Peter Jones

Why the Ancient Greeks thought adultery was worse than rape

Consent didn’t matter. Family – and property – did

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A footballer serves his sentence for rape, insisting on his innocence. Debate rages whether he should play again. To us, rape is taken to be the most serious of sexual crimes. But would it have happened had he committed adultery? Of course not.

Ancient Greeks would have been baffled. For them rape was the usual violent behaviour, a fact of life, and consent did not come into it. It was violence not against the will of a person but against the protector of that person, i.e. her father, legal guardian or husband. His ‘property’ had been damaged, so a charge of ‘violence’ was brought by her protector, and the offender typically punished with a fine assessed by the jury at the trial.

Adultery, however, was a quite different matter. The reason is that it had a direct effect on the family, the institution the Greeks valued more than any other. Various punishments were possible, but if the adulterer was caught in the act, the protector could kill him on the spot and, if charged with murder, could plead that he had acted lawfully; the wife was automatically divorced.

The reason for this draconian punishment — the term ‘draconian’, derived from the 7th C BC Athenian lawmaker Drakôn, is used literally in this case — was twofold. First, whereas rape was merely a physical assault, the sort of thing anyone could expect at any time, adultery was seduction, an attempt to subvert the loyalty of the woman to her husband, family and home. Secondly, since adultery was not likely to be a one-off but to involve the woman’s eager co-operation, it was more likely to produce children. That jeopardised the whole basis of Athenian society, since only legitimate children could be full citizens. Adultery threatened to debase that vital coinage.

The modern western reaction to these issues is far more humane, but there still lurk rumblings from the past about the eternal accessibility of women, the dominance of the male, and the inviolability of marriage.