Ancient Near East

Enough evidence has been preserved for us to conclude that ancient Near Eastern cultures had a conception of sexual violence that in some ways overlaps with our own but was in some ways very different. In the discussion below, we will consider how various forms of sexual violence are treated in ancient Near Eastern sources and consider what conclusions can be drawn about the attitude of these cultures toward such behaviors.

Due to the fragmentary nature of the evidence, we cannot compose a complete picture of attitudes toward sexual violence in the ancient Near East. We can, however, create a rough, tentative sketch, keeping in mind that some cultures and time periods are better represented by the preserved evidence than others. The sources are diverse, including legal collections, court records, myths, and (in the case of sexual violence used as a strategy of war and in controlling subject populations) royal inscriptions, engravings on victory steles, and reliefs on palace gates and walls. While the legal collections provide a valuable glimpse into the sexual norms and mores of these societies, they were not intended as literal guidelines for actual court proceedings. Because many legal documents and records related to legal proceedings have been preserved from these cultures, we know that there is often little correspondence between the provisions stated in the legal collections and contemporary legal practice. Rather than reflections of normative juridical decisions, the legal collections were often expressions of principles or ideals. The other evidence must also be approached with caution. Myths about the gods often had little to do with the reality of daily life or the norms associated with it. Depictions and descriptions of war in royal inscriptions, on victory steles, and on palace wall and gate engravings primarily served a propagandistic function, with the intent of either scaring those who viewed them into submission or convincing the gods that the king was worthy of their support.

The Nature of Sexual Violence.

Sexual violence refers to the forcing, coercing, or manipulation of an individual into unwanted, nonconsensual sexual activity. Contemporary Western society includes in this category rape (for the purposes of this article defined as vaginal or anal sexual intercourse with another person without his or her consent), attempted rape, and other forms of sexual assault such as forced or coerced contact between the mouth and penis, vagina, or anus; nonconsensual penetration of the anus or vagina by a hand, finger, or other object; sexual relations with those considered too young or incapable for other reasons of giving consent (such as intoxication); and unwanted sexual contact (such as touching or kissing). In addition, forced stripping and/or exposure of the genitalia, sexual mutilation, exposure to threats of a sexual nature, involuntary prostitution, and being subject to other forms of coercive sexual exploitation are considered forms of sexual violence. According to the contemporary understandings, survivors of such acts often experience sexual, physical, and/or psychological trauma. The psychological consequences can be both short term and long term, including feelings of depression, guilt, shame, anger, fear, and other symptoms associated with posttraumatic stress disorder.

Certain sexual acts that are now considered under the umbrella of sexual violence have not historically been considered as such. Marital rape is a relatively new concept and still is not accepted in much of the world. The idea that a slave can be raped by an owner is another relatively new concept, since historically slaves have been viewed as the sexual property of their owners and thus without personal agency or autonomy. The idea of a woman’s rape as primarily an offense against the woman instead of an offense against the males of her household (her husband, if she is married, and father and/or brothers, if she is not) is also a relatively new concept. A recent development is the idea that bestiality, which encompasses vaginal or anal intercourse with an animal and oral-genital contact between humans and animals, is a form of sexual violence given that the animal is incapable of giving consent.

Forms of sexual violence attested in ancient Near East sources include rape, unwanted sexual contact, sexual relations with those considered too young or incapable for other reasons of giving consent, forced stripping and/or exposure of the genitalia, sexual mutilation, and exposure to threats of a sexual nature. The rest of this article will examine how these categories of sexual violence are treated in ancient Near Eastern sources. Additionally, we will consider whether there is any evidence that these cultures had a conception of coercive sex within marriage, sex with one’s slaves, and/or bestiality as acts of sexual violence. Lastly, we will consider whether these cultures understood these acts the same way that we do in contemporary society in terms of being a violation of personal sexual integrity and resulting in trauma on the part of survivors. Before we can do this, however, we must consider how we can identify a sexual act as falling under the category of sexual violence in these sources by examining how ancient Near Eastern sources indicated that a sexual act was nonconsensual.

The Language of Sexual Violence in Ancient Near Eastern Texts.

Because this overview addresses issues of vocabulary, it is divided into the various languages attested.

Sumerian language sources.

There is no term for rape in Sumerian, nor is there a combination of terms or a way of describing the sexual act that consistently indicates that an act is one of sexual assault. While it has been suggested that the Sumerian term niĝaĝarše, which occurs in the Laws of Ur-Nammu (UN) 6 and 8, denotes the use of force or violence in sexual contexts, the term seems to more likely refer either to violating or usurping the rights of the legal guardian of the woman or using guile or deception to gain sexual access to the woman. The term dab (written usually as dab or dab5), which most commonly means seize, take, or hold, depending on the context, is often (but not always) used in contexts in which people, land, and/or objects are seized by force; yet it does not necessarily indicate coercion in the few sexual situations in which it is used. Since dab is equated in several lexical texts with Akkadian ṣabātu, which is used in both coercive and noncoercive sexual contexts, it seems highly unlikely that its usage in sexual contexts can definitively identify a sexual act as coercive. Thus, in Sumerian texts, the only way to determine whether a sexual act is consensual or not is to consider the larger context, including the description of circumstances and/or verbal exchanges leading up to the sexual act and the consequences of the sexual act.

Akkadian language sources.

One term in Akkadian, mazû, seems to specifically denote rape when used in the D stem, where it means literally “press down.” However, since this usage of mazû only occurs three times and one of the contexts is highly fragmentary and thus unclear, the conclusion that the D stem of mazû denotes rape is somewhat tentative. Additionally, all three texts in which mazû is used in this way date from the Middle to Late Assyrian period, so the term might have also been limited to a specific geographical area within a limited time period. It also has been suggested that naqābu sometimes denotes rape. However, the term actually denotes the taking of a woman’s virginity in both consensual and nonconsensual sexual situations. Several terms denote illicit sex, such as nâku, but they are not consistently used in the context of nonconsensual sex and in fact are more often used in cases of illicit consensual sex. In the two times the adjective nīku (fem. nīktu) is used (both times in the Middle Assyrian Laws), the context indicates that it refers to a raped woman. Whether these few occurrences provide enough evidence that nīku means “raped” is unclear.

Nonconsensual sex is denoted in Akkadian texts in other ways as well. The use of a term of force, such as the verb emūqu (“to force”) or the derived adverb emūqa (“by force”), combined with a term for sex denotes nonconsensual sex. Both emūqu and emūqa are sometimes used in combination with ṣabātu in sexual contexts, in which case the combination can be translated as “seize by force.” The combination of ṣabātu with the noun da’ānu is also used in sexual contexts to denote nonconsensual sex and can be translated as “seize by force.” In one law in the Code of Hammurabi (LH), kubbulu (“to make immobile, hold or pin down”) is used in combination with a term for sexual relations to denote coercive sex. The combination of a term for “seize” such as ṣabātu along with a term describing a sexual act is used in cases of both nonconsensual and consensual sex. For example, in the myth of Nergal and Ereškigal, Nergal seizes (ṣabātu) Ereškigal in his arms and kisses her before having rough, but consensual, sex with her. Given this usage, one must rely on the larger context, such as the description of the interaction between the individuals before the sexual encounter and/or the consequences after, to determine whether the sex is considered consensual or not.

Hittite language sources.

No term in Hittite specifically denotes nonconsensual sex. The term ēp (“to seize”) is used twice in sexual contexts, both in the same law (Hittite Laws [HL] 197)—once in a case of nonconsensual sex and once in a case of consensual sex. In nonsexual contexts the verb salik has various meanings, including to touch, approach, invade, penetrate, and enter (usually in an unwelcome or polluting manner). When used in sexual contexts salik appears to denote illicit but not necessarily coercive sex. It is used several times in HL 195 to denote various prohibited incestuous sexual relations, and it also is used in the Zalpa Legend in the context of prohibited incestuous sexual relations (in this case, between brothers and sisters). Given the evidence, there is no reason to think that salik in sexual contexts denotes coercive sex. Rather, it seems to denote illicit sex, perhaps specifically in the form of incest. Similarly, the terms wen and wasta when used in the context of sexual acts appear to denote various degrees of illicit sex but not necessarily coercive sex. Thus, with Hittite texts as with Sumerian texts one must always rely on the larger context to determine whether a sexual act was considered consensual or not.

Sexual Violence against Women.

The form of sexual violence against women referred to most frequently in ancient Near Eastern sources is sexual assault in the form of rape. Other forms include unwanted physical contact in the form of groping (possibly) or kissing. Incidents of sexual assault are attested in the legal collections and some myths. In the legal collections that address cases of sexual assault of women, the status of the woman (whether she is a free married, betrothed, or single [unmarried and not betrothed] woman or a slave) determines the severity of the crime and the outcome. With one exception, the only preserved sources that address cases of sexual assault against married women are the legal collections; in these works, a married woman is considered to be the sexual property of her husband, and the crime in such cases is treated as a case of adultery (sexual relations with a married woman) in which the woman is considered innocent of any wrongdoing.

Only one text in the Sumerian legal collections (UN 6) addresses sexual assault of a married woman (in this case the wife of another man who is still a virgin). The terminology used to describe the sexual encounter does not in itself give any indication that the sex was nonconsensual (see niĝaĝarše), but the absence of punishment for the woman is an indication that the sex was viewed as coerced. Moreover, the law immediately following UN 6 deals with the same circumstances in which the woman is described as initiating the sexual encounter; here, the woman is put to death and the man is not punished. The author perhaps assumes that since the woman is the initiator of the sexual encounter, the man may not have known she was married and is thus not considered culpable for adultery.

LH 130 states that if a man pins down and has sexual relations with (ukabbilšima ina sūniša ittatīlma) the wife of another man (specified as a virgin still living at her father’s house) and is caught in the act, the man will be put to death and the woman will go free. The use of the D stem of kabalu in this context denotes that the man has used force. The fact that the author specifies that while the man is put to death the woman goes free also indicates that this is treated as a case of sexual assault.

The Middle Assyrian Laws (MAL) address three different scenarios that involve the rape of a married woman. MAL A 12 is a clear case of sexual assault, given that the woman is described as refusing the man’s sexual proposition and as trying to defend herself. The man is described as taking or seizing her by force and as having sex with her (emûqamma iṣṣabassi ittiakšši). The man is sentenced to death, and no blame is attached to the woman. MAL A 16 presents two different circumstances: consensual sex between a married woman and a man and nonconsensual sex between the pair. In the case of consensual sex, the man goes free and the punishment of the woman is left up to the husband. In the case of rape (denoted by emūqamma ittiakši), the author states that the man will receive the same punishment as the wife. This leads to some ambiguity: Is the woman punished if she has been found to be a victim of sexual assault? This ambiguity arises because the law combines two different cases. Most likely what is intended is that the husband in a case of rape gets to choose the punishment of the man who raped his wife, but the punishment should be the same as he would give his wife if it had been a case of consensual sex.

MAL A 23 presents three different circumstances for a the scenario in which a married woman invited to the house of another woman is given by the hostess to another man for sexual purposes. In the first case, the sex seems to be consensual; in this case, the woman’s husband has the authority to penalize her in any way he sees fit, and the hostess and the other man are punished the same way. The other two scenarios seem to both involve nonconsensual sex. If as soon as she leaves the house the wife declares that she was victimized, saying that she did not know what the other woman intended and that the hostess brought a man to her by trickery and he had sex with her (kî pīge a’īla ana muḫḫiša tultērib u ittiakši), it is taken as a case of nonconsensual sex: the wife is considered innocent of any wrongdoing and the other parties receive the death penalty. In the third scenario, the woman does not declare her innocence, even though the circumstances appear to be the same; in this case, the husband may punish his wife as he sees fit, and the other woman and the man are put to death.

In HL 197, whether a sexual act (presumably between a man and a free married woman, given that a husband is mentioned in the final part of the law) is deemed consensual is based solely on where it took place. If the location was an uninhabited area (in this case, in the mountains), it is assumed to have been a case of sexual assault, since presumably no one would have heard the woman scream and been available to help; in this case, the man is put to death. If the sexual act took place in a house (implied to be in a city), it is assumed to have been consensual, since otherwise someone would have heard her scream for help; in this case, the woman will be killed, though the text does not specify if the man will also suffer punishment. If her husband catches the two having sex (presumably under the second set of circumstances), he may kill both with impunity.

While there is no evidence of a concept of marital rape, a married woman is given the right under certain circumstances to refuse her husband sexual access, suggesting some degree of personal sexual autonomy. LH 142–143 states that if a woman refuses to have sex with her husband and the court determines that she has kept chaste and behaved in an upright manner, and her husband has been going out (waṣu, which implies carousing with other women) and thus belittled her, the woman can take her dowry and go to her father’s house without any punishment. However, if the woman has been going out (waṣu), thus belittling her husband, she is to be cast into the water (meaning to be executed by drowning). The legal collections do not indicate whether a husband forcing his wife to have sex in a situation in which she had the right to refuse was considered rape. Such a determination is unlikely, given that marital rape is a relatively modern concept.

MAL A 9 also addresses another form of sexual assault. The first part states that a man who is convicted of raising his hand against (qāta used with abālu) a married woman (treating her “like a child,” the text adds) will have his finger cut off. The second part states that if the man kisses her, his lower lip will be cut off. If one interprets the first half of the case in light of the second, then “raising the hand” may imply some kind of sexual contact, especially since the woman’s marital status should not matter in a case of regular assault. Since only punishment of the man is mentioned for the kiss, it could be that the situation involved nonconsensual touching or kissing of another man’s wife.

The one nonlegal text that includes an account of sexual violence against married women is the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh insists on deflowering all of the brides of Uruk under the right of droit de seigneur. Since there is no corroborating evidence that any ancient Near Eastern ruler ever insisted on taking such privileges, it seems more likely that Gilgamesh’s actions are simply a narrative element to illustrate why the people of Uruk felt the need to ask the gods for intervention to protect them from their king (and thus introduce Enkidu to the story) and not a reflection of any sort of reality.

The only reference to sexual assault against a betrothed woman occurs in one text from the legal collections, Laws of Ešnunna (LE) 26, which states that a man who abducts and takes the virginity of a woman who is betrothed to another man without the permission of her father or mother will be put to death. No punishment is stated for the woman, apparently indicating that she was considered an innocent victim, abducted against her will. This law gives the impression that the authors of this legal collection viewed sexual assault against betrothed women in the same way as sexual assault against married women. Once the bride-price is paid, the woman is considered legally to be the sexual property of her husband-to-be, even though she is still living with her family. The offender in such cases is sentenced to death.

Situations in which a single (unmarried, nonbetrothed) woman is sexually assaulted appear in one text in the legal collections and a few Sumerian mythological texts. MAL A 55 presents the case of the rape of a young woman who is still a virgin and still living with her parents. The description of the sexual encounter—“if he seized a young woman by force and pressed her down” (kî da’āne batulta iṣbatma umanzi’ši)—indicates that it is a case of nonconsensual sex. The consequences vary depending on whether the rapist is married. If he is married, the father may rape the wife of his daughter’s rapist and keep possession of her in his household (as a form of talion), and he may give his daughter to the man as a wife. If he is not married, the rapist shall give an extra third in silver to her father over and above the regular bride-price of a virgin, and the father can decide whether to marry his daughter to the rapist, who will not have the option of ever divorcing her. The father is also given the option, whether the man is married or not, of accepting the money and marrying his daughter to whomever he wishes.

The young woman who was raped is given no voice in the matter, though the option of marrying her rapist without giving him the option of divorce is intended for her benefit: it will provide for her welfare, assuming that her chances of finding a suitable husband are now greatly reduced. The option given to the father to rape the assailant’s wife indicates that the welfare of women was not the primary concern of the authors of this law. Needless to say, the innocent wife of the perpetrator has no recourse if the father chooses to commit an act of legally sanctioned sexual violence against her as compensation. Even if the option of raping the assailant’s wife is only intended as a scare tactic, it still demonstrates that women were viewed as property with no legal sexual autonomy. It is primarily the father whose rights are viewed as violated and the father who can choose how he is compensated. In the law immediately following, a young single woman loses her virginity to a man in a case of consensual sex. In that instance, the father is compensated for his lost bride price the same as he is in the case of rape, though the rest of the consequences are different. The father can choose to punish his daughter any way he sees fit, but he cannot force the man to marry his daughter and no harm is to come to the man’s wife.

Three Sumerian myths depict cases of sexual violence against unmarried, nonbetrothed females. In the myth of Enlil and Ninlil, Ninlil explicitly rejects Enlil’s sexual advances, explaining that she is too young for sexual relations with men and concerned about getting into trouble with her parents (and possibly her girlfriends [the text is fragmentary]). Enlil responds by ignoring her objections, instead focusing on gaining physical access to her, seizing her, and having sex with her. The sexual act itself is not described in terms associated specifically with rape, since the language of seizing or grabbing a woman in the context of sex is also used in ancient Near Eastern descriptions of consensual sex; however, the larger context, namely Ninlil’s elaborate refusal of Enlil’s advances and his decision to have sexual relations with her without further attempts to persuade her, seems to indicate that this was a case of nonconsensual sex. This conclusion is confirmed by the consequences of his act. Enlil is condemned by the assembly of gods and banished. Ninlil’s pursuit of Enlil after the sexual encounter does not indicate her consent to the encounter but rather her desire for him to marry her, especially since she knew she was pregnant from the encounter.

Two other Sumerian myths also depict rape. In each case, the larger context of the account rather than specific language indicates the nonconsensual nature of the sex. In the myth of Enki and Ninḫursaĝ (also discussed below), Enki gets Uttu drunk on beer and then takes advantage of the situation to gain sexual access to her. As a result of the act, Enki is cursed by Ninḫursaĝ, Uttu’s great-great-grandmother. In the myth of Inana and Šukaletuda, the sleeping goddess Inana is raped by the gardener Šukaletuda, who comes upon her on his plot of land. When Inana wakes up and realizes what happened, she is furious. When she finally catches the gardener she sentences him to death. Here it is very clear that the act of rape itself is considered a crime; Inana tells Enki at one point that she demands compensation for what was done to her, and her rapist is harshly punished.

Three texts, one legal record and two from the legal collections, address taking the virginity of a slave woman. The Sumerian text A Trial at Nippur refers to a case in which a man seized another man’s female slave, brought her into a building, and deflowered her. As noted above, since terms for seizing or grabbing hold of a woman are also used in ancient Near Eastern texts in cases of consensual sex, there is no way to determine with certitude whether the sex in this case is considered consensual. The consequences in this particular case—the woman’s owner brought charges, produced witnesses, and the guilty party had to pay him compensation—would be the same whether the sex was consensual or not. The same is true of the defloration of a slave woman addressed in another Sumerian text, UN 8, since the punishment described would be the same for consensual or nonconsensual sex. In this case, the guilty man pays the owner five shekels of silver. In LE 31, a man who deflowers the female slave of another man must pay her owner one third of a mina of silver as compensation. The text specifies that the slave remains with her owner. As in the previous two cases, there is no way to tell from the wording whether the sex is consensual or not.

In each of these cases involving the defloration of a slave, the person who receives compensation is the woman’s owner, since legally the slave is his property and her defloration is a property crime. The crime is the same whether the sex was consensual or not, since the slave, as his property, has no legal autonomy and thus legally cannot give consent. Since consent is immaterial to the outcome of the case, the authors do not include this information, and thus there is no way for us to determine whether or not any of these cases involved rape. Of course, since the female slave was the sexual property of her owner, he could use her any way he wanted sexually, and legally it was not considered rape.

Sexual Assault against Men.

Two texts in the legal collections, both in the MAL, address sexual violence against men. MAL 20 appears to involve male-male rape. The law states that if a man has sex with another man of the same status (tappāšu inīk) and the judges prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall have sex with him and turn him into a eunuch (inikkūš ana ša rēšēn utarrūš). The description of the sexual act itself gives no indication that the sex act is nonconsensual, but the consequences suggest it is a case of male rape: the man found guilty of the charges is punished with what appears to be communal rape followed by castration, and the other man is neither charged with a crime nor punished. If this ruling was aimed against consensual homosexuality, both parties would presumably be punished. Instead, the punishment is based on the principle of talion. The aggressor will be raped just as he raped another; just as he forced the other man into a feminine role by making him be a passive sexual partner, the passive role is permanently imposed on him (castrating him also has preventive value, since he will never be able to commit the same crime again). Since the text specifies that the victim was a tappā’u, a man of equal social status, one wonders if the rape of a man of a lower social status would be considered a criminal offense.

MAL A 8 mentions another form of sexual violence against men, the mutilation of a man’s testes. The law states that a woman who crushes the testicle of a man in a fight will have her finger cut off. If the other testicle becomes infected by the first or is also crushed, her eyes will be gouged out.

Incest as a Form of Sexual Violence.

Two of the legal collections address cases of incest. While it can be taken for granted that incest between a father and daughter or other substantially younger family member living within his household is nonconsensual sex and thus can be considered rape, in the ancient Near Eastern legal collections incest is treated distinctly from rape. While no legal text explicitly describes a sexual act as both incestuous and as coerced, it is evident within some of the legal texts that certain cases of incest were also considered to involve rape.

LH addresses several cases in which the sex is treated as both incestuous and nonconsensual. LH 154 states that if a man has sex with his daughter, they shall make him leave the city. Since the incest occurred while the daughter was presumably still living with her parents and under her father’s authority, it does not violate the rights of another man and thus it is not a capital crime. The father, in fact, has sexual control over his daughter and thus technically has the right to do with her sexuality as he sees fit. However, given the severity of the punishment the authors must have viewed the situation as problematic. Banishment involves the loss of one’s family, possessions, societal connections, and citizenship. The fact that no punishment is mentioned for the daughter implies that she is not considered guilty of any crime, indicating that the case is considered one of nonconsensual sex and incestuous rape.

LH 155 and 156 both address a case in which a man chooses a wife for his son and has sex with her himself. In LH 155, the man’s son has already had sex with the woman, and in punishment the father is bound and thrown into the water (to drown). Since the future father-in-law is given the death penalty and no mention is made of punishment for his son’s future wife, she apparently was considered an innocent victim and the case is one of nonconsensual incest and rape. In LH 156, the son has not yet had sexual relations with the woman. In that case, the father-in-law compensates her with one half mina of silver in addition to giving her back whatever she brought from her father’s house so that she can marry whoever she chooses. Given that the woman is not penalized in any way but instead receives generous compensation, this also appears to be understood as a case of rape. It is noteworthy that the woman alone is compensated, rather than her family or the man’s son.

HL 189, 190, and 195 appear in a group of Hittite Laws that attempt to define the parameters of incest. Each of these laws designates certain sexual pairings as incestuous. While none of the pairings are described according to consent, likely a case of a man having sexual relations with his daughter (189), stepdaughter (195), or son (189) was not consensual on the part of the younger partner. Sexual pairings considered to be incestuous are labeled hurkel, an illicit or prohibited sexual act. While no punishment is cited for any of the prohibited incestuous pairings, it is possible that the punishment was the same as for acts of bestiality that were labeled hurkel.

Incest is also an element in the Sumerian myth of Enki and Ninḫursaĝ. Enki has sex with and impregnates his daughter and then continues to do the same to additional generations of the daughters born of his daughters, all of whom are identified as young. The description of his sexual relations with his first three daughters gives no indication that the sex is nonconsensual, even though sexual relations between a father and his young daughters can generally be assumed to be nonconsensual on the child’s part. In the myth, Enki’s behavior with these daughters is not problematized as rape or incest. Only when one of his daughters, Uttu, attempts to resist him is his behavior described as having negative consequences for him. Since the gods are depicted as living in a world where they are not constrained by human norms, mores, and laws, the treatment of incest in this myth does not indicate that incest was in any way condoned among humans.

Bestiality as a Form of Sexual Violence.

There is very little evidence for ancient Near Eastern attitudes towards bestiality. Sex with certain animals is addressed in a few cases in the Hittite Laws (187, 188, 199, and 200). In some cases, humans are the initiator of the sexual encounter, and in some cases animals are. HL 187 and 188 state that a man who has sexual relations with a cow or a sheep has committed hurkel, an illicit or prohibited sexual act, and he will be sentenced to death. In both cases, the man will be brought to the king’s court, and the king can either have the man killed or spare his life (in which case, he may have been banished); it is specified, however, that he will not appear before the king in person, likely because he was viewed as having incurred pollution. The killing of the animal is not indicated, but given that HL 199 specifies that in the case of a man who has sex with a pig or a dog the animal and human will suffer the same fate (death or being spared by the king), it could be that in the case of the cow or sheep the animal is not harmed.

Contemporary animal advocates have contended that because animals are unable to consent these sex acts should be considered nonconsensual. The second part of HL 199, however, suggests that the animal could be the sexual aggressor. If an ox is the sexual aggressor, the ox is put to death and the man will be spared. A sheep will be substituted for the man and put to death, which seems to indicate that in such cases both the human and the animal incur pollution. If a pig is the sexual aggressor, it is not considered hurkel and apparently the pig goes unpunished. This law indicates that animals might have been viewed as having sexual agency.

HL 199 states that if a man has sex with a horse or a mule, it is not hurkel but he shall not approach the king or become a priest; it seems he is still polluted by his act but perhaps to a lesser degree than if he had sex with a cow, sheep, pig, or dog. In all these cases, sex with animals appears to be viewed primarily as a matter of pollution. A man who engages in these sexual relations, whether consensually or not, is polluted. It is not clear why sex acts with cows, sheep, pigs, and dogs are considered hurkel and punished with death, while sex with horses or mules is not, or why a sexually aggressive pig is spared punishment but not a sexually aggressive ox.

Sexual Violence as a Strategy of War and Foreign Policy.

The last category of sexual violence addressed is the use of sexual abuse and sexual humiliation as a strategy of war and foreign policy. The purpose of sexual violence as a strategy of war is evident: it traumatizes the enemy. Sexual violence is a very effective means to degrade, intimidate, and humiliate prisoners of war and subject populations. Such acts utterly demoralize the victim by causing both physical and psychological harm.

As early as the beginning of the third millennium B.C.E., enemy soldiers are depicted naked. Not only were dead and captured soldiers depicted naked, but in several reliefs from the third millennium B.C.E. so are enemy soldiers in the midst of battle. Clearly the point was not to provide an accurate historical record of what the battle scene looked like but to make a statement. Nakedness was associated with defeat and death. The viewer of these steles knew that the naked soldiers were on the losing side, very likely destined for death. Nakedness was also associated with helplessness, vulnerability, and a loss of social identity. Stripping the enemy was a way of dehumanizing and depersonalizing him. Clothing was associated with being civilized, so being naked also meant being deprived of the accoutrements of civilization. The stripping of the enemy soldiers symbolizes stripping them of everything they have and everything they are. Their only identity becomes corpse or prisoner.

Evidence for the use of sexual assault and sexual humiliation as a strategy of war and foreign policy in the ancient Near East proliferates in the first millennium B.C.E., when the Neo-Assyrian kings started to describe and depict the torture of enemy soldiers in great detail in royal inscriptions, steles, and engravings on palace walls and gates. The reliefs that lined the walls of several royal palaces from this period show explicit scenes of the torture of prisoners of war, recording in detail acts of violence against the people the Neo-Assyrians fought and subjected. The reliefs also show the corpses of the enemy often beheaded or impaled and sometimes dismembered. In the scenes of torture of the enemy and of the enemy dead, the enemy soldiers are often depicted naked, as are male captives. Chapman’s The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter (2004, pp. 160–163) contends that the nakedness of the male enemy soldiers is sometimes combined with images of penetration via the placement and the aim of battering rams, the drawn bows of Assyrian soldiers, and through images of impaled naked males. Such images would indicate that sometimes the nakedness of the defeated enemy in the Neo-Assyrian depictions of battle and siege signifies a sexual vulnerability absent in earlier iconography of war. Castration of enemy soldiers is not widely attested, but in one text (where he describes the siege and capture of Babylon after it rebelled against the Assyrians) Sennacherib says he removed the testicles of enemy soldiers (Annals of Sennacherib 46, lines 10–13).

These depictions of warfare in the royal inscriptions, steles, and the palace reliefs should not be taken as objective historical documents. They were intended first and foremost as works of political propaganda aimed at instilling fear and discouraging rebellion against the Assyrian kings. The wall sculptures of Neo-Assyrian kings such as Aššurnaṣirpal II took this propagandistic idea even further. Visiting kings and dignitaries would see huge representations of the Assyrians always victorious and the enemy always defeated, usually naked and dead, sometimes tortured. Members of the royal court would also be reminded of the power of the king and be encouraged through fear to remain loyal to him.

In contrast to the male captives and prisoners of war, the women captives who first appear in the first millennium b.c.e. in Assyrian wall reliefs are always clothed (though not always fully clothed). The women are usually depicted being led away in a group from their destroyed cities, often with children and sometimes even with some possessions in tow. Apart from one possible exception (a relief of Aššurbanipal that appears to depict the sexual assault of a foreign queen), captive women are usually not depicted as subject to sexual abuse; however, in one relief, the Balawat palace gate (constructed during the reign of Ashurnaṣirpal II), a group of women appears with exposed breasts and another with their skirts slightly hiked up, exposing the ankles, and, in some cases, the knees, perhaps indicating some type of sexual exposure with the intent to humiliate and perhaps express sexual availability. Generally, though, the women in these scenes are fully clothed and appear to be left unmolested. There are also no descriptions of sexual assault of women in any of the Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions.

This does not mean that women captives escaped sexual abuse. In the Neo-Assyrian vassal treaties, the curses often threaten that if the vassal king violated the treaty his wives and the wives of his nobles would be forcibly stripped and/or raped by an enemy. Another theme in the treaty curses is the sexual humiliation of men: “may your soldiers become women”; “may your king and soldiers become prostitutes in the city square.” This language suggests that while sexual abuse of prisoners of war and subject peoples was not described or depicted, it very likely occurred.

Conceptualizing Sexual Violence: The Ancient Near East versus Today.

Ancient Near Eastern cultures had a conception of sexual violence that at least in some ways resembles our own. Both women and men were understood as able to be coerced into sex and subject to other forms of sexual assault, abuse, and humiliation. However, these cultures did not presume that slaves could be raped by their owners or likely that a wife could be raped by her husband. A conception of rape and other forms of sexual assault as violations of personal sexual integrity is not well reflected in ancient Near Eastern sources. In the legal collections, the rape of women is usually treated primarily as an offense against their husbands or fathers, with the woman often receiving no compensation. In a few cases, though, women are given compensation, and in LH 156 the woman alone receives compensation, indicating some acknowledgment that the act of sexual assault was a violation against her personally. Little explicit evidence suggests an understanding of the trauma experienced by those who are survivors of rape and other forms of sexual assault. The effectiveness of the propaganda strategies employed by the Neo-Assyrian kings to keep their subjects in line, however, may provide indirect evidence: only if stripping, sexual mutilation, and sexual humiliation were deeply traumatizing would such images be effective.




  • Bahrani, Zainab. Women of Babylon: Gender and Representation in Mesopotamia. London: Routledge, 2001.
  • Chapman, Cynthia. The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2004.
  • Cifarelli, Megan. “Gesture and Alterity in the Art of Assurnasipal II of Assyria.” Art Bulletin 80 (1998): 210–228.
  • Cooper, J. S. “Virginity in Ancient Mesopotamia.” In Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East, Proceedings of the 47th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Helsinki, July 2–6, 2001, Part I, edited by S. Parpola and R. M. Whiting, pp. 91–112. Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2002.
  • Finkelstein, J. J. “Sex Offenses in Sumerian Laws.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 86 (1966): 355–372.
  • Gadotti, Alhena. “Why It Was Rape: The Conceptualization of Rape in Sumerian Literature.” Journal of American Oriental Society 129 (2009): 73–82.
  • Hoffner, Harry A. “Incest, Sodomy and Bestiality in the Ancient Near East.” In Orient and Occident: Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon on the Occasion of his Sixty-fifth Birthday, edited by Harry A. Hoffner, pp. 81–90. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag, 1973.
  • Lafont, Sophie. Femmes, Droit et Justice dans l’Antiquité orientale: Contribution à l’étude du droit pênal au Proche-Orient ancient. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999.
  • Lieck, Gwendolyn. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Nissinen, Martti. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective. Translated by Kirsi Stjerna. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.
  • Peled, Ilan. “Amore, more, ore, re…Sexual Terminology and Hittite Law.” In Pax Hethictica: Studies on the Hittites and Their Neighbors in Honour of Itamar Singer, edited by Yoram Cohen, Amir Gilan, and Jared L. Miller, pp. 247–260. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2010.
  • Roth, Martha T. Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995.
  • Scholz, Susanne. “‘Back Then It Was Legal’: The Epistemological Imbalance in Readings of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Rape Legislation.” Journal of Religion and Abuse 7 (2005): 5–35.
  • Scurlock, J. A. “But Was She Raped? A Verdict through Comparison.” NIN 4 (2003): 61–103.

Hilary Lipka

Hebrew Bible

Social scientists find that the incidence of sexual violence varies dramatically among cultures, historically and in the present. A continuum runs from those rare cultures where sexual violence is practically absent to the most “rape-prone” societies. Like most ancient Near Eastern cultures, ancient Israel tends toward the violent range of this continuum. Gender and sexuality are conceived in such a way that sexual coercion is not necessarily recognized as violence. Forced sex might be regarded as an economic offense rather than an assault. A notion of “sexual violence,” therefore, does not exist in biblical antiquity.

Biblical Terminology for Acts of Sexual Violence.

Biblical Hebrew has no term corresponding to the word “rape,” although most readers will recognize many accounts of the crime in the Hebrew Bible. The chief expressions for sexual intercourse in the Hebrew Bible are “to go into, penetrate,” (e.g., Gen 16:2) and “to lie, sleep with” (e.g., Lev 15:18; cf. English “go to bed with”). The grammatical subject of these verbs is uniformly masculine, with two exceptions: Lot’s daughters, who “lie with” their father (Gen 19:32–35), and Tamar, under imperative from Amnon: “Come, lie with me” (2 Sam 13:11).

The central Hebrew term related to sexual violence is the verb ʿanâ. Concretely the word signifies a state of being bent over, crouched, or bowed down. Figuratively, the verb conveys being weak, subjected, degraded, humiliated, and oppressed. Thirteen times a transitive form of this verb, ʿinnâ, occurs with a woman as the object: Genesis 16:6, 9; 31:50; 34:2; Deuteronomy 21:14; 22:24, 29; Judges 19:24, 25; and 2 Samuel 23:12, 14, 22, 32. Euphemistic translations such as “to humble, dishonor,” etc., obscure the fact that ʿinnâ typically refers to sexual coercion or violence and, in at least one instance, resistance (Tamar, 2 Sam 23).

The term ʿālal in its intensive forms denotes severe mistreatment, often sexual abuse (Exod 10:2; Num 22:29; Judg 19:25; Jer 38:19; 1 Chr 10:4). The verb ṭāḥan, “to grind,” is a graphic term for receptive intercourse, in the attested usage always coerced sex; for example: “[if I have sinned], then let my wife grind for another, and let other men kneel over her” (Job 31:9–10; cf. Isa 47:2; Lam 5:13; Judg 16:21). The verb šāgal, of obscure origin, evokes so stark a picture of sexual violence that the Masoretes consistently replace the word with the less disturbing term šākab, “to sleep with.” The word refers to the rape of women by conquering armies (Isa 13:16; Zech 14:2; see also Deut 28:30) and in Jeremiah 3:2 to a sexual act regarded as especially obscene (Gravett, 2004).

Legal Provisions.

The sanctions of Deuteronomy 22:22–29 regulate male-to-female sexual assault, but only in a circumscribed and tendentious way. Although the measures are sometimes referred to as “rape laws,” they are not intended to protect persons against sexual violence. Rather, the motivation of the laws is to secure men’s exclusive ownership of sexual access to women. The three cases presented in verses 23–24, 25–27, and 28–29 are best understood as a subset of the general law of adultery preceding them in verse 22, although the selection of cases seems haphazard. The laws sometimes acknowledge factors such as coercion, consent, or resistance, but the cases do not necessarily hinge on these aspects.

The first measure, regarding adultery, addresses the general situation in which “a man is caught lying with the wife of another man” (v. 22). The purpose of the law is simply to establish that a man’s possession of a woman by marriage is inviolate. In this case there is no consideration of the possibility that the woman might have been coerced or that she called for help or resisted, although these factors pertain in the subsequent cases (vv. 23–29). In such a case of adultery, the man and the woman alike are subject to the capital penalty.

In the case of the “engaged virgin,” where the sex occurs within the confines of a town, the woman is deemed presumptively guilty for failing to cry out to the townspeople for help (a gross presumption, vv. 23–24). She is summarily condemned along with the man. In the third case, an engaged woman, “seized” by a man in the open country, is exonerated because she “may have cried for help.” In this instance only the attacker is executed (vv. 25–27).

The fourth case exposes the rationale of the previous sanctions. Properly, when a woman is transferred from one household to another, money changes hands. If no man other than the father already “owns” a woman who is raped, a financial transaction makes the offended household whole (but not the woman). The assailant is obligated to pay to the woman’s father a bride-price of 50 shekels of silver and perhaps an additional sum as a fine. Additionally, the attacker must take the woman as wife, with no possibility of divorce (cf. Exod 22:16–17). This is a grim irony: a solution for sexual assault is the victim’s marriage to the attacker into perpetuity (22:28–29).

Deuteronomic law governs warfare, including the capture of women in battle. Many commentators regard these laws as humane measures intended to mitigate the brutality of warfare. The Israelites, for example, are to offer terms of peace before attacking a city, and they are not to destroy fruit-bearing trees (Deut 20:10, 19–20). Certain exemptions are granted to those who might be called up for battle. Thus, a man who has planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit should return home, “or he might die in the battle and another be first to enjoy its fruit” (Deut 20:6). Similar leave is given to a man who has built a house but not dedicated it or engaged a woman but not married her (Deut 20:5, 7).

Some interpreters also regard the law governing the capture of women in warfare as generous (Deut 21:10–14). The law provides that the combatant must marry the captured woman and afford her a full month period of mourning before initiating sex with her. Additionally, she is not to be sold as a slave. This law, some assert, precludes rape on the battlefield. Yet others maintain that the law simply regulates sexual coercion in the aftermath of war. A “full month” is not an ordinary interval for mourning. It may be that the man refrains from intercourse for a month to ensure that the woman’s menstrual cycle is completed, assuring his paternity of any children resulting from intercourse with her. In this light, the man’s treatment of the woman appears manipulative and coercive, not generous. It is striking that the reason for the sanction against selling the woman into slavery is that the man has “abused her” (Deut 21:14).

Biblical Accounts of Sexual Violence.

Two instances of sexual coercion frame the great flood narrative of Genesis chapters 6–8. First the “sons of God” (lesser divine beings who attend the heavenly court; cf. 1 Kgs 33:19; Job 1:6), “see” the women on earth and “take” for themselves all whom they wish (the collocation of the verbs, “to see” and “to take,” appears also in Shechem’s assault of Dinah; Gen 34:2). Second, after the flood, Noah falls asleep drunk in his tent and his son Ham “sees the nakedness” of his father (Gen 9:22). To “see the nakedness of” signifies incest in Leviticus 20:17, and “to uncover the nakedness of” is a generic term for intercourse (Lev 18:6; 20:18). Ham, therefore, has molested his father, Noah. Consequently, Ham’s son Canaan and his descendants are condemned to slavery (Gen 9:25–27).

In Genesis 19 two divine messengers, after receiving lavish attention from Sarah and Abraham, approach Lot’s city, Sodom. The men of the city demand that Lot turn over the visitors so that they may “know them” (v. 5). The context makes clear that sexual assault is their aim. Lot offers the men his two virgin daughters instead, but the men persist. Consequently, the messengers blast the attackers with blindness and destroy the city. Although this narrative eventually gave rise to the terms “sodomy” and “sodomite” with reference to male-to-male sex, the sex of the assailants’ would-be victims is not the decisive factor in Genesis 19. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Sodom is notorious for the general cruelty of its inhabitants and their arrogance and unwillingness to protect the vulnerable (Ezek 16:49; Isa 1:10–17; Amos 4:11; cf. Matt 10:15; Luke 10:12). Emphasis on sexual misdeeds at Sodom comes to the fore only in the latest biblical tradition and the Pseudepigrapha (e.g., 2 Pet 2:4–8; Jude 6–7; 2 En 10:4).

The story of Sarah’s slave Hagar certainly relates an instance of sexual coercion, if not sexual assault (Gen 16). Sarah, having no children, directs Abraham to “go into” Hagar so that Sarah might acquire a child (v. 2). When Hagar conceives, Sarah treats her abusively. Eventually Hagar escapes to the wilderness, where an angel of the Lord promises her a great progeny. Surrogate motherhood in the manner of Sarah and Hagar appears to have been an accepted practice in the ancient Near East. Nonetheless, many contemporary interpreters view the treatment of Hagar as domestic violence or sexual abuse.

The narrative of a Levite and his secondary wife in Judges 19 is a reflex of the Genesis 19 story, but with a gruesome outcome. When the woman escapes the Levite’s possession and returns to her father’s house in Bethlehem, the Levite retrieves her and travels north to Gibeah, where they lodge for the night. As at Sodom, the men of the town demand that the sojourner be put out of the house so they can rape him. This time the woman is released to the attackers. She endures a vicious overnight gang rape and dies at daybreak. The Levite dismembers the dead woman and sends the 12 pieces of her body throughout all Israel, issuing a call to war against Gibeah. The contrast of the two narratives—Lot being spared in the Genesis story, but the woman in Judges 19 murdered—perhaps illustrates women’s vulnerability in contrast to men’s relative safety from sexual violence.

Scholars debate whether Dinah, in Genesis 34, is the object of rape. Some maintain that Dinah’s fate is “appropriate” to the ancient Near Eastern group-oriented cultural context of the story. It is anachronistic, they assert, to impose upon the narrative a present-day concept of rape. This line of interpretation emphasizes the larger social transaction between Jacob and Hamor’s respective kinship groups. The bond between Shechem and Dinah creates, by proxy, a bond between the two social groups, although the bond is dissolved by the Israelites’ eventual massacre of the other group (Gen 34:25–31; Bechtel, 1994).

Others assert that it is necessary—ethically—to apply a present-day concept of rape to Dinah’s story precisely because there is no problematized notion of violence against women in biblical antiquity. In the biblical story Shechem assaults Dinah when she has gone out “to visit the women of the region” (v. 1). He sees her, takes her, penetrates, and humiliates her (v. 2; the final verb is innâ). Many present-day readers have little difficulty recognizing that Shechem rapes Dinah.

Royal Intrigue and Politics.

Sexual coercion and subterfuge frequently appear in biblical stories from the royal courts of the Ancient Near East. Joseph, for example, rises to the position of steward in the household of Potiphar, Pharaoh’s commander of the royal guard (Gen 39). Potiphar’s wife enjoins Joseph: “Lie with me” (v. 7). When Joseph resists, Potiphar’s wife frames him with a charge of assault, landing Joseph in the royal prison.

At the beginning of the book of Esther, the drunken King Ahasuerus demands that his queen Vashti display her beauty to his banquet guests (Esth 1:11). She is to appear before the king wearing the royal crown (likely only the crown, according to traditional readings). When Vashti refuses to be exposed, the enraged king banishes her, issuing an edict that all women in the kingdom must submit to their husbands’ authority. Exposure of women here is a ruthless means of subjugation. Judith, the hero of the book that bears her name, fights back against male domination. She gains access to the enemy commander Holofernes by deceit and the promise of sex. Inside the general’s tent, she waits until he falls into a drunken sleep and carries out a spectacular assassination.

The story of King David’s rise to power depicts a series of exchanges in which men obliquely consolidate their prestige by assaulting women who belong to their rivals. Abner’s intercourse with Saul’s concubine Rizpah, for example, exposes Ishbaal’s weakness in his inability to control sexual access to the women of his household (2 Sam 3:6–11). Likewise, Amnon’s rape of Tamar undermines Absalom and David’s honor (2 Sam 13:1–39). Adonijah, having lost the struggle for the throne, tries in vain to rehabilitate his standing by asking for David’s concubine Abishag (1 Kgs 2; Stone, 1996).


The ancient Near Eastern sources indicate that sexual assault was a common instrument of war. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, King Saul, pinned down in battle by Philistine archers, chooses death rather than risk abuse by enemy fighters. Saul says to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me” (2 Sam 30:4). The latter two verbs signify sexual assault. Facing the fall of Jerusalem, King Zedekiah dreads the same fate: “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, for I might be handed over to them and they would abuse me” (Jer 38:19). Lamentations decries sexual attacks upon women and men in the fallen city: “Women are raped in Zion, virgins in the towns of Judah…young men are compelled to grind, and boys stagger under loads of wood” (Lam 5:11, 13; cf. Job 30:11 for the sense of “grind.”). A taunt from the prophet Nahum alludes to the rape of defeated Assyrian soldiers: “Look at your troops; they are women in your midst!” (Nah 3:13); likewise Jeremiah: “The warriors of Babylon…have become women!” (Jer 51:30).

Several times the Hebrew Bible depicts large-scale, indiscriminate seizure of women by Israelite groups (Num 31:9–35; Judg 21:12–24). In these passages the Deuteronomic law of the war-captive woman does not appear to apply (Deut 24:1–10). In the scholarly literature on these texts, commentators variously refer to the capture of the women as “wife stealing,” “redistributing limited goods,” “forced marriage,” and “mass rape.” Interpreters disagree as to which of these terms are appropriate to the material.

In the Numbers 31 account, 32,000 captive women “who had not known a man by sleeping with him” are cataloged as plunder, along with the 675,000 sheep, 72,000 oxen, and 61,000 donkeys captured by the Israelites (Num 31:32–35). From a certain matter-of-fact vantage point, this is a commonplace example of ancient Near Eastern practices necessary to sustain a population. Other interpreters insist that these women are chattel, destined inevitably to endure sexual violence.

Daughter Zion: The Raped City.

In the Hebrew Bible, as in other ancient Near Eastern literatures, cities are frequently conceived in the figure of a woman: mother (Isa 66:8–13), queen (Isa 62:3), or virgin daughter (Isa 37:22), a woman married (Isa 62:5), widowed (Isa 47:8, 9; 54:4; Lam 1:1), and, not infrequently, a woman raped (Jer 6:1–8; 13:22; Isa 47:1–4; Nah 3:5–6). In the poetic language of the prophets, military invasions figure as sexual assaults, and God appears as a vengeful rapist. These texts are graphic; at times they reveal more about sexual violence in ancient Israel than do the prose texts surveyed above (Weems, 1995).

Jeremiah, envisioning an attack on Jerusalem by armies from the north, commingles the language of military siege and sexual assault. The invaders of the city “go into her,” crying out, “prepare war against her” (6:3–4). God berates Jerusalem:

It is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up,and you are violated…I myself will lift up your skirts over your face,and your shame will be seen.

(Jer 13:22, 26)

Nahum addresses the city of Nineveh in like terms:

I am against you, says the Lord of hosts,and I will lift up your skirts over your face;and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame.I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.

(Nah 3:5–6)

Isaiah directs similar abuse to Babylon:

Come down and sit in the dust, maiden daughter Babylon!Sit on the ground without a throne, daughter Chaldea!For you shall no more be called tender and delicate.Take the millstones and grind meal, remove your veil,strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers.Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your shame shall be seen.I will take vengeance, and I will spare no one.

(Isa 47:1–3)

Standard translations do not convey the raw quality of these passages. They portray degrading treatment, forceful stripping of women, rape, and murder. Numerous interpreters have described the material as “prophetic pornography” (e.g., Exum, 1996). Jeremiah 4:30–31, for example, focalizes the woman’s “beauty” along with the lethal impulses of those who punish her:

And you, O desolate one, what do you mean that you dress in crimson,that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,that you enlarge your eyes with paint?In vain you beautify yourself.Your lovers despise you; they seek your life.

(Jer 4:30)

Lamentations displays daughter Zion as a “mockery” (1:8; the Hebrew term evokes the word “unclean,” thus, menstruating):

Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future;her downfall was appalling, with none to comfort her.

(LAM 1:9)

Groaning, exposed, and abandoned, Daughter Zion laments that her attackers have prevailed over her. The language evokes a picture of the woman as not only ritually unclean, but also bleeding from the assault.

Ezekiel chapters 16 and 23 develop these motifs in vivid detail. God’s tirades, laced with lurid sexual imagery, hurl disgust upon the cities of Jerusalem and Samaria. The violence includes child abuse, the murder of children, destruction of homes, stripping, gang rape, mutilation of women, and stoning. There is little comfort in the momentary cessation of this violence: “So I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no more” (6:42). It is an eerie quiet, certain to be shattered by more spasms of violence, as the following chapters of the book bear out.

Hosea and Gomer.

The book of Hosea derives from northern traditions, not attached to the southern capital city of Jerusalem. In place of a city personified as a woman, Hosea’s “wife of whoredom,” Gomer, represents the land of Israel (1:2). The names of Gomer’s children, Lo-ruhamah (“No pity,” 1:6), and Lo-ammi (“Not my people,” 1:9), signify God’s rejection of the Israelite people. Hosea commands the children: “Plead with your mother… that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts” (2:2). He threatens to “strip her naked… expose her as in the day she was born… and kill her with thirst” (2:3). God will hedge in the woman and build a wall to contain her, strip the woman naked and devastate her (2:6, 9–12). The children receive no mercy. This picture coincides with the abuse detailed in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel: summary condemnation of the woman, sexual denigration, the hapless fate of the children, stripping and exposure, and murderous threats.

In the book of Hosea God’s disposition abruptly reverses: “Therefore I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her… there she shall respond as in the days of her youth” (2:14–15). The vocabulary here is telling: the term translated “allure” is usually rendered “seduce,” “entice,” or “deceive,” indicating sexual misuse. The phrase “speak tenderly to” (literally, “speak to the heart of”) is referred to two other women in the Hebrew Bible: Dinah, when she is raped by Shechem (Gen 34:3), and the Levite’s concubine (Judg 19:3).

It would be misleading to suggest that the sexual violence in these texts is only figurative. Although outside the prophetic literature there is scant biblical attestation of public stripping, exposure, and sexual assault of women, there is little doubt that these practices were well known in ancient Israel. The force of the prophets’ rhetoric derives from the audience’s familiarity with such scenes. These manifestations of violence against women are well attested in other ancient Near Eastern literatures. In some traditional societies they can be observed still in the early twenty-first century.




  • Abasili, Alexander I. “Was It Rape? The David and Bathsheba Pericope Re-examined.” Vetus Testamentum 61, no. 1 (2011): 1–15.
  • Anderson, Cheryl B. Women, Ideology, and Violence: Critical Theory and the Construction of Gender in the Book of the Covenant and the Deuteronomic Law. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.
  • Bal, Mieke. Murder and Difference: Gender, Genre, and Scholarship on Sisera’s Death. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
  • Bechtel, Lyn M. “What if Dinah Is Not Raped? (Genesis 34).” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 19, no. 62 (1994): 19–36.
  • Blyth, Caroline. The Narrative of Rape in Genesis 34: Interpreting Dinah’s Silence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. “Prophetic Pornography.” In Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women, pp. 101–128. London and New York: Continuum, 1996.
  • Fewell, Danna Nolan, and David M. Gunn. “Tipping the Balance: Sternberg’s Reader and the Rape of Dinah.” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 2 (1991): 193–211.
  • Gravett, Sandie. “Reading ‘Rape’ in the Hebrew Bible: A Consideration of Language.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28, no. 3 (2004): 279–299.
  • Keefe, Alice A. “Rapes of Women, Wars of Men,” Semeia 61 (1993): 79–97.
  • Niditch, Susan. “Eroticism and Death in the Tale of Jael.” In Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, edited by Peggy Day, pp. 43–57. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
  • Pressler, Carolyn. “Sexual Violence and Deuteronomic Law.” In A Feminist Companion to Exodus and Deuteronomy, edited by Athalya Brenner, pp. 102–112. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.
  • Scholz, Suzanne. Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.
  • Stone, Ken. Sex, Honor, and Power in the Deuteronomistic History. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
  • Thistlethwaite, Susan Brooks. “‘You May Enjoy the Spoil of Your Enemies’: Rape as a Biblical Metaphor for War.” Semeia 61 (1993): 59–75.
  • Washington, Harold C. “Violence and the Construction of Gender in the Hebrew Bible: A New Historicist Approach.” Biblical Interpretation 5, no. 4 (1997): 324–363.
  • Weems, Renita. Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1995.
  • van Wolde, Ellen. “Does ʿINNÂ Denote Rape? A Semantic Analysis of a Controversial Word.” Vetus Testamentum 52, no. 4 (2002): 528–544.

Harold C. Washington

Greek World

There has been an escalation in scholarly interest in sexual violence in ancient Greece since the late twentieth century, especially acts committed by males against females. According to Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (2011) interest in this topic was inspired by the attention given to rape by twentieth-century feminism. This interest led to scholarly debates on whether something similar to modern concepts of rape existed in antiquity, the extent to which the victim’s consent was a significant factor, the role of sexual violence within marriage, whether a female voice can be located in representations of sexual encounters, and whether sexual violence is a motivating factor for warfare. Many of the attempts to recover societal perceptions have focused on the interpretation of the relevant laws, particularly those of Athens. Other areas of focus include representations in art, myth, historiography, and drama, notably Menandrian comedy. Less attention has been paid to sexual violence against males, for which there are also fewer ancient sources.

The Concept of Rape.

It is clear from legal and literary evidence that there was a concept of sexual violence in antiquity, but it is far from clear whether this concept matched modern definitions of rape. There is no Greek word that corresponds directly with our term “rape,” and it has been proposed that looking for a concept of rape in antiquity risks anachronism and distortion of the evidence (Harris, 2004). While it is easy to find depictions of acts that we today might regard as rape, not least the array of mythological encounters between gods and young females, it is difficult to determine whether the ancient Greeks would have interpreted them as such. The Greek terms that are most often used in circumstances that from a modern perspective look like rape are bia and hybris, but these words have a wider semantic range, and any sexual connotation needs to be inferred from context (Rabinowitz, 2011). Bia covers physical violence and strength as well as sexual violence. Hybris denotes an act intended to dishonor another, typically but not invariably including violence (Harris, 2004). A sexual act that is an act of hybris is one that attacks the sexual honor of the victim, but it can include consensual sex such as adultery, which is conceived of as degrading to a woman’s husband (Cohen, 1991). Omitowoju (2002) has shown that the Athenian emphasis on male control over female kin rather than on female consent makes sexual violence in Athenian law significantly different from modern, consent-focused concepts.

Violent Responses to Sexual Offenses.

Lysias 1 (“On the Murder of Eratosthenes”), an oration dating to the early part of the fourth century B.C.E., has been used as key evidence for Athenian legal views of sexual violence and sexual behavior more broadly. Having recounted that he caught Eratosthenes in the act of having sex with his wife, the speaker, Euphiletus, claims that his decision to kill him on the spot was his legal and civic duty. The law of justifiable homicide upon which Euphiletus bases his defense exonerated a man who killed someone taken in intercourse with his wife, mother, sister, daughter, or concubine (Demosthenes 23.53; cf. Lysias 1.30). Although the homicide law does not differentiate between a violent or nonviolent sexual encounter, Euphiletus makes the case that seduction is more severe than coercion (Lysias 1.32–33). How to interpret this evidence has provoked a substantial debate over whether rape was perceived by the classical Athenians as a more or less serious offense than seduction. Edward Harris (1990) argues that Euphiletus misrepresents the laws in his own favor by suppressing certain details, such as the existence of alternative methods of dealing with an adulterer, including legal remedies, public humiliation, and fines. Yet he notes that, irrespective of the legal position, the sentiment regarding seduction being worse than coercion probably rang true for the Athenians of the jury. Christopher Carey (1995) and Daniel Ogden (1997) emphasize that sex through seduction would have been perceived as more serious because of the importance placed on protecting bloodlines by Athenian men. If a woman were raped she might be likely to denounce her attacker; if seduced she would be more likely to try to pass off any child as her husband’s with the result that an adulterine bastard might be introduced into the household.

The fear of infidelity by women of the household appears to have been a major preoccupation for Greek men, and in myth fierce responses typically follow any attempt at seducing a man’s female kin. The Homeric epics revolve around violent responses to the seduction of wives. The Odyssey culminates in the slaughter of the suitors who are wooing Penelope by Odysseus upon his return home. The Iliad portrays an army of Greek warriors intent on destroying the entire city of Troy in revenge for the abduction of one of their leader’s wives. In each of these plots it is apparent that the men concerned view the seduction of their wives as an offense to their honor that must be avenged. Women are constructed as passive figures fought over by proprietorial men. Assaults against women are interesting insofar as they are offenses against their male kin (McHardy, 2008). These myths go some way toward explaining why Euphiletus elected to kill his wife’s lover on the spot rather than taking him to court (McHardy, 2008).

Marital Rape.

As he was the “tyrant” in the house, a citizen man’s sexual access to his wife and slaves appears to have been largely unquestioned—or, at least, it is unlikely that domestic violence or violent sex with a man’s own wife or slaves would have resulted in legal action. Greek women were given in arranged marriages by their fathers or brothers, and a woman’s only recourse to action would have been through these male relatives. There was no legal concept of marital rape and perhaps no concept of marital rape per se. According to Jeffrey Henderson (1996), it is unlikely that forced sex with a wife would have been conceived of as rape, since sex within marriage would have been part of a wife’s duties and her obedience to her husband would have been expected. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (2011) suggests that the comic playwright Aristophanes alludes to the escalation of force and violence employed by a husband who wishes to assert his authority over his wife in his play Lysistrata (ca. 411 B.C.E.). In this play the women of Athens and Sparta undertake a sex strike in order to persuade their warring husbands to make peace. When the lead character Lysistrata proposes this plan to the other women, they express anxiety that their husbands will beat then and force them to have sex or will divorce them (Lysistrata 158–162). Lysistrata responds that men do not take pleasure out of forced sex (162–166). The power relations between men and women are reversed in this play, and men are shown capitulating to women because of their overwhelming desire for sex with their wives. The play makes use of the perceived sexual power of women over men to suggest that they have authority within marriage, but it is hinted that because this is the topsy-turvy world of comedy, control in marriage would actually have been the domain of Athenian husbands (Sommerstein, 1998).

Links between Rape and Marriage.

The concept that sexual violence and marriage are closely linked has been explored in various categories of evidence. Greek art at times uses imagery of sexual violence to depict marriage. Connections between rape and marriage are made by the female chorus of Aeschylus’s Suppliants (ca. 460s B.C.E.). In the play the daughters of Danaus have run away from home, seeking protection from forced marriage to their cousins. While the men consistently refer to their desire for marriage, the frightened women express their fear of male violence and force. Similarly, the author of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (possibly composed in the seventh century B.C.E.) portrays the abduction and forced marriage of Persephone—arranged by her father and uncle—as marriage from a male perspective, but rape from a female perspective. Rabinowitz (2011) has argued that the association of rape and marriage in Greek literary sources points to women’s lack of autonomy in their choices in life.

In Menandrian comedy, which was written and originally performed in the latter part of the fourth century B.C.E., sexual violence against a young woman leads to marriage so often as to amount to a cliché. Scholars are divided over how to interpret the prevalence of this particular plotline. Some have suggested that the plots are based on comic conventions and do not reflect real life in Athens. Others believe that an understanding of Athenian attitudes to sex can help explain what happens in the plays. David Cohen (1993) has suggested that sex between young unmarried couples in the plays is passed off as forced so that the reputation of the girl involved is not ruined. Alan Sommerstein (1998) contends that the plots may reflect a strategy drawn from real life where young couples can choose their own marriage partners rather than being given in arranged marriages. Susan Lape (2001) has claimed that the level of intoxication of the young men gives them an excuse for their behavior. Harris (2004) has suggested that to reach a satisfactory explanation it is necessary to reexamine the concept of sexual violence. In his view, the plays reveal that Athenians would have been sympathetic to a young man who sexually assaulted a young unmarried woman, provided that he was willing to make amends by marrying her. This is because the concern around sexual violence was not about the consent of the woman but about her prospects as a wife and mother. So while there were circumstances in which sexual attacks could precipitate extreme violent responses (for example having sex with another man’s wife), in other circumstances sexual violence would not have provoked outrage. For example, mythic attacks by gods that lead to pregnancy and the birth of heroes appear acceptable, as the sexual violence could be seen to have served a useful purpose.


Sexual violence has often been regarded as ancillary to warfare. However, some studies have explored the possibility that a key motivating factor was the enslaving of enemy women and their subsequent concubinage. According to Kathy Gaca (2011) sexual violence was an objective of a range of warfare types, notably predatory warfare, such as raids and hunting; parasitic warfare, where men take over the woman’s homeland (e.g., via colonization); and punitive warfare, such as that following the breaking of a truce. In all these types of warfare women are captured and used for labor and for reproduction. Fiona McHardy (2008) has used evolutionary approaches to argue that underlying Greek epic tales of wars over women, such as the Trojan War, which is said to be fought over the theft of Helen from Menelaus, is a competitive drive in men to secure female reproductive resources.

In The Iliad the warriors besieging Troy kill male combatants and seize their female relatives. Competition over these females is so intense that it precipitates a major quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon over who should take possession of Briseis, the female “prize” won by Achilles’s spear, causing Achilles to withdraw from fighting and the Greek war effort to be threatened. This epic and tragedies about the Trojan War, such as Euripides’s Hecuba (ca. 424 B.C.E.) and Trojan Women (415 B.C.E.), depict elite women captured in war becoming concubines of the men who have slaughtered their husbands and fathers. They would then be expected to have children with these men, as happens in Euripides’s Andromache (ca. 428–425 B.C.E.) and Sophocles’s Ajax (ca. 450–430 B.C.E.). In Seven against Thebes the women of Thebes, fearing defeat in war, speak of their fear of being captured, enslaved, and sexually conquered by the invading enemy. They equate this enslavement and sexual conquest to marriage through their use of vocabulary used in relation to Greek weddings. The blurring in these stories of enforced captivity and marriage parallels the blurring around sexual violence and marriage discussed in feminist critiques (Rabinowitz, 2011).

Women’s Experiences.

For some scholars, the numerous mythological encounters between gods and young females constitute an extreme manifestation of the unpleasantness of women’s lives in the patriarchal world of ancient Greece. James Robson (1997) has pointed to the humiliation of girls violated by gods disguised as beasts and has noted that many elect to commit suicide—an indication of despair at what they have suffered. For others, the evidence demonstrates that women could be understood to consent to, and even experience desire in, encounters that, from a modern perspective, look solely coercive. According to Mary Lefkowitz (1993), mythological encounters between gods and young females depict seduction rather than rape, because the gods sought to make the experiences pleasurable for their partners.

Some studies have argued that it is impossible to recover what ancient Greek women might actually have experienced in encounters that now appear violent and coercive. The goal, according to these scholars, should be to locate constructions of female desire in particular genres rather than to attempt to determine whether the sources can be taken as evidence of what women felt about coercive sex. Rabinowitz (2011) has argued (contra Lefkowitz, 1993) that the ambiguity in Euripides’s Ion (ca. 414–412 b.c.e.) between sexual violence and desire comes out of a cultural construction of female sexuality where coerced sex is represented as a female desire. Deacy (2013) has also explored interplays of desire/coercion and victimage/agency in mythological women’s narrations of encounters with gods, including Persephone’s account of her violent abduction by Hades in the Hymn to Demeter. She concludes that the desire and eroticism experienced by the girls in the flowery meadows from which they are “plucked” is not generated by the male gods who seize them but by themselves.

Sexual Violence against Men.

Evidence for sexual violence perpetrated by females upon males has been less studied, reflecting the limited evidence for sexually coercive females. The dawn goddess Eos was credited with an insatiable desire for sex (Apollodorus 1.4.4) that caused her to abduct young mortal males. Robin Osborne (1996) has argued that visual depictions of Eos’s abductions subverted the conventions of sexual relationships and inverted concepts of female desire to enable an exploration of female behavior that was inconceivable in everyday society. Lefkowitz (2002) has suggested that these scenes do not refer to anxieties around the dangers of female sexuality or reflect attitudes toward human sexual behavior, but instead depict the power of the immortals.

Male-on-male sexual violence is not overtly discussed by ancient authors, but could be used as a metaphor for military defeat. Cohen (1991, 1993) has discussed how the laws on hybris could have been used to prosecute cases of male rape; he sees this law as a possible recourse for those wishing to pursue men involved in cases of sex with minors in the absence of laws regarding statutory rape. While scholars have typically seen pederastic relationships in ancient Greece as ones in which boys are seduced through gifts and courtship rather than being forced, it is possible that young boys might have been more vulnerable to suffering sexual violence than young girls or have been expected to experience it as part of the transition from boyhood to maturity. Ephorus (mid-fourth century B.C.E.) refers to ritualized pederastic rape on Crete (Strabo, Geography 10.21.4). The exemplary pederastic relationship in Greek myth between Zeus and Ganymede comes about following the forcible abduction of the youth by the god (Apollodorus 3.12.2). Diverse feelings about homosexual rape are revealed in the sources on the forcible rape by Laius of Pelops’s son Chrysippus. Laius’s behavior was apparently considered understandable because of the exceptional beauty of his victim (Apollodorus 3.5.5). However, the boy’s father did not condone the action and reacted violently in response (Hyginus, Fabulae 85), and Hera’s fury at the Thebans’ toleration of Laius’s actions caused her to send the sphinx to ravage Thebes (schol. Eur. Phoen. 1760). As in cases of sexual violence against females, the sources focus on the power of the gods and of adult males in intimate relationships and reveal a significant degree of ambiguity concerning attitudes to sexual violence.




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Susan Deacy and Fiona McHardy

Roman World

In the ancient world, sexual violence was in large measure normalized and naturalized. It was condemned only when instances of sexual violence contravened other codes of value, such as honor associated with status and class. Thus, defining what constitutes sexual violence in the ancient world is not a question that can be solved by adopting an ancient definition. No such definition exists that corresponds to twenty-first-century understandings of sexual violence. The Latin verb stupro is variously translated as “rape,” “dishonor,” “defile,” “disgrace,” “ravish,” etc. The root of the English rape, namely rapere, connotes violent seizure of property, and although it may, within that connotation, indicate sexual violence, stupro is more common. Likewise, the Greek terms such as atimia and hybris set honor and dishonor as the primary continuum of virtue within which sexual activity has its moral valence.

Modern definitions of sexual violence such as that of the World Health Organization envision a social landscape different from that of Roman antiquity. As a definition of sexual violence, the World Health Organization offers “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work” (Krug, 2002, p. 149). To expand the scope of the present inquiry to comments in antiquity is not practicable. The modern focus in the use of the term “sexual violence” highlights a dignity that attaches to humanness itself, regardless of class, status, gender, or ethnicity, whereas the ancient terms described above have their function within a highly differentiated valuation of humans along axes of class, status, gender, and ethnicity. The focus in this essay is coercive sexual acts and coercive acts against a person’s sexuality or sexual functionality. Admittedly, this too amounts to organizing an account of the ancient world by means of a modern concept.

Within the Roman conception of sexual activity primarily understood as a hierarchical structure of penetrator and penetrated, three qualities are prominent: phallocentrism, aggression, and utility. “Phallocentrism” gestures to excessive representations of the penis in Roman art, sculpture, and vocabulary. The figure of Priapus—a minor fertility god sporting an enormous erection—adorned Roman houses and figured prominently in Roman comedy. The vast number of terms for the penis in Latin literature, in one account 120 distinct terms (Mattingly, 2010, p. 106), witnesses to the disproportionate focus on male genitalia, most often as an image of power, in Roman literature. The character of these representations is most often violent, with metaphors of weapons representing the penis (Mattingly, 2010, p. 106). In parallel, “metaphors of sexual intercourse are predominantly ones of striking, cutting, wounding, penetrating, digging, triumphing—typical soldiers’ work” (Mattingly, 2010, p. 106). Sex without aggression was nearly inconceivable. Finally, “utility” gestures to the basic verb of sexual intercourse: for a dominant partner to “use” a subordinate partner (Brooten, 1998, p. 245; Marchal, 2011, pp. 753–754).

When Paul writes that it is the will of God “that each one of you know how to take [ktasthai] a thing [skeuos] for himself in holiness and honor” ((1 Thess 4.4 lit.), the verb and the noun are as vague in Greek as in English. Skeuos indicates an item possessed for use value and ktasthai [from ktaomai] procuring or gaining from use. Whether Paul is referring to a person or masturbation is unclear, but the instrumental vision of sexual activity is plainly evident. Such utilitarian understanding of sexual activity abets the integration of sex and violence in Roman society. Romans and Greeks characteristically envisioned sexual activity as occurring in relationships of differential power. Conversely, power relations were also envisioned in sexual terms. Thus violence in the exercise of power was frequently sexual.

Maiming and Disfigurement.

To return to the World Health Organization’s definition, acts directed against a person’s sexuality and sexual function are instances of sexual violence. Forcible mutilation, modification, or maiming of the genitals of individuals in the ancient world clearly constitutes sexual violation. It seems likely that male slaves and subalterns were more susceptible than females to sexual maiming for three reasons: (1) the externality of male primary sexual organs, (2) the desirability, or even fungibility, of sexually unmaimed female slaves and subalterns in a “market” where wealthy males formed the primary source of demand, and (3) the anxiety of elite males over the sexual potential of their slaves and subalterns.

Male slaves were subject to the possibility of penile infibulation or castration. Penile infibulation involved stretching and piercing the foreskin of an uncircumsised penis and then employing a connector, in the form of thread, leather, or metal—a fibula—to prevent, or make excruciating, an erection. The purpose of this procedure was a regime of control, domination, and in some cases punishment of enslaved males. Aulus Cornelius Celsus narrates the procedure of infibulation:

"The foreskin covering the glans is stretched forwards and the point for perforation marked on each side with ink. Then the foreskin is let go. If the marks are drawn back over the glans too much has been included, and the marks should be placed further forward. If the glans is clear of them, their position is suitable for the pinning. Then the foreskin is transfixed at the marks by a threaded needle, and the ends so this thread are knotted together. Each day the thread is moved until the edges of the perforations have cicatrized. When this is assured the thread is withdrawn and a fibula inserted, and the lighter this is the better." (Celsus, De Medicina 7.25)

Martial and Juvenal frequently allude to infibulated slaves. There are no witnesses to voluntary infibulation by elite Roman males. Figures with an infibulated penis are also depicted in several extant ancient sculptures directly or in renaissance reproductions of no-longer-surviving originals.

Castration represents a more extreme position on the bodily modification continuum—ranging from hair cutting through tattooing to castration—to which male slaves, as the property of their owners, were subject. The procedure was intended to ensure docility, not only by physical means, but also by enacting permanently and crucially the prerogative of ownership (Joshel, 2010, pp. 40, 71, 97–98). The presence of eunuchs in Roman society—viewed by elites as a disturbing ambiguity—witnesses to the practice of castration and its enactment on those without the power to refuse it (Kuefler, 2001, p. 32). Martial’s epigram on the punishment of a slave for adultery gives a glimpse into the performance of castration within unequal power relationships:

"You have relations, boy Hyllus, with the wife of an armed tribune, and all the time are dreading only a boy’s punishment. Alas for you! in the midst of your enjoyments you will be gelded [castrabere]. You will reply “This is not permitted.” Well? Is what you are doing, Hyllus, permitted?" (Martial, Epigr. 2.60)

The circumstance Martial describes shows the conflation of status and sexual violence. Although the horror of castration is assumed to be forbidden by Roman law, the proscription has no force when a mere boy (puer, often indicating slave) offends a tribune. Having penetrated illegitimately the property (i.e., wife) of a citizen, the “boy” will be punished by a castration that would be illegitimate to practice on a citizen male. It was also practiced on slaves to increase their value for some tasks (Herodotus, Hist. 8.105). A passage in Herodotus also treats castration as punishment, narrating a scene in which a father and sons are forced to castrate each other (Hist. 8.104–106). Such abuse combines its effect on the individual with violence to the family lineage in terms of honor and physical person. The medical account of castration given in Paulus’s Epitomae medicae indicates that although the operation is in some ways improper, it is necessary for a surgeon to understand its correct practice because the powerful often forced surgeons to perform the operation (Brooten, 1998, p. 171n71). That the patient was at least equally under duress is a reasonable assumption.

Female genital mutilation seems less common although not unknown. It did not add value to slaves nor was it as technically feasible as the mutilation of males. Nevertheless, accounts of clitoridectomy survive in medical texts from the high empire. Soranos’s Gynaikeia gives instruction on a partial surgical removal of an excessively large clitoris (Brooten, 1998, pp. 162–169). Brooten has demonstrated that this is not a case of ritual clitoridectomy, but of a medicalized response to disposition and behavior transgressing social norms, preeminently in the usurpation of male sexual activeness that Romans understood as essential to female same-sex desire and practice. Fainter traces of clitoridectomy appear in Philoumenos and Strabo (Geogr. 17.2.5, 16.4.9; Brooten, 1998, pp. 169–173).

Women were also subject to maiming punishment, such as that described in Herodotus’s Histories 4.202 wherein the women of Barke had their breasts cut off in response to the death of Arkesilaos. Elsewhere Herodotus narrates another instance of this punishment on an individual level (Hist. 9.112). Such extremity of violence contravened Greek (and later Roman) ideals of elite self-mastery, but it is necessary to understand that the ideals of self-mastery were necessary, at least in part a result of the extremities of power that permitted horrific violence. Moreover, ideals of self-mastery held the most force in conditioning the public image of elite males in his dealings under the gaze of fellow citizens. The provinces, the front in war, and the privacy of the house offered fewer disincentives to extremes of violence. Maiming ranged the political scene of violence down to the domestic sphere where its prerogative was widely deployed, sometimes to permanent effect. Augustine recounts his mother’s attitude to a husband’s authority to beat to the point of disfigurement. She blamed the wife.

"As a result, while many matrons whose husbands were more gentle than hers bore the marks of blows on their disfigured faces, and would in private talk blame the behavior of their husbands, she would blame their tongues, admonishing them seriously—though in a jesting manner—that from the hour they heard what are called the matrimonial tablets read to them, they should think of them as instruments by which they were made servants. (Conf. 9.19.9)"

Christian views on spousal abuse evinced little if any difference from non-Christian attitudes.

Christian texts also participated in a worldview in which sexual maiming was normalized. In Paul’s discussion of circumcision in Galatians 5:12, he makes clear his wish that “those who unsettle you would castrate [apokopsontai] themselves.” Genital mutilation is Paul’s response in this case to disagreements among followers of Jesus. Similarly, his pun in Philippians 3:2–3 on “those who mutilate the flesh [katatomê]” and “we” who are the “circumcision” [peritomê] is difficult to set into compact English, but a close and brief rendering might be “beware of those who cut off, we are those who cut around.” Female sexual maiming is less common in Christian texts, but the story that inaugurates the Acts of Peter gives some sense of the way in which Christian values of sexual asceticism did not fully transform the idea of the female body as the instrumental property of the authoritative male. Peter’s daughter is paralyzed on one side, and he is challenged that, despite his miraculous healing powers, he has neglected his own daughter. Peter responds by healing her and inspiring the crowd to further praise of God, and then he revokes the healing and returns her to her infirmity. His explanation to the outraged crowd is that God warned him in a vision that she would be a great temptation to men should she remain healthy. The purpose of the infirmity is to make her unmarriageable. A fragmentary seduction story begins in the manuscript and makes it clear that sexual attractiveness and function is the matter at stake (Acts Pet. 1.128–135).

Sexual maiming was acceptable within the Roman world as long as the maimed party was other to the elite male: some combination of female, enslaved, or barbarian.

Coerced Sexual Action.

The habit of envisioning power relationships in sexual terms had effects in every sphere of human life, from politics on the widest scale down to acts of private imagination. Interpreting a scene on the Greek Eurymedon vase (R1155) that depicts a naked and erect Greek warrior approaching from behind a bent-over Persian archer, K. J. Dover (1978) reads the scene as saying, “We’ve buggered the Persians” (p. 105). From foreign war through domestic slavery to marriage or erotic lust, power was expressed through sexual coercion.

David Mattingly (2010) observes that “the psychological taint of sexual humiliation and degradation has been a powerful tool for sustaining social difference between rulers and ruled in many colonial societies” (p. 95). In the implementation of victory, entire cities were given over to soldiers to plunder. Rape of defeated populations was part of the likely condition of defeat. Literature occasionally records the rape of elite women, but seldom of nonelites (Livy 38.24.1–11). In the case of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, the rape of her daughters as reported by Tacitus was an enactment of sexual violence to put a subject population in its place by sexually dominating its elite women (Annals 14.31–35). Defeated soldiers were also subject to sexual violence. The phenomenon that the Eurymedon vase illustrates is demonstrated in Justinian’s Digest in a section recording legislation from the high Roman Empire that lists persons unable to bring accusations in court ( Among them are disreputable men who willingly have sex in a womanish way, that is, who are the receivers of penetration. An exception, however, is made for men who are raped [stupratus] by robbers or enemies. The assumption of the passage is clear: losing combatants (and those unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of highwaymen) will routinely be the recipients of sexual violence (Digest On a larger scale, conquest itself was portrayed visually in terms of sexual violence. In the Sebasteion of Aphrodisias, Claudius’s conquest of Britain and Nero’s of Armenia are depicted as a muscular military man—the emperor idealized and personifying the empire—physically dominating a naked or seminaked woman cast as the personification of the defeated nation (on this trope, see Lopez, 2008, pp. 43–45). “Phallic aggression” was the way in which Romans conceived the extension of their political hegemony. It was also the practical consequence of Roman victory at the local level of defeated populations, but in the longue durée the practice of enslavement subjected people to more enduring sexual violence.

Varro’s description of the slave as “a speaking tool” seems intended to encapsulate the contradiction of slavery: human and chattel (Agriculture 1.17.1). This contradiction is the factor that normalized the sexual use of slaves in the Roman Empire. Edmonson (2010) notes “it was simply taken for granted that part of the degradation of being a slave involved gratifying the sexual urges of one’s master” (p. 352). Artemidorus’s manual of dreams offers an interpretation of sex with one’s slave: the gender of the participants is not important, but who penetrates whom is. To dream of penetrating one’s slave indicates a dreamer in proper possession of his household. To dream of being penetrated by one’s slave indicates improper submission to a slave, just as one would be sexually violated by an enemy (Oneirocritica 88.5–12; see Richlin, 2006, p. 340). The sexual acts are not criticized; only the position of the dreamer within the implied hierarchy is significant. Prostitution as well was an industry that depended overwhelmingly on slave and subaltern labor. From the entourage that followed the Roman legions to the workers of the urban brothels, prostitution was never outlawed. Paul’s condemnation of having sexual relations with a prostitute in 1 Corinthians 6:15–16 criticizes the pollution to the client, not the morality of the endeavor. The sexual coercion endemic to prostitution was not the subject of moral critique in Paul’s time. Such sexual coercion was basic to the status of slave (Richlin, 2006, p. 349).

Christian admonitions to slaves cannot be taken apart from this context: witness the second-century command in Peter’s name: “Slaves, be submissive in all fear to your masters, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the crooked or perverted” (1 Pet 2:18 lit.). This advice could not function without reference to the practice of masters making sexual use of slaves. Likewise, the situation of Onesimus inferred from the letter to Philemon must include the master’s prerogative of the sexual use of slaves. Marchal (2011) has argued that the usefulness of Onesimus would include a “good for intercourse” (Phlm 26, 27 lit.) dimension that most interpretations of Philemon occlude (p. 761). To be a slave was to be socially dishonored, socially alienated, and fungible in every way (Stewart, 2012, pp. 50–53). Amy Richlin’s translation of a passage from the Petronius’s Satyricon highlights the condition of the slave: Trimalchio proclaims, “I was my master’s sex toy (ad delicias) for fourteen years. What the master orders is not shameful. I also serviced the mistress” (75.11). The last sentence, concerning the slave and the mistress, twists the knife in the sexual anxieties of the elite Roman male.

Christian texts advocating sexual renunciation do not fully escape this morality of sexual activity governed primarily by positions of class and power. The Acts of Andrew depict the struggles of the new Christian Maximilla to keep herself pure from the sexual advances of her non-Christian husband Aegeates. The sexual usability of slaves is the key to Maximilla’s strategy. Maximilla dresses her slave Eucleia as a dissimulating substitute for herself in sexual relations with her husband, the proconsul Aegeates. It is only Eucleia’s boasting among other slaves that eventually lets the truth of the matter out. As a result, Aegeates mutilates Eucleia, starves her, and has other slaves who know of his dishonor crucified. Maximilla’s deception has run its course, but there is no hint in the text that Maximilla’s treatment of slaves as sexual tools (speaking or unspeaking) should be criticized. The plot of this Christian narrative is built on the absolute normalcy of slaves as sexual objects deployed equally on behalf of the purposes of Christian or non-Christian owners (Acts Andr. 4.339–341).

The nonelite imagination of sexual relations is difficult to access, but Greek and Coptic magical papyri offer some view. In one example, a spirit is commissioned to fetch for a man a sexual partner. She is to be deprived of all abilities to eat, sleep, or concentrate until she comes to the client of the spell and fulfills his wishes; until that point the spirit is to “burn her guts, her breast, her liver, her breath, her bones, her marrow” (PGM IV.1496–1595). In the words of another magical spell, the desired disposition is that the fetched lover be “submissive” (hypotassomenên; PGM VII.593–619). Christian erotic spells work within the same understanding of love and sex. ACM 73 (Heidelberg Kopt 684) is set in the mouth of the famous North African bishop Cyprian. His spell curses its female object with the desire, agitation, and sleeplessness so common in Greco-Roman erotic spells and adds alienation from the father, son, and Holy Spirit. The spell adjures the Angel Gabriel (who is elsewhere put into this role for his success in getting Mary and Joseph together) to “hang her by the hair of her head and the lashes of her eyes. Bring her to him N son of N, in longing and desire, and she remains in them forever as you [Gabriel] brought the good news of the father to the pure virgin Mary as a true and actual message, so may the good news be come true and actual for me.” The second good news is a desirable woman brought to submission through every manner of agony.

At the extremity of Christian and Jewish imagination, the beginnings and the ends of the world, sexual coercion remained. In narratives of the beginnings of the world, the transgression of the watchers in Genesis and 1 Enoch set sexual violence at the origin of evil (Gen 6:1–4; 1 En. 6.1–9.11). Similarly, texts of demiurgical speculation such as the Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, and On the Origin of the World depict scenes of the rape of Eve or of Sophia to narrate the confusion of essences in the nature of humans and the dreadful transgression at the foundation of the human world. Eschatological texts such as Revelation deploy images of sexual violence to condemn its opponents and to communicate the judgment of the world (Marshall, 2010). Apocalypses attributed to Peter and Paul, as well as the Acts of Thomas, depict punishments corresponding to sexually unacceptable practices in their tours of hell (Brooten, 1998, pp. 303–314).


The Roman world was characterized by frequent and largely accepted sexual violence. Christianity showed at best a very limited power to modify these conditions. In many ways it reinforced them through the sacralization of codes of gender hierarchy and obedience in marriage. Although Christians self-consciously cultivated sexual virtue, Peter Brown (1988) notes that “clergy showed themselves as little prepared as the philosophers had been to overturn the institution of household slavery. By their hesitation on that issue, they doomed themselves from the outset to an honorable ineffectiveness on the issue of marital fidelity. Most infidelity took the form of sleeping with one’s own slaves: it was simply one assertion, among so many others, of the master’s power over the bodies of his dependents” (p. 23). The power dynamic to which Brown refers underwrote a wider scope of sexual violence than the particular coercion of sex with one’s own slaves. In its foundations, it was not substantially challenged or changed by Christianity in the Roman Empire.




  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
  • Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. London: Duckworth, 1978.
  • Edmondson, Jonathan. “Slavery and the Roman Family.” In The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Vol. 1, The Ancient Mediterranean World, edited by Keith Bradley and Paul Cartledge, pp. 337–361. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Joshel, Sandra R. Slavery in the Roman World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Krug, Etienne G., ed. World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2002.
  • Kuefler, Matthew. The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Lopez, Davina C. Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission. Paul in Critical Contexts. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.
  • Marchal, Joseph A. “The Usefulness of an Onesimus: The Sexual Use of Slaves and Paul’s Letter to Philemon.” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 4 (2011): 749–770.
  • Marshall, John W. “Gender and Empire: Sexualized Violence in John’s Anti-Imperial Apocalypse.” In Feminist Companion to the Apocalypse of John, edited by Amy-Jill Levine with Maria Mayo Robbins, pp. 17–32. New York: T&T Clark, 2010.
  • Mattingly, David J. Imperialism, Power, and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Richlin, Amy. “Sexuality in the Roman Empire.” In A Companion to the Roman Empire, edited by David S. Potter, pp. 327–353. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Stewart, Roberta. Plautus and Roman Slavery. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2012.

John W. Marshall

New Testament

In the New Testament, sexual violence is not overt but implied. Such violence is treated metaphorically (as in the subjection and burning of the “Whore of Babylon”; see Rev 18:9–19), or the possibility of such violence is revealed indirectly through models of submission to authority and the valorization of suffering with Christ (as in the household codes; see Eph 5:21–6:9 and 1 Peter 2:18–21). Thus, discussion about sexual violence in the New Testament requires interpreting texts within the sociohistorical context of the patriarchal culture of the first-century Roman Empire and applying modern sociological inquiries about sexual abuse and domestic violence in texts about adultery, divorce, prostitution, marriage, celibacy, and implications of pederasty.

In Roman antiquity, the male head of house had absolute authority (patria potestas) over the bodies of the members of his household, which included his wife, children, and slaves. Though Jewish culture also was based on a patriarchal model, Jewish constructions of fatherhood and sexual relationships did not emphasize complete dominance and entitlement. Within this context of often-conflicting gentile and Jewish values, the New Testament’s attitude toward sexuality and gender roles is, at times, ambiguous. Throughout the New Testament, the power dynamics of gender and sexuality fluctuate from idealizations of social equality to the re-inscription of traditional hierarchies of subservience, particularly for women and slaves, in a context of potential violence.

Patriarchal Society and Domestic Violence.

In Roman antiquity, one of the expressions of elite males’ social and economic power was sexual dominance. That the ancient construction of sexuality perceived the male as “penetrator” and the female as “penetrated” reveals active and passive roles conducive to male control over females (or over subordinate males who took the passive role of a female). Males could exercise their dominance and sexual entitlement by means of force, which by modern sensibilities would be considered sexual abuse or rape; in ancient times, however, such force was merely a dominant male’s prerogative.

The New Testament was written by and for people of a subordinate social and religious group (primarily Jewish) in the context of the imperial power of Hellenistic Rome. The nascent church frequently had to struggle with pressures to conform to both Jewish and gentile cultural ideals. The contextual ambiguity can be seen in several examples. On the one hand, Jesus included women among his followers and modeled a life of celibacy, adoptive kinship, and nonviolence, and the apostle Paul set forth an ideal of sexual mutuality (1 Cor 7), with gender equality in Christ (Gal 3:28). Paul also named women among apostles and his co-workers (e.g., Rom 16:1, 3, 6–7, 12, 15; Phil 4:2–3), and he used the metaphor of slavery as a model for all Christians to follow, while proclaiming master-slave equality in Christ (Gal 3:28; Phlm). (Such notions of equality were already present in some strands of nascent Judaism and in Greek philosophies.) On the other hand, Jesus’s inner circle of twelve disciples was all male, and Paul exhorted his congregations to follow some of the dominant culture’s gendered conventions of female subordination (1 Cor 11:3–16; 14:34–36). The deutero-Pauline and Catholic Epistles depict an even more hierarchical relationship between men, women, children, and slaves than do the undisputed letters of Paul.

That Paul apparently followed some of the hierarchical gender roles of his time, despite his exhortations to mutuality in marriage and his inclusion of women as church leaders, can be seen in his injunction that women wear head coverings in worship “because of the angels” (1 Cor 11:3–10). The meaning of this instruction has been much disputed: perhaps the sight of uncovered women was an offense to the angelic host believed to be present in worship (illustrated in the Qumran text Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice). Alternatively, uncovered women might be sexually tempting to these angels, prompting sexual violation (see Gen 6:1–4; 1 Enoch 6–7). Women’s sexuality seems to have been perceived as dangerous and provocative, something to be hidden from males and controlled by males (so that males would not lose control).

The household codes.

The haustafeln or “household rules” (Eph 5:22–6:9; Col 3:18–4:1; 1 Pet 2:11–3:12; see also 1 Cor 11:3, 11–12) define Christian domestic ideals that closely follow patriarchal Roman household mores, in which a wife, biological offspring, adoptees, and slaves are under the control of the male head of house. While there is evidence that a woman could be the matriarch of a household (Lydia in Acts 16:14–15), far more typical was the patriarch. In the era of the New Testament, the Roman emperor Augustus bore the title Pater Patriae (Father of the nation), an authoritative model for all socially and economically dominant men; in effect, each head of house was emperor of his domain. The paterfamilias had the authority, if he so desired, to use violence against members of his household. The first-century Roman moralist Valerius Maximus cites several illustrative stories of husbands’ violent punishment of their wives for various infractions, including drunkenness (Memorable Deeds and Sayings 6.3.9–12).

The hierarchy established by the dominant culture, mirrored in the household codes, provided opportunity for clandestine abuse. The ideals of the New Testament household codes are meant to guard against such abuse, because they call for mutual respect and love between husband and wife, benevolence to children and slaves, with the male head of house exhorted to mimic Christ in his self-giving love for the church. However, the language of headship gives the husband/father the sort of authority that can result in abuse, including sexual violence, toward women, children, and slaves. Because the New Testament tells wives to submit to their husbands, modern pastors and social workers counsel many battered women who refuse to leave abusive relationships. And, because of the idealistic situation portrayed by the New Testament household codes, many churches tend to overlook or blatantly ignore signs of sexual and domestic abuse.


The household codes also include injunctions aimed at slaves, exhorting them to be obedient and submissive to their masters. In a particularly difficult text, 1 Peter 2:18–21 says that slaves will receive credit for submitting to harsh masters, because when they endure unjust beatings, they are suffering in emulation of Christ. Feminist scholars have argued that the model of emulating the suffering of Christ justifies the violent abuse of those who take a subordinate role.

The household codes reflect the low social status of slaves, who are at the bottom of the Roman hierarchy. Slaves had neither personal rights nor ownership of their own bodies, and so were in a particularly vulnerable position physically as well as socially. In Roman culture, the head of household had sexual access to his slaves, both male and female. Modern readers would consider this sort of sexual dominance rape, but in the ancient world a slave did not have any personal rights and must obey his/her master or mistress in all things. A slave’s body was considered the master’s property, to be bought, sold, loaned, and used in whatever way the master saw fit.

Slaves could receive violent retribution for disobedience (which could include resisting sexual advances). Roman literature provides examples of the violent punishment of slaves for disobedience. In some cases, punishment involved impalement and crucifixion, so that the male prerogative to show dominance through penetration was translated metaphorically to piercing the flesh (impalement or crucifixion) in the slave’s execution.

Adultery and Divorce.

In the year 18 B.C.E., Octavian (Augustus) passed a law (lex Julia), which allowed fathers to kill their own daughters and their lovers caught in adultery, and under some circumstances, allowed husbands to kill their wives’ adulterous partners. The law was modified in 9 C.E. by the passage of the lex Papia Poppaea, yet it provides a clear iteration of the patriarch’s and husband’s power to arbitrate marital infractions and mete out punishment for sexual violations, a right that was not granted to women.

Jewish law had always forbidden adultery (Exod 20:14). The New Testament story of Joseph deciding to divorce Mary quietly, without public disgrace, when he believed she was guilty of adultery (Matt 1:19) demonstrates the possibility of nonviolent separation. The story of Jesus forgiving the adulterous woman (John 7:53–8:11) also provides an example of mercy and forgiveness, while illustrating a case of inequality of retribution against the male and female partners, as the story makes no mention of the man involved. (However, we do not know from this isolated example if the situation was normative.) In the context of the New Testament, both the Matthean and Johannine stories of suspected adultery illustrate that judgment and punishment were mainly a male prerogative. The same was true in Roman law and custom. A wife could not accuse her husband of adultery, but a husband or father could punish his wife or daughter, sometimes violently, for acts of adultery.A common result of adultery was divorce. In past generations of New Testament scholarship, divorce was portrayed as an act of violence against women: they were cast out to live in destitution, sometimes having to resort to prostitution. Recent scholarship has shown this scenario to be false. Jewish women had marriage contracts (ketuboth) that gave them legal rights to whatever money or goods they brought to the marriage. In the New Testament period, Roman women also had legal access to portions of the household wealth and could divorce their husbands. Thus, when Jesus forbids divorce ((Mark 10:2–9; Matt 19:3–9), he is not setting a new liberating standard for helpless women. Rather, he is reinforcing a much older value (Gen 2:24). In modern times, the New Testament injunction against divorce sometimes proves to be nonliberative and conducive to ongoing violence, when couples stay in abusive relationships.

Prostitution and Pornography.

The New Testament indicates the low social ranking of prostitutes, who were among the “sinners” and tax collectors, and other outcasts (Matt 21:31–32; Luke 15:30), although the prostitute Rahab is twice mentioned as a model of faith (Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25). It is a common misconception then and now that prostitutes choose to be prostitutes; the majority of women (or men) who turn to prostitution do so as a last resort when they cannot otherwise make a living. Except for an elite few, the typical prostitute has a very low income, poor healthcare, and suffers abuse from handlers and clients.

The Whore of Babylon.

The New Testament inherits the Old Testament attitude toward “whoredom” as the moral equivalent to adultery (e.g., Ezek 16; Hos 2), particularly in the book of Revelation. The Jewish-Christian author of Revelation compares the city of Rome to Babylon (a reference to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587/86 B.C.E.), and describes Babylon as a “whore” (pornē). Rome, pictured as “the great whore” (tēs pornēs tēs megalēs) is a grotesque, lascivious, obscenely wealthy, and powerful woman who persecutes the saints ((Rev 17:1–6). The writer of Revelation hopes for the destruction of the whore (Rome) and the victory of Christ; but his vision for this victory includes the sexually violent destruction of this female figure, who is stripped naked and burned with fire (Rev 17:16; 18:8–10; 19:3).

Artistic portrayals of the Whore of Babylon through the ages have accentuated her provocative sexual demeanor as she straddles a “beast” and raises her goblet of the saints’ blood. Some of the portrayals verge on the pornographic (the term “pornography” comes from the Greek word pornē, for prostitute, and porneia, for illicit sexual acts). Revelation’s description of her violent destruction is a spectacle that vindicates the bloody martyrdoms of Christians who have died under the Romans, but the fact that the violent imagery is directed at a highly sexualized female image reinscribes cultural assumptions that tolerate abuse of women, often based on misconceptions about the uncontrolled, dangerous sexuality of women. The violent abuse committed by God as jealous husband toward Israel as metaphorical wife who has prostituted herself or “whored” after other gods (Ezek 16) is echoed in the violent destruction of the Whore of Babylon, who is a symbol of idolatry. Within the context of patriarchal power, such exultation in the destruction of a woman (even a metaphorical one), by the authority of God, is dangerous to real women.


The book of Revelation also resorts to language of sexual violence in the treatment of Jezebel, a woman prophet from Thyatira (Rev. 2:20–23). Her real name is unknown, but she is called Jezebel to conjure the image of the idolatrous queen who opposed Elijah (1 Kgs 19:1–3; 21:23), and who, after painting her eyes, was thrown from a window, trampled, and eaten by dogs (2 Kgs 9:30–37). Revelation says the false prophetess Jezebel will be thrown, not out a window but onto a bed (an insinuation of rape), and her children will be murdered (Rev 2:22–23). While violent ends await other false prophets (Rev 19:2–21), only the two female opponents receive sexualized violent retribution.

Woman clothed with the sun.

A third female character, “the woman clothed with the sun” (who seems to be a symbol of the mother of Jesus), suffers sexual violence when she is pursued by a dragon while she is in labor (Rev 12:1–6). The imagery is symbolic of Rome’s threat to the church, but the woman’s vulnerability is couched in terms of sexual violence: a woman giving birth attracts pursuit and destruction. The dragon threatens to consume her child while she is in a most vulnerable situation and unable to flee; paradoxically, it is also a consummate moment of female sexuality, while she is giving life. Although she and her child are rescued, she must flee into the wilderness without her child (Rev 12:5–6).

The virgin church.

The book of Revelation associates life in the age to come, symbolized by the New Jerusalem, with the virginal purity of both men and women. The 144,000 virgin men who have not defiled themselves with women (Rev 14:3–4) and the bride of the Lamb (Rev 19:7; 21:2, 9–10) are virginal metaphors for the church. As the book of Revelation dispatches Jezebel and the Whore of Babylon in the context of implied rape, pornographic violence, and burning, it upholds a standard of virginity or sexual purity for those who are worthy to enter the wedding feast of the Lamb and the New Jerusalem. Thus, Revelation depicts female sexuality in terms of graphic violence or idealized purity, even as it depicts the triumphant church as the 144,000 virgin males entering the bride, which is, in itself, an implied sexual act. The Christian tradition of the perpetual virginity of the mother of Jesus (based on Matt 1; Luke 1) and Paul’s commendation of those who remain virgins (1 Cor 7) also contributes to the idealization of virginity.

Pederasty, Eunuchs, and Celibacy.

Pederasty was a common practice in the Greco-Roman world, except among Jews. An adult male might establish a patron-relationship with a youth. Part of this relationship was sexual. In modern times, such a relationship would be considered abusive and illegal, but in gentile Greco-Roman culture, it was common and accepted. However, Jewish culture perceived pederasty as sexual violence. Jesus advises his listeners that it is better to cut off an offending hand or foot or pluck out an eye than cause any of the “little ones” to stumble (Mark 9:42–48). While this saying can be interpreted metaphorically in reference to causing an innocent to sin, some scholars have suggested that it is a reference to pederasty. The punishment of cutting off “hand” or “foot” may then be regarded as euphemisms for genitalia. The harshness of the penalty infers the severity of the crime.Jesus’s instruction to “become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:12) refers to celibacy, rather than actual castration, and the saying does not involve sexual violence, self-inflicted or otherwise (although the third-century church father Origen apparently took the injunction literally). That the saying about becoming a eunuch is closely followed by Jesus’s instruction to become “like children” (Matt 19:13–15) reinforces the Matthean ideal of the formation of a nonreproductive “fictive” or theological family headed by God the Father. As Joseph adopts the infant Jesus into his family (Matt 1:20–21; 2:14, 20–21), and as the disciples are enjoined to call no one “father” but the Father in Heaven (Matt 23:9), the gospel suggests that adoptive—rather than biological—fatherhood is the new ideal in the Kingdom of Heaven. This policy of adoptive kinship under the fatherhood of God potentially undermines constructs of the patria potestas in favor of a more egalitarian community unburdened by concerns for keeping wealth in a biological family line, and without male notions of entitlement to sexual dominance and its related violence.When the apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth about matters of marriage and sexuality, he wishes they could all be as he is, most likely a reference to his being unmarried and celibate (1 Cor 7:7). Renunciation of marriage and family for the sake of a higher calling was already an ideal practiced by adherents of some Greek philosophies and some members of ascetic Jewish sects, such as the Essenes. Celibacy may have been a deterrent to sexual violence in some cases, but just as the high ideals of Christian marriage under the headship of Christ do not always deter domestic abuse, celibate communities can be a context for violence. The Roman Catholic church has had to admit that some celibate priests have committed acts of sexual abuse.

The New Testament and Implications of Sexual Violence for Today.

Although modern attitudes toward sexuality and gender equality have changed to some extent, and more women function as the head of house and as professional and lay leaders in the church, Christian culture remains predominantly patriarchal, and biblical authority is a means of enforcing this worldview. Domestic violence, sexual violence toward women and children, abuse of prostitutes, and pornography that depicts violence against both males and females remain common phenomena in today’s society.

The New Testament does not condone domestic violence or sexual abuse, but the authority of the church and the domestic hierarchy promoted in many New Testament texts causes some victims of sexual violence to be silent about their abusers, especially when those abusers are husbands, pastors, or priests. Because of its injunctions for women to be subordinate and not to divorce, domestic abuse and sexual violence occur in Christian congregations and families, despite the church’s high ideals and best intentions. The New Testament’s lascivious depictions of Jezebel and the Whore of Babylon contribute to disparagement of prostitutes and toleration of violence against women. In addition, children, women, and men are victims of a worldwide black-market trade in sex slaves that thrives, largely without intervention from the church.




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Marianne Blickenstaff

Early Judaism

Postexilic Jewish texts from the Apocrypha through rabbinic literature adhere to the biblical precedent of viewing sexual violence through the perspective of a female’s primary male kin, whether her father, husband, or fiancé. In Jewish apocryphal, apocalyptic, and sectarian texts from Qumran, sexual violence becomes increasingly framed in terms of intermarriage and national interests. In late antique legal writings, sexual violence is discussed primarily in terms of the resultant economic damage to the father (the default custodian of a female until she is married), as well as in contexts relating to the validity of marriage initiated by rape or abduction rather than by negotiated contract. The rabbinic sages follow the deuteronomic trend of shifting legal authority over adjudicating sexual offenses from fathers, fiancés, and husbands to civil authorities like themselves.

Key Vocabulary.

Biblical Hebrew lacks a word that signifies rape. Innâ, meaning to degrade, disgrace, or abuse, is the word that comes closest. Innâ is used in descriptions of Sarai’s treatment of the concubine Hagar (Gen 16:6), Dinah’s experience at the hands of Shechem (Gen 34:2), and Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar (2 Sam 13:12–14). The Damascus document (4Q270 Fragment 4, line 3b; ca. second century B.C.E.) is the earliest text to employ the verbal form in Aramaic to denote specifically the act of raping a female. This connotation of the verb, confined to the Hebrew use, becomes common in rabbinic literature (Talshir, 2003, p. 217).

Key Texts.

Apart from the ancient legal sources that rewrite or synthesize biblical law, early Jewish interpretive literature and legal writings have occasion to discuss sexual violence only indirectly. Various early Jewish texts like Judith, Jubilees, Maccabees, the Testament of Levi, and Josephus rewrite and recount the biblical narrative of Shechem’s rape of Dinah (Gen 34). The story enabled ancient interpreters to discuss their perceptions of sexual transgression and its consequences. Most of them placed Simeon’s and Levi’s violent response to the rape of their sister in terms of an injustice inflicted on Israel as a whole. Subsequent Jewish legal material is concerned with determining the obligations falling on the perpetrators who forced sex upon women.

Historical Background.

Sexual violence is taken for granted in societies where only a minority is afforded the privileges of self-determination. This complicates the analysis of sexual violence, especially because extant texts are written from the perspective of those least likely to suffer it. The perspective of victims of sexual violence is absent from early Jewish sources. While it is likely that males and females suffered from sexual violence in antiquity, early Jewish sources attest only to its occurrence against minor males and females of all ages.

As Tal Ilan points out, one of the implicit assumptions in androcentric societies, including rabbinic Jewish society, is that “women who are raped begin by resisting the attacker but eventually even they enjoy the act” (Ilan, 2006, p. 185; cf. y. Soṭah 4:5, 19d). In the Tosefta (roughly contemporaneous with the Mishnah, ca. 200 C.E.), a brief statement captures the rabbis pondering this matter: “the one who rapes and the one who seduces—What is the difference between rape and seduction? In rape he pays damages for pain, in seduction he does not pay damages for pain; Rabbi Shimon said neither [the rapist nor the seducer] pay damages for pain because it [the pain of intercourse] is inevitable. They said to him, there is no comparison between one who is taken willingly and one who is taken against her will” (t. Ketub. 3:8 lit.).

Second Temple Period Texts.

The Temple Scroll (150–125 B.C.E.), recovered from the library of the sectarian community in Qumran, is the earliest legal document that records rulings on sexual violence and its repercussions (Temple Scroll, 11Q19, column LXVI [= fragment 15–20], line 8). Synthesizing the laws on seducing a virgin from Exodus 22:15–16 and the laws on raping a virgin from Deuteronomy 22:23–29, the Temple Scroll states: “If a man violates a young virgin who is not betrothed, and she suits him according to the Law and he lies with her and they are discovered, the man who lay with her will give the girl’s father fifty silver shekels and she will be his wife, since (he raped her), and he cannot dismiss her all her life” (Martinez and Tigchelaar, 2000, p. 1052). The legal materials would leave the impression that rape is only an issue that affects marriageable young females, and, in particular, their fathers.

Michael Satlow has suggested that seduction and rape were alternative social institutions in the honor/shame based society of ancient Israel that allowed couples to marry against their parents’ wishes without causing family rupture and allowing the parents to maintain a sense of family honor (2001, p. 124–132). So, if a father forbade a couple to marry, then a young woman could claim to have been seduced or raped and thus contract marriage without the father’s permission.

Perhaps the earliest mention of sexual violence in a literary context is in the apocryphal book of Judith (200–100 B.C.E.). The protagonist declares she is a descendant of the tribe of Simeon and proudly invokes her ancestor’s response to the perpetrators of the rape of Dinah, here understood as all the townsmen of Shechem. “Judith cried out to the Lord with a loud voice, and said: ‘O Lord God of my ancestor Simeon, to whom You gave a sword to take revenge on those strangers who had torn off a virgin’s clothing to defile her, and exposed her thighs to put her to shame, and polluted her womb to disgrace her; for you said, ‘It shall not be done’—yet they did it” ((Jdt 9:1–2). According to this tradition, the entire town participated in the rape of Dinah. This explains the collective punishment of Shechem, which merited the punishment of death on the basis of gentiles (“strangers”) who threatened the integrity of Israel. Israel is threatened in precisely this way in the book of Judith. The antagonist Holofernes voices the intent to rape Judith. “For it would be a disgrace if we let such a woman go without having intercourse with her. If we do not seduce her, she will laugh at us” (Jdt 12:12).

In the Testament of Levi, Levi explains that he was zealous to kill the Shechemites not only because Shechem had violated his sister but also because the whole city was guilty of attempted rape throughout the generations. “[The townspeople] wanted to do the same thing to Sarah and Rebecca that they did to Dinah our sister” and “this is how they treated the nomadic people, seizing their wives and murdering them” (Testament of Levi 6:8–9, 10–11; trans. Charlesworth, 1983, vol. 1, p. 790). Again the threat of rape is magnified to an existential threat to Israel.

The Book of Jubilees (125–100 B.C.E.) makes this perspective on rape most explicit as it describes the rape of Dinah, recounts Simeon’s and Levi’s revenge, and ends with an exhortation about intermarriage: “And you, Moses, command the children of Israel and exhort them not to give any of their daughters to the gentiles and not to take for their sons any of the daughters of the gentiles because that is contemptible before the Lord” (Jubilees 30:11–12; trans. Charlesworth, 1983, vol. 2, p. 113).

In his retelling of the biblical account, the Jewish historian Josephus (first century C.E.), also discusses the rape of Dinah in terms of marital relations with foreigners (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1:337–338).

Translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic for recitation in synagogues in Palestine also stressed the ethnic dimension of the rape of Dinah: “…it is fitting that they should say in the congregations of Israel and in their schoolhouse: ‘Uncircumcised were slain on account of a virgin and servers of idols because they defiled Dinah, the daughter of Jacob…’” (Targum Neophyti Genesis 34:31; McNamara, 1992, p. 164).

What is notable about all of these rewritten biblical stories from the Second Temple period is that Dinah’s experience of sexual violence is not the authors’ concern; rather the implications of such a marital relationship for the Jewish people as a whole is foregrounded.

Because intermarriage was such a widely deplored transgression, later Jewish interpreters like the rabbis struggled to explain Esther’s marriage to the Persian king Ahasuerus (Esth 3:17).). The section of the Babylonian Talmud tractate Megillah known as the Esther Midrash (10b–17a) asserts that Esther was married to Mordecai and that Esther’s sexual relations with the king were not consensual. Further exonerating her, the sage Abaye is quoted as saying that she was “like natural ground,” i.e., utterly passive (b. Sanh. 74b).

The brief biblical account about Reuben and Jacob’s concubine Bilhah becomes a story of sexual violence in later Jewish interpretation as well. In the Book of Jubilees (33:1–20) Reuben violates Bilhah while she sleeps. However, the author of Jubilees explicitly frames the crime as that of incest alone—the crime of a son illicitly engaging in sexual relations with his father’s concubine. The text warns future generations of Jews that this crime is punishable by death to both parties. The sexual assault of a lower-status woman is not the text’s concern.

Similarly, the Testament of Reuben, which shares source material with the Book of Jubilees, retells this episode (chs. 3–4) but casts it as an example of the general evils of women. The testament shifts some of the blame to Bilhah herself who, according to this version, was drunk and sleeping naked when Reuben came upon her, thus inviting the male gaze that led to sexual relations (Rosen-Zvi, 2006).

Likewise, Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities (also known as Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum) recounts the gruesome gang rape and death of the Levite’s concubine at Gibeah ((Judg 19:1–30).). It blames the victim for her end, stating that she had previously engaged in sexual relations with the Amalekites (LAB 45:3). Attention thus shifts from sexual violence to the crimes of idolatry and intermarriage.

In contrast, the historian Josephus was embarrassed by the brutality of the biblical story and made great effort to smooth out its rough edges (Antiquities 5.136). In his version, the concubine is the wife of the Levite. She dies of her own shame, expecting that her husband will hold her responsible for the sexual violence she endured.

The translation into Greek of the Book of Daniel for the Hellenistic Jewish communities of the Eastern Mediterranean prompted a few additions to the original text, including the story of Susanna, a pious Jewess, threatened with rape who manages to escape the sexual advances of two esteemed men in her community (Bar Ilan, 1998).

Texts after the Jewish Revolt and Early Legal Writings.

Pseudepigraphic texts written in the aftermath of the second Jewish revolt (66–70 C.E.) make mention of rape of virgins and wives as part of the devastation of war. So 4 Ezra: “For you see that our sanctuary has been laid waste….our free men have suffered abuse, our priests have been burned to death, our Levites have gone into captivity, our virgins have been defiled, and our wives have been ravished…” ((4 Ezra 10:22–23; trans. Charlesworth, 1983, vol. 1, pp. 546–547). Here, as elsewhere, rape is only conceived as a crime against virgins or wives.

Two Baruch (early second century C.E.), in its list of twelve calamities that will befall Israel before the coming of the messiah, names the tenth as the time of “rape and much violence” ((2 Bar 27:11; trans. Charlesworth, 1983, vol. 1, p. 630).

A tradition preserved in the legal code of the Mishnah (ca. 200 C.E.) may reflect the historical experience of Jews living in wartorn Palestine between the first revolt in 66 C.E. and the second Jewish revolt in 132 C.E.: “If gentiles said to many women, ‘give us one from among you that we may defile her, and if not we will defile you all’, let them defile them all, but let them not betray to them one soul from Israel” (m. Ter. 8.12, trans. Danby, 1938). Whereas some have seen in this statement an allusion to Roman persecution of the Jews during their revolts, David Daube (1965) argues that such a scenario would be unbecoming of the disciplined Roman army and more likely reflects the criminal attitude of men operating outside the law. The legal background informing the Mishnah’s position on handing over a woman to gentiles probably derives from Deuteronomy 24:7, the prohibition on selling a fellow Israelite to others.

In the Mishnah’s tractate on marriage contracts (Ketubbot), girls and women remain akin to property of fathers, brothers, and husbands, and their word regarding their own sexual experience is still considered suspect. Here the Mishnah distinguishes between seduced females who are of a certain status due to their presumed virginity and those women of marginal status (the female proselyte, captive, or redeemed bondwoman) whose lack of virginity is relatively certain and thus are not protected from sexual coercion by the threat of a fine (Ketub. 3:2). This section of the Mishnah also fills in a lacuna left by Leviticus 18:6–20 and 20:10–21—the lists of people forbidden from sexual relations—which strikingly omits daughters (Wegner, 1988).

In its legal discussions of seduction and rape, the Mishnah enumerates four legal categories for females: 1) those under the age of three (until which age the rabbis believed a ruptured hymen could regrow), 2) minors between the age of three and nine and a day, 3) a girl between nine and a day and twelve and a half, and 4) beyond girlhood after the age of twelve and a half. The Mishnah also distinguishes the types of compensation a father of a seduced or raped girl receives. For rape, they uphold the biblically prescribed fine as well as adding compensation for indignity, blemish, and pain. If the rape and the resultant legal process take place after a female reaches maturity, she receives the compensation (m. Ketub. 4:1).

Elsewhere the Mishnah states that “it is all one whether a man violated or seduced a woman from among the greatest of the priestly stock or the least in Israel: he must pay fifty selas; but compensation for indignity and for blemish is in accordance with [the condition of life of] him that inflicts the indignity and her that suffers the indignity” (m. ʿArak. 3:4). In Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah, Judith Romney Wegner (1988) highlights the equivalent fines assessed of men who rape or seduce virgins. She explains that for the rabbis the loss of a women’s virginity under whatever circumstance is perceived solely as an economic disadvantage to the father of the victim. In their legal rulings on this topic, she notes that the rabbis were somewhat limited by explicit biblical prescriptions that left no room for maneuver (unlike dowries, which could go to the woman herself by the time of the composition of the Mishnah). Still, Wegner asserts that the “perception of the violated girl as damaged goods takes no account of her as a person. Above all it ignores the greater heinousness of rape as compared with seduction; the suffering of the victim does not affect the criminal penalty” (Wegner, 1988, p. 24).

Talmudic Texts (Fourth–Sixth Century C.E.).

In their interpretations of the biblical laws on rape and seductions in the volumes of the Talmud, the sages introduce legislation that marginally improves women’s status in cases of rape (e.g., their legal rulings sometimes confirm that victims of sexual violence merit monetary compensation themselves; see Ketub. 42a–43b), but most of their discussions of cases of abduction and rape center on the nature of the established marital bonds (i.e., the obligations now resting on the new male owner of the woman) and the legal implications for divorce should it arise. The biblical presumption was that sex, even coerced, created a marital bond. Where the biblical law constrained the seducer or rapist of an Israelite virgin to pay the full bride price for her and marry her without the possibility of divorce, the rabbis added the caveat that the rapist could not marry her against her or father’s will (see b. Qidd. 44a; Yebam. 19b).

Michael Satlow argues, “Rabbinic law makes the cryptic biblical laws workable: it gives the father the same power of veto over the marriage of his raped or seduced minor daughter; it limits marriages based on seduction or rape to those whom the rabbis deem to be legally capable of marriage to each other; it takes into account relative social standing for the payment of torts: and it assumes that the father will approve, and that a man will marry the girl he raped” (2001, p. 128).

Yifat Monnickendam (2011) has collected and analyzed the sources on rape and marriage customs in Palestinian and Babylonian sources and concluded that rabbinic authorities strove whenever possible to invalidate rape and abduction of virgins as means for contracting marriage, consolidating marital law as an area of rabbinic jurisdiction.

The rabbis also address the issue of coerced sex in marriage. Wives are obligated to have intercourse with their husbands, and though a husband may force his wife to submit to sexual relations, most rabbis advise against it (b. ʿErub. 100b).

Some versions of Toledot Yeshu, an early medieval satire of Jesus’s life, include descriptions of how his mother Mary conceived him. The narrators generally chose to exonerate Mary of any wrongdoing by describing her as a pious Jewess, unmarried or betrothed, who is raped and becomes pregnant with Jesus. Aside from Bilhah in Jubilees, it is the only Jewish document that includes a woman’s poignant protestations against the experience of rape (Gager and Ahuvia, 2013). Of course, these detailed descriptions have more to do with ridiculing the Christians’ foundational event than presenting a woman’s perspective on coerced sex or sexual violence.

The potential for sexual violence by men against boys is mentioned in the Talmud but is apparently without legal repercussions if the boy is below the age of three or nine, depending on which authority is cited (b. Sanh. 54b).

Modern Debates Regarding the Materials and Categories.

The concept of sexual violence is problematic for antiquity. Where most people were powerless, compulsion and its attendant violence permeated society in a way that is difficult for people in the modern West to comprehend. As Rachel Adler points out, “what modern Jews consider heinous sexual crimes carried no criminal penalties in these earlier Judaisms” (1998, p. 130). Summing up the cognitive dissonance between present and past, she writes that in “social contexts where women are regarded more as people than as commodities, rape is defined by the experience of the victim. Hence, contemporary thinking about rape emphasizes the terror, violation, and degradation experienced by its victims. But where all sexual intercourse is viewed [by men] as an expression of dominance and submission, rape seems more normal; it is simply an improper method of acquisition” (p. 130). This interpretation is in line with Monnickendam’s observations that the rabbis sought to annul actions that would circumvent their own legal guidelines for marriage (2011).

Thus, sexual violence and its legal consequences are only discussed for a narrow subsection of the population. Against minor boys, captive women, and slaves it was taken for granted.

Jacob Neusner (1998) and Judith Hauptman (1998) emphasize the improvements of rabbinic law over biblical law in the handling of sexual violence and in the treatment of women in particular. As Hauptman writes, in the Mishnah the rabbis place sexual violence in the realm of civil misdemeanors, thus making them more progressive than earlier biblical law that punished rapists with marriage to the victim. Others, like Wegner (1988), conclude that Jewish legal materials on sexual violence reflect a reality where females were treated like chattel, not full human beings.

As mentioned above, Satlow hypothesizes that rape was an alternative social institution that allowed couples to create their own bonds without shaming their parents. Historian Tal Ilan calls this theory “male fantasy that completely ignores the real dangers of rape and the extremely traumatic character of biblical and postbiblical rape laws primarily for the raped woman—who is now compelled to marry the rapist” (2004, p. 356).

Overall, early Jewish sources do not permit access to victims’ experiences of sexual violence. They reveal what men in certain contexts thought, composed, and transmitted, but not a revealing portrait of individuals’ experiences.




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Mika Ahuvia

Early Church

Christian communities developed within cultures that held long-standing views about sexual violence. Forcible intercourse with a woman was viewed primarily as a crime against her father or husband. Often there was no legal distinction between consensual and forced sexual relations. Unmarried female victims frequently had to marry their rapists. Male victims of homosexual rape could be deprived of the right to participate in civic life. Human trafficking, prostitution, sexual exploitation of male and female slaves, and the abuse of prisoners were tolerated.

For Christians and non-Christians alike, the honor of a woman and her family was assessed in terms of her chastity and modesty. A respectable woman was expected to have pudor, Latin for “modesty” and “shame.” Sexually available women such as female slaves, prostitutes, and musicians were viewed as lacking pudor. A woman from an upstanding family was expected to be a virgin prior to marriage and sexually faithful to her husband within marriage. Sexual contact—or the suspicion of sexual contact—threatened her honor, even if she did not consent. In a well-known Roman story, the matron Lucretia was sexually assaulted by Sextus Tarquinius (sixth century B.C.E.) and restored her honor by committing suicide.

Christian experiences of sexual violence during persecution, martyrdom, and warfare caused some authors to challenge traditional beliefs about victims’ dishonor, arguing that victims retained their innocence and honor. Others believed it was virtually impossible for heterosexual rape to occur without victims provoking it, consenting to it, enjoying it, or sinning in some way.

Ancient Laws and Terminology.

Studying sexual violence in antiquity is complicated by differences between ancient and modern understandings about sexual abuse. Reliance on translations of ancient texts, especially outdated translations, can compound the confusion. In Roman law, stuprum (“disgrace,” “defilement”) referred to unlawful sexual relations outside marriage, particularly fornication. The Greek equivalent of stuprum was phthora (“corruption”). Stuprum was usually not used for a man’s sexual use of his own slave, a lower-status concubine, or a prostitute. The Latin term closest in meaning to modern concepts of “rape” (defined herein as forcible vaginal, anal, or oral sexual penetration) is per vim stuprum, “defilement by force.” Sometimes violare (“to violate”) was used to refer to forcible intercourse, but it could also denote illicit sexual relations without coercion or force. Laws varied at different times and places, but, depending on the victim’s social standing, per vim stuprum could be punished by execution, exile, fines paid to the victim’s family, or forfeiture of property. Frequently, to salvage family honor, an unmarried victim’s parents chose to marry her to her rapist rather than prosecuting him.

Raptus, the Latin cognate of the English word “rape,” means theft of property or abduction of a person. The Greek equivalent was harpagē. Whether or not sexual assault occurred, abducted women usually experienced dishonor and social shame. Frequently men abducted and raped prospective brides to force families to consent to the marriage. Raptus also referred to cases where a woman left with another person voluntarily, without the consent of her father or guardian. A man who eloped with a woman without her father’s consent was guilty of raptus. Thus it is difficult for modern historians to accurately distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual cases of raptus.

Civil law imposed harsh penalties for abductors and sometimes for victims as well. In Codex Theodosianus 9.24.1, a law enacted in 326 C.E., Emperor Constantine decreed capital punishment for both perpetrators and victims, stating that the women were to blame for venturing outdoors. The law asserted that even if the abductor broke down the door and seized a woman who was inside her home, she could have prevented abduction by physical resistance or screaming for help. In cases of forcible abduction, this law allowed for a lesser penalty for victims, who were deprived of inheritances rather than executed. Later laws, more sympathetic toward victims, awarded women the property of their abductors, who were executed.

One of the Novels (“new laws”) of Emperor Justinian (ca. 483–565 C.E.) dealt with abduction of nuns, deaconesses, and other female ascetics. According to Novel 123.43, a man who seduced, forcibly abducted, or raped such a woman was to be executed. The law did not distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual cases. The victim was confined to a female monastery where she could be guarded. Her property was confiscated and given to her monastic community, probably to prevent situations in which women were abducted for marriage and, by extension, for their property. The rapist or seducer’s property was also confiscated and turned over to the woman’s monastery.

Unwanted sexual advances could be prosecuted as iniuria (“injury”), a legal category that included physical violence as well as verbal offenses to one’s dignity, such as slander or insult. A man could be charged with iniuria for accosting a virgin, married woman, or widow unless he could persuade the court she had been dressed as a prostitute or other sexually available woman. Homosexual rape of an upstanding male citizen was a capital offense. A legal guardian who had sexual intercourse with his female ward could be deported and his property seized. In the fourth century C.E., sexual abuse of a preadolescent girl was punished by exile. Forcible intercourse with someone else’s slave normally resulted in a fine paid to the owner. When a freeborn woman had sexual relations with her male slave, the slave was presumed to have consented, resulting in both parties being subject to execution.

If she were subjected to marital rape or battering, a woman’s best recourse was the intervention of her birth family, which could put social or political pressure on husbands. In the case of divorce, the woman’s dowry had to be returned, so there were financial incentives to treat one’s wife well. However, if a birth family refused to intervene or a woman’s social status was lower than her husband’s, she had few options for protection.

Sexual Abuse of Martyrs.

Numerous ancient sources deal with sexual violence inflicted upon Christians persecuted for their faith. Some documents may reflect historical events, but most writings are embellished literary accounts emphasizing God’s miraculous protection of women threatened with rape. In the Greco-Roman world, male and female prisoners were often assaulted by sexually abusive guards. Persecuted Christians could experience rape, public nudity, sexual mutilation, or forced prostitution. Sometimes the rape of female prisoners and castration of male prisoners were enacted in arenas and amphitheaters for public entertainment. The First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians, by Clement of Rome (d. ca. 99 C.E.), mentioned Christian women abused as “Danaids,” a reference to the daughters of the Greek god Daneus, who were given as prizes to winners of a footrace.

In Apology 50.12, Tertullian (ca. 160–225 C.E.), writing in North Africa, reported that a Christian woman had been condemned to prostitution in a brothel. It is not known how frequently this form of punishment occurred, but Christians popularized stories of God protecting virgin martyrs such as Agnes of Rome (early fourth century C.E.) from sexual assault by brothel patrons.

In some literary accounts, women threatened with sexual violence insisted that their bodies and souls would not be “polluted” even if they were raped. Other stories suggested that rape subjects women to spiritual danger. In a Syriac narrative, characters expressed concern that women raped by Roman soldiers would “lose the reward of their ascetic life” (Brock and Harvey, 1987, p. 158). Some early Christians praised women who committed suicide rather than endure rape, though later theologians expressed discomfort with this.

Most “passions” (accounts of suffering and martyrdom) were written decades after periods of persecution, to emphasize God’s power, commend celibacy, and encourage readers to resist sexual temptation. The female martyr, usually a virgin, was Christ’s faithful bride, whose divine bridegroom protected her from rape. For instance, Lucia of Sicily (d. ca. 303 C.E.) was condemned to die by collective rape (“gang rape”), but the men were unable to abuse her because her body remained immoveable. Such accounts conveyed moral lessons: if the virgin martyr retained her virginity despite being captured by armed guards, then the reader should be able to remain chaste when faced with less overwhelming forces.

Forced nudity of martyrs as sexual abuse.

Male athletes regularly competed unclothed, but public nudity was considered shameful for women. Passion narratives told about women martyrs stripped and compelled to “compete” in arenas against dangerous animals. Persecutors intended forced nudity as sexual violence and sexual shaming, but some Christian writers encouraged readers to resist this cultural understanding. In Syriac accounts, authors insisted that women martyrs stripped and exposed to public view were not shamed, since God had created female bodies and the women would have retained their modesty if possible (Brock and Harvey, 1987, pp. 76, 110, 165). Other Christians shared the societal view that female nudity was shameful but claimed that God shielded women from view with clouds of fire or struck the eyes of lustful voyeurs with lightning.

Sexual mutilation of Christian martyrs.

Historical accounts mention sexual mutilation of male and female martyrs. In Apology 15.4–5, Tertullian said he personally witnessed the public castration of a man forced to play the role of a eunuch attendant of the goddess Cybele. Christian literature contains graphic accounts of the mutilation and amputation of women’s breasts. These stories’ sexually sadistic elements have caused modern interpreters to characterize this literature as pornography for the titillation of male audiences.

Sexual Violence in the Apocryphal Acts.

Beginning in the second century, “acts” of the various apostles became popular. Reminiscent of the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, but filled with more adventure, intrigue, and convoluted plots, these noncanonical accounts of apostles’ lives and deaths are called the Apocryphal Acts. Most scholars agree that they were inspired by Hellenistic novels featuring abductions, pirate attacks, and threats of rape. In the second-century Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla fights off a sexual attack by a prominent citizen of Antioch. In later additions to the legend, Thecla, now an elderly woman living in a remote cave, escapes from a gang of rapists by disappearing into a miraculous opening in a rock. Though most Christian narratives emphasized the youth and beauty of women threatened by rape, this account recognizes the reality that older women, too, were at risk for sexual violence.

Marital rape in the Apocryphal Acts.

The Apocryphal Acts promoted marital celibacy as the Christian ideal. A typical character is the fiancée or wife who becomes Christian and then refuses to have sexual relations with her pagan husband. Though these are fictional accounts filled with miraculous rescues, they may reflect a social situation in which Christian women desiring celibacy faced the threat of marital rape. In the Acts of Thomas 9.98, a husband tried to rape his wife, who ran away naked and slept in her female servant’s room. The Acts of Andrew 24 relates a story in which a man did not dare to force his wife, since her status was higher than his, and he feared her family’s retaliation. In the Acts of John 63, a woman named Drusiana became committed to celibacy; in response, her husband locked her up, threatening to kill her. Eventually he converted and agreed to celibacy. Since, in these Acts, the ideal male convert respects his wife’s wishes, the stories probably were used to instruct Christian husbands not to harass or force their wives. The audience may have included women who themselves were subjected to marital rape, so the words of a female protagonist in the Acts of Thomas 13.152 perhaps brought comfort: “You have power over my body; do to it as you please, but my soul I will not destroy with you” (Elliott, p. 503). Christian literature tended not to condemn marital rape per se, but instead rebuked husbands’ attempts to force wives who had made a commitment to celibacy.

Church Regulations and Responses to Sexual Violence.

Though sexual violence perpetrated by Christians was often ignored or tolerated, church leaders responded in unofficial ways, through sermons and moral exhortation, and in official ways, through church discipline. Many canons (church rules) prescribed set amounts of time that offenders were excluded from receiving communion. Sometimes bishops intervened in situations to prevent or punish sexual abuse.

Abduction marriage and rape.

In the Mediterranean region, many marriages began with abduction and sexual assault. Basil the Great (ca. 330–379 C.E.), the bishop of Caesarea, wrote harshly about a man who had abducted a young woman and detained her against her family’s will. Basil excommunicated the man’s family and ordered his village to return the girl to her father (Letter 270). According to Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 330–395 C.E.), their own mother, Emmelia, had been in danger of abduction when orphaned at a young age. Basil’s Canon 22 (Letter 199) ordered men who abducted women to return them to their families. An engaged woman was to be offered to her original fiancé, who could receive her in marriage or, under the circumstances, decline to wed her. If the woman was not previously betrothed, the family could permit her to marry her abductor. A widow who had been abducted could choose whether to remain with her captor. Basil’s canons punished fornicators with four years of excommunication, but Canon 49 made clear that women violated by force were guiltless and not subject to punishment.

Sexual abuse of slaves.

Some early Christians recognized the vulnerability of slaves. The Apostolic Tradition (ca. 215 C.E.), attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, declared that a slave who was her master’s concubine could be admitted for baptism if she remained monogamous and raised her children. This requirement of monogamy, however, would preclude her entry into a consensual relationship with another partner. Canon 49 of Basil of Caesarea said that slave women violated by their masters were not subject to church discipline. However, amid numerous rules regarding sexual behavior, Basil mentions no punishment for male masters who sexually abused their female slaves.

The Acts of Andrew 17–22 tells the story of a Christian woman who, wishing to be celibate, enlisted her “comely, exceedingly wanton” female slave to take her place in the marital bed. It is not known whether this strategy was commonly employed by Christian women, whose commitment to celibacy could have increased the sexual exploitation of slaves. Sermons repeatedly condemned men’s sexual use of slave women, but preachers tended to be concerned with husbands’ marital fidelity, not the rights and dignity of victimized slaves. Homilies on the story of Abraham and Hagar (Gen 16) urged men not to make sexual use of their female slaves, who could become presumptuous like Hagar. Though sermons criticized women who physically punished female slaves, little is known about women’s sexual abuse of female slaves. Fourth-century regulations attempted to prevent owners from forcing Christian slaves into prostitution.

Sexual abuse of children.

Church regulations spoke harshly about sexual contact with children. Since the Greek word for child (pais) could refer to a boy, youth, or a child of either gender, one cannot be certain whether specific rules concerned the abuse of minors or homosexual relations with young men. The Didache, a first-century Greek document with instructions regarding church practice, condemned those who had sexual relations with children or boys. Canon 71 from the Synod of Elvira (ca. 306 C.E.), in southern Spain, ordered that men who sexually abused boys were to be denied communion, even on their deathbeds.

Clergy sexual abuse.

Letters and historical chronicles occasionally mention cases of church officials harassing, seducing, or sexually assaulting nuns and female parishioners. In Ecclesiastical History 7.16, the fifth-century historian Sozomen reports that a noblewoman was raped by a deacon when she was praying in a church in Constantinople. The bishop deposed the offending deacon and decreed that clergy should not supervise private penitential prayers inside church buildings, where they would have access to parishioners. Modern studies of clergy sexual abuse point to the power differential between clergy and laity, but ancient cases of abuse, if they were addressed at all, were probably treated as instances of sexual immorality rather than violence or abuse of power.

Biblical Interpretation.

Most biblical commentators in the early church used the story of Dinah (Gen 34), who was abducted outdoors when going out to see the women of the region, as a cautionary tale to admonish virgins to stay indoors. Others used Dinah’s example as a moral lesson, instructing listeners to stay within the “tents” of the church and orthodox doctrine rather than “departing” to listen to heretics. Dinah was usually viewed as responsible for her assault. Amnon’s rape of his sister, Tamar (2 Sam 13), was, ironically, used to stress the moral dangers of unrelated men and women dwelling together. The story of the Levite’s concubine, who was gang raped in place of her master (Judg 19) and the parallel story of Lot offering his virgin daughters to be raped by the men of Sodom (Gen 19) were employed to argue that homosexual rape, a “sin against nature,” was more severe than the more “natural” vaginal rape of a woman. Instructions regarding sexual use of captive women after shaving their heads (Deut 21) were treated as allegories about employing pagan literature after shearing it of its immoral excesses. There was relatively little recognition of the sexual vulnerability of Bathsheba (2 Sam 11) or servants and slaves such as Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah (Gen 16 and 30).

The Rape of Eve in Gnostic Literature.

A cache of documents discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, contains three treatises that retell Genesis 1—3 in terms of sexual assault upon Eve. These fourth-century documents, preserved in the Coptic language, reflect the Gnostic tradition that asserted that the material, visible world was created by some lesser being and should be rejected in favor of a spiritual reality. In The Nature of the Rulers (also translated as The Hypostasis of the Archons) and On the Origin of the World, evil “rulers,” or powers, who subjugate the material world attempt to rape a female spiritual being in the garden. Her spirit escapes into a tree. She leaves a material copy of herself, Adam’s wife, whom the rulers rape orally, vaginally, and perhaps anally. This echoes the Greek account of Daphne, who transformed into a tree to escape Apollo’s rape attempt. In a reinterpretation of Genesis 6, Eve’s daughters are in constant danger of sexual assault from the rulers. An enlightened woman, Norea, is also preyed upon by the rulers who are unable to rape her. Another version of this story is told in The Secret Book of John. The brutal sexual violence in these narratives emphasizes the evil nature of the material world’s rulers, as well as the flawed origins of most of Eve’s children, conceived through ongoing sexual assaults by the rulers.

Augustine’s Theological Reflections on Rape.

Rape was used as a strategy of war, to assert dominance over the enemy, subjugate conquered peoples, and shame male and female war captives. A wartime rape occasioned the most sustained early Christian discussion of sexual violence, found in The City of God 1.16–29, by Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.). Augustine began this work shortly after the sack of Rome (410 C.E.), when the invading Visigoth army looted Rome for three days, sexually assaulting many inhabitants, including virgins publically committed to celibacy. Augustine reports that non-Christians used these rapes as an excuse to mock Christians, since God apparently failed to protect them. Endeavoring to console rape victims, Augustine assured them that if men gratified their lust on women’s bodies, women nevertheless retained their chastity in soul, mind, and body, even if (as he thought might happen) their rebellious bodies experienced sexual arousal during the attack.

Augustine criticizes non-Christians for their admiration of Lucretia, who committed suicide after being raped. If Lucretia was truly innocent of the rape, she was guilty of self-murder. He suggests that she had perhaps internally consented to the attack or was overly interested in the outward appearance of honor.

Augustine endeavored to explain how a benevolent God could permit rape. He suggested that some Roman Christian women had been too proud of their chastity. God used the sexual assaults to remove the “tumor” of pride while it was still small, before it developed into a more deadly sin. Though he addresses only female rape victims in The City of God, Augustine discusses homosexual rape—something he considers particularly heinous—in his treatise On Lying 10–17.

Modern Perspectives on Early Christian Writings about Sexual Violence.

Virtually all ancient texts dealing with sexual violence were authored by men, who speculated about how sexual violence affected—or ought to affect—victims. Despite some authors’ pastoral attention to victims’ psychological and spiritual well-being, there was little recognition of their possible physical trauma. Many church regulations seemed more concerned with enforcing celibacy and marital fidelity than with preventing or punishing sexual violence. Attempts to curb rape focused on regulating female behavior rather than that of rapists. Abuse was certainly underreported, especially clergy sexual abuse, pedophilia, and same-sex violence. Despite several studies about sexual violence and ancient Christianity, the topic remains underexamined in modern scholarship.




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Joy A. Schroeder