How to Teach an Ancient Rape Joke


The first time I read Euripides’ Cyclops, I was a college senior, and I didn’t notice the rape joke. Maybe I was too wrapped up in graduate school applications to pay much attention; it’s probable that the rates of sexual assault on college campuses weren’t as well-known in 2006. Either way—and somewhat unfortunately—all I remember from that class is that another student kept trying to convince everyone that the cyclops is meant to represent a giant penis.

This past semester, I was teaching a course comparing the versions of the Polyphemus myth in Homer, Euripides, and Theocritus, and in preparing, I revisited the text. Cyclops is a relatively unknown play by Euripides, one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens; it’s the sole remaining example of the Greek satyr play, a literary genre that has otherwise been lost. Satyr plays were written to follow a trilogy of tragedies, and always feature a group of satyrs inserted comedically into a myth where they don’t belong. In this case, it’s the episode from the Odyssey where Odysseus blinds the cyclops Polyphemus.

In Homer’s version, Odysseus gives Polyphemus bowl after bowl of undiluted wine to get him so drunk that he’ll black out and leave himself vulnerable to injury. It’s not the most sophisticated plan, but it works (which is why expert schemer Cersei Lannister uses the same strategy to murder Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones). In Euripides’ version, however, Odysseus stages a formal symposium for the cyclops. Polyphemus doesn’t end up drinking enough to pass out, because Silenus, the father of the satyrs, keeps stealing the wine from him. But he does get tipsy enough to find himself in an amorous mood, and eventually he drags an entirely unwilling Silenus offstage to have his way with him.

The Cyclops, I realized, contains a scene of sexual assault played for laughs. A rape joke.

On the last day of April, the Columbia University student newspaper published an op-ed by four undergraduate students recommending the wide consideration of trigger warnings for humanities education. The primary example cited in the letter was an undergraduate woman and sexual assault survivor who was triggered by a classroom experience with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the professor discussed the language and imagery in the rape stories of Daphne and Persephone without acknowledging the violence of the subject.

When the student tried to raise these concerns after class, the professor dismissed concerns that the op-ed authors suggest are more widespread than faculty members might think:

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of my favorite pieces of literature, perhaps even the one that made me want to learn Latin, setting me on the track to get my PhD in Classics and teach Greek literature at Princeton and Stanford. And yet I know that the experience of that Columbia student—and her professor—is far from unique. Metamorphoses, specifically, seems to be a lightning rod for this kind of debate. And, as rape on college campuses becomes a more visible issue, the prevalence of rape in classical literature becomes more visible, too.

The Columbia op-ed writers are receiving considerable pushback. The New Republic has called the Spectator piece a recommendation for “literary fascism,” and Salon wrote that there was no sense protecting college students from Ovid in a TMZ world. But it must be said clearly: what triggered the student wasn’t Ovid specifically, or the obligation that she read it, but rather, the lack of acknowledgment on the professor’s part that the rape scene was more than a vehicle for beautiful, splendid imagery. As a teacher and an advocate for women, I believe that there’s a middle ground that does not necessitate either trigger warnings or insensitivity. There has to be—even if getting there is more complicated than we might think.

The study of history in Europe begins with a victim-blaming rape narrative. The ancient Greek writer Herodotus is sometimes called the “father of history” (or the “father of lies,” depending on who you ask). In the prologue to his study of the war between the Greeks and the Persians, Herodotus claims that the enmity between Europe and Asia began with factions snatching each other’s women.

Io, Europa, and Medea were all kidnapped with relatively few consequences, but the rape of Helen was one too many. According to Herodotus, Persian enmity toward the Greeks dates back to the Trojan War, an invasion staged over a woman. He writes that the Persians considered that war particularly indefensible because “they say that wise men take no notice of such things, since it is obvious that no woman would be abducted unless she herself wanted to be.”

Herodotus doesn’t specifically agree with the Persians’ assessment, but he doesn’t contest it, either. In fact, he offers an alternate version of the story of Io’s abduction, where Io claimed to have been raped to cover up a consensual affair that led to her getting pregnant. (I suppose, in that version of the story, Io becomes one of the girls who former Wisconsin Representative Roger Rivard said “rape easy.”)

When I encountered this casual abdication of male responsibility for sexual assault for the first time, I was a sophomore in college, and it repulsed me. And I was shocked by my teacher’s reaction: he shrugged, rolled his eyes, and said, “Well, that’s the Greeks for you.” Years later, in graduate school, working through the reading list for my Greek literature qualifying exam, I realized the reason for my teacher’s dismissive reaction: Herodotus’ attitude is typical, not unique. The ancient Greeks may have given us democracy, marathon running, and the allegory of the cave, but they also kept slaves, were openly racist, and treated rape as no big deal.

After reading enough authors who are that casual about sexual assault—and most of ancient literature falls in that category—you start to get numb to it, too. And when you’re teaching the texts to students, it can be easier to just accept that they’re problematic (an easy substitute for actually trying to grapple with the problems) and move on. The victim-blaming narrative is both obvious and also overwhelmingly common in culture; it can seem a waste of time to dwell there, when there’s so much to be said about Herodotus’ methodology and his choice to ground the contemporary conflict in mythological history.

This dilemma comes up over and over. In the first speech of the fifth-century orator Lysias—the very first text I read in the original Attic Greek—a man trying to defend himself after murdering his wife’s lover points out that, legally, in Athens, seduction was considered a greater crime than rape. After all, if you rape a man’s wife, you’re just damaging his property—but if you seduce her you’re destroying his family. It’s frankly disturbing, but any time spent discussing the morality of that statement means less time to teach students about the things that are course-specific: the participles, the history of Athenian rhetorical and legal writing.

And yet, as my rereading of the Cyclops reminded me, I have a steady aversion to the carelessness of this stance. There are certain texts that I think give teachers both the opportunity and obligation to suspend their moral relativism and confront the issues head-on. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of them. Euripides’ Cyclops, featuring an early version of a powerful contemporary conundrum—the rape joke—is another.

Cyclops is not unique, of course, in playing sexual violence for humor’s sake. There are plenty of rape jokes in classical literature: in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, a policeman jokes about sodomizing a chained male prisoner, and rape is so common in the comedies of Menander that a young man with honorable intentions is considered exceptional. But the particular rape joke in the Cyclops follows a scene where two characters are drinking and chatting before the stronger one drags the other off into a back room. I planned my lesson, wondering: could I teach this text in a college classroom without at least acknowledging that alcohol-fueled acquaintance rape is a topic that’s deeply, painfully relevant to many college students? And if I wanted to acknowledge that, how could I do it well?

Preparing for my lecture, I brushed up on some sympotic scholarship. A symposium, unlike your average college party, is more than just a bunch of people getting wasted together: it’s a gathering with a very complex set of rules and etiquette, and I needed to do some research before teaching my class. In the process, I came across this passage in M. D. Usher’s 2002 article “Satyr Play in Plato’s Symposium”:

The source of the humor here is not so much Polyphemus’ sexual aggression as the fact that the Zeus-Ganymede myth is about to be reenacted by two characters of very dubious credentials – the shaggy, Neanderthal Polyphemus and an equally shaggy and corpulent Silenus. Though neither is even remotely καλός (pretty), their comically flirtatious exchange is full of play on the word…

Usher isn’t justifying rape, of course. But even this academic analysis—unwittingly, I assume—treads close to the rhetoric often used to discredit rape victims. How could Polyphemus know that his actions qualified as assault? Silenus was flirting with him, after all. And even though Silenus may have consumed more alcohol than Polyphemus, they were both drinking together, and they were both impaired. Why did Silenus put himself in that position anyway? He was practically asking for it!

Other scholars’ thoughts on the passage can seem in one light impartial and, in another, deeply insensitive. One commentator writes, “[T]here is irony in the fact that the satyrs are more often the perpetrators than the victims of rape.” When the scene is framed that way, it becomes clear: with the satyr dragged offstage and used against his will, this is basically the ancient Greek version of a joke about dropping the soap.

Teachers cannot avoid rape in history and literature; nor should they. But the trusty old option—shrugging, rolling our eyes—is not an option anymore. We have a responsibility to teach texts like this one thoughtfully, or not teach them at all. There’s more awareness now than there ever has been of the ways that universities conceal and exacerbate sexual violence. We don’t often think about the inside of the classroom as part of the college campus in the context of rape’s prevalence—but, as students at Columbia and many other universities are telling us; as many of our personal ethical systems dictate—we should.

When you teach classical literature, its plots laced and driven by sexual assault, your material might in one light appear like part of the problem. But in another, I hoped, my class could be part of the solution as well.

April was a rollercoaster for advocates of sexual assault victims on college campuses. The beginning of the month saw the Columbia School of Journalism critique of the now-infamous retracted Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus.” In the wake of the report, as Jia Tolentino reported and rebutted here on Jezebel, some people questioned the very existence of campus rape culture. The April 21 release of Jon Krakauer’s book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town turned the conversation back in a more helpful direction, but the announcement two days later that Paul Nungesser was suing Columbia over Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” project may have reversed the momentum again.

If asked, I think many professors would admit that campus rape culture is a problem and also say that they want to show support for victims of sexual assault. But how? Last March, the faculty of Princeton University responded to Susan “Princeton Mom” Patton’s offensive statements about rape (“[The woman] is that one that needs to take responsibility for herself and for her own safety”) with a letter to the Daily Princetonian, saying, “We, the undersigned faculty, stand behind victims of sexual assault and want them to know that our campus is a place where they have a voice, where they will not be made to feel responsible and where they can find support and justice.”

Reading the letter, I felt proud to be a member of the Princeton community and to see many faculty members from the Classics department included in that list of undersigned faculty. But a letter to a campus newspaper is only a start, and it feels hollow to direct students to a university’s resources for dealing with sexual assault when it’s clear that many universities handle these cases in an irresponsible, reprehensible way. (See: too many examples to count.)

The relationship of a professor to his or her university can be an odd and even antagonistic one. On the one hand, the university deposits money into your bank account, which is nice. On the other, the university is also a vast bureaucracy often charging exorbitant tuition in order to pay only a small percentage of faculty a living wage, while others live in adjunct purgatory for decades.

Additionally, universities have a nasty habit of paying lip service to how terrible certain acts are, then punishing them with a slap on the wrist. Most faculty won’t have direct experience with their university’s mishandling of sexual assault accusations, but many will have a student cheat on a test or plagiarize an essay and then be told by the authorities to give the student a 0 on the assignment, rather than failing them in the course, as some of them (and I, certainly) would like. At one institution, I couldn’t even give a student a richly-deserved D on an assignment without starting to file standard procedural paperwork; we were only a few weeks into the semester.

If you’re a faculty member and you don’t entirely trust your university’s disciplinary processes, what can you do? You can try to support students who come to you for help—but first they have to have a reason to believe that they can trust us to help them in a meaningful way. Maybe the best way to earn that trust is through our teaching. Unfortunately, it’s far from clear how a teacher should even go about doing that.

In 2008, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill had the difficult task of teaching Ovid’s Metamorphoses to a large lecture hall that included both an accused rapist and his accuser. She used the experience to create a panel discussion at the next year’s APA, a conference attended by most American classicists, and the papers given at the panel were eventually turned into a book called From Abortion to Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classics Classroom.

In 2013, another professor, Elizabeth Gloyn, wrote an article called “Reading Rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: A Test-Case Lesson,” in which she detailed her experience teaching the text using what she’d learned from the 2009 APA panel. She concluded:

Dealing with the topic of rape in the classroom requires careful and detailed planning, and a level of social awareness that few other topics in the ancient world demand. My experience has demonstrated that it is possible to raise these questions safely without making either the instructor or the students vulnerable in the classroom, an issue of particular relevance to graduate-student instructors and other untenured faculty. We have a responsibility to our students and our campus communities to use the opportunity offered by our subject to explore this issue within a comparatively safe space, and to use the time available in our classes as best suits our courses. Even a single class offers the opportunity to reflect and deliberate on this serious topic that is so often neglected in our teaching.

Reading the article, I hoped that, if I were in the same situation, I would handle it as admirably as Elizabeth Gloyn did, that I would find a way to let that student know that she was safe. But how? Ideally, the pieces mentioned above would already be on the radar of all academics who teach Ovid. But ultimately, the Columbia professor’s goal—unlike Gloyn’s—wasn’t teaching a class about how Ovid handles rape. The professor was just trying to teach Ovid.

Perhaps, as the Columbia op-ed authors suggested, the professor should have alerted the students that they would be reading graphic material before the class. But many academics have strong philosophical objections to trigger warnings. One report calls trigger warnings “infantilizing and anti-intellectual” because they stress the comfort of students rather than their education.

And isn’t the point of reading great literature that it raises big, important, painful questions? As a literature professor, isn’t making students uncomfortable with their previous worldview enough to question it a sign that I’m doing my job well? Is my job to teach texts, or to teach students?

My subfield inside Classics is Greek drama, and if I wanted to expunge all texts containing triggering material from my syllabi, my classes would consist in me and my students staring at each other silently across a seminar room. Domestic violence, war, rape: these are the foundation of Greek tragedy. And jokes about them are the foundation of Greek comedy.

Euripides’ tragedies are especially full of sexual assault. In the Ion, Creusa identifies as a rape victim, racked with guilt because she initially found Apollo attractive, even though the text specifies that he used force on her and that she screamed for her mother. Euripides’ Trojan Women is the story of a group of wives of dead Trojans who know that they’re about to be divided up among the Greek generals to be their sex slaves. The prophet Cassandra is raped before the beginning of the play by Locrian Ajax in Athena’s temple, and her obvious mania in an early scene of the play could be seen as a response to her recent trauma.

Unfortunately, Euripides’ fixation on sexual assault doesn’t extend to sensitivity about its effects. Tragedy uniformly assumes that these female characters who are given away as the spoils of war will eventually resign themselves to their fate and become affectionate and loyal towards the men who won them. One prominent scholar calls the world of Greek tragedy an example of a rape culture. But it hardly needs to be said that the point of reading these texts isn’t to use them as an instruction manual. Classical texts are fascinating precisely because they sometimes seem to express universal truth, while at other times they feel alien and culturally distant.

But what about a text that uses rape as a joke?

Rape jokes, eternally controversial, are highly context-dependent in terms of their success and failure. Some people—like the woman who heckled Daniel Tosh—believe that rape is never funny. Others argue that rape jokes are fine, as long as the butt of the joke isn’t the rape victim, but instead the rapist, or the culture that facilitates rape. So Inside Amy Schumer’s recent Football Town Nights sketch is a rape joke that works, while Daniel Tosh saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?” is not.

My dilemma became figuring out which category Euripides’ Cyclops fell into, and teaching it accordingly. (Not teaching the text wasn’t an option—partially because I was already halfway through it, partially because I love it, and think it’s an important example of how the Greeks processed tragedy.) Upon closer examination, I decided that Euripides, like Amy Schumer, was punching up. The Cyclops scene can be read as a trenchant joke digging into the intensely creepy origins of Athenian rape culture. It subtly calls into question the ethics of a common custom in Athens: the sexually-inflected mentorship of adolescents by older men. And the fact that the rape is preceded by a mock-symposium goes even further, skewering the common sympotic custom of singing songs about desirable young boys.

In other words, Euripides’ rape joke works for me. Comedy reveals a society’s concerns. I almost wish we were at a place where our comedians could make complicated, intelligent, funny jokes about college boys raping drunk girls—but that would require a much fuller, clearer acceptance of the dimensions of the problem. Whether rape is a real problem on college campuses is, to many, a question that still hangs in doubt.

But it’s not to me, and it’s not to many of my students. And so I decided to teach the rape joke exactly as I’d encountered it: something that I knew was potentially difficult and painful, but was more important because of it—more likely to give us insight into the ancient world, and into ourselves.

Donna Zuckerberg (@donnazuck) is editor of Eidolon, an online Classics journal. She received her PhD from Princeton in 2014 for her dissertation on ancient Greek tragedy and comedy. Read more of her work here.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin