The story of Lucretia, Donaldson says, has disappeared from popular knowledge not on account of "moral disapproval, but neglect: the explanation lies in the modern decline in classical knowledge and classical education" ( 1982: 168). We are too distant from ancient Rome and the eighteenth century that found meaning in its virtues. Instead, "we celebrate the 'heroes' of the sports field and the world of entertainment more readily than the heroes of the battlefield and the deathbed; the word is drained of its moral sense."
I cannot share Donaldson's perception of distance and difference. The news, that raw material of political history, seems to belong to the "world of entertainment": fiction and fact meld, working on and with the same images. Through them echo the women and gender relations in Livy's stories of early Rome, his narrative of origins constructed in apprehension of decadence and decline. The Iran-Contra hearings slip into the air time of the soap opera. The cases of Bernhard Goetz and Baby M become news and made-for-TV movies. In the newspaper, extramarital sex costs a politician his chance at the presidency; in the cinema, it nearly costs a man his family and his life. In Rambo films and Fatal Attraction, "the world of entertainment" does offer us heroes of the battlefield and the deathbed (more precisely, death and bed). Daily, images of woman as space and void cross my TV screen. Often, the news seems written on the bodies of women; at least, she is there--a part of the landscape of what becomes history.
This is not a Roman landscape. The women belong to seemingly different narratives: hostages, not raped women, catalyzed action in Reagan's White House. Women are not slain in current political narratives, yet seemingly different stories proffer words flooded with "moral sense," implicitly urging correct bodily behavior, generally the practices of self-control--"just say no." These stories, too, require the bodies of women, made dead by their silence and their allocation to a holding place in stories of men. And when these women speak, they enunciate this place or their pleasure as inanimate matter, like a Barbie doll available for purchase.
The "decline in classical knowledge" has not spelled the disappearance of these features of Roman fictions, however unfamiliar the specific narratives. The deadening or silencing of Woman perpetuates the fictions and history of the bodies politic, female, and male. Since the eighteenth century, when some celebrated Lucretia's story, the commodity has taken the place of honor in systems of value as a bourgeois order replaced an aristocratic one, but the images of Woman have followed the displacement. "Her image sells his products" ( Pfohl 1990: 223-24); it "sells" Livy's history, too.
This essay has grown out of extended discussions with Amy Richlin, Avery Gordon, and Andrew Herman, and I have benefited from their insight, critical comments, and constructive suggestions. To each, a special thank you.