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Doing Justice to the Classics

Misogynist argues that Rape of the Sabines established “Female Privilege”

Purple Motes is the personal blog of a contributor to the misogynist site A Voice for Men whose work Pharos has documented previously. Perversely subtitled “a journal of whimsy and hope,” Purple Motes frequently invokes Greco-Roman antiquity in support of its particular breed of misogyny: exposing the supposed anti-male bias of the contemporary world and all the ways women enjoy special privileges. For example, a post from 2016 entitled “Sabine Women win Pyrrhic peace for Roman men argues that the Rape of the Sabine Women was beneficial for the women involved and established the foundations of discrimination against men that “Men’s Rights Activists” claim persists into the present day.

The story the post discusses is a Roman myth about how the men who first settled Rome obtained women who could produce the next generation of Romans. The most familiar version of the story is the one recorded by the Roman historian Livy: after all the neighboring cities refused to grant the Romans the right of intermarriage, the Roman leader Romulus invited the neighboring tribe, the Sabines, to a festival in honor of Neptune. At a predetermined moment, the Romans seized all the unmarried Sabine women and took them by force away from their families (Livy repeatedly uses the verb “they carried”). These abductions led to war between Rome and the Sabines which ended, in the Roman telling of the story, when the raped Sabine women intervened to plead for reconciliation between their fathers on the Sabine side and their new “husbands” on the Roman side. The post on Purple Motes begins with an 18th century painting of this “intervention” which is commonly known as “The intervention of the Sabines” even though the post’s image credit misleadingly implies it was entitled “The gynocentric foundation of Rome.”

The misogyny of the post is evident in its title itself, which analyzes the Roman conquest of the Sabine women as a Pyrrhic victory, which is a term for a victory in which the price of victory exceeds whatever benefit was gained by winning. In this reading the Romans got what they wanted — women — but at too high a price, since they were forced to give the Sabine women special rights that laid the foundations for a “gynocentric” culture that oppressed men. According to the post this discrimination against men persists into the present, contrary to what the post calls the “preposterous consensus” of “international elites” that “violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world.” The “foundational problem” that the Rape of the Sabines failed to address, according to the post, and that needs to be addressed in the present in order “to establish a humane and enduring civilization,” is “the misery of sexless and unmarried men” who, it is implied, have no way in the contemporary world to find love without subjecting themselves to the same servitude that the Romans endured after the rape of the Sabines. One “solution” proposed by the author of Purple Motes in a another post that is linked to this one is for “public policies” to “better accommodate” the “natural burden” of men’s “lustful nature.” In this, the post aligns itself with the misogynist complaints of “incels” that refuse to confront the role of misogyny in their “misery.”

The post argues that the Sabines’ abduction should not be called a "rape" because the women obtained "significant new political rights"

The fundamental misogynist claim of the post is that in “a wide variety of cultures and times, women actively promote and encourage their bridal capture by favorable men,” thus painting rape as a desirable and beneficial thing for women. This claim is a distortion of the argument made in an article in the Journal of Roman Studies on the emperor Constantine’s legislation punishing “abduction marriage.” The article does provide evidence for “bridal capture” in many cultures from many time periods, but contrary to the post’s assertion that women “actively promote” it, the article shows that the practice primarily serves the interests of men in cultures that practice arranged marriages. Such rapes give men whose marriage proposals have been rejected by a woman’s family a way to circumvent those objections and to reassert their diminished masculinity through a show of violence after the embarrassment of being rejected by the family. If the woman or the woman’s family assents to formal marriage after this rape, it is not because, as Purple Motes claims, she would have chosen it, but because, in these cultures the raped woman has no other avenue to marriage. The rape deprives her of her chastity, honor, and desirability without which another man will not propose marriage. Her family and the community, too, will assume she was complicit in the abduction, a misogynistic prejudice recorded at least as early as the 5th century BCE in Herodotus. Thus the scholarship cited to show that we should not call such abductions “rape” in fact provides broad cross-cultural evidence for the misogyny of that position.

Building on this misunderstanding of the cross-cultural comparison, the post argues further that the Sabines’ abduction should not be called “rape” because the women, in this analysis, obtained “significant new political rights” including “co-ownership of their husbands’ property,” “freeborn status for their children,” and husbands who “pledged” that “they would be kind and affectionate to them.” It is incorrect to say that the Sabines “acquired” many of these rights: for example, the Sabine women’s children would have also been free if they had remained in their home community, and in most periods of Roman history even unmarried women could own and inherit property. More outrageous, however, is the idea that a woman who has been violently raped should regard the rapists “affection” as a desirable and beneficial thing. The post defends this disgusting point by promoting Livy’s claim that such pledges are “the most moving of pleas to a woman’s heart” and rejecting any “modern academic scholarship” that treats such “wooing” as “harm[ful] to women.” Purple Motes also takes at face value Livy’s claim that the Sabine women accepted blame for causing the war to “prove” that the women wanted to be raped in this way. The post ignores that these words were likely invented by Livy. Not only was he imposing his self-serving male point of view on the story, but he was writing at a time when the myths of early Rome were being used to emphasize conservative and patriarchal values.

While modern men have to "labor strenuously to acquire property and struggle desperately to gain passionate love," "the Sabine women gained both by being captured"

The post makes this story the foundation myth for a whole litany of complaints about the supposed discrimination men face in the contemporary world:

  • Modern men who “act like servants opening doors for women and like inferiors cowering in the back of elevators waiting for women to exit first” are, according to the post, reenacting the “female privilege” that Plutarch (writing almost a thousand years later) says the Sabine women enjoyed in Rome after their rape. One of these “privileges” was that Roman men were forbidden to allow themselves to be seen naked by the Sabine women, which, according to the post, “set the model for current U.S. sexual assault regulations” that are referred to as “totalitarian sex regulations” in a different post criticizing (unsurprisingly for someone who thinks rape is beneficial for women) affirmative consent.
  • The post complains that incarcerated men in modern prisons have fewer rights than the Sabine women had, and that ancient historians dedicated more space to the rape of these women than to the deaths of the men in the conflict that followed, just as, the post claims, in modern times, there is a “harsh anti-men gender inequality in killing and capturing.” Incarceration and violence are examples of issues (like the higher rates of suicide among men than among women) where the so-called “men’s rights activists” could play a role in progressive and needed reforms if they could abandon their entitlement.
  • While modern men, according to the post, have to “labor strenuously to acquire property and struggle desperately to gain passionate love,” “the Sabine women gained both by being captured,” a claim that once again assumes that “love” gained through violent rape is desirable for women.
  • The post argues that the Sabine women being “exempted from all labor and drudgery” established the basis of “an enduring gendered division of earning and spending” that forces men “to earn money that wives spend” while “women work for personal fulfillment.” Plutarch does say that the Sabine women were not required to spin but there was no such exemption in historical times for Roman women. And Plutarch’s reference is a minor point in a passage discussing the history of many patriarchal traditions that show that Plutarch did not regard the rape of the Sabines to have established female privilege. He says the mythological exemption gave rise to the practice of ironically saying after a wedding that the man was taking the woman home only so that she could spin (when everyone understood he was going to have sex with her), and explains the custom of the newly-wed man carrying the woman across the threshold because “the Sabine women were carried in by force, and did not go in of their own accord,” showing that he understood that the Sabine women had been raped.

The post concludes with a claim that Juvenal’s misogynistic Satire 6 (which Pharos has documented being cited in support of hate elsewhere) should be read as a “courageous…protest” against the oppression of men supposedly introduced by the rape of the Sabines and claims that over time Roman men became more reluctant to marry women.

No advertisers are willing to be associated with Purple Motes so visiting the page does not generate income for its author but we have nevertheless linked to archived versions of the page above to avoid giving it traffic. You can visit the page itself here.

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