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“Grey” Rape on the Silver Screen: Rape & Questionable Consent in Mass Media about the Ancient World

Anise K. Strong

Western Michigan University

In modern imaginations, ancient Mediterranean societies are often depicted as both dens of debauchery and as societies with vastly unequal power structures. The combination of these tropes frequently leads to scenes of sexual harassment and assault against women and sometimes men. In particular, enslaved people as well as prisoners of war are frequently shown as the victims of violent rape, although the question is often left murky of whether enslaved people can ever meaningfully consent to sex with their enslavers. This paper analyzes both eroticized, whitewashed versions and violent, highly negative depictions of rape and sexual abuse in modern mass media about the ancient world.

Unsurprisingly, representations have changed over time in both portrayal and level of explicitness. In the 1950s, somewhat ambiguous threats to the chastity of Christian maidens were presented in The Sign of the Cross (1931), Quo Vadis (1951), and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) as a means of depicting the wickedness of Roman pagan elite men and women. In contrast, rape scenes in all versions of the tale of Spartacus (1960, 2004) generally use sexual violence to comment on the evils of slavery, especially with regard to women. This paper also examines whether such scenes are offered up for the viewing pleasure of the audience or serve only to condemn both particular characters and classical Mediterranean society in general. To what extent do ancient epics and comedies (e.g. Forum 1966) alike indulge in sexual objectification and explore fantasies of sexual violence in the more permissible context of the ancient world?

I focus on the depiction of master-slave relationships and how such narratives complicate issues of consent and desire. Does the portrayal of loving consensual relationships between enslaved and free people in Rome, Quo Vadis, and Spartacus romanticize slavery? Why are these relationships so much more common in films featuring ancient Mediterranean slavery than those focused on antebellum American slavery? Case studies will also include the many televisual rapes of Helen of Troy, the 300 films, Agora (2009) and the 1954 hit musical film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which uses Roman mythology to glorify mass rape.

Lisa Cuklanz’ analysis of televisual violent rape depictions from 1976-1990 suggests that, even when the rape itself is not sexualized, the emphasis is placed on the suffering of the male partner or friend of the rape victim, who avenges her (and his own honor), rather than on the survivor’s own emotional trauma.  More recently, Jessica Hammer argues that the current popularity of rape scenes in mass media represent a failure to imagine women as human beings. If women are not human, then human tragedies don’t apply to women – only special “woman” tragedies.” Women are rarely beaten, or crucified, or fall from chariots, for instance, in these works. When they are harmed at all, they are raped or stabbed. In general, threats of rape against noble free women are used to indicate the evils of authoritarian imperialism, whereas the actual rape of enslaved women is often merely a background detail.

Session/Panel Title

Believing Ancient Women: A Feminist Epistemology for Greece and Rome

Session/Paper Number

20.6

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