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The Things Gods Dare’: Sexual Violence and Political Necessity in Greek Tragedy

Erika Weiberg

Florida State University

Several tragedies that foreground the rape of an unmarried woman by a god or hero

portray the rape as necessary for the political foundations of a community. Scholars have

analyzed these tragedies in terms of an ongoing debate about consent in antiquity (Scafuro 1990,

Doblhofer 1994, Omitowoju 2002, Harris 2004, Sommerstein 2006, Rabinowitz 2011, James

2014). In an attempt to expand analysis of sexual violence in tragedy beyond issues of consent,

this paper asks, borrowing from feminist philosopher Robin Schott (2010, 25), “what logic

underpins stories in which a woman who is a member of a community is portrayed as suffering

violence so that her community can take shape?” Through analysis of passages from Euripides’

Ion and several fragmentary tragedies, including Euripides’ Antiope, Auge, and Dictys, this paper

argues that language of force (βία) and lack of volition (ἄκων), which the victim employs to

describe her experience of rape, is appropriated by male characters to disguise violence

inherent in the political narrative of female submission to male dominance and mortal

submission to divine will. By appropriating the victim’s language in this way, these plays silence

the victim of assault and frame her rape as politically and theologically necessary.

The first part of the paper examines the portrayal of Kreousa’s rape by Apollo in

Euripides’ Ion as the violent act upon which Athens’ political and religious role as mother-city of

Ionia is founded. Dougherty (1996, 258) has argued that this narrative “disguises the imperial

flavor of military and political domination and figures it instead as erotic conquest.” In addition,

the play undermines the victim’s claims by portraying Kreousa’s pursuit of justice as a violent

assault both on the god and on their child, Ion. Ion frames Kreousa’s plan merely to ask the god

about the fate of her exposed child as an act of force (βίᾳ, 378) against unwilling gods

(ἀκόντων θεῶν, 378). He uses the language of rape to describe Kreousa’s actions rather than

Apollo’s. In private, Ion chastises Apollo and the other gods for raping young women (436-451),

and Kreousa’s monody (859-922) highlights her suffering. Yet the recognition scene between

Ion and Kreousa at the end of the play again calls attention not to Apollo’s daring (ὦ

τολμήματα θεῶν, 252-253), but to Kreousa’s in exposing her child (ὦ δεινὰ τλᾶσα, μῆτερ,

1497), and shifts the blame from Apollo to the unpredictable variability of human fortune (1501-

1515). In this way, the violence that Kreousa has suffered is downplayed, while the political and

theological necessity of the rape for Athens is emphasized. The action of the play transforms the

“involuntary” harm perpetrated by Apollo into a “voluntary” benefit both to Kreousa and to


Similar logic undergirds the rape narratives in several of Euripides’ fragmentary

tragedies, discussed in the second part of the paper. In Auge, to give one example, the title

character is raped by Heracles and persecuted by Athena for giving birth to Telephus in her

temple. When Heracles returns and discovers his exposed child, he attempts to persuade Auge

and her father that the rape was “natural” (ἡ φύσις ἐβούλετο, fr. 265a Kannicht) and the harm

done to Auge “involuntary” (οὐχ ἑκούσιον, fr. 272b). His appropriation of the rape victim’s

language casts him as the victim of natural desires that made him act against his will. Moreover,

he transforms the harm he caused into a benefit for Auge, whom he saves from her father by

using persuasion instead of force, and whose subsequent journey to Mysia results in her marriage

to the king and Telephus’ eventual assumption of kingship there. Antiope and Dictys employ

similar language that emphasizes the “involuntary” harm suffered by the rape victim, which

results in the foundation of Thebes and a dynasty at Argos. These tragedies silence the

complaints of victims of assault by manipulating language of force and volition, and by framing

rape as necessary for political foundation and theological balance.

Session/Panel Title

Violence and the Political in Greek Epic and Tragedy

Session/Paper Number


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