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date: 08 February 2023



  • Sharon James


Only the rape of citizens was taken seriously by law. Sexual assaults on non-citizens were lesser matters. Rape of enslaved persons, a daily reality, was a crime only if committed by someone other than their owner. Rape of citizen males damaged their reputations; rape of citizen females could render them ineligible for marriage. Ancient myth features almost countless stories of rape, usually of human females by divine males. These tales were common subjects in ancient art and literature. Overwhelmingly, the victims are unmarried girls, who may suffer brutal treatment afterward and frequently bear miraculous offspring, some of whom establish cities (e.g., Romulus and Remus). Rape by human men is rarer in myth; rape of a wife causes massive militarized response (e.g., Helen of Troy, Lucretia). War-rape and post-war rape were standard practice around the Mediterranean.


  • Gender Studies
  • Greek Law
  • Roman Law

Rape in antiquity was a matter of social and civic class. As a crime, it was understood as happening only to citizens: sexual assault of non-citizens was not a concern of law. The law took rape of citizens very seriously. Rape of citizen girls and women was a violation against the men who were responsible for them—father, husband, brother, guardian—but female victims would have experienced it as a personal violation first, rather than damage to their guardian’s ownership of their sexuality.1 Rape of a citizen male was a violation of him and an offense against his family. Rape of the enslaved was a crime only if perpetrated by someone other than the person’s owner, in which case it was a property crime against the owner, but not a violation of the enslaved person. As in all slave societies, rape by an owner was a daily event but not a matter of law. Wartime rape and post-war rape were standard military practices. Rape figures often in ancient myth.


Greek and Latin words for rape are hopelessly euphemistic, often mired in the symbolic and social value of citizen female sexuality. (Even the restriction of the English word rape, to mean forcible sexual penetration is fairly recent.) In Greek, forms of bia (violence) and hubris (outrage) were used to denote the act of rape in a civic (i.e., non-military) context. Both are vague and can be used for many forms of criminal or socially disruptive behavior. The effect on victims and their families is marked with forms of aischunein (disgrace), phtheirein (destroy, corrupt), and the like. In an unusual practice, Latin employs compound forms of primere, invoking part of the physical act of rape. More typical, however, are forms of vis (force, violence) (including violare [violate]), which is vague about the type of force involved and, like bia and hubris, can be used for many forms of violence and theft. Forms of stuprum (sexual crime) mark the social and legal damage to the victim; rapere (seize) evokes the symbolic damage caused by theft of a woman’s virginity or pudicitia (modesty), which has been stolen from her and her family.


Ancient myth might be described as virtually obsessed with rape: the “girl’s tragedy,” as Burkert identifies it, is commonplace in the cosmos of myth.2 In a frequent pattern, a god rapes and impregnates an unprotected girl. She undergoes various punishments, often including rejection by family or patron divinity, then bears miraculous offspring, such as a son who goes on to be a hero or to found an important city (e.g., Amphissus founds Oeta; Romulus and Remus found Rome). She may also suffer transformation into an animal, a plant, or a pool of water, among other things, sometimes evading rape by means of metamorphosis (e.g., Arethusa, Daphne, Lotis, Syrinx). Occasionally she is granted divine or semi-divine status because of her exceptional children (e.g., Alcmena, Leto). The tale of Ganymede exemplifies abduction-rape of a young boy; his father receives divine compensation for the loss of his son, but the families of female rape victims do not. Examples of women abducted and raped by gods include Aegina, Alope, Antiope, Europa, Io, Callisto, Creusa, Danae, Ilia (Rhea Silvia), Leda, Medusa, Perimele, and Salamis, among others. Rape as a shortcut to marriage, a way to bypass the father’s right to choose his son-in-law, is also found in myth and foundational legend (e.g., Boreas’ abduction of Orithyia; the Sabine women). The rape of Persephone by her uncle Hades happens with the permission of her father Zeus, but behind the back of her mother Demeter.

Rape by a god can sometimes have a positive ending for a girl (but rape by a mortal man cannot). More typically, however, rape of unmarried girls by a god renders them ineligible for marriage and legitimate procreation; hence they are frequently punished with familial rejection, torment, metamorphosis, or death. Aside from providing divine paternity to heroes and city-founders, the repetitive pattern of the girl’s tragedy in myth performs a social function of constantly reminding citizen families, and especially citizen girls, that they are not safe outside their homes, that they can be abducted and raped in a moment, after which point they become not merely socially useless but a source of danger and pollution to their families and communities. These tales further remind girls that their bodies are considered both property of their fathers and a rightful matter of interest to an entire community. A god may provide some protection for a girl he has raped, and for their children, but rape by a human male can end only in tragedy for a girl: perhaps the most horrifying example is the tale of Tereus, Philomela, and Procne. Rape of a goddess’ devotée will end terribly, sometimes for the innocent girl (e.g., Athena cannot punish Poseidon, so she turns Medusa into a monster; Artemis rejects and abandons Callisto), but certainly for any mortal man who has dared such violation (e.g., Oilean Ajax, who raped Cassandra in Athena’s temple).

In Greek myth, rape (including abduction) of a wife can lead to war, as in the case of Helen, whose consent to extramarital sex with Paris is a matter of enormous anxiety and controversy, but is legally and socially irrelevant: whether she is a wife or a maiden, a woman does not have the right to exercise her own sexual choices. Occasionally, a mortal husband is required to stay married to a wife who has been impregnated by a god (e.g., Alcmena, Leda; in a variant, Andraemon accepted Dryope as wife, after she bore Amphissus, by rape, to Apollo) and to bring up the children, who are often called by his name. In Roman foundational legend, rape of a wife (Lucretia) causes revolution.

Foundational Tales

Many a Hellenic city claims the son of a divine rapist as its founder. In Italy, Romulus and Remus, sons borne by Ilia (Rhea Silvia) after Mars raped her, establish Rome. Roman foundational tales feature several rapes thereafter, on the human plane, beginning with the rape of the Sabine women, seen as necessary for the survival of the new city. Historically, the English phrase “rape of the Sabine women” deployed the Latin meaning of rapere (“seize”), namely to grab or snatch away. In most Roman accounts, the goal was marriage and procreation, as a necessary means of keeping the city alive, and the terminology is exclusively about abduction, not about forcible sexual assault (rapere in Cic. DRP 2.12 and 13, Liv. AUC 1.9–13, Ovid F. 3.203 and 207, Ov. Ars 1.102 and 125; forms of harpazein (the Greek equivalent of rapere) in Plut. Rom. 14–19, Dion. Hal. 2.30–47). The accounts of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus show Romulus addressing the girls, openly abducted from their families, persuading them to accept marriage, citizenship, and an equal part in the city. By Roman concepts, this abduction mass marriage does not constitute rape, as the girls consented to become wives. The rape of Lucretia, an elite matrona, occurs by a modern understanding of the term: Sextus Tarquinius slips into her bedroom on a night when her husband is away, and uses blackmail to force her to agree to intercourse. Roman accounts use terminology of honor rather than sexual penetration: expugnato decore muliebri (conquered female modesty), amissa pudicitia (lost modesty) (Liv., AUC 1.58); stuprum (sexual crime) (Liv., AUC 3.44); dedecus (disgrace) (Ov. F. 2.826, M. 6.608); diaphtheirai (Dion. Hal. 4.64.4) and hybris (Dion. Hal. 4.66.2, 4.82.2). This rape caused the Romans to overthrow the Etruscan kings and begin the process that led to the establishment of the Republic. The story of Verginia (Liv. AUC 3.44–48) replays the rape of Lucretia on the level of the plebs. Livy overtly links the two tales and uses the legal term stuprum (sexual crime) for both Tarquin’s rape of Lucretia and the intent of the decemvir Appius Claudius to rape the plebeian girl Verginia, by legal chicanery. Verginia does not actually suffer rape because her father kills her to protect her from it, as he says. The ensuing rebellion of the plebs causes the rout of the decemvirs, the restoration of rights, and the posting of the Twelve Tables, struck in bronze, in public. These stories of rape and planned rape show how serious a matter was rape of a citizen woman.

Law on Rape

The law on rape considered citizens, with a slight bit of attention to the rape of an enslaved person belonging to someone else (in which case the owner was the aggrieved party).

It is impossible to know how often citizens were raped under peacetime conditions, but legal codes took such rape very seriously, though again the terminology used seems to have been euphemistic, focusing on shame, dishonor, and force. Law on rape is generally more concerned with female, rather than male, victims: the rape of a man or boy causes him dishonor, as an affront to his dignity, but the rape of a girl or woman violates the ownership of her sexuality, which belongs to her father or husband, and potentially interferes with her ability to produce legitimate children. There was no concept of marital rape (equally, there was no legal concept of rape of either the enslaved or those engaged in commercial sex).

No cases of prosecution for peacetime rape of citizens survive from antiquity, but the subject arises in oratory, as when it is claimed in Lys. 1 that seduction was considered worse than rape. Legal punishments of rape are said to have been financial penalties or, under prosecution of graphe hybreos (prosecution for outrage) in Athens, possibly death. At Gortyn, a sliding scale of financial penalties for rape existed, depending on the civic class of both victim and rapist, as well as the location of the rape. Plut. Sol. 23 lists the financial penalty for rape of a free woman at Athens as less than in Gortyn. It is probable that in both Greece and Rome revenge-murder of a rapist, by a victim’s male kin or husband, was punished either lightly or not at all. Any case of rape caused scandal by bringing shame and dishonor (atimia) on the rapist and his family, as well as on the victim. In Rome as in Greece, legal terminology for rape tended toward violence and social-symbolic damage: vis (force), iniuria (insult, injury), raptus (theft), stuprum (sexual crime) (an umbrella term for numerous sexual delicts). Penalties, under public prosecution, included damages under the lex Aquilia and various laws on force (vis), exile, death, and diminution of civic status. Informal punishments by offended families included castration and murder. Under Augustus’ lex Iulia de vi, victims of rape were understood as not having consented to the illegal sexual act, which did not fall under the prohibitions on stuprum in the lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis.

War and Rape

Wartime rape and post-war rape were standard military practices, first recorded as such at Iliad 2.355, when Nestor asserts that the Greeks should not go home until each of them has “slept with” a Trojan wife. The possible fate of all women in a city at war is enslavement; young women held particular value as sexual captives—a phenomenon also first recorded in the Iliad, in the disputes of Book 1 over spear-captives held by the Greek heroes, but seen as well when they are given as prizes in competitions, as at Iliad 23.262 and Verg. Aen. 5.284–285. The Greek term for converting a war-captive into an enslaved person is andrapodizein.3 In a practice standard around the Mediterranean, the adult males of a conquered city would be killed, but the women and children would be andrapodized. Among the brutality and slave labor they endured was rape of boys and younger women. Episodes of piracy, experienced by their victims as forms of war-raid, followed the same practice. Greek histories give more, and more detailed, records of andrapodizing than Roman sources do, but the battle of Cremona offers a clear Roman example (Tac. Hist. 3.33).

Rape in Ancient Literature and Art

Both because it was such a widespread element in ancient myth and because it caused personal and social devastation to citizen victims and their families, rape is found throughout ancient literature and art. Tales of divine rape appear in poetry, most famously in Ovid’s Met., but also in drama (e.g., Eur., Ion). Ancient art frequently depicts mythic scenes of rape, usually focusing on the female victim. On the human plane, rape is a frequent element in New Comedy, beginning with Menander. In these plays, the most common plot structure features a drunken young man who comes across a citizen girl returning home. He rapes her, but during their struggle she pulls a token, such as a ring from him. Later she bears a baby from this rape, and eventually the two are married, in a resolution that appears to have been socially acceptable in historical life. The rape itself is always an object of disapproval within the plays, but the genre accepts marriage as a means of erasing the crime and creating a new, fertile citizen family. Given that rape was a very serious crime, both legally and socially, this generically mild treatment of it, along with the apparent acceptance of viewers, has puzzled scholars. Aside from citizens in New Comedy, women enslaved in brothels also experience forcible acts of sex, what in modern terms would be called rape.

Scholarship on Rape

Scholarship on rape in antiquity began to appear more frequently in the 1970s, increasing significantly in each successive decade. Early studies tended to analyze episodes and representations of rape in literary and historical texts, a subject that continues to be studied to the present day. In the 1980s and 1990s, the issue began to receive consideration as a subject of political, social, legal, and cultural analysis, generally focusing on the standard period ranging from Homer to the early imperial era. Scholars examined such issues as consent, how to evaluate distinctions important to the ancients (such as seduction as opposed to force), ancient concepts of sexuality, slavery and rape, depictions of rape in visual art, and other topics. In the 2010s, study of rape has expanded to include studies of wartime rape, pedagogical concerns (how to teach materials containing rape), rape in late antiquity, the relevance of ancient rape to rape in the contemporary world, and more. The website compiled by Stefan Blaschke, Sexual Violence in History: A Bibliography is a useful resource.


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