The Vengeful Prisoner of War
Content warning: reference to sexual violence and murder
Today, as a result of such films as The Great Escape and Unbroken, we usually think of prisoners of war as male figures imprisoned in internment camps. But we often forget the impact war has on women, children and the elderly.
It is a sad fact that where there is war; there is sexual violence. Whilst men and boys can be sexually assaulted, this form of violence is more commonly inflicted upon women and girls.
This is the story of one survivor of sexual violence who sought vengeance against her rapist.
In 189 BCE, Rome was at war with the Galatian Gauls who lived in Asia Minor (modern-day western Turkey). Following the Galatian Gauls’ defeat, the Roman general Gnaeus Manlius Vulso took a number of enemy women as prisoners of war. Amongst the women was Chiomara, who happened to be the wife of Ortiagon, the leader of the Tectosagi.
Chiomara and the other captive women were handed over to the Roman soldiers, possibly as a reward for the soldiers’ performance during the course of the war. As prisoners of war, the women were considered to be slaves who had no rights and could be used in any manner their new masters saw fit, including being subjected to sexual violence.
Handed over to a centurion, who was described as an ignorant, greedy man lacking in self-control, Chiomara must have known what treatment she would have to endure as a prisoner of war in his custody.
That night, the centurion made a series of sexual propositions which Chiomara declined. Then, taking advantage of Chiomara’s vulnerable position as a captive with no rights, the soldier proceeded to rape her.
Upon learning of Chiomara’s capture and understanding the horrific treatment she was being subjected to, her family raised a ransom to pay for her release. In Roman warfare, it was not uncommon for soldiers to ransom captives back to their families. The reasons for this are fairly callous and concern finance, logistics and convenience, rather than the emotional well-being of their captives.
The rapist, eyes wide at the size of the sum offered, agreed to ransom Chiomara back to her family, and decided on a suitable location for the exchange to take place. The spot agreed upon was a crossing at a nearby river, the boundary between the Romans’ newly acquired land and that belonging to the Galatian Gauls and their allies’.
The appointed day arrived and, as Chiomara and the rapist neared the river bank, they saw two of Chiomara’s family friends anxiously awaiting their arrival. As the rapist said his goodbyes to Chiomara, groping and kissing her without consent, Chiomara called to her family in her own language. The rapist, unable to understand Chiomara’s native tongue, saw two of her family members approaching and reluctantly released Chiomara.
Chiomara walked to meet her friends, but they passed Chiomara and picked up their pace, running towards the rapist with swords held high. As Chiomara looked on, her friends knocked the rapist to his knees, sliced his throat, and watched as torrents of blood gushed from the wound in his neck, dripping into the ground beneath him.
After requesting one final favour from her companions, Chiomara made her way home, carrying a heavy bundle wrapped in the folds of her dress.
When Chiomara reached her hometown, her husband rushed to meet her. Chiomara, exhausted from her ordeal and the journey home, held up a hand, forcing Ortiagon to stop in his tracks.
Opening the folds of her dress, Chiomara revealed the rapist’s severed head – the final favour she had requested of her companions. Chiomara grasped the head of the rapist by the hair and threw it at her husband’s feet.
As Ortiagon stood gobsmacked, staring at the bloody mass between them, Chiomara explained what she had been through and the revenge she had taken against the rapist.
The writers Polybius, Plutarch, Livy and Valerius Maximus, were more concerned with how Chiomara had ‘defended her fidelity’ and appeared ‘chaste’ after being forced to have sexual intercourse with someone other than her husband – not dissimilar to how the tale Lucretia was presented. As a result, Chiomara’s husband is described as being more pleased with the defence of her fidelity than her return and well-being.
However, Chiomara’s actions can be read another way. Now, to be clear, we are not advocating violence against those who commit acts of sexual violence – they should be dealt with by the proper authorities – but we need to remember that Chiomara had no rights and there was no way that she could take alternative action against her rapist. By ordering the rapist executed, Chiomara ensured that the rapist could not attack other women again which, considering Rome’s campaigns across Europe and the Mediterranean, was inevitable.
On this note, we need to recognise that whilst Chiomara was freed and was able to take her revenge on the rapist, she was and is the exception rather than the rule. As such, we should spare a thought to the countless numbers of women and children who were, and continue to be, subjected to sexual violence in warfare.
A few things to note:
- Recent works on Chiomara have suggested that she was actively involved in the war against the Romans. However, Adrienne Mayor argues that Chiomara was not a warrior and has conducted an overview of these recent works, pointing out that they have not consulted the original sources. Like Mayor, we have used the ancient sources available to us in this post, and we agree with Mayor’s assessment that, whilst Chiomara was not a warrior, she was ‘a brave and resourceful woman.’
Livy, History of Rome 38.24
Plutarch, On the Bravery of Women (Moralia) 22
Polybius, The Histories 21.38 (fragment)
Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings Book 6.1, external 2.
N.B. Most of the research for this post in relation to sexual violence in ancient warfare was the result of Elinor’s PhD thesis. A full bibliography is available upon request.
Card, C. 1996. Rape as a Weapon of War. Hypatia. Vol. 11/4, pp. 5-18.
Gaca, K.L. 2013. Girls, Women and the Significance of Sexual Violence in Ancient Warfare. In: Heineman, E. (ed). Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 73-88.