“You say that he raped an actress,” Cicero told the court. “And this is said to have happened at Atina, while he was quite young.”
There was a low, subdued chuckle from the crowd. They were all men — women weren’t allowed inside the courtroom — most from the town of Atina themselves. They’d made the 80-mile trip to support a man they respected, whom they believed had been unfairly accused.
His name was Gnaeus Plancius, and in the year 54 B.C., he was one of the most powerful men in Rome.
It was more than 2,000 years before the #MeToo movement, but a scene similar to the ones we’ve witnessed so often lately was already playing out. A prominent politician was on trial for corruption and bribery, charges bolstered by dirt his enemies had dug up from his past: the violent sexual assault of a young girl.
Those charges of corruption and bribery were a serious matter, but to the men in the court, the rape charge was nothing. It was harmless boys-will-be-boys misbehavior — something half the men there were guilty of themselves.
His lawyer, Cicero, didn’t even bother to deny it. He just threw up his arms in a mock flourish and, to the gleeful delight of the men who surrounded him, declared: “O how elegantly must his youth have been passed! The only thing which is imputed to him is one that there was not much harm in.”
And that was it. Nobody bothered to bring it up again.
Raping an actress, as Cicero assured them, was nothing more than following “a well-established tradition at staged events.”
It was hardly a crime, every man in the courtroom agreed. It was mudslinging; a cheap attack on a decent man’s character, bogging down the process of something that actually mattered: a trial over bribery.
“But please,” Cicero said when the chuckling had died down, “let us at last come to the merits of the case.”
The case moved along. The men all but forgot she’d ever even been mentioned. And life went on for everyone but her: that actress, still back home in Atina. The only hint she’d ever lived would be in Cicero’s speech. It would live on for thousands of years, studied by politicians and law students as a brilliant piece of oration — a perfect demonstration of how to shut down people who threw meaningless slander at a decent man.
Her name has been lost to time — nobody bothered to write it down. To the Roman Republic, she was just some whore in Atina who’d flaunted her skin on stage and then acted surprised when a red-blooded man couldn’t control himself.
* * *
The woman from Atina knew well what the men thought of her. She was an actress — and in Rome in 54 B.C., that made her little more than a prostitute.
It wasn’t a secret. The men didn’t hide how they saw women on the stage. They even worked it into poetry.
“[What] you have with actresses, you have with common strumpets,” the poet Horace wrote. A few years later, the moralist Plutarch would add that consorting “with actresses, harpists, and theatrical people,” was a “mode of life” that would leave them riddled with diseases.
Even the men who loved the theater saw the women on stage as little more than sex objects — like the poet Martial, who, after watching a troupe of actresses dance on stage, ran home and wrote a rave review that said: “They would have caused Hippolytus himself to masturbate!”
Women, in those days, weren’t allowed to perform in respectable Greek tragedies on glamorous stages — the female roles were usually played by young boys. Instead, there were mimae: women who put on silent comedy shows, usually stripped down to next to nothing, performing over the jeers of horny men yelling for them to take off the rest of their clothes. And plenty of the girls — if they knew what was good for them — would do just that.
To the men of Rome, these were filthy women — “the lowest level of life,” they were called, right in the nation’s code of law. They got on the stage because they loved to show off their bodies, and they wanted nothing more than to be ogled, harassed and violated by strangers.
That, at least, was how the men saw them — but these women hadn’t chosen their lives. Some had been forced into it when they were still just children, by starving parents with no other way to pay their bills. Most of the rest were slaves.
* * *
She was just a little girl when Plancius attacked her.
History doesn’t record her age, but a mimae would hit the stage as soon as she was 12 or 13. Cicero calls her “little,” which suggests she wasn’t even a teenager. She was young, but in ancient Rome, 12 was old enough for a woman to get married. Or, if she was a mimae, to be defiled.
As far as men like Plancius were concerned, just getting on stage was proof that she was asking for it. He had no understanding of poverty and the fight to survive. His father was the wealthiest man in the town, a prefect who was personal friends with Julius Caesar himself.
But for all that good breeding, Plancius had a reputation for being sexually aggressive. By the time he saw his day in court, the girl from Atina was only one of many women accusing him of sexual assault.
She wanted it. That was how he saw it. She wouldn’t have been up there if she didn’t.
It must have been brutal. She was thrown to the ground, her clothes were torn off, and she was likely pinned down while Plancius forced himself into her. And all she could do was lie there, screaming for help, while he abused her.
If this was true, he probably didn’t even wait until the show was over. As Cicero said, attacking a mimae while she was still on stage was a “well-established tradition” that Roman writers would continue to describe for at least another 300 years.
When he finished, he climbed off of her, leaving her like a piece of rotten meat he’d spat onto the ground.
But it wasn’t over. The attack is sometimes described as a “gang-rape.” When he was done, his friends took their turns, brutalizing a young girl while a crowd cheered like it was all just part of the show.
* * *
There was no justice. Mimae, by law, were legally prohibited from testifying in court. Even if she did accuse him of the crime, she wouldn’t have been allowed to tell her own story.
Nothing happened to Plancius. He moved out of Atina and became a powerful politician in Rome. In a twist of cruel irony, he would eventually be made an aedile: the man in charge of the festivals where mimae performed.
Plancius didn’t change. As an adult, he openly cheated on his wife, and once was caught dragging a woman miles out of her hometown so that he could violently rape her in the comfort of his own home. When Plancius was accused of buying votes, his political opponents dug up the old story of the assault in Atina to use as dirt. The actress’s story was told for the first time, but only because she was a convenient way to smear his character.
She was barred from the courtroom, unable to confront her attacker, but the men of Atina went. Cicero rounded up every friend Plancius had and filled the courtroom with people who supported him. Some of them may have been the men who’d cheered while he attacked her; some may even have been those who joined in. Those men came home with smiles on their faces, singing songs and laughing, and she would have known as soon as she saw them that Plancius had once again walked away a free man.
* * *
She lived with that memory to the end.
It was a cruel reminder that, no matter how much horror a man put her through, nobody would do anything to protect her.
But she’d done something. There’s no way she could have understood the significance of what she did, but she’d changed history.
Countless Roman actresses went through what she’d endured before her, and countless more suffered through it long after she died. But her story is the oldest one we’ve found of a woman like her standing up to a man like Plancius.
She didn’t get justice, but she lived to have her story told, and history remembers that she said no.