The Origins of Ancient Rome Reveal Incredibly Sexist Social Structures

by Namal Fiaz, March 29, 2022

The birth of the Roman Republic, which would soon transform into a vast empire with a monumental legacy, has brutal origins all beginning with a rape victim. It’s no secret the Romans were excellent storytellers; the proof is longevity. Roman myths, passed down for generations, outlived their society and continue to echo off the tongues of modern storytellers. 

The story of Lucretia is a mythological and historical tale that has survived since the early origins of Roman history, over two thousand years since its believed origins in 509 BCE. It was narrated and criticized in several different versions of works by prolific Roman writers such as Livy, Ovid, and Dionysius. Gaining popularity immediately after her death, Lucretia became a legendary symbol of beauty, virtue, and chastity. Subsequently, Roman society encouraged women, and especially young girls, to view her as a matron for model behavior. 

As the victim of the story, the glorification of Lucretia’s story after her death reveals deeper insight into the sexist roles women were expected to conform to in ancient Rome.

In Book 1 of Ab Urbe Condita, “From the Founding of the City,” Titus Livius, or Livy, a Roman historian whose works are largely viewed as reliable historical sources, recounts Lucretia’s story. Livy narrates the events leading up to the climax of her rape, as well as the aftermath and her impact on the founding of the republic. The story begins with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, Lucretia’s husband, and his companions drinking at the house of Sextus Tarquinius, son of the king Tarquinius Superbus, one night. The men drunkenly argue on the subject of wives, each man praising his own, and Collatinus decides that the mere sight of his wife at such late hours would put an end to the debate altogether. They mount their horses and head to Collatia, a Roman town governed by Collatinus, and into the quarters where Lucretia resides. Upon entering, Lucretia is seen weaving wool by herself by the lamplight with only the company of slave girls, unlike the other wives who had spent their night mingling and drinking with each other. This alone is meant to portray her legacy as a woman of the utmost chastity and virtue. Lucretia wins “the prize of this contest in womanly virtues”1 for her devotion to her husband and home. Sextus, intrigued by her beauty, is “seized by wicked desire”2 to conquer her modesty. 

A few days later, he returns to Collatia again, this time without Collatinus. His motives unsuspected, Sextus is welcomed to dinner in their home and is provided guest chambers for his seemingly innocuous visit. Late into the night, he enters Lucretia’s room while she is asleep. A knife in one hand, Sextus holds her down while clasping onto her breast with the other, and threatens her to comply with his wishes, otherwise he would lay the dead naked body of a male slave next to her corpse and frame her for adulterous acts. Sextus then rapes her. 

Afterwards, Lucretia, frightened and upset, sends a message to her father and Collatinus to return home with trusted companions so that she can recount all of this. All of the men are enraged by Sextus’ actions. They reassure her that “it is the mind that sins, not the body.”3 This part of the story is particularly interesting as it challenges the norms in Roman society by unexpectedly diverting blame onto the perpetrator rather than the victim who was raped. In the end though, Lucretia deeply fears that her virtue has been “ruined” by Sextus and does not wish to be an “impure” example to Roman wives. She admits that although her heart does not hold any guilt, and that she absolves herself of blame from the rape, she still cannot free herself from punishment. Lucretia reveals a knife she hid under her dress and thrusts it into her chest out of shame as Collatinus, her father, and their companion named Junius Brutus bear witness. Just before committing suicide, she urged the men to decide Sextus’ fate. It is evident she herself prefers to die before being seen as a role model to unchaste women. 

Lucretia’s rape was also the impetus of political revolution in Rome. Collatinus and Brutus led the overthrow of Sextus’s father and exiled the Tarquins from Rome. A new form of government was established in 509 BCE, with Collatinus and Brutus serving as the first pair of consuls of the Roman Republic.

Lucretia’s suicide was socially viewed as honorable by Romans, and she was subsequently immortalized as a heroine. Given that her story serves as thematic for proper behavior for women in Rome, it further reveals incredibly sexist ideals present in Roman society. Lucretia’s position as the embodiment of pudicitia, a term used to describe virtuous women, would only grow after she died. Sexual ethics were deeply conceptualized in ancient Rome; there were several intricate terms to describe one’s social as well as physical position regarding male and female sexuality. Pudicitia was a distinctly feminine descriptor of one’s character, predominantly in relation to morality and sexual fidelity. 

It is important to recognize that the male equivalent of this quality did exist in the form of virtus, meaning virtue, although not nearly to the same extent women were judged. Pudicitia was not praised as a positive ideal in men, rather, it was viewed as a neutral trait for males, and could sometimes be simply reduced to whether they acted in the dominant role in sexual relations with other men.4 Much of the explanation as to why a woman’s chastity held so much value in ancient Rome was due to the fact that it ensured they were kept “pure” for men until marriage. Lucretia’s virtue and sexual modesty was promoted as a feminine ideal through “deeply conservative and patriarchal impulse.”5  It is important to address the emphasis on virginity as men were certainly not scrutinized to the same standards. Roman girls were purposefully married young, the legal age twelve, to “ensure an undefiled body and mind.”6 This view alone amplifies the misogynistic logic used by the ancient Romans to control female sexuality and restrict freewill. 

As expected, Roman societal structures continued to subjugate women throughout the longevity of the republic and empire. The specific reasons for this perceived inferiority of women thrived on their generalization as “fragile and fickle, therefore in need of protection.”7 A plausible explanation for these rigid social structures is the historical dichotomy of men as “protectors” and women as “childbearers.” Additionally, it was a widespread belief that women were “emotional, irrational, and intellectually less capable than men”8 to the point where objections to such beliefs were controversial. In a speech written by Livy, capturing the thoughts of Cato says: “Our ancestors decided that women should not handle anything…they should always be in power of fathers, brothers, husbands. If once they get equality, they’ll be on top.”9 In contrast, Musonius, a Stoic philosopher, argued that women possessed reason and logic, were inclined towards good virtue just like men, and that “men should have as high a standard of sexual virtue as women.”10

Marriage was beyond a sufficient reason society deemed it unworthy for girls to continue their education, instead prioritizing domestic tasks and tending to the wishes of their husbands. It is also dire to address the fact that the majority of the available information about the daily lives of Roman women is provided through the lens of men, often incidental in orations or letters or poems.11 It is clear the ancient Romans did not prioritize women’s education nor urge them to contribute to literature or philosophy. The already lacking information about the daily lives of women is focused on upper class women, with scarce information about common women. In the study of classics, a field that has traditionally been dominated by men, studying the lives of ancient women was an academic priority until recent feminist perspectives concerning historical analysis emerged.

It is known that Roman women were established as subservient to men in all aspects of life; their names were technically not even their own. A Roman woman’s name was the feminine form of her father’s gentilicium during the early republic, which was passed down to all of the sisters, and also shared with aunts and cousins on her paternal side.12 Marriage was largely an social and economic proposition for both parties since the Romans rarely married for happiness and romantic love; the latter was usually reserved for extramarital affairs.

 Additionally, women had limited citizenship status, meaning they could not vote or run for public office, and in many cases their properties were under control of their father and eventually husband. Specific terms evolved for circumstances of marriage: cum manu, “with the hand,” and sine manu, “without the hand.” A woman who was married cum manu was no longer under her father’s authority, but under the legal control of her husband.13 This meant that she was under potestas, “power,” of her husband rather than her father. If she was married cum sine, which was common in the late republic, she remained under her father’s control. She needed his approval to make important financial transactions, and “might have her marriage ended by him even against her wish.”14 In a divorce, which women were allowed to bring forth under legally valid conditions, children were no longer left to her, but rather to her husband’s family. 

A woman’s influence was not acknowledged in the public sphere; they were restricted to domestic matters concerned with running the home. Such partially demonstrates why Lucretia was glorified above the other wives from the moment Collatinus and his companions found her tending to her weaving, historically one of the most domestic chores, instead of away socializing with other women. A “virtuous” Roman wife influenced by the precedent of Lucretia behaved modestly, felt great devotion to her husband and tended to his needs, and most importantly valued her chastity, and in this legendary case, above her own life.

The widespread idealization of Lucretia in ancient Rome provides insight into the way Romans viewed the social structures of gender, family life, law, and marriage. Often portrayed as a docile victim, it is clear Lucretia embodies the submissive traits women were expected to display in order to fit the status quo. Although in modern times her story is often regarded as a mere puzzle piece in the larger image of ancient Rome, it continues to raise questions regarding the position of women in a society where they were severely oppressed.


References

  1. “Titus Livius (Livy), the History of Rome, Book 1 Benjamin Oliver Foster, Ph.d., Ed.” Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome, Book 1, chapter 57. Accessed December 8, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0151%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D57
  2. Livy, Chapter 57.
  3. Ibid, Chapter 58.
  4. Noreña, Carlos F. “Hadrian’s Chastity.” Phoenix 61, no. 3/4 (2007): 296–317.
  5. Noreña, 301.
  6. Clark, Gillian. “Roman Women.” Greece and Rome 28, no. 2 (October 1981): 193–212. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0017383500033313.
  7. Ibid, 207.
  8. Ibid, 208.
  9. Ibid, 207.
  10. Ibid, 208.
  11. Ibid, 194.
  12. Ibid, 202.
  13. Ibid, 203.
  14. Ibid, 204.

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