Nearly as long as people have been recording history, they have documented sexual assaults. From the writings of ancient Greece to the Bible to the letters of early explorers, sexual violence has long been a brutal part of the human story. Some assaults have even changed the course of history. And, like all history, what we know about sexual assaults of the past is generally what was told by the victors—mostly men.
“Women are erased,” says Sharon Block, professor of history at University of California, Irvine and the author of Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America. “The historic rapes that ‘mattered’ are the only ones where men saw themselves damaged.”
Wars, especially, have been linked to egregious sexual assaults, from mass rape committed by Soviet soldiers as they advanced into Germany during World War II to sexual violence amid the genocides in Rwanda in 1995. In fact, the ubiquity of sexual assault in wars makes those crimes a category unto themselves.
With the understanding that no list could ever be comprehensive, below are sexual assaults that have both influenced history and those that, notably, did not.
1. The rise of Alexander the Great
An act of sexual violence may have contributed to the rise of Alexander the Great, according to Greek historians Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch. Their accounts were written hundreds of years after the event was supposed to have taken place, but the story goes like this: In 336 B.C., Pausanias of Orestis, a member of the bodyguard of King Philip II of Macedonia (and possibly his lover), was invited to a banquet by Philip’s father-in-law, Attalus. There, he was raped by Attalus’s servants. When Philip refused to punish the attackers (he did give Pausanias a promotion), Pausanias murdered the king, paving the way for the ascension of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great.
2. The rape of the Sabine women
The Roman historian Livy, writing during the first century, traces Rome’s origins to the mid-8th century B.C., when the warrior tribe was facing a shortage of women. “Population growth was the most difficult thing to achieve in antiquity,” says Thomas Martin, author of Ancient Rome: From Romulus to Justinian. According to Livy, the Roman leader, Romulus, held a religious festival and invited the neighboring Sabine tribe, (“Free food and drink,” notes Martin.) At Romulus’s signal, the Romans attacked and killed the Sabine men at the festival and carried off the women. In the resulting bloody war, the Sabine women called a halt to the hostilities, making allies of the tribes and allowing the Romans to multiply. As with the rape of Lucretia, and then Virginia, both recounted by Livy, there is disagreement among historians as to the veracity of this story. "It's a myth," contends Mary Beard, historian and author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.
3. Boudicca’s fight for independence
Celtic tribes were a constant thorn in the Roman Empire’s side from the moment they invaded the Island of Britain in 45 A.D. The Iceni, a Celtic tribe in East Anglia, were led by a king named Prasutagus, who was married to Boudicca. When Prasutagus died, Rome claimed his kingdom, over the objections of Boudicca, who was flogged publicly and forced to watch her daughters raped by Roman soldiers. Boudicca then assembled a powerful army and rebelled against the Romans, eventually sacking London (then called Londinium). The Roman historian Cassius Dio describes how Boudicca’s own soldiers then violently assaulted Roman women there: "Their breasts were cut off and stuffed in their mouths, so that they seemed to be eating them, then their bodies were skewered lengthwise on sharp stakes." Boudicca’s rebellion was eventually crushed by the Roman general, Gaius Suetonius in 60 or 61 A.D.
4. Columbus and slavery
When Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus voyaged to the Caribbean in the 1490s, he not only discovered new lands, at least one of his men would document his own rape and torture of an Indigenous woman. Michele de Cuneo, a noble friend of Columbus, tells of a “Carib woman” given to him by the admiral. When she fought back against his attempted sexual attacks, he “took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly...finally we came to an agreement in such manner that I can tell you she seemed to have been brought up in a school for harlots.” Columbus’ ships would eventually sail back to Europe, carrying more than 1,000 enslaved people.
5. A baron's quick acquittal
Baron Frederick Calvert may have been an early study in affluenza. Left a large amount of money—and the proprietary governorship of Maryland—at age 20, the English playboy was kicked out of Turkey for keeping a harem, and was rumored to have murdered his first wife. In 1768, he was charged with the kidnapping and rape of Sarah Woodcock, a milliner. The jury took all of an hour to acquit him (they decided she hadn't tried hard enough to escape), but he was cast out from British society and his title died with him in 1771.
6. 'Mutiny on the Bounty' and Pitcairn’s dark legacy
In April of 1779, Fletcher Christian and 18 of his loyal seamen seized a ship from Captain William Bligh in an incident made famous in the novel and movie, Mutiny on the Bounty. Christian and his sailors settled on the tiny Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific, as well as on Tahiti, where their descendants still live. In 1999, a rape accusation from a 15-year-old girl was brought against an older man on the island. The trial revealed a culture of sexual abuse of children that had carried on for generations. In 2004, seven men, who comprised one-third of the island’s male population, went on trial for sexual offenses. The trials were complicated by many factors, including the island’s remoteness and lack of a legal system. In the end, six of the seven accused were found guilty and three were jailed, although none received significant sentences.
7. ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself.’
It is impossible to estimate the number of enslaved women of color assaulted and/or raped by slave owners in the colonies and the United States before the end of the Civil War. What is clear is that such instances were common and wouldn't have been considered “assault.” As early as 1662, Virginia’s governing body, the House of Burgesses, instituted rules addressing children born of enslaved women wherein the father might be a white (free) man: “If mother (whatever her racial background, whether Indian, Black, or mixed) is a slave, child is a slave—no matter who the father might be,” says Peter Wallenstein, author of Cradle of America: A History of Virginia. Surviving stories of such assaults only came from escaped or formerly enslaved people, who managed to record them. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs is an example. The father of two of her enslaved children, Samuel Treadwell Sawyer, was elected to Congress.
8. The Pogrom of Kishinev
The murder of 49 Jews in the town of Kishinev in the Russian Empire in 1903 also included the rape of scores of Jewish women. In his book, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History, Stephen J. Zipperstein, a professor of history at Stanford, notes that images, as well as tales and poems of the transgressions in Kishinev circled the globe, including America. Outcry over the Kishinev reports motivated Russian Jews to join revolutionary activity against the Czarist regime and influenced the migration of thousands of Eastern European Jews towards the West and Palestine. At the same time, the pogrom lay the framework for the horrors that European Jews would face 40 years later during the Holocaust.
9. The rape of Recy Taylor
Recy Taylor was 24 when, in 1944, she was kidnapped by six men while walking home from church in Abbeville, Alabama, and gang-raped in the back of a truck. Even though one of the perpetrators had confessed, two white juries refused to indict the accused. Taylor’s rape and the reaction, emblematic of the repressive Jim Crow south, helped galvanize the civil rights movement. When the details of her story were reported in the Black press, the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to Abbeville to investigate the matter. Parks established the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, the leaders of which went on to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. In 2011, the Alabama State Legislature officially apologized to Taylor for its lack of prosecution.