Rape culture in Classical Athens?


  • Sotiria Rita Koutsopetrou-Møller University of Bergen




Classical Athens had a culture of widespread sexual violence, where different forms of sexual misconduct were embedded in the normative framework. Numerous products of the city’s ‘popular culture’, such as mythology, literature and art, propagated the normalcy of rape. A large body of modern scholarship has correlated this frequency with the particular Athenian historical context during the Cassical period, underlining that ancient Athenians followed different standards and guidelines than we do for the evaluation of sexual behaviour. This article demonstrates that in Classical Athens the repeated representations of rape in literature and art were means to preserve the fundamental principles of the established male order. The power structure of the Classical Athenian polis fostered attitudes that remind us of the modern concept of ‘rape culture’. This concept, developed by feminist scholars to describe modern realities, reveals how societies can use culture to downgrade the moral wrongness of rape.  ‘Rape culture’ will be used in this article as a model, or analytical tool, to reinterpret the Classical literary evidence on Athenian attitudes towards sexual assault. I will argue that this model makes better sense of the evidence than the now prevalent relativistic interpretation.