Rape in Rome: Didactic Violations of Chastity and the Continuation of Roman Society 

By Indigo Coulson

Edited by Pamela Piechowicz

Image Credit: Nicolas Poussin, The Abduction of the Sabine Women, c. 1633-34, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

CW: Mentions rape, sexual assault and misogyny

Great political changes in early Rome were often precipitated by a mythohistorical rape or  attempted rape of a chaste woman. The violated bodies of women serve two main purposes in  Roman founding myths and mythohistory: creation or revolution. Rhea Silvia and the Sabine women embody the former; their rapes led to the birth of Rome through the creation of Romulus  and the continuation of the Roman race. Lucretia and Verginia, pinnacles of pudicitia (chastity),  served as catalysts for change through their forcibly tainted pudicitia and its protection through  their deaths, their male relatives using their bodies to call for the overthrow of tyrannical  governments. This essay will analyse the depiction of these women as exempla in the work of ancient authors, primarily focussing on Livy’s History of Rome. In addition, this essay shall seek to situate these stories within the realities for women during the time of Livy (late Republic and  Augustan era, 59 BCE-17CE),  in an attempt to understand their didactic (morally educative) purpose in an epoch of  social and political change.  

Rhea Silvia  

The myth of Rhea Silvia’s rape served two significant purposes for Roman society: it established  Rome’s ties to divinity and united the dual forces of the universe in Empedoclean philosophy, love  and strife , into the physical act which conceived Romulus and thus, Rome. As established by Appian and Livy,  the rape of Rhea Sylvia resulted in her son Romulus being descended from the  two founding deities of Rome: Mars, ‘named… as the father’, and Venus, via ‘their mothers side from Aeneas’ , son of the goddess.  The inclusion of the goddess of Love and the god of War in Rome’s founding is integral to the identity Rome created for itself.  The dual forces of the universe  in Empedoclean philosophy, love and strife, were connected within Rome, allowing the state to  present itself as a force of harmonia. As a moralistic writer, much of Livy’s work took on a didactic purpose which upheld the values of Roman society,  through the positioning of mythohistorical  figures as exempla for his readership. Consequently, Arieti suggests that Livy ‘had to find moral value even in the rape of women’,  which resulted in the acts of violence against women becoming transformative events for Rome; despite its violence, rape can become a creative act in  Livy’s work. Other than the literal creation of Romulus, Livy positions Rhea’s rape as the act that  signalled ‘the beginning of the mightiest of empires’, therefore creating Rome. This positioning of rape as the coalescing of the forces of Mars and Venus (war and love/creativity) aligns with  Empedoclean philosophy, a possible influence for Livy’s inclusion of creative rape narratives throughout his History of Rome.   

The depiction of Rhea Silvia’s rape as the physical act connecting Venus and Mars similarly extends  to Rome’s expansion. In his preface, Livy outlines that Rome’s founding stories ‘mingle divine  things with human, and… add dignity to the beginnings of cities’ . This acknowledgement highlights the attitude which facilitates Roman expansion: because the bloodlines of both Mars  and Venus founded Rome, the city is therefore destined for greatness and military conquest.  This is  reinforced through Livy’s assertion that Rome’s ties to Mars secure its expansion as ‘the nations of  the earth may as well submit… to Roman domination’. Therefore, while Livy himself questioned  the validity of Rhea’s divine rape, he recognised the cultural significance of the story of Mars’ godly, forceful intervention, as it was used to justify Rome’s imperialism.  This theme is intimately  tied to Rhea’s story, as Livy suggests her rape was inevitable: despite her forced chastity through  her Vestal Virgin status, ‘the Fates were resolved… upon the founding of this great City’, and thus, she was violated by the god.  Moreover, the status of rape as the physical embodiment of Venus  and Mars reflects Rome’s conquest: Arieti contends that Rome’s expansion was initially violent as  ‘old borders were destroyed’ and then creative, as ‘new lands’ were incorporated into Rome’s  empire, reflecting the moral quality Livy attributed to rape. This dichotomous violent-creative relationship between rapist and victim, which was extended to Rome and conquered states, is  surmised neatly by Rutilius Namatianus: ‘befit [Mars and Venus’] character… [Rome] vanquishes  the dreaded foe and cherishes the vanquished’.  Moreover, Arieti situates the decline of the Republic after the Punic Wars (as acknowledged by Sallust ),  to a lack of creativity in Rome’s  military conquests: ‘when Rome had conquered all the new lands and fought wars only to keep the  barbarians away… the action was all Mars and no Venus’.  Thus, with the rape of Rhea Silvia, this violent and creative dichotomy that is integral to the Republic was created, both through the  genetic merging of Mars and Venus in Romulus, and the forceful yet fertile act which conceived  him.   

The Sabine Women  

The rape of the Sabine Women was similarly creative in Livy’s history. In a practical sense it  provided Rome with a sustained population. Socially, the transformation through marriage of the  Sabine women from captured victims to Roman citizens created the ideal for Roman matronae. While ancient authors generally agree that the Romans kidnapped the Sabine Women and made  them their wives, they diverge on the reason, which has different implications for Roman society.  Dionysius of Halicarnassus posits a socio-political reason that emphasises the strategy of Romulus,  citing a need to ‘contrac[t] an alliance with neighbouring cities’, which is corroborated by Plutarch.  In contrast, Livy highlights the Sabine women in his narrative: they are needed for reproduction.  Livy provides them with the agency to negotiate their fates, and emphasises their bravery through their physical intervention on the battlefield. The inclusion of Hersilia as a direct instigator of the peaceful reconciliation of the conflict through her request that her husband,  Romulus, ‘forgive their parents and receive them into the state’ furthers Livy’s elevation of women.  Crucially, the strategic power other authors associated with Romulus, in Livy’s account,  belongs to Hersilia. However, this does not suggest that Livy is challenging Roman gender roles. Instead, as Brown argues, though Livy ‘pushes to the limit the possibilities for female influence’ he does this with the methods of a Roman matron: concerned with the domestic sphere, and asserting her influence in private through the head of her household. Therefore, through his positioning of the Sabine women as eager Roman matronae prepared to sacrifice their lives for the  betterment of their male family members and wider Roman society,  he establishes them as personifying the Roman value of concordia (harmony).  Through their embracing of their violent abduction and ultimate inclusion into the Roman state, the Sabine women are given an elevated  importance in Livy’s work; they become the instigators of Roman concordia, which Livy presents as ‘not only a marital ideal but a paramount social and political one as well’.  Livy’s Sabine women create concordia from a violent situation, thus acting as exempla for Roman women, and further  situate rape within an Empedoclean philosophy which positions it as ultimately positive.  

Lucretia and Verginia  

Lucretia and Verginia were embodiments of Roman pudicitia (chastity), serving as catalysts for  political revolution when said pudicitia was threatened by rape and protected through honourable  death . Much of Lucretia’s tale is agreed upon by ancient Roman historians : she was a chaste Roman wife,  was raped by the son of the last Roman king, ‘atoned for her dishonour by stabbing  herself’, and her assault and death caused her male family members to overthrow the Roman monarchy.  Verginia’s story is similar: she was kidnapped by the decemvir Appius for her ‘remarkabl[e] beauty’ , who attempted to turn her into a slave so that he could rape her.  Her pudicitia was protected from this fate by her father killing her.  He then avenged his daughter by ending the rule of the decemvirate in Rome.

Livy’s connection of threatened pudicitia to political revolutions makes clear that ‘sexual morality  in Roman culture was inextricably tied to the success of the state’ , as Omar argues. Thus, the private sphere women inhabit becomes public when pudicitia is at stake.  Livy’s Lucretia and Verginia undergo a transformation as a result of the violence inflicted on them: they ‘do not just  represent themselves’  instead, they expose the tyranny of their government which seeks to violate the private sphere.  Moreover, it is the role of men to defend the state against these  incursions into the home. This is seen directly in the story of Verginia, as her father protects her  through death and then overthrows the decemviri, and indirectly in Lucretia’s tale as though shekills herself,  her father and husband avenge her. Notably, in Valerius Maximus’ account of Lucretia’s death,  he ascribes her defence of pudicitia to her ‘manly spirit’. Therefore, masculinity is both a threat to and defence of pudicitia in Roman society, while the raped women are passive: only their bodies and death serve a purpose, to trigger change in the world of men.   

Lucretia and Verginia were Roman citizens at the time of their assault. This diverges from the reality of sexual violence in ancient Rome, as non-citizen and slave women were significantly more  likely to experience rape.  Therefore, the mythohistorical tales of Lucretia and Verginia ‘overshadow’ the pervasive sexual assault experienced by women of lower social status in Rome,  despite the rape of citizen women by men outside of their household being ‘no longer a reality by  the historical period, if it ever had been’ , as Witzke argues.  Moreover, though Livy’s rape tales  include stories of non-citizen women, they do not have the same revolutionary effect. While they can still forward the progression of Rome, they do this through creation.  Therefore, the disparity between the unlikeliness of Roman female citizens being raped, particularly wealthy ones from respectable families, as Lucretia and Verginia were, may heighten the shock and revolutionary purpose of these rape stories. If Livy positions the threat to the Roman body politic, which is represented by Lucretia and Verginia in these stories, as so dire that even Roman citizen women are threatened,  then the need for political change is made evident, thus resulting in revolution.  

Roman Marriage and Rape Stories  

Fundamental to Verginia’s story is the vertical violence (from father to daughter) that protects  Verginia’s, and by extension her families, pudicitia and reputation. As noted by Livy, by killing his  daughter, Verginius protected ‘his house’ and urged the other fathers to ‘look after themselves  and… their own children’ . Similarly, Lucretia’s story emphasises the role of the father, as though her husband allied with her father to revolt against the kings, it was the husband’s competition  that endangered Lucretia.  Thus, Livy places some responsibility on the husband, and portrays the father as the guiltless avenger.  This focus on the father, may reflect the shift to sine manu marriages by the time of Livy,  which kept the daughter under the potestas (protection/authority) of her original paterfamilias. Moreover, Augustus’ implementation of the Lex Julia de Maritandis (18 BCE)  and Lex Julia de Adulteriis (17 BCE) weakened the power of the husband by making it illegal to kill one’s wife for adultery.  In contrast, the previously popular manu marriages empowered the husband, and consequently protected him from legal retribution for punishing his wife, for private crimes such as adultery or drinking wine, with execution.   The passing of potestas from the father to the husband, or paterfamilias of the husband, in manu marriages is more closely linked with the story of the Sabines. As Livy’s history reflects a transition from the authority of the husband (the Sabine tale), to celebrating the role of the father in Lucretia and  Verginia’s later stories, Livy’s rape myths mirror the historical progression of Roman marriages. 

Rape in Roman mythohistory is violent and creative: the physical act that merges Venus and Mars,  the founding deities of Rome, and ensures the continued greatness of the city . The stories of Rhea Silvia and the Sabine Women epitomise this dualistic violent-fertile depiction of rape through  their reproductive purposes.  Moreover, the use of a philosophically justified rape, using  Empedoclean principles, in Livy’s work serves as a metaphor for Rome’s expansion. Rome’s imperialism is ultimately defended by Livy as, like rape, it holds the qualities of Venus and Mars by  incorporating conquered states into its protection. Raped women serve as exempla for Roman  society: they are reflective of Roman socio-cultural values of pudicitia and concordia, with rape  victims serving as personifications of these in Livy’s work. When this pudicitia is threatened by rape, as in the case of Lucretia and Verginia, this represents an incursion into the private sphere,  thus exemplifying the tyrannical nature of the government and necessitating male action through  revolution.  Therefore, many aspects of Roman society are linked to and founded in these didactic rape stories. As Livy presents rape as both creative, and catalyst for change, rape itself is positioned as integral to the progression of Roman history.  Thus, Rome cannot function without the creative violation of female subjects, as the colliding of violence and fertility is central to  Roman identity: in a sense, rape is Rome. 


Primary Sources

Appian, Roman History: Book of Kings

Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities.

Empedocles. Testimonia Part 2: Doctrine (D).

Florus, Epitome of Roman History.

Livy. History of Rome.

Maximus, Valerius. Memorable Doings and Sayings.

Plutarch. Lives. Comparison of Theseus and Romulus.

Rutilius Namatianus. De Reditu Suo.

 Sallust. The Histories.

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