Religion and sexual violence in late Greco-Roman antiquity

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Patricia Cox Miller


Religion, Sexual violence, Greco-Roman, Antiquity

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Religion


Rape is a motif found in numerous religious texts of late Greco-Roman antiquity, often explicitly. At other times, a rape motif is present in the form of eroticized violence, a figural use of rape.

Feminist film critics have analyzed the gaze as a form of sexual violence at a distance. The gaze plays a prominent role in late antique accounts of the martyrdom of Christian women. The gaze also appeared to be a powerful tool for the social control of women in Christian congregations.

In addition to these forms of sexual violence, there are other categories of behavior that should be numbered among the forms of sexual violence in religious texts of late antiquity: castration and rhetorical emasculation. The self-castrated Galli, the priests of Cybele, for example, were objects of scorn and fascinated horror. Emasculating rhetoric was used by bishops for exerting control over their congregations.

The power dynamics at work within these texts are far from simple. Sexual violence appears in these texts as an attempt to assert power over another. There is evidence in the texts that this deployment is resisted. Further, the resistance is often recuperated into the strategic deployment. Sometimes power seems to predominate on the side of deployment or resistance, but the dynamics are never simple.

Sexual violence is not incidental to these religious texts, an anomalous intrusion that is peripheral to their religious concerns. Sexual violence in all its forms appears to be a way of figuring and negotiating the divine-human relationship in late antiquity. Even when sexual violence is used in religious contexts primarily for social control, as in the use of the gaze and emasculating rhetoric, there is a religious agenda at work.

The religious texts of late antiquity that allude to sexual violence replicate the dynamics of that violence. Neither the deployment of the various strategies of sexual violence nor the resistance to them is completely successful. Sexual violence is a field within which the relationship between God (or the gods) and human beings is figured and negotiated.


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