[Messalina] … novo et furori proximo amore distinebatur.
nam in C.Silium iunventutis Romanae pulcherrimum ita
exarserat ut Iuniam Silanam nobilem feminam matrimonio
eius exturbaret vacuoque adultero poteretur. neque Silius
flagitii aut periculi nescius erat. sed certo si abnueret …
Messalina’s new love affair – a really insane business – made
her attention start to stray. She’d gotten the hots for Gaius
Silius, who was the best-looking young man in all of Rome,
and went so far as to force his patrician wife, Iunia Silana, to
divorce him so she could have her adulterer all free and clear.
Silius was not unaware of either the disgrace or the danger.
But if he refused, for sure …
Tacitus Annales 11.12
In general we approach the topic of women in antiquity with a preconception that they are – to use a modern terminology – victims, victims of both individual men and larger cultural patterns that manifest themselves as systematic devaluation and worse. Nor, certainly, is there lack of foundation for such a notion. The phenomenon is apparent not only in myth and literature but also in the real world of ancient Greek and Roman societies. But today I would like to talk about men as victims, victims of women in myth and in the real world.
On the one hand we have such characters as Endymion and Tithonus, each an ephebic beauty who caught the fancy of a goddess and was abducted to serve her sensual needs. Eos, the goddess of dawn, foolishly wished immortality for her captive lover, Tithonus, while forgetting also to request eternal youth (we are told Tithonus shriveled away into extreme old age and was turned into a squeaking cicada for her troubles). Endymion stirred passionate longing in Selene, goddess of the moon, who got Zeus to grant her beloved one wish and he, apparently not as enchanted with Selene as she was with him, asked to be allowed to sleep forever without losing his exquisite looks. One may imagine the frustration of Selene and Eos, each thwarted of having her way with those catches.
These tales exhibit a narrative typology familiar from numerous tales in ancient myth – except that in these two the usual gender rôles have been reversed.
Darker in import are the stories of Hippolytus (cf. Euripides’ Hippolytus) and the beautiful Bellerophon (cf. Homer’s Iliad 6.155-197), Greek variants of a type disseminated widely in space and time, and known, for obvious reasons, as Potiphar’s Wife (cf. Genesis 39.7-20). Phaedra falls passionately in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, and when he recoils from her sexual overtures she commits suicide – but only after first writing a letter to her husband, Theseus, the father of Hippolytus, falsely accusing him of attempted rape. Theseus believes her implicitly and calls down a lethal curse on his son, learning only too late, when Hippolytus lay dying, that the young man was innocent. Bellerophon, similarly, fell unwilling prey to Sthenoboea’s erotic hungers and, when he rebuffed her, she made sham accusations that Bellerophon had tried to rape her; harrowing difficulties followed for the young man (although, like the pious Joseph in the Old Testament, he came out reasonably well in the end).
Consider now an example from the real world, involving that electrifying examplar of female licentiousness, Valeria Messalina, third wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, who was about 35 years her senior. Gaius Silius “unhappily caught her destructive eye,” as the satirist Juvenal has it (10.332-333: miser extinguendus / Messalinae oculis “a wretch whose lights were to be put out by Messalina’s eyes”), and was (as Juvenal, again, suggested) decapitated by Claudius for unwittingly scratching Messalina’s itch. Because Messalina lost her head over him, Silius lost his too, in a classic if unusual (because he was male) and extreme case of “blame the victim.”
I suppose it’s possible to argue from a modern vantage that because men wrote these accounts and they wished to portray themselves favorably – that is as victims – the stories should be discounted. But the victimological model almost reflexively favoring the woman’s veracity in our reactions to — and analyses of — similar ‘he said she said’ contretemps in our own day (e.g., the recent chaotic imbroglio surrounding French Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Guinean Nafissatou Diallo, the problematically credible maid at the Sofitel where he was staying in New York) perhaps creates the erroneous impression of being normative and universal, but it simply was not a salient feature of ancient literature and thought – bad things were rather understood as just happening alike to individuals of both sexes and even to nations. Besides, if men wanted to represent themselves in a sympathetic light, why then would (almost exclusively) male writers have told the infinitely more numerous tales in which it is men who are the violators, often cruel and sadistic, of women who are usually helpless and unwilling?
I merely observe that I cannot help but wonder how stories of the Potiphar’s Wife type ever got started in the first place and, more important, gained currency. Unless women are to be recast once more in a Victorian mold and sanitizingly devalued by being denied a powerful sexuality as human beings, why should they not too, just like men, now as anciently, in story as in reality, sometimes run off the track as it were and be capable of intolerable or even monstrous conduct in their relationships with the opposite sex?
It is, unhappily, a very, very old reality — no matter what the gender is of the violating brute.