“Once Woman has played her role — to attract the villain whose actions set in motion other active males who construct the state, empire, and therefore history in the Roman sense — she must go. …‘How tragic!’ sigh author and reader, finding pleasure in the pain of noble loss.”
— Sandra Joshel, The Body Female and the Body Politic
Last semester, as usual, I taught seminar students about the rise and fall of Appius Claudius the decemvir. I explained, “Tyrants think they can have it all, they take and they take and they take, until one day they go too far. For the Romans, thinking you could just grab any girl you wanted because you had so much power was unacceptable, and so that was the end of Appius’ rise to power.”
“What a nice idea.”
I cut myself off there, but some groans from (female) students suggested that they had the Access Hollywood tape on their minds, too.
For Livy in particular, a Roman historian of the 1st century BCE, sexual violence is a catalyst for regime change — not once, but twice in Rome’s early history. The tyrannical seventh (and last) king of early Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, has an equally despicable son, Sextus. Tarquinius murders his political opponents in secret or openly, forces the Romans to become construction workers in his quest to monumentalize the city, and generally rules through fear and violence. Sextus supports his father’s regime by massacring the entire upper class of a neighboring town, Gabii. But that’s not what gets them overthrown.
No, their downfall comes when Sextus catches sight of Lucretia, a beautiful matron of impeccable virtue and chastity, and decides he has to have her. He breaks into her room and rapes her. After he leaves, Lucretia calls in her husband, Tarquinius Collatinus, who happens to be the king’s cousin, and Lucius Junius Brutus, the king’s son-in-law, and she tells them what has happened, demanding that they avenge her honor. They agree to avenge her and reassure her that she has done nothing to deserve this, but to make sure no one thinks she went along with the rape willingly — to prevent other women from citing her name to exonerate themselves, in fact — Lucretia kills herself on the spot.
Holding the bloody dagger drawn from Lucretia’s breast, Brutus addresses the Roman people and convinces them to banish the king (who was at that time away from the city) and to abolish the monarchy altogether. They revolt against the very notion of an institution which makes someone feel entitled to rape a Roman matron.
A few decades later, history repeats itself. Rome’s newly-formed republic is in crisis again because the common people feel that the consuls’ power has become oppressive. Seeking equity and justice under the rule of law, they elect ten men to write a constitution for Rome, and so the decemvirate is born.
As it turns out, giving legislative, judicial, and executive power all to a single governing body is an experiment doomed to failure. One of the decemviri, Appius Claudius, schemes to stay in office for an extra year and to have all his colleagues replaced with his own yes-men. The elites are pushed out of power, the laws are abandoned, justice is lost, and the common people are even more victimized than before. There is no solution in sight until Appius Claudius spots a girl, Verginia, and decides he’s got to have her. Sound familiar?
Appius has one of his cronies try to claim that she’s a fugitive slave who belongs to him, knowing that he will just side with the crony in court, and the girl will be all his (all slaves are up for grabs as sex slaves, after all). Rather than abandon his daughter to this fate, Verginia’s father Verginius kills her on the spot, and then leads a movement to depose this new tyrant and restore the republican system of government.
Livy is clear: this isn’t a phenomenon limited to one individual, one family, one moment in time, one form of government. This is the course tyranny often runs. Political power and sexual power end up intertwined in the most sinister of ways; when men want too much of one, they often seem to want too much of the other. That hasn’t changed much.
Donald Trump and Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly and Mark Halperin and Bill Clinton, like Sextus Tarquinius and Appius Claudius, quite literally get off on their power. So too, I suspect, do the many male professors who have apparently confused authority and mentorship with sexual domination. Part of this phenomenon seems to be the effect of the narcissism and inflated ego that result from power: who wouldn’t want intimacy with that power? And failing that, some seem to think, who would dare to say no, or to seek retribution?
Donald Trump hasn’t faced a real reckoning for the Access Hollywood tape, but surely the outrage the tape produced among women — rendered visible in pussy hats and mass marches across the country — helped to drive Harvey Weinstein’s victims to unite and take action against their own assailant. Now that women are leading the revolution for themselves, maybe history won’t keep repeating itself. The dominoes are falling. Ding dong, the ogre’s dead. Pass the popcorn.
But why now? Or for that matter, why was it Lucretia’s death that spurred revolution? Why was it Verginia’s death that made the decemvirate intolerable? Which tyrannical straw breaks the camel’s back? Rape is surely a heinous crime, but it is certainly not the first one in either of these stories.
No one liked Tarquinius. Tarquinius assassinated his beloved predecessor in public, in a meeting of the senate. He didn’t bother to hide his cruelty or his ambitions. Neither did Appius Claudius. When revolution against these two tyrants did come, it wasn’t really all that hard: close the gates and shut Tarquinius out, in the first case, or secede en masse in the second case, shutting down the government to force regime change.
So why didn’t the revolution come sooner? Especially the second time — did they really need to wait to see how the tyrant’s career would turn out? Couldn’t the Romans, so famously paranoid about the specter of monarchy, have acted sooner? Apparently our human tolerance for oppression is quite high.
Part of the timing of Tarquinius’ removal, of course, has to do with Lucretia’s own agency. She demands that her menfolk avenge her, and so she authors the revolution in some sense. Her power to do so depends largely on the fact that she is a victim no one could possibly blame: the perfect woman, a chaste matron, an ideal housewife — Livy makes sure to fix this image in our minds.
Activist movements flourish when they hit upon a figure as “ideal” as Lucretia through whom to make their case: Rosa Parks, Edie Windsor, Rosa María Hernández. Verginia, too, is just a pretty young maiden, the daughter of a soldier, betrothed to a virtuous young hero, perfect in every way. Meanwhile, a long line of non-ideal, non-conforming victims (including many trans women) are still waiting for their avengers. And it’s not just men who join the effort to vilify or silence victims, as Lena Dunham has recently reminded us.
It’s taken 70 women together to amass Lucretia’s persuasive power among them against Harvey Weinstein — I guess the reasoning goes that they can’t all be lying sluts, can’t all be treacherous sinners (like Sextus Tarquinius’ own wife, up late at a drunken revel while Lucretia’s at home weaving quietly). The men are the liars hiding behind non-disclosure agreements, yet it is the women who are disbelieved. Privilege is power, and privilege is credibility.
Even more perfect (for the purposes of their avengers), Lucretia and Verginia are dead, martyred for the cause, enshrining their blamelessness. They don’t attack their attackers, they don’t go on witch hunts, they don’t lead the movements they started. They aren’t angry, they don’t raise their voices, they aren’t scary. Their deaths — even Verginia’s death at a man’s hands — prove their innocence, or at least prevent anyone from arguing otherwise too forcefully: we shrink from blaming a dead victim.
Lucretia’s death signals that she sees no hope of success in advocating for herself and persuading others of her own innocence; she thinks her best hope is to traumatize the people — particularly the men — around her, to force them to take action on her behalf. As disturbingly tragic as that is, it does show powerful agency, and it gives Lucretia a voice, which is denied to many rape victims.
It would be much more comfortable to say that the Romans valued and respected women so much that rape, perpetrated or planned, was a crime they could not tolerate. It would be more comfortable for us to believe that of our own society also.
Men certainly are conditioned to protect women they believe to be helpless. But they choose their battles: they didn’t make their stand against a transgression by Tarquinius himself, and we didn’t take Trump down. They went after the king’s son first, not the king himself; we’re going after Hollywood, not Washington, and (as Donald Trump Jr. likes to remind everyone) after a liberal, Harvey Weinstein, who is thus apparently held to a higher standard. Al Franken called for an ethics investigation of himself, not least because he expects his supporters to demand justice; Roy Moore does not seem to expect the same.
Kevin Spacey’s demise was so quick, some have speculated, because it wasn’t a woman but a man — actually, at least 15 men — whom he assaulted, and we are conditioned to believe men in preference to women. Bill Cosby’s downfall may have been hastened because of his race, and again, because of a critical mass of accusers. Brutus and Verginius revolt against relatively low-hanging fruit, and so do we.
But the sound of the dominoes falling is still awfully satisfying, and, better yet, the elections earlier this month suggest that momentum is building for a revolution of sorts here too, one fueled and catalyzed by outrage over sexual domination that might finally drive us to do something about political domination, too.
Perhaps, as Livy suggests, a culture really can collectively snap, all at once.
Brutus and Verginius end up liberating their fellow citizens, but probably only as a side effect of their campaign to restore their own honor as men, which has been threatened by the violation of women under their protection. Now that women are taking up the bloody dagger for themselves, it remains to be seen what kind of liberation we can achieve.
No one in ancient Rome was going to let Lucretia turn that dagger on her assailant, or let Verginia speak out against tyranny, or let a woman run for consul even if she was the one who made the creation of that office possible. Let’s hope that, after 2,500 years, we’re finally getting somewhere.
Joanna Kenty is a lecturer in the Classics program and the Responsible Governance and Sustainable Citizenship Program at the University of New Hampshire.