The Place of Pudor: A Comparison of the Roman and Christian Perspectives on the Deaths of Lucretia, Verginia, and Dido

Michaela Willi


Roman society seldom condemned suicide.  Stoics like Cato and Seneca viewed suicide as not only permissible, but occasionally commendable.  Women in Roman literature, despite their absence from most prominent affairs, also partook of this dubious honor, most notably Lucretia (Ovid Fasti; Livy), Verginia (Livy) and Dido (Vergil Aeneid). 

In the classical texts, men often committed suicide either for the good of the state (Cato, Brutus) or because the status of their power or freedom was threatened (Nero).  The modern mind can understand these choices, based on devotion to the common good and love of autonomy.  In contrast, the deaths of these three women trouble humanitarian sensibilities because they seem to be founded on the demands of physical chastity and honor, concepts that our society generally disparages.  These three stories indicate that a woman’s physical chastity determines her worth as a person.  Scholars such as R.M Olgivie and Anton J.L. van Hoof claim that to the Romans, females were procreative tools that ceased to be of value if their bodies were violated.  In the case of all three women, there is a shifting of responsibility from the men who were the perpetrators to the women who were the innocent victims: from Tarquinus to Lucretia, from the lecherous nobleman to Verginia, from Aeneas to Dido.  Each of these women seems to have had a very fragile sense of honor; one that could not sustain the slightest blemish even if inflicted by another.  They saw their death as necessary to redeem their honor.

This paper will explore the Christian alternatives to these stories through biblical examples and the teachings of two philosopher-theologians, Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas.  It will show that Christians reject suicide because they believe in the sanctity of life and the duality of body and spirit in both men and women; to them, a woman’s physical violation need not interfere with her moral and spiritual worth as a person because she is not herself sinning.  Even if a woman’s soul is somehow tainted through her involuntary physical experience, as Augustine theorizes, she is no different from the rest of humanity, none of whom are without sin.  Sinners cannot regain their purity through their own death but only through the propitiatory death of Jesus Christ.  Even women who have lost the last vestiges of their honor through their own willful actions are valuable to God because they are still capable, after repentance, of fellowship with him, which is the ultimate purpose of both men and women.  While people do have worth, they do not necessarily possess honor, which throughout the Bible is primarily an attribute of God. 

Thus, these two worldviews have very different understandings of a woman’s pudor. While Roman society saw a woman’s worth as contained in a fragile vase of bodily honor, the biblical faith sees all people as broken vessels, incapable in themselves of retaining honor but endowed with worth by an intrinsically honorable and worthy God.

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