What A 2,000-Year-Old Story Can Teach Us About Rape Culture

Young woman hidding her face with her arms
Young woman hidding her face with her arms

consolantur aegram animi avertendo noxam ab coacta in auctorem delicti

They console the sad woman, turning the guilt from the victim to the perpetrator of the crime.

--Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 1.58

Livy began writing Ab Urbe Condita, his history of Rome, around 25 BC. Though the Colosseum was not yet built, damnatio ad bestias was a common practice; yes, Romans could watch their fellow countrymen ripped to pieces by tigers, lions, and other ferocious animals as punishment for their crimes. Abandoning unwanted babies on hillsides was a common practice. Less morally repulsive, but still bizarre, Livy's compatriots dined on peacock brain, dolphin, and mice.

Even in an era when abandoning babies on hillsides was acceptable and accused criminals could face death by wild animal, Livy's account of Rome's transition from monarchy to republic are ten of the wisest words written about responding to a survivor of rape. As Lucretia is suffering from the aftermath of her rape, overwhelmed with grief, her father, brother, and two friends "console the sad woman, turning the guilt from the victim to the perpetrator of the crime." (consolantur aegram animi avertendo noxam ab coacta in auctorem delicti.) They also remarked, "Where there is no consent, there is no guilt."

Two thousand years after this was written, many customs of ancient Rome seem barbaric and bizarre. Nonetheless, when Lucretia disclosed her sexual assault, broken with guilt and shame, she was met with an astoundingly simple response: This guilt and shame is not yours, Lucretia. It belongs to your perpetrator.

When did the de facto public response to a rape victim become blaming, shaming, and revictimizing? After a rape, guilt is misplaced and becomes the victim's burden. Society's response to the victim exacerbates his or her sense of shame and guilt.

A sad truth is that victims take on the guilt of their perpetrators, and perpetrators are often positioned as the true victims of the assault, receiving the compassion and comfort that should be reserved for the victim alone. In order for this transference of guilt and misplacement of compassion to take place, the narrative of rape must be distorted so that the perpetrator isn't the bad guy and so that the victim is in some way responsible.

A compassionate response to the victim requires an accurate account of the crime. After all, if Lucretia were somehow at fault, the idea of transference of guilt would be out of place. Livy reports that Lucretia's perpetrator, Sextus Tarquinius, first encountered her days earlier while was enjoying a night of revelry, a guest of her household. Livy wrote, "He formed a disgusting plot to degrade her." There was no doubt about the crime. Tarquinius planned this assault.

Livy includes this detail of premeditation, a window into the depraved mind of Lucretia's perpetrator. A modern-day campus version of this rape would likely include extraneous details. He was partying. Alcohol played a role. This could have been consensual sex, a misunderstanding. Such a narrative sparks skepticism about the victim's integrity and, in turn, opens the door misdirected empathy.

At the end of the episode, Lucretia kills herself. (Victims of rape are four times more likely to attempt suicide than non-victims, so even Livy's ending reflects a troubling reality about the aftermath of rape.) Despite her demise, the response to her rape in Livy's account should be a universal starting point: "They console the sad woman, turning the guilt from the victim to the perpetrator of the crime." Guilt and shame belong to perpetrators alone, not the people harmed by their actions.