Our term rape looks as though it came from the Latin raptus but long ago the word meant kidnap, abduction, or even elopement. Greco-Roman mythology is rampant with raptus episodes, starting with that incessantly horny king of the gods, Zeus aka Jupiter. In addition, legends about early Roman history, such as the raptus of the Sabine women, generally signified the forceful takeover of one cultural group by another through mass co-mingling in marriage. (Elsewhere in this book, check out the entries on the Amazons and on marriage for other perspectives on raptus.)
Sometimes the assault on a woman, the violation of her sexual integrity, became a symbolic catalyst for social or political change. A classic example? The often-told tale of heroic Lucretia. She and her husband lived in Rome, in their day a small town ruled by a king and filled with Roman newcomers struggling to eliminate the original Etruscan inhabitants.
The wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, Lucretia was a model spouse and mother. One afternoon, her husband and his pals, including an Etruscan guy named Sextus, son of the very last king of Rome, were having dinner together (no wives invited, of course). They began bragging along the lines of: “My sword’s bigger than yours! Well, mine’s sharper than yours!” When that debate got old, they began to boast about the virtue of their wives, with Lucius maintaining that nobody could measure up to his spouse.
Before the arguments got physical, the men agreed to go together unannounced to check on what their wives were doing. Off they galloped, making the rounds. At each house, they discovered their wives yakking it up, maybe sipping a little wine while the men were out.
The rape of Lucretia and her suicidal method of provoking her menfolk to avenge her honor was a favorite story in Roman households.
They ended up at Lucius’s home, where they found Lucretia working away, spinning wool while barking out orders to her household slaves. By acclamation, she was declared the winner in the virtuous matron competition. Lucius beamed.
Unbeknownst to all, the provocative sight of Lucretia caressing her spindle made one of the men extremely aroused; it was that blackguard Sextus. Several days later, when he knew that Lucretia’s husband was away on business, he came over. He put the moves on her and when rebuffed, assaulted her sexually.
“If you tell anyone who did this,” he warned, “I’ll kill you in your bed, and then I’ll put the naked body of a dead slave beside you.”
That threat and the rape she’d just endured left Lucretia in shock. After Sextus left, she reached a quick decision. Calling an urgent family meeting, she summoned her husband, dad, and uncle. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” she said. “My heart is still pure but my body has been violated by that blackguard Sextus. I want all of you to swear that you’ll avenge me!”
With that, she drew out a dagger, accurately stabbed herself in the heart, and died.
Galvanized by the attack on Lucretia and her actions, her husband and uncle speedily organized a revolution, nailed that blackguard Sextus, threw out the king, and founded the Roman republic in 509 B.C.
It wasn’t until 184 B.C., however, that the Romans officially recognized rape as a sexual crime, which they called raptus ad stuprum. Both the Romans and the Greeks developed laws against rape and other assaults but the acts they legislated covered a narrow set of circumstances. The victim’s lack of consent was secondary. Rape could sometimes mean sex by seduction, by coercion or threats, or by physical violence.
It became a capital crime if the victim was a citizen in good standing, a female virgin, or a freeborn child. Sexual predators of children received the death penalty and the rape of a boy was considered especially heinous. On the other hand, sexual assault or even gang rape was not a crime if the victim was a prostitute of either gender, a gladiator, an entertainer, an actor, or anyone who worked at a job defined as “infamous” by the Romans.
Sexual assault of a slave was a crime—but of property damage, not personal harm. Believe it or not, the slave’s owner was the injured party and could sue the rapist!
Men and women around the Greco-Roman world may have worried more about the possibility of sexual assault during times of war. Mass rape was a standard practice when enemy forces sacked a rebellious city, or conquered an island nation. Just as dire was the treatment of war captives; sexual violence to them did not count as a crime.
Looked at in modern terms, we might even conclude that not just rape but a large percentage of sexual activity during the Greco-Roman millennium was non-consensual. Slaves male and female were used and abused by owners at their whim; wives (and sometimes children) were used and abused by their husbands or fathers when they saw fit. These are disquieting reminders of how far we’ve traveled from those times, when individuals— more especially women, slaves, and people considered low status—could be sexually assaulted, often with impunity.