The Lucretia Paradigm

20 Jun

If you’ve not been living in a cave, you may have come across the recent furore over some supremely ill-judged comments by Serena Williams about the Steubenville rape case. It’s the classic victim-blaming trap that so many fall into (like Joanna Lumley, or basically every police force ever). It’s saying ‘don’t get raped’ rather than ‘don’t rape’. It’s suggesting the victim is somehow responsible for being physically attacked by another person.

Now, while I’m a thoroughly modern Millie, I’m also a Classical Camilla. And this whole scenario got me thinking about Lucretia.

If you’re familiar with the Roman historian Livy and his work ‘Ab Urbe Condita’ – the immense history chronicling the entire story of the city and Empire of Rome – you’ll know who I’m talking about.

For those of you who want filling in, or reminding – Lucretia appears in Book 1, chs 57-58. She is the wife of one Collatinus, back in the age when Rome still had kings (ie a very long time ago). Lucretia is the ultimate wife. She’s pretty and smart and honourable and she loves her husband. She fulfils her civic and religious duties zealously and all that jazz. She’s a great Roman lady. Romans used to call married ladies ‘matronae’, carrying all the respectability and weight that used to be associated, until all the Carry On films, with the English word ‘matron’.

Unfortunately for Lucretia, her existence is simply too much for this one guy. He’s called Sextus, as it happens. Sextus Tarquinius. Anyway, he decides he wants Lucretia and no social mores like ‘she’s totally already married to someone else, dude’ are going to get in his way. So he breaks into her bedroom where she’s sleeping (her hubby’s away) and threatens to kill her if she calls for help. Then he pleads with her to let him into bed. She refuses even though he’s got a dagger. He’s well miffed, so he tells her he’ll kill her and a slave and that he’ll leave his naked corpse outside the bedroom, so it looks like the two of them have been murdered in revenge for adultery. Lucretia is so horrified at the potentially enormous affront to her honour (no thought for the slave, but I’m afraid that’s ancient Rome for you) that Sextus Tarquinius gets his way and scarpers.

Lucretia calls her husband and her father back from their travels to tell them what has happened. She vows to commit suicide because it is the only honourable course of action, and she begs that her relatives will exact vengeance on Tarquinius.

Her father + husband are horrified. Not with the vengeance bit – they’re pretty down with that. Romans are basically always up for some killing and maiming. No, they’re horrified at Lucretia’s insistence that the victim should assume the punishment for the perpetrator’s crimes. Livy says: ‘they tried to console the distracted woman, by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator, and urging that it is the mind that sins not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt’ (1.58.9). But Lucretia insists that though she acquits herself of the sin, she does not free herself of the penalty. She declares that no unchaste woman shall live and plead Lucretia’s example, takes out a hitherto-concealed knife and dies.

Heavy stuff. And extremely interesting, too.

Note, for instance, the attitude of the Roman men to the so-called guilt of the victim. You’ll notice they attach no guilt to her. None at all. It’s the mind that sins, not the body. Maybe this can be construed as them trying to say anything that will save this woman’s life, but even so, would we see that these days? Lucretia was in bed, sleeping – hardly behaving provocatively – but according to this logic, even if (for example) she’d had her tits out at dinner because of the heat – if she had no intention of sleeping with someone, she’s not guilty. You hear that? Unless a woman is actually asking for it, she’s not asking for it. Bear in mind this is the opinion expressed by two men well over 2000 years ago and recorded by a third man nearly that long ago. The victim bears no blame. Kay? Good. So, like, an unconscious young woman is not responsible for the behaviour of a rapist. Can you see where I’m going with this?

This fairly crucial bit often gets neglected in favour of Lucretia’s subsequent behaviour. You know, the bit where she decides to take the blame anyway, in order to set a ‘good example’ to future Roman women. She’s (totally inadvertently and blamelessly) committed adultery, so she determines that all adulterous women deserve the death penalty. This is the Lucretia Paradigm, and it’s invoked time and again throughout literature and history.

It’s based on the Roman sense of honour. If you do anything a bit rubbish in Rome, the best way to extricate yourself is by suicide – witness Mark Antony who, you guessed it, committed suicide after losing a battle to the future emperor Augustus (Cleopatra also committed suicide, but not because she lost – she didn’t want to be a famous captive in Rome and be paraded through the streets in chains). Whatever sort of shit goes down, you can always salvage something by dying honourably.

This goes back further, to Greece as well – in the famous play Hippolytus, by Euripides, Phaedra (Hippolytus’ stepmother, who has been made to fall in love with him as a punishment – on Hippolytus! – from the goddess Aphrodite) commits suicide after her passion is revealed by her old nurse. She leaves a note saying she did it because Hippolytus tried to molest her and she felt so violated she decided to kill herself to protect her and her family’s honour. This is a big fat lie, but the point is, she believes it’s the only way. Like Lucretia, it doesn’t matter that she’s not to blame; she still suffers the penalty.

The Lucretia Paradigm is, unbelievably, still being applied today. So many women are made to feel like they are somehow responsible for sexual assault and that they have to take on the chin whatever punishment society deems is appropriate. And yet, incredibly, we can’t even seem to agree on something that a violent, patriarchal and generally fairly rape-y society took for granted – that the guilt is not on the victim. No, we’re prepared to say ‘she must have been asking for it’. We express sorrow for the perpetrator as well as the victim, and the victim is expected – and probably, resignedly, expects – to take a portion of the blame, too. We apply one half of the paradigm and forget the other.

Seriously, kids, next time someone asks you ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’ please counter with “they told us that ‘where there has been no consent, there is no guilt’. And also that society encourages women to take responsibility for actions of which they are the victim, and that this is not necessarily a good thing”. It’s a bit of a mouthful, I grant you, but worth saying.


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