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Ancient and modern

Latin texts are full of violence, racism and class – that doesn’t mean they need a trigger warning

It is beyond belief that students committed to serious historical enquiry could find the classics ‘offensive’

2 September 2017

9:00 AM

2 September 2017

9:00 AM

Last week, Brendan O’Neill described in this magazine how students regulate ‘unacceptable’ political views with ‘no platform’ policies, safe spaces and trigger warnings. Two weeks ago a student Latin course (Reading Latin, P. Jones and K. Sidwell) was ‘outed’ by an American PhD student, because the text featured three goddesses, each confidently stripping off, determined to win the golden apple from Paris, and two rapes. Such ‘offensive’ choices, she said, did not help the cause of Latin, ‘or make the historically racist and classist discipline of classics any more accessible’.

Both rapes featured in a foundation myth of early Roman history. The most important was that of Lucretia by Sextus, son of king Tarquinius Superbus (‘the arrogant’). After explaining the situation to her husband and father, Lucretia said: ‘But while my body alone is violated, my mind is innocent. My death will bear witness to that.’ They urged her to desist: ‘It is the mind that sins, not the body; where there is no intention, there is no blame.’ She replied: ‘I acquit myself of wrongdoing, but do not absolve myself from punishment. Never shall any unchaste woman live because of Lucretia’s example.’ With that, she stabbed herself to death. Enraged Romans drove out the Tarquinii and the republic was founded.


Roman males demonstrated their ultimate heroism by self-sacrifice in battle in the name of the Roman state; Lucretia hers by her commitment to her ‘battlefield’ — the sanctity of the Roman family. Christian thinkers such as St Jerome applauded her. St Augustine disagreed: to value chastity above life was usurping God’s authority.

Ian Donaldson’s book The Rapes of Lucretia (1982) explores in great detail the uses of this myth and the nature of heroism down the millennia. That is what historians do — interrogate the past. It is beyond belief that someone committed to serious historical enquiry could find such an exercise ‘offensive’, as the PhD student presumably must, since she seems to think history should consist of just the fluffy bits. Though deities seldom compete to win golden apples these days, it is not as if rape has vanished from the face of the earth, let alone racism and classism. One might have thought that historical takes on issues of such contemporary importance were the perfect medium to explore them ‘safely’.


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