Sexual Assault of Women in Ancient Rome

There are many shocking examples of sexual assaults on women recorded throughout Roman history. The number of cases highlights the extreme inequality prevalent in Roman society.

Jun 18, 2020By Laura Hayward, MA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with Greek
satyr maenad pompeii fresco
Pompeian fresco of a satyr and maenad, 1st century AD, in The National Archaeological Museum, Naples


Content Warning: This post contains graphic images and discussions that may not be suitable for all readers. Reader discretion is advised.


Countless instances of harrowing sexual assaults on women have been documented by Roman historians, poets, and orators. Evidence of such assaults dates from the earliest periods of Roman history to the latest. This is perhaps unsurprising in a society that attributed to women a much lower status than that of men.


Roman women were viewed as minors by law. They held a position on par with that of children and only marginally higher than that of slaves. They were under the control of men throughout their lives, from their fathers during childhood to their husbands during marriage. Ordinary women have, therefore, largely been omitted from Roman history. But, as we shall see when they are deemed worthy of a role, it is often as a victim of sexual violence.


The Rape of the Sabine Women

Nicolas Poussin, The Abduction of the Sabine Women, 1633-1634, via The Met Museum

The rape of the Sabine women is viewed as an important episode in early Roman history. It has, therefore, attracted much attention from ancient and modern historians, poets, and artists. The most notable ancient source is Titus Livius, known to us today as Livy. Interestingly, Livy presents the rape of the Sabine women as an act of necessity rather than one of violence.


In the early days of Romulus’ reign, military success came quickly to the fledgling city of Rome. However, the future of the city depended on the growth of its population. Rome, at this time, was a settlement almost entirely populated by men. Romulus therefore asked neighbouring tribes if they would send their women to live with Roman men. Unsurprisingly, each tribe declined. Romulus then decided to try another approach. He held festival games in honor of Neptune and invited all the surrounding tribes, including the Sabines.

Roman coin depicting the abduction of the Sabine women, produced by L. Titurius Sabinus, 89 BC, via The British Museum

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Once everyone was distracted by the spectacle, the Roman men sprung an attack on the Sabine women. As Livy phrases it, they were then ‘carried off’. Livy notes that the Sabine women were outstandingly beautiful as if providing a reason for their particular misfortune. He also attempts to soften the episode by adding the detail that the men claimed they had abducted the women as an act of love and passion. Later, we are told, the Sabine women apparently intervened to prevent bloodshed between their vengeful fathers and the Roman men. A begrudging truce followed shortly after.


Livy presents this harrowing event, not as a moralizing tale about sexual violence, but as a foundation stone of Romulus’ rule. He states that due to the abduction of the Sabine women, the newly powerful city of Rome continued to flourish. Romulus could then proclaim himself the first king of Rome.


Pablo Picasso, The Rape of the Sabine Women, 1963, via MFA, Boston


The Roman poet Ovid gives us an entirely different angle on the rape of the Sabine women. In his book of love poetry, The Art of Love, he gives advice to young male lovers. In Book 1, he explains various methods of flirting with women in public places. Women who attend the game’s festivals are apparently open targets. Ovid suggests that men select their prey from afar and then move in for the kill, like an eagle hunting a dove.


In order to give authority to his advice, he likens this approach to that taken by the early Romans who abducted the Sabines. The behavior of the founding fathers of Rome is presented as an excuse for men to pursue sexual desire. This sexual desire is pursued regardless of whether it is mutual or consensual. The female voice is nowhere to be heard.


The Rape of Lucretia

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Lucretia, 1500, via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum


As the rape of the Sabine women introduced the beginning of the monarchy in Rome, the rape of Lucretia signaled its end. Lucretia’s story begins with a wine-fuelled dinner party, and again our most prominent ancient source is Livy.


While camped for battle, a group of young officers dined heavily one night. Among them was Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus. The men began to discuss who had the most virtuous wife. Collatinus declared that his wife, Lucretia, would surely win. So, to test his assertion, the men rode to their homes, unannounced, to see what their wives were doing while their husbands were absent. Each man found his wife dining with her friends and thoroughly enjoying herself. However, when they arrived at Collatinus’ house, Lucretia was dutifully spinning wool with her slave girls – the embodiment of female virtue.

Tintoretto, Tarquin and Lucretia, 1578-80, via the Art Institute Chicago

Content with being proved correct, Collatinus invited the group to stay the night at his house. Livy tells us that this was when Tarquinius was seized with a lustful desire for the chaste Lucretia. A few days later, Tarquinius rode back to Collatinus’ house alone. Lucretia, unaware of his motives, met him with politeness and hospitality. Tarquinius was permitted to rest overnight before his return journey.


In the dead of night, he crept into Lucretia’s bedroom and attacked her at knifepoint. She resisted forcefully, so Tarquinius threatened her. He said that he would kill her and a slave and leave their bodies naked in the bed side by side. The thought of such dishonor weakened Lucretia’s resolve, and she reluctantly gave way. Later, when Lucretia’s husband and father came to her aid, she explained what Tarquinius had done. Then, consumed with shame, she stabbed herself in the heart and died.


Roman denarius depicting the humanized Pudicitia and Emperor Hadrian, AD 125-128, via British Museum

Distraught, Collatinus marched to Rome to confront Tarquinius’ father, King Tarquinius Superbus. On the journey, many people joined him in his desire to avenge Lucretia’s honor. By the time he reached Rome a small army followed in his wake, eager to get rid of their corrupt king. This small army eventually managed to overthrow the king and bring an end to 244 years of the monarchy.


Lucretia quickly became a symbol of feminine virtue, known as pudicitia. Her example stood in opposition to the corruption and arrogance of the monarchy. At the dawn of the Republic, she represented Rome’s hope for a new era of integrity and justice.


Sexual Assault in Republican Rome

Marble bust of Lucius Junius Brutus, one of the first consuls of Rome, 17th century, via Christie’s

The traditional date for the beginning of the Republican era in ancient Rome is 509 BC. This era saw greater equality in Rome in the move away from the absolute rule of the kings. Rome was now ruled by elected consuls, who held their post for a limit of one year. One important law made it mandatory for all new laws to be made available to the public rather than hidden away. The Decemviri, or Board of Ten Men, was set up to oversee these publications.


But the Decemviri soon began to abuse their power, and people grew angry with the levels of corruption within the Board. In 451 BC, one member of the Decemviri, a patrician named Appius Claudius, attempted to sexually assault a young plebeian woman, Virginia. Virginia fought off Appius’ attack, but he retaliated by devising a deceitful plan.

Heinrich Friedrich Füger, The Death of Virginia, 1800, via the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

Appius persuaded one of his friends to make a legal plea that Virginia was actually his slave. The friend was to claim that she had been stolen from him by the man claiming to be her father. In the court case that followed, the judge hearing the case was none other than Appius himself. Of course, Appius’ friend was successful, and immediately afterwards, Appius seized Virginia for himself.


But at that same moment, Virginia’s father stepped forward and stabbed his daughter through the heart. As he did so, he shouted, ‘In the only way possible, I am making you free, my daughter.’


Virginia’s case sparked uproar from the people who demanded the abolition of the Decemviri. Further changes were later implemented, which gave more rights to the plebeian class. Virginia, therefore, like Lucretia before her, became a symbol of freedom for the people of Rome.


Laws on Sexual Assault in Imperial Rome

Statue of Emperor Augustus from Prima Porta, 1st century AD, via the Vatican Museums


By the time of the Roman Empire, the laws on sexual assault had been established. However, legalities concerning women and sex were famously rife with double standards. The first emperor, Augustus, introduced a series of laws on criminal sexual activity, known as stuprum. These stated that men were allowed to have sex with prostitutes but not with a widowed or unmarried patrician woman. Women, on the other hand, were not allowed to have sex with anyone outside of marriage.


Rape was prosecuted under the law of iniuria (criminal injustice) or vis (violence). A violated woman could not bring charges herself. Instead, this fell to the man who had legal authority over her, such as her father or husband. Punishments for those convicted of rape varied according to the circumstances. Rapists could face death or a large fine. In some cases, they were forced to marry the victim without a dowry.


Marble portrait head of Emperor Constantine, AD 325-370, via The Met Museum


The Emperor Constantine, who ruled between AD 306 and 337, made some notorious changes to the laws regarding the rape of virgins. In his laws, he made a distinction between those who were apparently willing and unwilling to be raped. If a girl was found to be willing, then she was burned to death. If she was found to be unwilling, then she suffered a less severe punishment. However, it was noted that even those who were unwilling should have shouted louder for assistance.

Byzantine gold coin depicting Emperor Justinian I, AD 527-602, via The Met Museum

Thankfully, such draconian approaches had changed by the time of Justinian I. Justinian ruled the Eastern Empire between AD 527 and 565. He set out to reform the Roman legal system and introduced a series of new laws, known as the Justinian Codex. One of these laws stated that women who were violated by force and against their will would not be held liable. Moreover, the law explicitly stated that such a woman should not lose her social reputation.


Sexual Assault of Vestal Virgins

The Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, via Itinari

Vesta was the Roman goddess of the hearth and the fire. Inside her shrine in the Roman Forum was a sacred flame that was never to be extinguished. The Romans believed that, if the flame did die out, then something terrible would happen to the city.

The Vestal Virgins were an exclusive college of six priestesses. Their most important role was to tend to the flame of Vesta. Vestal virgins took a vow of chastity, which lasted for their full term of office, 30 years. A Vestal who broke this vow was punished by being buried alive. The man who violated her was sentenced to death by whipping.

As we have seen, sexual violence against women punctuated important episodes of early Roman history. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the foundation of Rome itself was built upon the rape of a Vestal Virgin – Rhea Silvia.


Panel of Tellus, relief from Ara Pacis depicting Rhea Silvia with Romulus and Remus, via the Ara Pacis Museum


Rhea Silvia was the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa. Numitor was overthrown by his brother Amulius who, subsequently, forced Rhea to become a Vestal Virgin. Rhea was a great beauty who soon attracted the attention of the god of war, Mars. When she rejected him, Mars raped her, and she later gave birth to twin boys. These boys were called Romulus and Remus.


Amulius ordered the twins to be thrown into a river, but the boys washed up safely on the shore. In the legend that follows, Romulus and Remus were raised first by a she-wolf and then by a local shepherd. The boys grew up strong and skillful in war, like their father. Before long, they overthrew Amulius and restored Numitor as king. Later, they established a settlement of their own, which was to grow into the mighty city of Rome.


Textual Evidence of Sexual Assault in Ancient Rome

Pompeian fresco of an Erotic scene, 1st century AD, in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples

Sex was not considered a taboo topic in ancient Roman society. It was discussed much more openly than in Western culture today. This fact is illustrated in the many examples of erotic frescoes and mosaics that have been discovered within Roman houses. This is also clear from textual evidence, in particular, declamatio texts.


Pompeian Fresco from the suburban baths depicting cunnilingus, 1st century AD, in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples


Declamatio texts were intended as educational exercises for young men to practice their debating skills. The texts would provide details of legal cases, and students would then devise arguments for and against the defense. Interestingly, sexually violent crimes against women were a recurring subject of these texts. As a result, we can learn more about the victims and circumstances of sexual assault in ancient Rome.



Roman Marble Statue of a Girl, 1st–2nd century AD, copy of a Greek work, via The Met Museum


The majority of the victims mentioned in the texts are girls and young women of marriageable age. In ancient Rome, this was the age of 13 upwards. Many of the episodes begin with the crime of kidnapping. The connection between kidnap and rape also has linguistic parallels, as the Latin verb rapere means ‘to rape’ and ‘to seize’. The most shocking details involve girls being sold as sex slaves and those who were victims of gang rape.


Historians are undecided as to whether all of the examples in declamatio texts derive from real court cases concerning rape. Some have a clearly fictionalized tone to them. For example, in one text, a girl is shipwrecked, kidnapped by pirates, and then sold to a brothel. Later, a soldier forces himself upon her, and she manages to stab him through the heart with a concealed sword.


Italian Marble bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero, 1800s, via Sotheby’s

The famous orator, lawyer, and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero published a huge number of his speeches. In one of these speeches, we learn about a harrowing rape case from the Republican period. In 54 BC, Cicero defended a well-known politician, Gnaeus Plancius. Plancius was accused of the rape and torture of a 12-year-old mime actress.


The girl’s name is not considered important enough to be disclosed in the speech. In Roman society, actresses were viewed as little more than prostitutes and were not even allowed to attend court. Cicero defends Plancius by describing the abuse of such girls as ‘tradition’. Suffice to say, Plancius was not convicted. Many women went on to accuse him of sexual violence throughout his career, but he avoided punishment in every case.


Roman denarius coin depicting Gnaeus Plancius, 55 BC, via British Museum

An examination of sexual assaults on women in ancient Rome, therefore, reveals the huge inequalities prevalent in its society. The experience of the women or girls concerned was rarely, if ever, considered, and justice was hard to achieve. Sexual violence against women was used as a marker of historical change or development, a vehicle for the idealization of women, and even an educational resource. As we have seen, our ancient sources on this topic are solely created by men. As a result, the female voice is never heard.

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By Laura HaywardMA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with GreekLaura Hayward is a contributing writer and researcher from London, UK. She is a specialist in the field of Classics, in which she has either studied or worked for over twenty years. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in Classics from University College London. She has also worked as a teacher of Classics in a leading independent school in London. Her particular areas of interest are Latin language and literature as well as Roman art and epigraphy.