1, 57-59. Helios 1997 24 (2): 151-169

Vandiver, Elizabeth. The founding mothers of Livy’s Rome: the Sabine Women and Lucretia. Life and the arts in Greco-Roman antiquity: 206-232.

Matthes, Melissa M. The rape of Lucretia and the founding of republics: Readings in
Livy, Machiavelli, and Rousseau. University Park PA 2000.
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