Men have ruled Rome for almost 3000 years. Women were a lot of things: worshipped, revered, subjugated and raped, but they were never in charge. The patriarchal paradigms of governance, law and thinking that came out of Ancient Roman civilization, and that much of the world abides by, have been continually perverted as history repeats itself in a cycle of rule, war and ruin, and at this point, even the littlest wins against this are worth celebrating.
On June 19th of this year, Virginia Raggi, a 38-year-old lawyer, became Rome’s first female mayor. This is not a little win. This is a complete change to the order of things.
Like many ancient myths and tales, Rome’s origin story is one in which woman play a supporting role. The most enduring version is that Amulius, the King, forces his niece Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin to keep her from bearing children who might overthrow him, like he overthrew his own brother Numitor. Rhea breaks her Vestal vows, either by choice or force, is impregnated by the god Mars himself, and nine months later, gives birth to two beautiful boys. Her uncle orders the boys thrown into the Tiber, but the servant charged with drowning the babies can’t bring himself to. Instead, he puts Romulus and Remus in a basket by the river’s edge.
Starving and wailing, the newborns attract the attention of a lactating She-Wolf who suckles and saves them, and eventually becomes the symbol of Rome. The she-wolf in this story was most likely a human woman, especially since Roman slang for prostitute is, “lupa,” aka female wolf.
The boys grow up and become shepherds who eventually kill their uncle, restore their grandfather to the throne, and set out to found their own cities. But things go south when Remus makes fun of the wall Romulus built. Enraged, Romulus kills his brother on the spot, and Rome is born. In summation: a young woman is raped, and her son eventually founds a city.
After founding his city, Romulus is hell-bent on populating it. When “wife” negotiations with the neighbouring Sabine’s fall through, he moves on to plan B: the abduction of an entire community of women. At the Sabine’s annual Neptune Festival, the Romans infiltrate the party, grab the women and fight off the men. It’s referred to in history books as the Rape of the Sabines but according to Livy, Romulus spoke to each of the abductees and convinced them to accept their fates, marry strangers and become Romans—and they agreed. YEAH, OKAY, SURE. Women are abducted, raped and forced into marriages, and Rome is populated.
The Rape of the Sabines stands out as one of many violent acts against women that propel Ancient Rome forward. Another is the Rape of Lucretia. Operas have been written about her and great art made about what she endured and the virtue she came to represent.
It was around 500 BC. Times were tough in Rome. Infighting abounded and the monarchy was on shaky ground. While other Roman wives were partying like it was 1999 and stepping out on their men, Lucretia remained hopelessly devoted to her husband, Collatinus, a Roman consul.
Etruscan King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus sends his son, Prince Sextus to stay at Collatinus’ home, and ever the hostess, Lucretia ensures he’s treated like the royalty he is. Sextus later gets into an argument with Collatinus about the virtue of wives, and to prove his point to his host, he sneaks into Lucretia’s room that night and tries to rape her. When she resists, Sextus gives her two options: sex Sextus and become the future Queen, or refuse and he will kill her and her servants and arrange their bodies to look like they were having an orgy. After the rape, a despondent Lucretia tells her husband and father what happened. Unable to rid herself of the pain and shame, she takes a dagger to her chest and stabs herself in the heart right in front of them.
An inconsolable Collatinus and his friend Brutus vow to overthrow the Roman monarchy and let the people rule their city. An election is held with Lucretia’s dead body on display, and Romans vote for a Roman Republic instead of a Roman Kingdom.
Like many ancient stories, the details of this one are debatable, but the legend is not. A woman was raped, the monarchy is overthrown, and Rome becomes a Republic.
A few women did get to enjoy the perks of full citizenry in Ancient Rome. These were the retired Vestal Virgins. The Vestals were regarded as living deities and their sole purpose was to keep the flame of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, burning day and night, forever. When Rome faltered or armies failed, Vestals were blamed for neglecting the fire, and sometimes flogged and or killed by live burial. After 30 years of virginal service that started in childhood, retired Vestals were given a pension and the right to vote. They could also marry and have sex. (Little wins?)
When Popes took over as leaders of Rome, little changed for women. In fact, things got worse, since all the pagan goddesses once so revered were now illegal to worship. Men ruled the “no girls at the top” Catholic Church with fervour, but in the 800s, one woman snuck through. Before becoming the first and only female pontiff, a German woman named Joan apparently disguised herself as a boy named John and made her way to Rome. John became a Cardinal and eventually got elected as Pope. Unfortunately, during a papal precession, she went into labour. After being discovered as female, Joan was either stoned or dragged behind a horse until she died. Despite over 500-chronicled accounts of her existence, the Catholic Church, still very, very sad that they got played by a girl, refuses to acknowledge her story as anything but a myth. A woman rises to power and is murdered.
Roman history is full pivotal moments born out of violence against women, which is why the election of Virginia Raggi as the city’s current mayor, is not only a huge change, but an opportunity to heal. Raggi is from Rome. She grew up alongside the beauty, history and patriarchy that seeps out of the streets and buildings there. She first came to politics to address a very pedestrian complaint—the sidewalks of Rome were in a disastrous state and mothers with strollers could not easily navigate them. Her To Do list has since grown to include cleaning up most of Rome’s literal and figurative garbage: the political equivalent of trying to clean the entire Colosseum with a doll’s toothbrush.
Everyone on the right side of history is rooting for Raggi. After thousands of years of violence, rape and “mulier est hominis confusio” (woman is man’s ruin), Rome has finally raised up one of its daughters.
Mystic’s Note: Raggi is Sun-Lilith-Jupiter in Cancer – ultra matriarchal and fierce, bringing to mind one of the older titles for Lilith – The Protector. Her Moon is in either Sagittarius or Capricorn and her Mercury is in Leo on Saturn, fantastic for awesome gravitas and sombre clarity with style.
Image: Peter Paul Rubens – Rhea and Mars
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