When sexual assaults made history

Incidents of sexual violence have long been a brutal part of the human story Sometimes they’ve changed the course of history

Nearly as long as people have been recording h i s t o r y , they have documented sexual assaults. From the writings of ancient Greece to the Bible to the letters of early explorers, sexual violence has long been a brutal part of the human story. Some assaults have even changed the course of history. And, like all history, what we know about sexual assaults of the past is generally what was told by the victors—mostly men.

“Women are erased,” says Sharon Block, professor of history at University of California, Irvine and the author of Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America. “The historic rapes that ‘mattered’ are the only ones where men saw themselves damaged.” Wars, especially, have been linked to egregious sexual assaults, from mass rape committed by Soviet soldiers as they advanced into Germany during World War II to sexual violence amid the genocides in Rwanda in 1995. In fact, the ubiquity of sexual assault in wars makes those crimes a category unto themselves. With the understanding that no list could ever be comprehensive, below are sexual assaults that have both influenced history and those that, notably, did not

  1. The rise of Alexander the Great

An act of sexual violence may have contributed to the rise of Alexander the Great, according to Greek historians Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch. Their accounts were written hundreds of years after the event was supposed to have taken place, but the story goes like this: In 336 B.C., Pausanias of Orestis, a member of the bodyguard of King Philip II of Macedonia (and possibly his lover), was invited to a banquet by Philip’s father-in-law, Attalus. There, he was raped by Attalus’s servants. When Philip refused to punish the attackers (he did give Pausanias a promotion), Pausanias murdered the king, paving the way for the ascension of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great.

  1. The rape of the Sabine women


The Roman historian Livy, writing during the first century, traces Rome’s origins to the mid-8th century B.C., when the warrior tribe was facing a shortage of women. “Population growth was the most difficult thing to achieve in antiquity,” says Thomas Martin, author of Ancient Rome: From Romulus to Justinian. According to Livy, the Roman leader, Romulus, held a religious festival and invited the neighboring Sabine tribe, (“Free food and drink,” notes Martin.) At Romulus’s signal, the Romans attacked and killed the Sabine men at the festival and carried off the women. In the resulting bloody war, the Sabine women called a halt to the hostilities, making allies of the tribes and allowing the Romans to multiply.


  1. Boudicca’s fight for independence


Celtic tribes were a constant thorn in the Roman Empire’s side from the moment they invaded the Island of Britain in 45 A.D. The Iceni, a Celtic tribe in East Anglia, were led by a king named Prasutagus, who was married to Boudicca. When Prasutagus died, Rome claimed his kingdom, over the objections of Boudicca, who was flogged publicly and forced to watch her daughters raped by Roman soldiers. Boudicca then assembled a powerful army and rebelled against the Romans, eventually sacking London (then called Londinium). The Roman historian Cassius Dio describes how Boudicca’s own soldiers then violently assaulted Roman women there: “Their breasts were cut off and stuffed in their mouths, so that they seemed to be eating them, then their bodies were skewered lengthwise on sharp stakes.” Boudicca’s rebellion was eventually crushed by the Roman general, Gaius Suetonius in 60 or 61 A.D


  1. The rape of Recy Taylor


Recy Taylor was 24 when, in 1944, she was kidnapped by six men while walking home from church in Abbeville, Alabama, and gang-raped in the back of a truck. Even though one of the perpetrators had confessed, two white juries refused to indict the accused. Taylor’s rape and the reaction, emblematic of the repressive Jim Crow south, helped galvanize the civil-rights movement. When the details of her story were reported in the black press, the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to Abbeville to investigate the matter. Parks established the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, the leaders of which went on to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. In 2011, the Alabama State Legislature officially apologized to Taylor for its lack of prosecution.

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