Matrons of Awesome Part I: The Raptae

This post contains reference to historical stories of sexual assault and may upset or trigger some readers. Please proceed with caution, especially with the Lucretia story.

The Intervention of the Sabine Women, David Decade, 1790

1. The Wife of Romulus

Yep, the first woman in this list doesn’t have a name.

Romulus was the founder of Rome and a fratricide who killed his brother for challenging his position as king (or, possibly, for mocking his half-built city walls). He dealt with the “oops I founded a city with no women in it” problem by inviting his neighbours, the Sabines, over to the newly built Rome for a dinner and a show, then attacking them and stealing their women.

The ‘rape’ in in the phrase ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ is intended in the original Latin to mean ‘capture’ rather than ‘sexual assault’ though we can assume there was plenty of that as well. The Sabine women were captured by the Romans, and forcibly married to them in one of those charming historical rituals. Once they became pregnant, of course, they made the best of it and accepted the Romans as their husbands. So the story goes.

When the Sabine men went to war against the Romans in retaliation (like a year later, what were they doing all that time??) the un-named wife of Romulus (now a queen) and her compatriots ran on to the battlefield bearing their babies aloft and demanded that the fathers and grandfathers of their children make peace with each other.

The story pretty much encapsulates “making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” And has led to some fabulous paintings. But it’s problematic, no matter which way you look at it – and as it happens, it’s not the only rape myth that forms an essential part of Rome’s early history. Romulus himself had also been conceived in rape, when his mother Rhea Silvia/Ilia lay down by the side of a river to nap, was visited by the god Mars, and woke up pregnant.

And then, most famously, there’s…

Lucretia by Titian, 1515

2. Lucretia

The kingdom begun by Romulus (rapist, born of rape) came to an end because of a yet another rape.

The last king of Rome belonged to the Tarquin family, and his sons were a pack of loutish young yobs. One night over beer on yet another battlefield, they started boasting as to who had the best wife, as you do. A quiet young cousin of theirs insisted that his wife, Lucretia, was more virtuous than any of them.

Fully soused, the princes and their pals decided to bet on the matter, and rode home to see whose wives were best behaving themselves. They spied on the wives of the Tarquin princes who were (shock, horror) dining with each other, chatting and generally having a great time. Not bonking the slaves, not indulging in naughty parlour games with each other, not even drinking wine (a capital crime for women at this time) – just hanging out and having fun. So complete bitches, then.

Lucretia, on the other hand, was quietly at home with no company but her maidservants (read: slaves), working in wool by candlelight (or, you know, since she was so virtuous, probably in the dark). Her husband promptly won the bet.

All well and good, but one of the Tarquin princes was so affected by this experience that he became obsessed with Lucretia. One evening, he slipped away from camp by himself and went to visit her. As he was a kinsman of her husband, it was Lucretia’s duty to offer him hospitality – dinner and a bed for the night – and she did so. When the household was asleep, Tarquin slid into Lucretia’s room and held a sword to her throat.

The charming prince gave Lucretia a choice: submit to him, or he would kill her and a male slave, and leave them in bed together so she looked like an adulteress. Faced with these options, she did not struggle when he raped her.

The Dying Lucretia 1834 Marble. Palau.

Tarquin thought he was safe, because no woman would sully her reputation by admitting to being one of the raptae (Latin for snatched woman/stolen woman/rape victim). He didn’t realise that Lucretia was braver than he gave her credit for. She called her father and her husband to her the next day, and told them exactly what Tarquin had done to her. Then, before they could stop her, she stabbed herself and died.

Enter Brutus, a friend of the family. Outraged that the antics of the crown prince had caused the death of such a chaste and modest Roman matron, he used the death of Lucretia as an excuse to kick out the Tarquin monarchy and usher in a Republic. (the poet Ovid, in a neat play on words, refers to Brutus “snatching”, yep, there’s that word ‘raptae’ again, the knife from Lucretia’s body. Thus implying that she was raped twice, literally by Tarquin, and metaphorically by Brutus, to further his own political ends.

What is most interesting about this story (apart from the ramifications of the Roman ‘ideals’ of womanhood which were still affecting women hundreds of years later) is that, whether or not it was true, it was the accepted story explaining the beginning of the Republic five hundred years later. No Roman batted an eyelash at the idea that a king could be deposed and an entire political system overturned because the heir to the throne wronged a woman, and they all believed her when she accused him of rape.

Whatever crappiness the Romans were responsible for, especially in matters of gender, I like to remember that about them.

NEXT: Republican Mothers


The Matrons of Awesome series was originally posted on Livejournal (LJ user: cassiphone) in March 2006 for Women’s History Month.

I’m reprinting the series as part of my Rock The Romanpunk week in celebration of my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, which was published by Twelfth Planet Press earlier this year and is now available globally as an e-book as well as a pretty imperial purple print edition. Thanks to Wizard’s Tower Bookstore you can also now purchase it for the Kindle.

5 replies on “Matrons of Awesome Part I: The Raptae”

  1. Alex says:

    Oh Rome. Thanks for reposting these Tansy; I look forward to reading them over the coming days and weeks!

  2. I’m in love with this post. As an author who regularly rags on the Romans for the gender politics we’ve inherited from them, you do make a nice counterpoint here! I’m going to share it with the historical novel society in the hopes that it gets picked up for the daily bulletin 😉

  3. tansyrr says:

    Alex! I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, glad you’re keen to re-read. I was going to ask you to guest post, but then I remembered you’re on a starry starry holiday, so I’m just going to post an awesome Mark Antony fanvid instead, in your honour.

  4. tansyrr says:

    Hi Stephanie!

    Glad you like it. I am all for ragging on the Romans and their screwed up attitude towards gender, but I also like to highlight some of their more forward thinking attitudes – like the ease of divorce for instance, which gave (certain) women a lot more freedom than in the centuries that followed.

    Shame about the whole ownership of children issue… and almost everything else!

    My specialty areas of study at university were the women’s role in Roman religion, and the public image of imperial women, so those are the two topics that I return to, again and again. I’d love it if you shared it with others with classical/historical interests!

  5. Yay, I did enjoy the series on Roman women you did last time, so I am glad you are doin something similar again.

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