As I began to read the second half of this week’s articles, I was unsure of my stance on Ovid’s rapes. There are a few running themes that appear to be present in most of his works. We consistently see women silenced through violence. In the tragic story of Philomela and Procne, Ovid tells his audience of their transformation (along with Tereus) into birds. However, the story is not focused on their transformation. Their metamorphosis into animals is fleeting and depicted with the utmost brevity. Instead, Ovid spends his time detailing the violent events that led to their transformation. In particular, we are left remembering Philomela who is raped by her sister’s husband Tereus, who then silences her by cutting out her tongue. In Ovid’s Fasti we are also told the story of Lara, the mother of the Lares, who warns the nymph Juturna (who ends up also being raped) that Jupiter intends to rape her. As punishment, Jupiter rips out her tongue and gives her to Mercury who later rapes her on the way down to Hades. Both of these women were silenced through violence.

There is another theme permeating the literature of the time: the birth of power through violence (towards women). We have seen this all over the place, but particularly in the origin myths of Rome. “Illicit sexuality is the catalyst for metamorphosis,” says Amy Richlin in her Reading Ovid’s Rapes (165). We see this metamorphosis extend beyond the transformations of individuals to the transformation of Rome itself. In Ovid’s version of the rape of Lucretia, the focus of the reader becomes voyeuristic. We are watching as the men spy on Lucretia. She is the object of gaze: as so many victims of rape in these stories are. Lucretia is raped and kills herself, becoming a “model” for chaste women and a catalyst for the overthrow of the monarchy. At the end of the story, Lucretia’s body is exhibited to arouse anger in the people of Rome. As Richlin points out, “She ends as she began, as object of the gaze” (172). Why must sex and violence be so connected? Why do we continuously see chastity being used as a metaphorical bargaining chip for the well being of Rome?

Was Ovid really being subversive? Was he commenting on the bad politics of Rome? After all, he was exiled by Augustus, giving him good reason to be unhappy with him. Vergil was somewhat of a contemporary to Ovid and in The Aeneid we see several occurences of women who come into the story and disappear or are silenced; all for the sake of the foundation of Rome. Creusa, Aeneas’ wife, falls behind and dies, only to come back as a ghost and tell Aeneas that it is okay for him to marry someone else! Dido, in heartbroken agony, kills herself. Nurse Caieta appears for a moment and dies. Camilla is killed in a way that closely represents rape: the huntress who is hunted by a man who penetrates her with his sword. By the end of the twelfth book, the only two females that are left are Lavinia (who never had a voice to begin with) and Juturna (who is later raped and turned into a nymph). In The Aeneid Vergil portrays women who are forced to live under an empire and who are suffering for it. Was Vergil really a champion of ancient women’s rights? Or was he commenting on the injustice of the empire as a whole? After all, by the end of the book we come to a realization that the new empire is just as bad as the old (Aeneas shows no mercy for the fallen Turnus): the movement to empire is the rape of the Roman nation and Roman identity by Augustus himself.

Richlin offers interesting insight into Ovid’s techniques as a writer. Richlin first taps into the way Ovid portrays the rape victims’ fear transforming into beauty. What does this tell us about Ovid? “The narrator’s consciousness of the victim’s fear shows his empathy for them; but surely the narrator stresses how visually attractive the disarray of flight and fear itself, made the victim” (162). Which side is Ovid on? Also, when Ovid writes about Philomela being raped by Tereus he starts out metaphorically comparing the two to a lamb and a wolf. Yet, once Philomela’s tongue gets cut out she is likened to a snake. Has Ovid shifted sympathies? Richlin points out that, “The cutting out of Philomela’s tongue is a transformative point in the tale, turning her from object of violence to perpetrator” (165). Is Ovid demonizing the sisters who retaliate with the killing of Procne’s son? Are they being punished for their rape and mutilation? The thought makes one cringe, but it must be taken into consideration that women in Ovid’s comic rapes are often portrayed as “asking for it” (since when does no mean yes??). Again, what does this say about Ovid’s stance on women? We see that when male rapists are dressed as women (and in one or two instances are raped because of this) everything turns out “well”. But when the role reversal is the female acting as a male, the result is the “unmanning of all men, and the narrative makes it clear that this is a bad thing” (166). So, is Ovid just another chauvinist?

The syntax of Ovid is also intentional. Latin is a gendered language, therefore it is easy to denote who is the subject of an action and who is the object. In almost all cases, women are the object. In Ovid’s recount of the rape of the Sabine women “the narrator tells us how to read this, declaring that he would volunteer as a soldier himself if he could get such a reward” (168). Is this Ovid’s real opinion? Should we be taking Ovid’s rapes literally? If Ovid sympathizes with his victims, it seems that he does so with only temporary pity (Richlin likens him to a pantomime). One of her other arguments that I find myself aligning with is the idea that Ovid is in fact using the rapes as a literary trope to comment on the politics of the time, in particular the transformation of Rome from a Republic to an empire. Richlin talks about the Metamorphoses as a “dissolution of the boundaries of body, genus, gender, and genre” (176). We all know that Roman culture was all about boundaries. So was this Ovid being subversive after all?

Whether it is wise to give credence to Richlin’s analysis of the text or not, the fact remains that there is an excess of violence against women in the literature of the time. Rape is rape. I believe the fact that these male authors felt the need to use rape as a greater literary device tells us something about the social mores of their time.

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2 Responses to OVID’S RAPES

  1. ryank825 says:

    Dear Olivia,

    I too had a hard time understanding why rape became a staple of Ovid’s works. Obviously we will never know the true intentions of why rape was so prevalent in his stories, and the works of many other authors. As scholars we can only guess why authors of this time would deem rape crucial in story telling, In my opinion, I feel at this time there was a general animosity towards women by men. Women are nearly never the hero of a story, violent acts are frequently done to women, and women make many mistakes in the stories leading to their fall or the fall of others. For what ever reason,women in Roman times were at least, in many writings, seen as lesser and rape was one form to show male dominance.


    • It’s important to note that *most of* Ovid’s rape stories were not stories he made up, but reflections of an existing tradition, either in Greek mythology or Roman history. So it’s not that “rape became a staple” in his works; rape was already a staple in these cultures’ stories. That isn’t to say that Ovid didn’t make it central to his works in ways that no one had ever done before. And indeed, it is difficult to understand exactly what we are meant to think about his perspective on rape – in the Ars Amatoria and Heroides, for example, he suggests that women secretly want to be raped so that they can have sexual contact without appearing slutty, while in the Metamorphoses, his accounts of rape are harrowing and often gruesome and portray what seems to be quite a sensitive approach to the feelings of fear, shame, and pain that the victim might feel after the fact (the best example of this, in my opinion, is the rape of Callisto in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 2). At any rate, you are absolutely right that women were seen as lesser and that rape was a form of male dominance, especially in a culture that defined female sexuality SOLELY as a means of reproduction while simultaneously fearing female power over reproduction. It’s a difficult topic but I think an important one to talk about!

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