Skip to main content

February 14, 2018

Content Warning: The following post discusses classical narratives about sexual assault. Please note that the thoughts and opinions of SCS blog contributors are their own.

Classics graduate student Sara L. Hales (University of Iowa) and Assistant Professor of Classics Arum Park (University of Arizona) explore how we read, discuss, and teach classical rape narratives in the midst of the #metoo movement.

Arum: Sara and I started writing on this topic independently and were brought together by our mutual friend Sarah Bond, who noted the common thread in our essays and encouraged us to collaborate. We found ourselves among those in the (fortunate? unfortunate?) position of reading classical rape narratives in the midst of a loud and persistent cultural conversation about sexual assault.

Sara: That conversation, in which so many disparate voices have come together to call for change and for justice, has struck me deeply, not least because of my personal connections to survivors of sexual violence. Returning to the rape narratives in Livy in this context, I realized that these narratives can shed new light on the uglier attitudes toward women in our culture, which we are beginning to call out for what they are.

Arum: The first time I read the Homeric Hymn to Demeter was in 2004, when I was a graduate student taking a Greek course on Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns. For context, this was before the advent of the iPhone, before I’d joined Facebook, before I’d started reading Slate on a regular basis, before “trigger warnings” had become a widely recognized (and then often maligned) concept, before the election of Obama, and before the Obama-Biden administration had authored its Dear Colleague letter, which helped change the national conversation about sexual assault. Indeed, I read it before “sexual assault” was in common use as a term that encompassed all manner of unwanted sexual contact, including but not limited to penetrative rape. It was a very different era, even though it was less than a decade and a half ago.

I remember that the Hymn to Demeter was my favorite of the ones we’d read. I had been assigned to review Helene Foley’s book, which deepened my understanding of the Hymn, illuminating the subtleties of its focus on the mother-daughter relationship. I later learned that this focus seemed to be unique to the Greek iteration of this myth, whose Near Eastern cousins centered on separation between lovers rather than between parent and child. Just a few years after that graduate course, I read the Hymn again as I taught classical mythology for the first time. I directed my students’ attention to Demeter’s relationship to Persephone, to her grief over her daughter’s loss and her attempts to remedy it. I discussed the abduction of Persephone by Hades as a metaphor for Greek marriage ritual, one in which the father of a girl has total control of the marriage contract he puts her in. That was in the Spring of 2007. I have taught that course in many iterations since then, each time with the same focus on the mother-daughter relationship, and on the abduction as metaphor for marriage.

(Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small royal tomb at Vergina, Macedonia, Greece.; by Unknown, CC BY 1.0)
(Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small royal tomb at Vergina, Macedonia, Greece., 340 BCE by Unknown, CC BY 1.0)

As it happens, I am now re-reading the Hymn in Greek with a graduate student and teaching mythology, just two years since I last taught it in the Spring of 2016. But those two years have witnessed a seismic shift in popular consciousness and discourse, with the release of the infamous Access Hollywood video and the resurgence of the Me Too movement.

What kinds of things do I notice now, in the era of #metoo? I notice not only that Persephone is described as aekousan (“unwilling”)—something my graduate student self had noted in the margin of line 19—but also that this is reiterated in line 30 with aekazomenen, a repetition I had not noted before. Surely I must have noticed Persephone’s screams of terrified protest when I was younger, but what really monopolized my attention then—as several of my friends were preparing for first-time motherhood—was Demeter’s panicked and immediate flight in search of the daughter whose cries had pierced her heart.

I have a practice of jotting notes in my syllabus, suggestions of ways to tweak a course for its next iteration. Back in 2016 I had instructed myself to incorporate images of Persephone’s abduction in the lecture, which until then had focused on Demeter and the site of her mystery cult at Eleusis.

In following my own instructions I am newly struck by how the visual representations too replicate the Hymn’s emphasis on Persephone’s terror and the violation of her will, indeed, capitalizing on her trauma for aesthetic effect. I now notice how sexual violence fully permeates the images and forms the core of their meaning.

When I taught this class a few weeks ago, I introduced these images with a brief content warning, something I’ve never done before. But in the heightened awareness and sensitivity catalyzed by #metoo, I thought it appropriate to shift gears from the way I usually do things and provide warning that I would be discussing violence of a sexual nature. I then directed my students’ attention to details like Hades’ forceful grip on Persphone’s thigh and the fear evident in her face and her friend’s. I noted how these details echo the Hymn’s unequivocal emphasis on Persephone’s unwillingness and distress, and I made no effort to gloss over these aspects of the myth.

Before I make some concluding remarks, I’ll turn the “mic” over to Sara.

Sara: Last week, in the midst of #MeToo, #TimesUp, Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and the Trump presidency, two things happened: my sister co-authored a petition to ban once-acclaimed flutist Bradley Garner from all professional activities when his decades-long record of harassment surfaced, and I read Livy’s account of the Rape of the Sabine Women for the third time.

I first read about the Sabines in a Livy seminar in my junior year of college. As all classicists must do, I had to come to terms with the fact that the most pivotal moments in Rome’s foundation myth are moments of violence against women. Our ancient sources—Livy, Ovid, and Plutarch, among others—rationalize the abduction and forced marriage (which equate to rape, in case anyone is unclear on that) as functions not only of lust but also of the necessity to propagate the Roman population and ultimately bring together two nations as one. Plutarch emphasizes that “only” thirty girls were taken, and that they were honored “beyond measure” after they were kidnapped. Livy also gives the rapes of Rhea Silvia and Lucretia implicit “silver linings”—for Rhea Silvia, the birth of Remus and Romulus, Rome’s founder; for Lucretia, the expulsion of the kings and founding of the Republic.

It is striking that as modern readers, we typically approach these narratives from an implicit position of cultural superiority. We presume that we are "better" or more enlightened than the ancient Romans, and this presumption clouds our readings of these texts. As a result, these mythologized acts of sexual violence, and the kernels of truth about the Roman woman’s experience they contain, are typically taught as an unfortunate byproduct of a culture that considered women to be property. We tell ourselves that women in antiquity were sadly vulnerable to sexual violence on a regular basis, and that’s just the reality we have to acknowledge. Even worse, we tell our students the same thing. I have been told this by professors. I have told a version of this to my students, when reading an abridged version of Ovid’s Apollo and Daphne vignette in first semester Latin with them.

But I am tired of telling this version of the story. I am no longer capable of telling this story in the midst of a cultural reckoning that is pulling back the curtain on our collective shame, revealing us to be obviously not as much more enlightened than the Romans as we thought.

So the question is: how will we tell the story now?

We can start by noting how the rape of the Sabine women crucially differs from other foundation myth rape narratives. Rhea Silvia was raped, and incarcerated; Lucretia was raped, and committed suicide; by contrast, the Sabine women were raped, and became their rapists’ wives and mothers of their children, and came to their defense against their own fathers and brothers. Their pleas for an end to violence create space for the continuation and growth of the Roman state. The Sabine women reconstruct a life out of their trauma: this is the daunting, terrifying task that every survivor of sexual assault must confront.

To be clear: by no means whatsoever am I saying that developing a positive relationship with one’s rapist is an example to be followed. Developing Stockholm syndrome is not a positive reaction to kidnapping. Forced marriage to one’s rapist is unacceptable (though it still happens). What I am noting is that the Sabine women find coping strategies to move forward with their lives, which accurately reflects what survivors of sexual assault must do today.

(Rape of the Sabines by Giambologna, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence; 1583. Photo by Sara L. Hales.)
(Rape of the Sabines by Giambologna, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence; 1583. Photo by Sara L. Hales, unpublished.)

The Sabine men delay military action to bring back their girls, allowing time for Romulus to persuade the abducted women to “give their hearts to those men to whom Fortune had given their bodies,” as Livy says, and for the women to develop robust cases of the aforementioned Stockholm syndrome, even to bear children to their Roman kidnappers/husbands. Just as the Sabine women are beginning to adjust (healthily or not) to their new reality, their fathers and brothers finally return to “rescue” them. The women rush onto the battlefield between the two sides, hair flying and babies in their arms, and beg for an end to the fighting, so that they will not have to watch their Roman husbands and Sabine relatives kill each other. They even blame themselves for the conflict, in a manner that is unreasonable to us, but expected for them.

And at last, the men listen to the women. They lay down their arms and strike a treaty.

In this fledgling Roman culture which absolves the male rapist of all responsibility, which sees the violated female body as diminished and no longer worthy of proper marriage to anyone but the rapist, the Sabines’ dramatic entry into battle and plea for peace is a reconstruction of themselves. So much has been taken from them—their families, their youth, the virginity which made them “worthy”—but they rise from it to reclaim a respectable identity for themselves, that of Roman matronae. (I would argue that Roman freedwomen in the late Republic and early empire, who had been legally sexually available as slaves, would follow in the Sabines’ footsteps in claiming matrona status through the iconography on their tombstones. The reconstruction of chastity never goes away.)

This is how we tell the story of the Sabine women, and learn from it in the midst of our own patriarchal culture’s deficiencies in listening to women. We tell it as a story of feminine resilience and resourcefulness in the face of unthinkable brutality, of reclaiming the agency and respect that have been trampled upon. We must not smooth over the use of physical force, of psychological manipulation, of victim self-blaming, of familial neglect; but neither must we convince ourselves and our students that those are the only elements of the story worth focusing on.

This is easier said than done in an undergraduate classroom, be it a Latin course or a Roman history course. Setting ground rules with our students, with their input, is a must before beginning difficult discussions like this. Since our classes more than likely include students who are survivors of sexual violence, entering the conversation with a plan and making sure survivors feel sufficiently prepared and safe in class is paramount. Yurie Hong can help with that, as can Rosanna Lauriola.

The ancient accounts of the Sabine women are the best place to start helping students understand ancient views on sexual assault and how they still influence or differ from our own. Discuss the elements of the text which assign agency to, or remove it from, the women; perhaps emphasize the ways in which the text absolves the assaulters of blame or eroticizes the victims’ terror. But then, try assigning some of these to your students:

  • Robert Brown, “Livy’s Sabine Women and the Ideal of Concordia” (TAPA 1995) - on some major differences between the ancient accounts of the Sabine women
  • Jo-Marie Claassen, “The Familiar Other” (Acta Classica 1998) - for those focusing on women in Livy
  • Mary Beard, “The Erotics of Rape: Livy, Ovid, and the Sabine Women” (Setälä and Savunen 1999) - on eroticizing traumatized inpiduals
  • Suzanne Dixon’s chapter “Rape in Roman law and myth” in her book Reading Roman Women (2001) - on the development of laws of iniuria
  • Serene Witzke, “Violence Against Women in the Ancient World” (Riess and Fagan 2016) - on class as a determining factor in violence against Roman women
  • Matthew J. Perry, Gender, Manumission, and the Roman Freedwoman (2014) - on laws on iniuria and stuprum, and what this meant for Roman freedwomen who had been legally available for rape as slaves, but were no longer so after being manumitted.
  • Screen the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for your class, or
  • Read the reviews of this recent stage adaptation of the Sabine women in Boulder, and talk about the reception of this story and rape culture today

The Rape of the Sabine Women will never be an easy story to read; it will always be something to grapple and struggle with. But it isn’t going anywhere. And as our own culture shifts, so must our conversations and interpretations of this fundamental story.

Arum: What Sara and I have each noticed is that #metoo has in various ways acted as a clarifying lens on the classical texts we’ve been reading and re-reading for quite a while. For the first time that I can remember, I have found my teaching palpably affected by a national conversation ostensibly unrelated to Classics.

Sara: I’ve also noted that the clarifying effect works both ways: when magnified through the #metoo lens, these ancient texts expose the blind spots in our own attitudes toward sexual violence and in our evaluations of the cultures in which such violence occurs. They offer us new possibilities for how we tell the stories of survivors and their resiliency today.

Arum: The conversations surrounding the #metoo movement have only made us further conscious of how modern popular concerns inform how we approach antiquity and present it to our students. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Sara: It’s been said that we are just at the tip of the iceberg of the changes that #metoo will bring; so too, we are just beginning to realize the potential of the intersection of #metoo with classical rape narratives to shine a light on both antiquity and modernity. We owe it to ourselves, to our students, and especially to the texts, to let ourselves be led wherever that intersection takes us.

(Painting: Tarquinius en Lucretia by Anonymous, licensed under CC BY 1.0)


Sara Hales is a graduate student at the University of Iowa. She graduated summa cum laude from Hendrix College in 2014 with a B.A. in Classics and a minor in Religious Studies. She was a Fulbright fellow in Italy in 2014-2015. She loves learning new languages and traveling as much as possible, and spends her free time knitting, cooking, and running.

Arum Park is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies & Classics at the University of Arizona, where she has worked since 2015. She has also held positions at Amherst College, the University of Oklahoma, Washington and Lee University, and Brigham Young University. Her primary areas of research are Archaic and Classical Greek poetry, but she has published on a range of authors, including Ovid and Longus.