In the sixth century BC Rome was a small city ruled by kings, its poor subjugated and overworked in building projects instituted by the city’s rulers, the Tarquinius family. Mary Beard, in her excellent new bestseller “SPQR, A History Of Ancient Rome,” points out that it was an act of sexual aggression, and not a rebellion against forced labor, that ultimately brought down the early kings and heralded the start of the Republic.
Here’s the story: It seems that some wealthy young Roman noblemen were boasting drunkenly about whose wife was most virtuous. It was decided spur of the moment to visit each of their homes in turn to see what the women were up to while the husbands were away. All of the women but one were found to be partying in their husbands’ absence. Only Lucretia, wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, was home working at her loom with her servants. After proving herself to be a virtuous wife, she went on to serve the drunken louts a lovely dinner, and that was that. The winner.
Several weeks later one of the men, Sextus Tarquinius, younger brother of the king, decided to pay the unfortunate Lucretia a visit while her husband was away, so that he might rape her, proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished. Anyway, Lucretia refused his advances, even his threat of death at knifepoint, and it was only when he threatened to kill her and a male slave, spreading the lie that he had found her having sex inappropriately, thus ruining her reputation for chastity, that she relented and allowed herself to be taken by force.
When her husband returned home with his friends in tow, she summoned both him and her father, told them what had happened, and stabbed herself to death right in front of them all. And here’s where it gets interesting.
For many Romans, Lucretia’s suicide at the loss of her chastity was a defining moment. Lucius Junus Brutus, who had arrived with her husband, reportedly took the bloody knife from Lucretia’s breast and vowed an end to the kings of Rome. With the army and the people of Rome behind him he was able to force the Tarquins into exile. It was a political turning point of great significance. Certainly there had been all sorts of reasons for the people of ancient Rome to rebel, but it took this one act of sexual arrogance and aggression, prompting extreme moral outrage, to bring everything to a head. Lucretia was, consequently, to stand as a role model for all virtuous Roman wives forever after. According to Roman tradition, a woman should be prepared to die for her virtue.
Sound familiar? Other aspects are unfortunately familiar as well. Male historians, poets, and satirists for the next several hundred years not only questioned poor Lucretia’s virtue and wrote bawdy little numbers making fun of her, but even in the fifth century BC that epitome of male self-righteousness and pomposity, St. Augustine, debated whether she had indeed been truly raped since she ultimately acquiesced to her abuser. Nice, right?
It seems that almost every day now we are getting reports from women who have been groped, kissed, and otherwise sexually assaulted by Donald Trump, a man who aspires to the Presidency of the United States of America. With his own words he has publicly bragged about his aggression and disrespect toward women. Now he and his followers are demeaning those very women who have been the unwilling objects of his foul behavior.
Some things don’t change. There will always be those who blame the victim, but ultimately those who feel that women are fair game for powerful men do so at their peril. Sexual aggression brought down the political system of early Rome, and perhaps this will prove to be the last straw for Americans as well. While the Republican Party has looked the other way while Donald Trump has lied, insulted, and verbally abused war heroes, Gold Star Families, the disabled, Mexicans, Muslims, the generals, the military, and women in general, decent people have been paying close attention and may very well be ready to say, “Enough is enough!”