Androgynous Virgins and the Threat of Rape in the Fourth Century

  • Maud Burnett McInerney
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

In Caesarea, in Palestine, in 308 or 309, a virgin from Gaza was arrested and publicly tortured, not for being a Christian, although she was one, but because, horrified by stories of women sexually abused by the Roman authorities, she had dared to suggest that any emperor who appointed such ministers was a tyrant. Her crime, in other words, was political and not religious; she had spoken treason. In the crowd that witnessed her torture stood another virgin named Valentina. She shouted out to the executioners, demanding to know how long her “sister” was to be brutalized. As she must have known would happen, she too was arrested and dragged up to the tribunal, where she kicked over the altar, scattering the coals from the brazier upon which Christians were invited to cast incense in honor of the emperor. Evidently, this gave the authorities an idea: Valentina and the woman from Gaza were burned to death together.1

Keywords

Married Woman Sexual Desire Fourth Century Store Brand Double Crown 
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Notes

  1. 2.
    G. E. M. de Ste Croix argued that the Great Persecution wasn’t so great after all; see “Aspects of the Great Persecution,” HThR 47 (1954): 75–113. T. D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981) believes that de Ste Croix underestimates the body count. Certainly Christians in the hundreds died between 303 and 312 in the East as a result of edicts promulgated by Diocletian; many more were tortured and released. See Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, pp. 20–24 and 148–63.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    On the criteria for establishing historical veracity in accounts of martyrdom, the best is still Hippolyte Delehaye, Les Passions des Martyrs et les Genres Littéraires (Brussels: Bollandistes, 1920; rpt. 1966).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Influential examples of transvestite rhetoric include Jerome’s insistence that the woman who leaves her husband for the sake of her Savior “will cease to be a woman and will be called man” (Adv. Jov., PL 23: 533) or Gregory of Nyssa’s doubt concerning whether his sister Macrina can still be accurately called a woman, given the degree to which she has surpassed her “nature” (Life of Macrina, ed. with French trans. P. Maraval, Sources chrétiennes 178 (Paris: Cerf, 1971)). On femaleness as a transcendable defect see, among many others, Elizabeth A. Clarke, Jerome, Chrysostom and Friends, Studies in Women and Religion 2 (1979), p. 55; Jane Tibbets Schulenburg, Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society ca. 500–1100 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 155–66.Google Scholar
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    For a polemical view of Christians as persecutors, see Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), especially chapter 1.Google Scholar
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    Ambrose appealed to this law in his attempt to avoid being made bishop of Milan; as governor of Liguria he had presided over judicial torture. Neil B. McLynn, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 45.Google Scholar
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    “Even Euripides’ Hippolytus, the most famous sexual abstinent of classical literature, when he says his body is pure of sexual contact…boasts his soul is ‘a maiden.’ His transgressive withdrawal from the life of a citizen finds expression in the extraordinary description of his soul in such perverse gender terms.” Simon Goldhill, Foucault’s Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Michel Foucault quoting Achilles Tatius in The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality, vol. 3, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1986), p. 231.Google Scholar
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    Is it a deliberate irony on Foucault’s part to include the only discussion of female virginity under the general heading of “Boys”? Goldhill suspects not (p. 102) and I am inclined to agree. Foucault’s failure to include the female in his History of Sexuality is fairly notorious. See Page Du Bois, “The Subject in Antiquity after Foucault” and Amy Richlin, “Foucault’s History of Sexuality: A Useful Theory for Women?” in Rethinking Sexuality: Foucault and Classical Antiquity, ed. David H. J. Larmour, Paul Allen Miller, and Charles Platter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
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    Aristotle, Historia Animalium III.13, ed. and trans. A. L. Peck (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 210–12.Google Scholar
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    Aline Rousselle, Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity, trans. Felicia Pheasant (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), p. 27. Brent D. Shaw, “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage: Some Reconsiderations,” Journal of Roman Studies (1987) argues for a higher age for the general (nonaristocratic) population.Google Scholar
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    Doctors were cautioned against asking questions inappropriate to sex: “they also make mistakes by not learning the apparent cause through accurate questioning, but they proceed to heal as though they were dealing with men’s diseases.” Hippocrates, quoted in Lesley Ann Dean-Jones, Women’s Bodies in Classical Greek Science (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), p. 112.Google Scholar
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    Soranus, Gunaikeôn Pathôn A 9. See also Jody Rubin Pinault, “The Medical Case for Virginity in the Early Second Century C.E.: Soranus of Ephesus, Gynecology I.32,” Helios 19 (1992): 123–39.Google Scholar
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    On Methodius’s extremely sketchy biography, see Musurillo, St. Methodius: The Symposium, A Treatise on Chastity (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1958), pp. 3–5 and T. D. Barnes, “Methodius, Maximian and Valentinus,” Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 30 (1979).Google Scholar
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    Paphnutius, Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt and Life of Onnophrius, trans. Tim Vivian (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1993), p. 76.Google Scholar
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    Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 126.Google Scholar
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    J. N. D. Kelly’s biography, Jerome, His Life, Writings and Controversies (London: Duckworth, 1975) is an engaging introduction, upon which I have relied for the outlines of Jerome’s life.Google Scholar
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    A hexameter inscription in Agnes’s honor by Pope Damasus survives from the wall of her basilica in Rome on the Via Nomentana. For the sources of the legend, see Anne-Marie Palmer, Prudentius On the Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989) pp. 250–55.Google Scholar
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    See Vergil, Aeneid 4 and perhaps Propertius 4.7, in which the poet’s recently dead mistress comes to him in a dream, her dress charred from the funeral fire but her hair still untouched. For Prudentius as a poet in the classical tradition, see Palmer, Prudentius on the Martyrs, Martha Malamud, A Poetics of Transformation: Prudentius and Classical Mythology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989) and Michael Roberts, Poetry and the Cult of the Martyrs: The Liber Peristephanon of Prudentius (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1993).Google Scholar
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    See F. Martroye, “L’Affaire Indicia: une sentence de saint Ambroise,” Mélanges Paul Fournier (Paris: n.p., 1929), pp. 503–10.Google Scholar
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    Georges Bataille quoting De Sade, Erotism, Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986), p. 11.Google Scholar
  25. 55.
    Andrea Dworkin, “Sexual Economics: The Terrible Truth,” Letters from a War Zone (New York: Lawrence Hill, 1993), p. 119.Google Scholar

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© Maud Burnett McInerney 2003

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  • Maud Burnett McInerney

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