Women as Catalysts of Roman History?

Women as Catalysts of Roman History?


From the very beginning to the end of the monarchy, Roman women made their presence known. For a society that was known for suppressing the fairer sex in favor of a more patriarchal system, it is interesting to fathom that women still managed to make their mark. Servius Tullius, for example, would have not been a king had it not been for Tanaquil’s intervention. By that same design, Tarquinius Superbus would have never been king had it not been for Tullia’s conspiring. Even going as far back as Romulus, the first king of Rome, the Sabine women became the harbingers of organized Roman society when they intervened between their warring fathers and husbands. Fast-forwarding from there, we can see that the end of the monarchy happened because of the rape of Lucretia, a woman.

So despite the overbearing male presence in Roman history and authority, women were still very influential in the conspiracies that took place both behind the scenes and center stage. Of course, even so, their histories are often written by men such as Livy or the poet, Ovid. For example: Lucretia’s story was written as that of a chaste woman who could not live with the dishonor of having her chastity taken from her, so the fall of Rome came about because a woman lost her honor, thus pushing forth the patriarchal agenda. Ovid’s lyrical verses makes this clear: “now day had dawned. She sits with her hair disheveled/Like a mother due to visit her son’s pyre… She is silent for a long time, and veils her face, in shame…”. Though written of poetically, Lucretia’s rape is described as the death of her own self, as she is veiled, with disheveled hair, and looks like she is in mourning. This can be akin to the death of the monarchy that Rome would later suffer in the after math of the crime, which further proves a possible parallel between the death of Lucretia’s honor brining about the death of Roman monarchy itself.

Modern scholars also make note of this rather profound patriarchal take on a horrendous crime. According to historian Victoria Emma Pagan, “sex and violence define Lucretia’s fate and resulting the establishment of the republic”. In so many words, Pagán makes it clear that it was Lucretia’s rape that led to the fall of the monarchy, but the crime itself was one of sex and violence. A woman so noble and so chaste was brought down by a sexual assault, thus disrupting her honor, and thus leading to an entire shift in the governing of a society.

So are women catalysts of Roman history? Or are the men writing about them trying to push forward an agenda, that a woman whose character and honor is put to question becomes a breaking point in Roman society itself? In so many ways, though women are very much so present in Roman conspiracies and history, it can be argued that their presence served as mere examples of what could happen if they stepped—or were violently forced—out of line, and for society to function, women had to know their place. Arguments can be made for either, but in a society as patriarchal as Rome, such an analysis would not be shocking.


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