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  • Debbie Dougherty

Why don't women think about the Roman Empire? Because it Is Built on a History of Sexual Violence.

By Fionna Clark and Debbie Dougherty

Woman in a warriors helment with black streaks running through the picture.
Rome has a different history for women. Picture by Fionna Clark

Last week, I arrived early to my undergraduate organizational communication course to find two women students snickering over a new tiktok craze where women ask the men in their lives when they last thought about the Roman Empire.

Debbie: What?

Students: Really. Apparently men think about it all the time.

Debbie: That does not even seem rational.

When the other students came in, I asked the class, "when was the last time you thought about the Roman Empire." Multiple male students indicated that they think about it frequently. One student declared that he thinks about it multiple times a week. Why is this? I asked. The class speculated that it may be due to the weird display of masculinity, the Colosseum, the movie Gladiator. One talked about the roads that were a marvel of engineering.

Apparently, men really do tend to think about the Roman Empire. A lot. In all fairness, the men I talked to tend to think about it in deeper, philosophical ways. Most of my friends tend to be deep thinkers, so I am not particularly surprised. But still, in my non random sample of male type people, they do tend to think about the Roman Empire a surprising amount of time.

But guess what. Women do not think about the Roman Empire. We really don't. I mean, some women do, based on the comments to a query I made via Facebook, but for the most part, Women don't think about it.

For example, my office on the beautiful University of Missouri campus looks out on "the Quad," home to the iconic Columns. Those columns come from a burned out administration building. In true Missouri fashion, the Alums started a "save the columns" campaign. So the campus saved the columns. Those columns have been replicated on campuses throughout the world--the beautiful carcasses of a burned out building. When I look at those columns, I don't think about the Roman Empire. I think about the academic excellence the columns have come to symbolize, but I never think about the architectural history of those columns. I am willing to bet that most women around campus are in the same headspace.

Which brings up two questions. 1. Why don't women think about the Roman Empire. 2. What do women think about? I called Fionna Clark with these questions, and she schooled me in the violent gendered history that serves as the foundation for Roman Civilization. Fionna has degrees in history and in communication, so I asked her to author this blog post with me.

There are Two Histories of the Roman Empire. For Women, The Roman Empire is Built on Sexual Violence

The Roman Empire was blatantly built on sexual violence against women. There are a variety of foundation myths with the most popular being the story of Romulus and Remus. Many of you are probably familiar with the legendary twins who were nursed by a wolf, however I'm sure less familiar is their legendary mother, Rhea Silvia.

The Rape and Imprisonment of Rhea Silvia

Rhea Silvia descended from a king who was overthrown. This meant that her existence was a threat to the new dynasty. The solution to this? Forced celibacy. Rhea Silvia was forced to act as a vestal virgin, the punishment for breaking such a vow being death, preferably by live burial. As the legend goes, after an attempt to run, Rhea Silvia was raped by the god Mars. For the crime of being raped and forcibly impregnated she was, don't worry, only imprisoned. While Romulus and Remus's likenesses can be found across Italy to this day, you would be hard pressed to find a celebration of their mother.

For those of you wondering what happened to Rhea Silvia, she mostly passes into nothingness, her purpose of being raped having been fulfilled. Some legends conclude her story with her suicide, the most honorable thing a woman in her position could have done.

The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women

While Rhea Silvia was busy being imprisoned, her sons were busy founding Rome. After the city had been founded, Romulus realized he had a problem, a population problem. His city was full of men and only men. Shocker. How does a man solve a population crisis like this? Kidnapping of course. After kidnapping their neighbors, the Sabine women (all virgins, obviously), the Roman population crisis was solved, mostly.

The women's families eventually pulled their forces together and decided to exact revenge on the Romans. However, when the Romans and Sabines met in the field of battle, they were stopped by the kidnapped women who said:

´“If you are weary of these ties of kindred, these marriage bonds, then turn your anger upon us; it is we who are the cause of the war, it is we who have wounded and slain our husbands and fathers. Better for us to perish rather than live without one or the other of you, as widows or as orphans.”-Livy

Thus Rome was saved by women who became the property of Rome through kidnapping.

This means that so far the heroines of Rome have been raped, kidnapped, and imprisoned. Now let's add one more to the mix.

The Rape and Suicide of Lucretia

Lucretia was a noblewoman who was noted for being an exemplary wife. When the corrupt king of Rome saw her he swore to exact his revenge (for being better than his own wife), by raping her. Because she was such an honorable woman, after being brutalized she called her husband, father, and a couple of their closest friends to her. She made them swear to exact revenge and did the best thing a woman who had been raped could do, she stabbed herself in the heart and bled out in front of them. Her death led to the overthrowing of the monarchy and the foundation of the Roman Republic which in turn led to everyone's new favorite obsession, the Roman Empire.

These legends were recorded by real Roman historians, men who lived at the time of Julius Cesar, Nero, and Augustus. These were men who were deeply embedded in a culture founded on violence against women. Even though the legitimacy of these origin stories is highly suspect, the fact remains that while men had a multitude of strong and powerful men to look up to, women had very little to idolize outside of kidnapping, rape, and suicide.

What do women think about?

This brings us to the final question. If women are not thinking about the Roman Empire, what do they think about? As several of our friends mentioned, along with a bevy of TikTok videos, women tend to think a lot about the very real possibility that they will be raped (and as one of Debbie's Facebook connections mentioned, "don't forget to talk about the fear of being kidnapped." Sabine women, anyone?). Given the number of women who are sexually assaulted, the tendency for professional women to be sexualized, and the victim blaming that is an underlying feature of our personal and professional worlds, the constant vigilance women display is not particularly surprising.

In short, the Roman Empire has two histories. The most popular history is one of men building roads and buildings and empires. The history that women live with is one of violence and grim determination to survive. Now, why are we surprised that women don't think about the Roman Empire?

Fionna Clark is a Historian/Artist with a focus on historical clothing construction.

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