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  • Teaching About the Rape of Lucretia:A Student Project*
  • Rosanna Lauriola

I. The Genesis of the Project

The class project on which my paper is based had two parts: an analysis, through classroom discussion, of primary texts (ancient and modern) describing the rape of Lucretia, and a public performance based on the ancient form of debate known as the controversia. The classroom experience thus culminated in a sharing of the students’ work with members of the community.

In 2008, while planning my first class ever on “The Civilization of Ancient Rome” for the following semester, I chose as readings several excerpts from Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita on the origins and first years of the Republic. While rereading the first three books, I was struck more than ever before by the way in which women were represented, especially the silence and invisibility to which they were usually consigned. With the exception of Cloelia (2.13), wherever women were prominently represented in those books of Livy, not only were they usually portrayed as subordinate to, or catalysts for, the actions of males,1 but they often appeared as victims of rape, as Rhea Silvia, the Sabines, and Lucretia appear in Livy 1.4, 1.9–13, and 1.57–60 respectively. In addition, Verginia appears in Livy 3.44–48 as the victim of an attempted rape and a literal abduction.2 Like other ancient authors, Livy tended to sanitize the clear undercurrent of violence against women, obscuring it by conceiving of rape or abduction as a step toward an ultimately great outcome.3 In Greek mythology, Zeus’ “rape” of Leda, for instance, resulted in the birth of Helen, thus contributing to the myth of “super-heroic proportions responsible for the eventual fall of Troy.”4 Similarly, in the legendary early history of Rome, Mars’ rape of [End Page 682] Rhea Silvia makes possible the birth of Romulus; the rape of the Sabines is a means of populating Rome; and the rape of Lucretia—in the words of Boccaccio5 —“led ultimately to freedom for Rome,” i.e., to the end of the monarchy and to the creation of the Republic.6

Through this quick overview I could perceive not only a disregard of the victims’ perspective but also the sorts of prejudices surrounding cases of rape even nowadays—in particular, the social stigma that rape imposed on the women. Rhea Silvia, for instance, when “forcibly violated” (vi compressa: Livy 1.4.2), was compelled to name the god Mars as the father of the twins “because the fault might appear more respectable (honestior) if a deity were the cause of it.”7 Similarly, Lucretia, when her body was violated, had to die to show her innocence and to make it impossible for any woman to live unchastely by pleading Lucretia’s example.8 Finally, Verginia had to be killed by her own father, for it was the only way to save her purity and reputation: “Was this the condition on which they were to rear children, was this the reward of modesty and purity?” So the matrons asked, crying at the sight of Verginia’s death. I thought that by emphasizing the stigma on women’s reputation, which is particularly relevant to contemporary experience (as is well known, it prevents many women from reporting the rapes they endure),9 I could elicit class discussion of cultural differences and [End Page 683] continuities. I also chose the story of Lucretia in particular as the focus of a project assigned to a group of students majoring in Classics and History.

II. Why Lucretia?

I chose to focus on the Lucretia episode for three main reasons: the intensity of the anguish attributed to her, which vividly conveys what rape can mean for a woman in any historical period; the fact that the rape takes place in wartime, when—as modern parallels show—there is less enforcement of ordinary norms and the potential for violence to women and children increases; and the fame attached to the episode as one of the best-known from antiquity. Indeed, Livy (1.58) himself mentions the case of Lucretia as a famous precedent when narrating the episode of...


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pp. 682-687
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