Rape is as Greek as the Parthenon

White togas…bearded philosophers…marble pillars…and rape? Which one doesn’t seem to mesh with ancient Greece? If you said “rape,” Ed Harris, a classical studies professor at Brooklyn College, would beg to differ with you.

Speaking to an intimate crowd of classical studies scholars in Logan Hall in November, Harris opened his lecture “Did Rape Exist in Classical Athens?” with a precise answer to that inquiry.

Yes, he said, democratically sitting at the table instead of standing at a podium. “Our sources for the lives of women of the period make it abundantly clear that such acts did occur,” he stated, beginning his talk sponsored by the department of classical studies and ancient history. Harris then delved into the meat of his lecture: the social construction of rape in antiquity.

His focus revolved around the curious fact that the ancient Greek language lacked a word that clearly translates to the word “rape” in our English lexicon. And while the prolific Aristotle and Co. were capable of describing the concept, which Harris supported with copious examples, the Greek semantics of “rape” all refer to multiple acts of violence and dishonor, rather than a specific action.

Instead of seeing this idiomatic absence as a barrier, Harris used it as a springboard to discuss sexual power roles in antiquity. The most striking contrast between a classical and modern interpretation of rape, he professed, is who becomes the victim. Nowadays, it seems commonplace that the woman who was raped is the primary victim, yet it was not so in classical society.

“After being the victim of sexual violence, the young woman lost her virginity and became damaged goods, thus less likely to attract a suitable match,” Harris said. In fact, many victims were forced into marrying the rapist, lest she become useless to her family — especially her brothers or father, who were considered the burdened ones in classical times. This dilemma led to a high prevalence of suicide among raped women.

Harris, by concluding with the intriguing — and controversial — example of Peru, where the law states that a man may be exonerated from charges of rape by proposing marriage to the victim, incited audience questions about how different cultures have set values on humans.


Originally published on January 18, 2001