The Sexual Assault Case That Shook Ancient Rome
A prominent politician was accused of raping a 12-year-old actress—in 54 B.C. The way his legendary lawyer dismissed it speaks volumes about how we prosecute these crimes now.
Illustrations by Paige Mehrer
“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 misbehav…
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