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Blaming Ovid’s Leucothoe: The Role of Rape Myths in a Mythological Rape

Megan Elena Bowen

University of Montana

This paper examines the inset narrative of Leucothoe’s rape by Sol in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and its relationship to the modern concept of testimonial injustice in the context of dominant Roman cultural ideology about gender and the Roman legal framework. It argues that the narrator of Leucothoe’s rape encourages the audience(s) to assess Leucothoe’s legal culpability for the crime adulterium. While she appears to have been an unwilling victim strictly according to Roman law, the way the story is presented brings into question Leucothoe’s credibility and highlights how Roman cultural misconceptions about women and rape (rape myths) lead to testimonial injustice. 

Leucothoe’s fate is narrated by one of the Minyads who scorn the rites of Bacchus to remain inside to weave and tell tales. Venus, as punishment for disclosing her affair with Mars to Vulcan, inflicts Sol with a passion for the Persian princess Leucothoe. Sol becomes obsessed and disguises himself as the girl’s mother so that he can get her alone. Once he succeeds, he returns to his true form as the sun, and rapes Leucothoe (vim passa est 4.233), who is overwhelmed by his brightness (victa nitoride 4.233). In love with Sol herself, Clytie reveals the incident to Leucothoe’s father. He becomes enraged and punishes Leucothoe by burying her alive as she desperately stretches her hands towards the sun and pleads that she didn’t consent (ille vim tulit invitae 4.238–9). Sol is too late to rescue her, but eventually scatters fragrant nectar on the ground above her lifeless corpse, which transforms into a frankincense-shrub. 

While Leucothoe’s story shares a number of elements with tales of women like Daphne, Syrinx, Callisto, and Cornix (Curran; Richlin; Moreno Soldevila; James), one notable difference is that the narrator explicitly refers to her experience as adulterium. This terminology, especially in combination with the nearby arbitrium (4.224), sine teste (4.225), and indicat (4.237, cf. Brazouski), activates legal associations, in a sense challenging the audience(s) to put Leucothoe “on trial.” The question of a woman’s complicity in the crime of adulterium centers around whether she was unwilling (invita) (Botta; Brescia). This is the very defense Leucothoe attempts to employ as her enraged father buries her alive (invitae 4.239). From a legal perspective, both the girl’s fear (territa) and Sol’s violence/force (vis) are sufficient grounds for invalidating consent (cf. Prichard, Brescia), but the detail posita querella (4.233) complicates her guilt according to the dominant cultural ideology. Culturally, Roman rape myths do not consider women victims (even if force is used) unless they verbally protest (Brescia). Within this framework, the “case” of Leucothoe’s willingness (i.e. consent) becomes ambiguous and the credibility of her testimony (ille vim tulit invitae) is questioned. Her father’s blatant disregard for her defense similarly amounts to testimonial injustice (cf. Fricker). Still, he seems cruel (ferox) and her fate pitiable (nil dolientius), generating an ambiguity that is consistent with how rape is portrayed throughout the rest of the poem. Taken together, these narratives simultaneously reinforce and problematize rape myths and existing gendered power structures.

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Believing Ancient Women: A Feminist Epistemology for Greece and Rome

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