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