Summary of the 'Gendered Violence in the Ancient World' AMME seminar

This season’s second to last AMME seminar was held on 17.11., and the theme was ‘Gendered violence in the Ancient world’.

The presentations by Prof. Dr. Alhena Gadotti (Towson University) and Prof. Dr. Serena S. Witzke (Wesleyan University) discussed the conceptualization of gendered violence and how it was depicted in different types of documents. 

Dr. Prof Alhena Gadotti introduced us some examples of how violence against women was portrayed in Sumerian literary material from the early 2nd millennium (ca. 2000-1600) BCE. These documents can be approached from a documentary, poetic or socio-functional perspective. The study of gendered violence in Sumerian literature has received only limited attention, and according to Dr. Prof. Gadotti there are only three documents that describe sexual violence against divine feminine. Regardless, sexual assault was an existing phenomenon, and it was well recognized in the laws. This presentation provided us with an overview of the stories of Enlil and Ninlil, Enki and  Ninhursaga and finally, Inanna and Shukaletuda.  

In the literature of the old Babylonian era, goddesses are often found in traditional familial roles; as sisters, mothers, or unmarried young women. Thus, for example, goddess Ninlil expresses a woman’s social and sexual growth. By becoming a wife to Enlil, the head of the Sumerian pantheon, she develops in from an adolescent virgin to a mature woman. The first encounter of Enlil and Ninlil was not consensual, and therefore the sexual violence and multiple pregnancies are viewed as symbols of change. On the other hand, Ninhursaga embodies a different kind of motherhood; her pregnancy represents feminine reproductive power. Goddess Inanna is raped by a gardener Shukaletuda, and reacts with rage and seeks (and finds), revenge. What is especially interesting in the story of Inanna and Shukaletuda, is that it can be seen as a Sumerian astral myth: Inanna’s movements can be related to the movements of the planet Venus.  

Though the general plots of these abovementioned stories have been understood, certain elements are still unexplored. In the future, Dr. Prof. Gadotti welcomes a more holistic approach in order to fill the gaps in previous scholarship.  

Dr. Prof. Serena S. Witzke discussed about violence against non-citizen women in ancient Rome, where the nature of violence depended on one’s class, age, and status.  

While violence against citizen women was rare, non-citizen women experienced both physical and sexual violence on a daily basis. Violence against Roman citizen women was usually politically motivated, largely symbolical or ideological, and occurred in the public sphere. Therefore, it is often only discussed in a legal context. In the early republic, adultery was a good enough reason to murder the wife – but not the other way around. Only the lex Julia de Adulteriis coercendis (17 BCE) and the lex Julia de maritandis (18 BCE) put an end to that. The story of the rape of the Sabine women is a famous example of gendered violence against citizen women: after founding Rome, Romulus became aware of the shortage of women in the city. That led to mass abduction of the young women from the neighboring town. They had no other choice than to become mothers and wives of Rome.  

Non-citizen slaves, sex laborers and freedwomen of Rome lived in a constant fear of abuse and torture: it was publicly and legally accepted but often happened in private homes. In a legal sense rape against enslaved women did not exist: the slaves were treated as property and the masters could do whatever they wanted. Anyone who violated a slave was guilty of property violence. Even though freedwomen were technically free, they were forced to have sex with their former patrons. Interestingly, Roman comedies were the “mirrors of life” that provided an insight into the vulnerability of slave females. Examples of torture can be found in various plays: Treculentus by Plautus or Hecyra by Terence - to mention a few. 

Both talks sparked a lot of questions and comments from the audience. We thank everyone who attended, especially Alhena Gadotti and Serena S. Witzke. The last AMME seminar of fall season 2022 will be held on 15.12.2022, when we will delve into Ancient Near East in cinema. Welcome!