Ancient historian Darah Vann Orr explains how modern feminist historians are re-evaluating Roman culture in the wake of the #MeToo era.
Gary:: Hello everyone. This is your host Gary. Today’s episode comes with a disclaimer. The material that we are talking about is not suitable for young children as it deals with the topic of sexual violence in the ancient world. While this topic may be disturbing for some I think it is one that must be explored. And I think that this particular episode is without doubt the best episode of the French History podcast yet, and probably will remain so for quite some time because the subject matter is so incredibly important. And I was utterly thrilled to sit down and talk with an expert on this issue which is not only important in and of itself but has recently caused a firestorm of controversy within the ancient historical profession. So, if you can stomach a more gruesome part of history I think this is a must listen to episode. We left off in our last episode with the commencement of the Gaelic wars by guys Julius Caesar. These wars saw the conquest of Gaul by the Romans. The Romans brought to Gaul their political structure, economic apparatus and language, but additionally they brought with them a hyper masculine culture that glorified sexual violence against women. And it is this culture which ancient historian Darah Vann Orr describes as a Roman rape culture that we are discussing. Darah Vann Orr is a PHd candidate at the University of Houston studying women gender and sexuality of the early Roman Empire. Her dissertation in progress, rape and imperialism, Rome’s violent conquest of land and bodies seeks to explain how the Romans associated sexual violence with warfare. She recently gave a talk for the University of Houston’s ancient world research group titled Myths, Means and Hashtag Me Too where she discussed some of the theoretical background of her dissertation project explaining how Roman myths and history can be analyzed by using the ideas from the ME2 movement. Before we jump into the interview I want to give a bit of background on the topic itself because this is a highly controversial topic that has inflamed classical studies. This debate gained worldwide prominence in 2015 when the Columbia Spectator published the article. Our Identities Matter in Core Classrooms, which called for a re-evaluation of Greco Roman myths and literature that more adequately addressed the rampant misogyny and sexual violence within them. This article was widely criticized from the left and right. From BreitBart.com, to Stephen Fry, as they claimed that overly sensitive college students were trying to rewrite history and the canon of Western literature and make them politically correct. Despite the fact that the article never called for rewriting these works and just called for a new interpretation of them. Those feminists historians who sided with the Columbia Spectator were lambasted and some even received death threats. The debate died down until 2017 when the hashtag me too movement exploded across the world. In the wake of a global awakening towards rampant sexual violence. Feminist historians have reawakened this debate arguing that Greco Roman myths not receive a free pass from criticism that they have had for so long. This is without a doubt the most controversial episode of this podcast so far and will be for quite a while. I imagine that many people will disagree with the conclusions that Miss Vann Orr and I come to. However regardless of whether or not you agree with us, we believe that this debate is absolutely essential to have. There is nothing wrong with bringing a new perspective to the table. The way the historical process works is that new perspectives emerge and challenge the old and either the old are swept away by superior arguments or the new die off due to their inferiority. New perspectives on old sources is what makes history. For nearly 2000 years women have been left out of the conversation regarding greco roman culture and mythology. Over the past 70 years women have been able to enter into academia with some notable size and they have been able to engage with the historical debate causing quite a few people to feel threatened by the critiques they are presenting to long established historical canon. My hope is that you will listen to the following conversation and be entertained and perhaps even enlightened to the issues feminists historians are grappling with. Whether or not you agree with us is irrelevant. Rather the only thing that matters is that we can have a civil conversation even about topics that are unsavory and by their nature on civil. With that in mind let’s jump into today’s episode hashtag. Me too and Roman rape culture.
Gary:: Thank you very much for joining me. Darah
Vann Or: thank you for having me.
Gary: Yeah, it’s you, know I always enjoy talking to you, although the subject matter that we’re going to be talking about now it’s it’s quite a bit heavier than our usual talk about fire festival or ruin escape or other just nothings because, you know me, like I’m the type of person who when I’m outside of the classroom I kind of don’t like to talk about history, yeah like, I try to have a life outside of history because so many of our when you’re in academia when you’re in the ivory tower as we are looking out like Rapunzel trying to escape at least that’s me. Everyone else just talks, they go out to bars and yet they talk about their students and how they don’t know about who Ida B Wells is, or that sort of thing or they talk about 1960s race relations, and you and me we’re just not on that wavelength.
Vann Orr: Yeah I’d definitely like to stay grounded and away from my studies whenever I possibly can.
Gary: I think the only thing that I’ve seen of you that actually relates to history outside of the classroom is when you go to like a toga party or something to get free salad?
Vann Or: That one time, yes it’s probably one of my favorite college memories so far as having a free Caesar salad contest because I wear a toga. I’m also a super fan of Caesar salads in general so I don’t know if that’s related to history or just a personal preference.
Gary: I’ve never heard of someone who was a fan of Caesar salad.
Vann Or: I’m very picky about them too. I really can’t be crazy or you know weird, carrots or weird stuff, and it has to be the five main ingredients of a Caesar salad.
Gary: OK, See that’s too dorky even for me like, I thought we had connected at one point because during this one professional historian class we we talked about what got us into history and for you and for me it was the myths that I’ve said it long before that myths are sort of the gateway drug to history. I’m copyrighting that saying but being a fan of Caesar salads.
Vann Or: OK. Well it’s it’s funny, I never actually considered my being a fan of mythology from a young age, I never connected that with what I’m doing now until you said that in the class. Yeah. So it’s something that I was interested in for a long time but then whenever I got into history in college I’m sort of a disconnect and between the time period that I like myths and the time period I’ve started studying history until now running it all back together again.
Gary: Well it’s interesting, and I suppose that for you it’s a very special thing because the way that I have connected my love of myths with history is that it’s more, how do I even put this, It’s more thematic because I look at modern history particularly within the last hundred and fifty years, an era where our problem is not that there isn’t enough information but that there’s way too much and you have to make it relevant. And so this whole mythmaking it’s a very it’s thematic but it’s not so much factual whereas for you it seems like because you classicist might have one piece of information from which you have to create this whole world or culture like it seems like myth and history are very I’m not going to say that one in the same but …
Vann Orr: Oh they are once and in some cases more than others because the ancient historians are the primary sources were actually their secondary sources. Right. Yeah. So they’re pulling together oral history and artwork and all of these things together to make this historical narrative which we now look at and say,. it probably didn’t actually happen and whether or not, I don’t know if they believed.their own myths that they told or if it was a part of just their collective history was their mythology.
Gary: right, and it gets even more problematic because so much of the supposedly factual information is so very unreliable, like I think my favorite is Herodotus, which I’m just mentioning Herodotus, I know for the classicist you’re proud you’re smiling right now. But when Herodotus said that the Leonidas and his his oiled up troop of warrior faced off against the Persian Empire that the Persians had five and a half million on army size. But even if you include like camp followers and everything that’s just that’s that’s wrong isn’t it there.
Vann Orr: Well a lot of these numbers, OK, current just wasn’t there you know sitting and counting the troops. OK. So and some of these numbers are actually taken from the Iliad and from these other sources and they just keep the the number of values like the number of ships is directly from the Homeric epics. But it’s also it’s serving a purpose. They had a really big army right. Numbers, I think Dr. Holt actually has a line in one of his books saying,,, if you have a number that’s very specific then you can probably believe it. But if it’s something that’s really, or no the other way around.
Gary: If it’s a round number it’s like marketing you know. Ten easy steps to success. You know like like the last three or just padding you know because you’re not going to have, well you might have seven but it’s having something like, OK, in any case now we’re not in marketing but I get the point never mind.
Gary: Well I’m glad we sort of laid this groundwork of this combination of myths as history because I think the core of what I want to get at in this interview is just the importance of the myths we’re looking at to these cultures. What we’re going to look at is very heavy and I think that for me looking back at a lot of these myths I couldn’t help but think you almost look at these myths when you’re first reading them as sort of, more literary than historical or relevant. And so when you hear about murders and what we’re going to be talking about rape and incest and cannibalism and all these things, you don’t look at them with the same sort of, you don’t look at them as if they’re reality. I mean one comparison I was thinking about when I was perhaps pairing for this interview was how we when watch a movie or something we can watch a movie like commando or the, what’s that new series with Keanu Reeves whereas the dog—yea John Wick, where he brutally murders hundreds of people and you don’t look the other way. But meanwhile every now and then I’ll be on Reddit or something and I’ll see a gif of someone who is on a skateboard and wipes out and falls down the stairs and I’ll cringe. There’s this visceral reaction. And so there’s this, there’s almost as this gap as our brain filters out reality and then what we know to be fake and what I think is interesting is that those of us in the modern era when we read these old Greek mythology or other mythologies that we hear or we read about these truly horrendous things we look at them as more of literary devices, whereas those people back then they might have actually believed it in reality and so therefore is more powerful to them. And what we’re going to get into, particularly in relation to the article are identities matter and core classrooms is that I think one of the major points that they were bringing up is the fact that these are not just literary devices and that this these these incidences actually had a very powerful impact on the Greco roman psyche. Am I wrong?
Vann Orr: I think it goes both ways. Where, it is just like our culture today and I want to make a lot of these comparisons not to say that the Greco Roman world is the same as today but we can use a lot of the same ideas. So, we have what could be described as a rape culture in our current era, right. So, defined as a widespread system and beliefs that socializes people to accept, justify, defend, deny the presence of rape or sexual assault. And so whenever you have that you have people in charge of making media that perpetuates and is also an example of this culture. So in the ancient world it’s very similar where you have these men who believe that rape is OK, perpetuating the myths that rape is OK, which people are reading and seeing that rape is OK.
Gary: So, on that note I kind of want to talk about the greater project that you are working on because you have actually turned this into a dissertation and something which I very much look forward to reading once it’s in paperback but the project that you’re working on is about rethinking Greco Roman history and mythology with a hashtag me too lens. Can you give us an intro into how this all got started.
Vann Orr: Yeah. So my project is, the dissertation is specifically looking at the early Roman Empire rape culture and how that’s corresponding to the ideas of conquest and imperialism. So war is rape, rape is war, that idea. And I have started from the beginning of college wanting to write about women’s history and this has turned into women and gender and sexuality history. And ancient history and the classics can sometimes be an echo chamber of the same ideas over and over. And because I have a background in feminist theory, I’m able to bring in a new perspective to three thousand year old myths using the hashtag me too movement as a framework to study this period.
Gary: So before I get back to the questions that I had prepared, I need to stop at this definition when you provided of rape culture. I think that’s a good definition in general but I have to ask, is the rape culture that we have seen in maybe specific institutions which have recently come under fire or certain fraternal societies. Is there a categorical difference that you see between modern institutions and then the Greco roman society.
Vann Orr: I guess one of the biggest differences right now that we’re seeing is that rape is actually a lot more out in the open than it was in the Greco Roman periods. So both that we are talking about it more because of the me too movement itself, but also because we have a specific name for these things.
Vann Orr: There wasn’t really a name for this is rape in this way. This is sexual assault or this is sexual harassment and or this is rape culture. We have those that terminology now that we can use. Whereas before it was this woman was abducted, this woman was snatched away,
Gary: Do you want to explain the difference in the Greek and the Latin, the word that they used.
Vann Orr: So the Romans had the word raptus, and it’s pretty easy to see how we get the word rape from that or rapture as well. So it’s like capturing, grabbing, snatching, taking. But in a lot of these contexts it’s capturing a woman and then she’s pregnant. So there is the underlying assumption that this can be conflated with the actual act of sexual assault. And so the title of one of the myths we’ll be looking at is the rape of the Sabine Women. And this is a canonized title. So everybody has used this title, but very often, even on the wikipedia page right now it says, oh well, rape in this case just means the abduction, and…OK. But there’s rape there. In the Greek the word harpazo, which is very similar snatched, grab. We get the word harpy. Which interestingly they are traditionally agents of Zeus.
Gary: Well, I mean, no surprise there and I’m sure we’re going to get into that. In that case, there’s again, when I look at this there’s so many myths to choose from, particularly towards the founding of Rome which we’ll get to in a moment. But you cornered in on three specific myths and how they relate to modern points of debate over sexual identity. Do you want to introduce those three ones that you brought up in your most recent talk.
Vann Orr: The three myths that I looked that were Helen of Troy when considering consent, Callisto as told by Ivan’s metamorphosis whenever we’re thinking about rape culture and finally the rape of the Sabine Women when we are thinking about toxic masculinity.
Gary: Yeah. Let’s let’s break those down then.
Vann Orr: Helen of Troy is one of the most popular women in historical fiction. She comes up a lot in movies and TV shows there’s a recent Netflix series about Troy where she’s there and most of the modern media is portraying Helen as having a reluctant, consensual affair with Paris or slash Alexander depending on your translation. In the midst themselves of the affair or the relationship between Helen and Paris is very ambiguous. There’s not a lot of information on it and there’s lots of different sources giving conflicting information about their relationship. But if we look at book three in the Iliad, so this is the fight between Menelaus and Paris are fighting over Helen. Helen is has already been abducted at this point.But she’s basically done with this whole thing. She doesn’t want to be a part of it. Whether she was at the beginning or not, but Book 3 makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be with Paris anymore. But Aphrodite is intimidating her to going to bed with Paris to the point of saying she’s going to bring her divine wrath against her if she doesn’t. And I believe that this is, Aphrodite is a stand in for a male aggressive desire and a reflection of the nonconsensual nature of their relationship. The Trojan War supposedly started with the judgment of Paris. This is the competition between the three goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite and the golden apple. So Paris is asked by Hermes to judge whose the most beautiful out of the three goddesses and each of the three offer him something in return for this apple. So, Athena offers him wisdom, Hera offers him power and Aphrodite offers him the most beautiful woman in the world. And so Paris chooses Aphrodite and his prize is Helen. So, from the beginning, even if we want to say for example, Aphrodite convinced Helen to go with Paris or even if Paris convinced Helen to go with him. These are still examples of a coercive or coercive relationship that’s not 100 percent consensual. And what we know from the ME2 era if it’s not a hundred percent consensual is not consensual.
Gary: Right. Let’s unpack that just a little bit because, essentially I think our conception of consent is so different from, I mean, not even from thousands of years ago but even from our last generation or thirty years ago. So so what would you say is the differences between how the Ancients viewed consent and then how we see it in the wake of the ME2 era.
Vann Orr: All right. So even, we’ll say from the ancients, I don’t know if the ancients necessarily had a view of consent, right.
Gary: That is that’s quite the problem there.
Vann Orr: Yeah. And there’s a lot of philosophical arguments I don’t know if you want to get into this… So if women weren’t legal bodies could they actually consent. Was any was any sexual affairs and ancient Rome consensual?
Gary: And I think on that note I couldn’t help but think because here’s something where actually our two professions overlap because this concept of consent. This is really something I don’t think people even realize how new it is. I think so much of the things that we take for granted as a moral standard within our society is actually something that is barely come about. And so some of the examples that I would bring up is that, I don’t know how many people know this but throughout most of Western history the idea of sexual violence within a marriage not being violent or not being considered immoral was pretty much accepted up until about 70 years ago in fact Alaska became the last state in the United States of America to ban marital rape in the 1950s. And so this idea that women can actually say no and that they don’t owe sex to someone, this is something that…..
Vann Orr: I would argue that a lot more recent than that did marital rape become an idea even though legally it was a thing. It’s still I think in a lot of people’s minds it’s not really a thing.
Gary: Well yeah. On that note, I was going to also mention, some of those people who don’t know who Phyllis Schlafly is. Phyllis Schlafly was sort of the counter to the second wave feminist movement during the 1960s and 70s where you had a lot of women who are trying to bring up concepts of sexual violence and to change the narrative. Phyllis Schlafly was arguing that the modern feminists were essentially degrading motherhood and degrading the traditional position of women. And Phyllis Schlafly when asked if there was such a thing as violence between husband and wife, she said that there was no such thing as rape within a marriage, that essentially sex was something that women owed men. So this really. it’s like you said this is not something that is not ancient. Yeah. This is something which is stay with us to this day. So I think that’s a good look at the differences of consent and how this is something that has constantly been evolving and how in mythology at least in this period there really wasn’t a clear idea of consent if there was one at all. So you brought up the issue of consent but then you had a let’s move on to the next myth of Callisto. So what did you draw from that.
Vann Orr: Callisto has been presented in a lot of different mythological works so he’s here is where she first shows up. But I’m going to talk about specifically in Ahmed’s metamorphosis which is one of the the more recent versions and it’s definitely the longest version. So Callisto can serve as an example of rape culture. Rape culture works by putting the blame on the perpetrator and away from the victim. So the story of Callisto shows this in the following way. Callisto is a virgin nymph follower of Diana, who is the Roman version of Artemus and Zeus or in this case Jupiter wants to get to her. Wants to capture her, right, abduct her. So he sees her and he disguises himself as Diana to get to her. So he’s able to get close to her and talk to her and distract her. And then eventually it’s described as him grabbing her and all that describes her fighting back. So he says if Juno would have seen her fighting back she wouldn’t be mad at her because of how hard she fought, but because it’s Jupiter she’s not able to. So she becomes pregnant from the rape and because of this she’s kicked out of Diana’s entourage for violating her vows of chastity and Juno attacks her out of jealousy and rage. So oddly describes Juno as pulling her to the ground by her hair and then as he does this Callisto turns into a bear. So she loses her voice, she loses her family, she loses her son who doesn’t recognize her as a bear, and then eventually her and her son are turned into the constellations Ursa Major and Minor. She’s full of guilt. She’s full of shame. And this shows how the blame of rape, of her assault is placed on her rather than on Zeus or Jupiter. Jupiter is able to get away into the sky and Callisto is left there voiceless and without her family.
Gary: Right. This is the sort of thing that I think we would regularly look at if we were looking at it through a purely modern lens if someone had written this as a fiction. And this is a clear example of here the woman is being shamed because she was the victim rather than the man being shamed. And so I think that’s quite a good example. So before we try to tie this and tie this in, but also justify that because I think that even bringing this up as we have seen is quite controversial. There’s one more myth that you looked at this one being the rape of the Sabine Women. You want to jump into that?
Vann Orr: So, the founding or the creation of the city of Rome is described as being through this myth, The Rape of the Sabine Women. Romulus one of the the mythical founders, the first king of Rome. He created a sanctuary to start his city in Louzen. A bunch of men no matter if they were slaves before criminals. Doesn’t matter. Forgiveness, amnesty. Come to my town. Let’s grow it. But it’s just men. So in order to grow the city beyond a single generation they need to get wives. Their first idea is to go around to the different neighboring cities and ask for political alliances and all of them refused to to help them out. So finally Romulus decides to throw a religious festival and give a signal. And at that time all of the Roman men abduct the other cities young women and carry them off. Eventually, Romulus tells them that they’re going to be the mothers of the Roman race. They’re going to be a part of the ownership of the splinters of Rome and they the women accept that. So even if we don’t call this a rape we can call this an abduction and kidnapping and forced marriage which sounds great as well.
Gary: It’s a bit rapey
Vann Orr: it’s a lot rapey.
Gary: Yeah. And at the end of the myth the Sabine Women essentially accept that is legitimate.
Vann Orr: Yes. So there’s a big fight between the Sabine families, right, the mothers and fathers whose daughters were captured and taken away and the Romans and the Sabine Women stand in between the two and say, we don’t want to lose our fathers, we don’t want to lose our husbands, we don’t want to leave our children orphaned. So, stop fighting and everyone’s like, Oh yeah it’s a great idea. They agree with the women.
Gary: Right. And essentially the moral of this story is that a woman to a large extent has to know her place. Wouldn’t you say, or essentially I mean maybe I’m misreading this but it seems like the moral is that there is a certain that, the priority is the society itself that this place is Rome. Yeah.
Vann Orr: Loyalty to Rome is the number one priority. Yeah, for Romans.
Gary: Right. And in this case even if a woman is abducted, even if she is sexually violated, that she should still give due obedience to Rome.
Gary: So, at this point now that we’ve sort of laid these on the table we have Helen of Troy, Callisto. We have the rape of the Sabine Women. I think now would be a good point to actually talk about why it is that it is important to re-examine these and to look at them through a modern feminist lens, because I have a feeling that this is by leaps and bounds going to be the most controversial episodes so far that we’ve had. And I don’t know have you faced any controversy or had people saying that your white knighting it, as of yet?
Vann Orr: No I haven’t had, I haven’t really actually been out there that much to get the backlash but it is it’s scary to be a part of this conversation.
Gary: Because, I mean even if you haven’t gotten out there personally there have been quite a few people who have been arguing this that I have been blasted by a lot of different sources left and right.
Vann Orr: Right. The mythology, the Greco Roman culture has gotten a free pass based on the virtue of it being Greco Roman culture.
Vann Orr: And in addition it’s seen as a golden era in some ways. Specially the the Roman Empire, Augustus’s era.
Gary: It’s beyond reproach.
Vann Orr: Definitely, has been the the attitude so far.
Gary: I think you’re doing a great work by re-examining this because after looking over just all of these myths, what strikes me is how pivotal rape itself was to the Greco Roman religion culture and state identity. And when I say rape I’m not talking about abduction but literally sexual violence itself. And I created a mini list here to go over the rape myths involved in the creation of Rome. The first one is The Rape of Europa by Zeus, which leads to the birth of Europe. So the founding myth of Europe as a civilization. Next we have the abduction let’s call it, of Helen of Troy which leads to the Trojan War ,which causes I Aeneas to flee and he becomes the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, who later found Rome. Next we have Raya the mortal woman, not to be confused with the titan, who is raped by Mars and gives birth to Romulus and Remus who found the city of Rome. There is then the rape of the Sabine Women which allows Rome to survive as a city and also metaphorically acts, in my opinion as a justification for Roman expansion. And then finally there’s the Rape of Lucretia which causes the Romans to rebel against the Etruscan Monarch and found a republic because they are so disgusted that a Roman woman could be raped by this corrupt king. So, basically every major foundation myth connected to Rome and its development as a society was based on rape. To the point where I think it is just insane to deny that rape was an integral part to the Roman identity. To the point where, literally there are coins commemorating and glorifying the rape of the Sabine Women. I mean this was something that was clearly part of the Roman consciousness. So why do you think it is that rape infused nearly every founding myth and proved to be so central to Roman culture and religion?
Vann Orr: Part of the answer is that rape is a really convenient plot device, just as it is in today’s media and these myths were just like today’s media. The foundation of culture things that Greeks and Romans read and reenacted for enjoyment. There are also political motives so a lot of Roman senators or Caesar for example trace their lineage back to a divine parentage and whether it was consensual or not to begin with wasn’t really that important to them. But, if we think about it in terms of today, right culture demands strict gender roles. It can lead to toxic masculinity and the idealization of passive femininity. So women are sexually available and submissive in both Greek and Roman culture. Soul, political and economic power was in the hands of the men. And ideally in Athens women wouldn’t even have been seen at all. They would stay in their house and not talk and not be named, not be a part of civic life or family life. Some Roman women did gain political power. So one of my favorite examples is Agora Pina the younger and she was the mother of Nero and in her own time she was slandered and this myth still persists today as Agora Pina had an incestuous relationship with her own son Nero.
Gary: Right, and every time a Roman emperor dies mysteriously it’s always the fault of the woman. That’s right.
Vann Orr: So, this is a culture that routinely demonizes women’s sexuality and identity. And there’s a theory that rape functions as a form of oppression against women. So keeping women in their place by the use of fear of rape. Can you imagine a better tool to keep women in their place than having the very foundation of your society based on sexual violence against women.
Gary: Right. And this is something that I’ll give this as the last justification because in my mind I don’t think we need to justify why we’re speaking about this but given just how heated this topic is I think that it’s worth noting here that you cannot talk about Roman culture, Roman identity and Roman belief without talking about rape. So maybe for those of us who are listening to this maybe you don’t necessarily agree with some of the conclusions were coming to. But it absolutely has to be talked about. I mean after looking over this and realizing that every single story about what it means to be Roman and how Rome came about and everyone was based on a rape. Whether or not you would you interpret things the same way that Darah and I do at least this is something that has to be talked about and to a large extent it really isn’t, the Greco Romans are given quite a pass.
Vann Orr: Yeah I have a comparison. I’m not sure if it’s a great comparison but it’s would be as if an antebellum historian said, yep there is slavery. Let’s talk about something else.
Gary: Yeah, although that is sort of something that is kind of done nowadays where slavery is pushed aside and people talk about states rights even though I believe it was the vice president who specifically gave a speech when the South seceded and said that the basis of the Confederacy is on the idea that the white man and the Negro are not equal. And yet today we still have a lot of people who say, Oh well wasn’t about slavery it was civil rights.
Vann Orr: Really, I don’t want to give in to that.
Gary: We’re not going to get into that because you know this episode is going to be controversial enough talking about rape so we’re not going to also bring up race politics that I know of.
Vann Orr: Even antiquity has not necessarily been ignored completely. There have been a couple of volumes in the 90s. Amy Richlin and as a huge scholar on sexual aggression in Rome. But prior to women being a part of academia, which whenever you think about the scope of Roman history or the study of Roman history, this is a huge chunk of time of only men creating the knowledge about Roman history. And there were there’s a lot of interest in political developments, economics of the Roman Empire. Why was there a transition from the Republic to the Empire who was Augustus. What do we know about Augustus, how great was Augustus. And so there was less of an interest in gender politics or social life in Rome at all. And also there wasn’t the language that we have now to talk about the rape culture or the toxic masculinity in Rome. If you want to call it that. So I think by bringing in some of the theory that hasn’t been used towards Roman history we can start to add on more layers of what we know about it rather than trying to… I’m not trying to say that Rome is bad, but just trying to understand more about Roman society than what we already know.
Gary: But unfortunately I have a feeling that even though we’re not saying that at all. There are gonna be people without even listen to the episode who are going to say all these SJW’s bashing Rome. But, on that note I want to switch a little bit from talking about the actual history itself to the historiography and I think you did a great transition there because as a story as we constantly have to deal with the problem of interpreting the past and whether we should interpret it using our values or consider the values of the time. As a woman and a feminist historian writing about Greco Roman history and myths which were written by men. How do you deal with perceived criticism of this method of speaking about them.
Vann Orr: On the one hand I think that’s how the discipline of history works. We have to find a new way to look at these two thousand year old sources and to challenge the current narrative. It’s necessary to bring new theories and new ideas into the study. But in addition you have to stay close to the primary sources. And if you have weak ties to the primary sources you leave yourself open to criticism of that sort of, identity politics. You’re a woman so you’re only thinking about women I don’t know what the critique is.
Gary: Well you know what people will make a critique like that.
Vann Orr: Right. So you know you’re bringing too much identity politics into Roman History that shouldn’t belong there. But I love the history as a dialogue and somebody can look at the same sources that I’m looking at and they can critique my interpretations as long as they’re sticking close to the sources as well. That makes sense.
Gary: Yeah. And I wanted to talk about those specific way in which you are trying to change the field because you referred to Greco Roman culture or at least one facet of it as rape culture, which is enormously provocative and controversial. But you think that that fits.
Vann Orr: Yeah it’s very scary to use words like that when it comes to Roman history because of the potential pushback. But it’s terminology and it’s a convenient way of phrasing everything that I want to phrase in two words rather than using full sentences every single time I want to describe it. But it doesn’t necessarily have a judgement towards Roman history attached to it even though I would attach a judgment to it. But it’s it’s terminology, its theory and it’s it’s useful and so I’m going to use it.
Gary: So do you think that the ME2 era has changed the historiography of your field or do you think it’s too new to see the effects that it’s had?
Vann Orr: In studying rape theory I have definitely noticed a lag in the theory, that theoretical works, and in what’s happening right now. So the Me2 movement is happening so rapidly that the history obviously can’t keep up. And so what I think we’re going to see in about three or four years is a huge proliferation of works about what we’ve learned from the ME2 era. However I don’t necessarily think that there is going to be a lot more in ancient history about rape culture in Rome. So hopefully my work can add to the history geography and start changing the direction of Roman history to start looking at more gender dynamics and how how they work.
Gary: So one final question then about the historiography before we get to the really fun stuff which is, in my field of modern history. Women had a voice, they read journals, sometimes they could vote, and otherwise argue for themselves. But in your case women are largely absent from the narrative and so historians have to read male centric and male written texts to tease out the history. How do you uncover women’s voices using male text particularly in such a virulently misogynistic society?
Vann Orr: So this story in Amy Richland I brought up earlier. She calls it arguing silence. We’re trying to wrestle information from the gaps and the omissions. But women are there in the sources. It’s just that men created these ideas of women. We don’t have representation of what women wrote but we have male perspectives of women. So I think that my project is actually easier to write than trying to write a Women’s History of Rome because we have male ideas so we can analyze the male ideas. That’s actually not that difficult of a project. It’s way more difficult to figure out who was Agra Pina because it’s all male ideas of who Agra is in some ways is unfortunate because I’m still looking at men right and wants to look at men. So men keep the central role right but I’m still trying to uncover the voices of the voiceless through this. So my project is a female perspective on the male perspective of females.
Gary: Whoa, you just pulled an inception there. But on that note, wow, what another great transition. So we’re going to move on a little bit because one thing that I wanted to talk about is pop culture and how they cover these historical periods. I think you and I are uniquely qualified to do this since we’re both video game and movie junkies. One thing that I’ve found out is that nowadays many if not the majority of movies, TV shows, or books dealing with the ancient world all the way up to the medieval period have at least one rape scene. There’s the scene in Game of Thrones with Searcy and Jamie Lannister. There’s quite a few in one of my favorite literary series The Prince of Nothing. There is the movie 300. I don’t know how you read it but as a cinephile I get the sense that it’s a way of authenticating the work. That on the one hand by having a rape scene in a historical show, it shows that the show deals with serious topics and is therefore mature. But also it casts itself as historically accurate because it demonstrates that this was a misogynistic time. So what do you think about this paradigm in popular culture. I think we can criticize this as being dramatic but are they really wrong to think that a show about pre modern times must have a rape scene to be authentic.
Vann Orr: The question is interesting because I think when we look at it in that way we see that people really do understand that Rome didn’t have a lot of rape in it. And so it shows an understanding if you want to call it that, of how bad things in the world was in that respect. But in my opinion I don’t think it’s a way to authenticate the historical fiction. I think it’s a way to display rape on the screen and not to answer the hard questions about it. Whenever there is a pushback against a room they had rape right. They were just doing what they had rather than just actually answering the questions about why are you showing this. What purpose does it serve. Right. They actually dealing with rape is dealing with the aftermath and the intense violation of body and identity of a woman. Or is it trying to provide shock value or have a spectacle for a male audience to see. Nine times out of ten or maybe ten times or maybe ten times out of ten rape on the screen is done in a very disturbing way.
Gary: Yeah. I mean aside from just the fact that itself is disturbing but the way that it’s handled. Exactly. Yeah you know that’s that’s really interesting I hadn’t considered that perspective before. It’s amazing how if you say that Rome or even a medieval period had a rape culture. Like just saying that will have some people get offended but meanwhile if you show a rape on the screen and say oh well this was just in the middle of a times there’s that connection for people so I guess there’s just this desire for people not to have feminist narratives to take over.
Vann Orr: Yeah it’s the want to acknowledge rape without having to engage with the realities of rape. Or to show boobs and butts on the screen right. And at the same time as we all get to perpetuate myths about rape in our own time. So you know asking for it or a woman must in some way have brought her own assault upon her. Those sorts of myths get perpetuated and on the screen in the media.
Gary: So one strange thing about Hollywood is that people think it’s so progressive when in reality, it really isn’t. Despite the fact that green book won the Best Picture last night so often the movies produced by major studios are horrendously backward. One strange thing about most of these films is that they depict rape much as the ancient Greco Roman writers did for example in Game of Thrones. There is the infamous scene where Searcy Lannister is mourning her dead son Joffrey, rest in peace, and her brother Jamie enters and he wants to have sex. She refuses but then he forces himself on her and she accepts and then supposedly enjoys it. There are quite a few books and films that I’ve seen where the same topos takes place where a woman starts out resisting only for it to turn into consent midway through. Do you think there is a reason that this narrative remains.
Vann Orr: What’s really telling about the episode of Game of Thrones that you mention is that the director Alex Greaves defends his decision for the scene claims that it’s consensual by the end because somehow consent can magically appear at the end of a rape.
Gary: or consent is something which you can get at the end rather than what starts the sexual encounter.
Vann Orr: right. So it seems that these directors are both a reflection of and a perpetuator of of this rape culture and, the idea that a survivor of an assault eventually enjoys it is a really really horrible thing to perpetuate. So to have the idea of your body reacted, or your body felt pleasure from it. That means you actually consented. That’s a horrible horrible thing to be perpetuating in these movies and TV shows.
Gary: And what’s interesting I think is that this topos isn’t just something that is and let’s say raunchier films and television which are often aimed at male audiences. But this is something which is quite often aimed at female audiences as well. Even young girls. Case in point was specifically mentioning Twilight, Stephanie Meyer’s The Host and then, Fifty Shades of Grey which is aimed at women. Case in point, Fifty Shades of Grey, where Christian Grey stalks, harasses and threatens Anastasia Steele until she is coerced into sex. Metaphorically the same thing happens in Twilight and in Stephanie Meyer’s, The Host where in both books and films there is an instance where a girl doesn’t want to be in a relationship with someone or kiss a boy but then the boy forces her into it and she accepts his advances because he’s hot and rich. So in that sense do you think that we have moved beyond this ancient Greco Roman narrative. Or are we still just echoing the same idea that as long as the guy is hot, rich or serving the glory of Rome that therefore it’s OK.
Vann Orr: It’s interesting that these works that you bring up are by women and for women. And I think on the one hand it shows this internalise rape culture that again like Alex Graves, I don’t thing that they realize what they’re creating counts as rape or coerced or assault or not fully consensual which anything other than fully consensual is not consensual. I think it becomes a way to project female agency and sexuality in a way that’s maybe misplaced but still an attempt to do so. So Anastasia or Bella, they choose these men with dark sides and it’s a super common topos and supernatural romance stories. And even if we look at the myth of Percephine and Hades some sometimes that story becomes sexualized and a lot of times it becomes fetishized. Right. Of this idea of a bad boy. These are those two that you mentioned are actually before me to come to full fruition. And now we’re calling them out because we can and we have that knowledge that this is not really OK. But I don’t think the answer is a shame these women authors because they’re trying to encapsulate this idea of female sexuality and women can have whatever sexual desires that they want to, but we do need to be perpetuating what a healthy relationship looks like in novels but maybe that doesn’t have the same shelf appeal.
Gary: Well I want to make it very clear now that we have the French history podcast do not kink shame people. We just want you to understand whether or not your kings are culturally acceptable. So one. So one last question on pop culture is that if Darah ran Hollywood, how would you deal with issues of rape in a circle fiction.
Vann Orr: There’s no tasteful way to make a rape scene.
But I think if directors want to explore ancient misogyny or ancient rape culture or violence against women, sexual assault in the ancient world, women need to be the protagonists they need to be the main characters in the story. So make it their story and their reactions and their voices. So rape scene shouldn’t be an afterthought. You know what this movie could really use. Rape you know it shouldn’t be used as shock value but if it has to be used, if the director really really needs it at the movie, it has to be an exploration of attitudes and the way that it affects women deeply to their identity and their sense of self and don’t show them enjoying it.
Gary: So now we’re getting to the end of this podcast. So in closing, this podcast has an audience of both scholars and laypeople. What takeaway do you think scholars should take from your work and this greater examination of rape culture in the ancient world.
Vann Orr: The Me2 movement is a framework. It’s a way that we can understand the past. And it’s a starting point to look at gender relationships of the past and it might not work in every instance. It’s a way to begin looking at sexual assault and rape in the past.
Gary: So what do you think lay audiences should take away from this. Because from my understanding lay audiences have a vague awareness that women were treated much worse the farther back you go in history. Yet at the same time there is this other idea that well that’s just how things were. Can you address that. And is there a problem with having this mentality.
Vann Orr: So the main takeaway I would say is to question and criticize the ancient world and what you see in the media about the acient world and honestly question and criticize the world today. In addition to being a theoretical framework the Me2 movement is and it’s an assertion that the voices of women and all survivors matter and just saying oh that’s how things were. It’s dismissive ,it’s dismissive of good historical thought. And it’s also dismissive of the women who were and are abused. It allows Zeus’s and Weinstein’s to remain innocent and allows Callisto’s to stay silent.
Gary: I think to the point that you bring up to criticize everything is something that is really at the heart of this entire conversation because, on the one hand there is quite a bit of pushback against even the notion of critiquing the Greco Roman world and that we should just accept any thing that we have a personal discomfiture with as being a product of the time whereas being a literary device when nothing is beyond criticism. And so whether or not we adjust our value judgments to accommodate a separate time the fact is is that even ancient sources from thousands of years ago are not, they should not be impervious to value judgments.
Vann Orr: And I think whenever we say criticize what we’re seeing is really analyze. All right. So not necessarily saying again not saying, Rome bad. Right but saying that we need to take a different look, a different perspective on these sources and we can learn a lot about the past by using present ideas.
Gary: Well thank you very much Darah for engaging in this conversation. This has been absolutely fantastic, truly enlightening and it’s always great talking to you.
Vann Orr: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Gary: As always donations keep the podcast going. So if you would like to visit our page and either make a one time donation or become a patron please consider doing so. Thank you very much for listening.