Curtius Rufus on the rape of the Babylonian women

On 21 or 22 October 331, Alexander entered Babylon, the old capital of the ancient Near East. He had promised that the houses of the city would be left intact, but this did not mean that the women of Babylon were safe, especially since the Greeks believed that the people of Babylon were obsessed with sex. For example, a century before, the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus had written that in Babylon, the women had to serve Muliššu, the goddess of love, as prostitutes.

There is one custom amongst these people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is native of the country must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Aphroditenote and there give herself to a strange man. [...] Once a woman has taken her seat she is not allowed to go home until a man has thrown her a silver coin into her lap and taken her outside to lie with her. As he throws the coin, the man has to say, 'In the name of the goddess Mylitta' - that being the Assyrian name for Aphrodite. [...] When she has lain with him, her duty to the goddess is discharged and she may go home.note

There is not a single piece of Babylonian evidence to confirm this statement. That modern scholars have accepted Herodotus' words as a description of cultic prostitution (a practice that had existed 2,000 years before Alexander) and have believed that it contained a kernel of truth, tells quite a lot about the fantasies of modern classicists and historians. In fact, it is likely that Herodotus is simply wrong, never visited Babylon at all, and is only to be trusted as a reliable source for common Greek prejudices about the oriental world.

Common Greek prejudices: Alexander's men believed that this custom existed and behaved accordingly. The Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus describes how the Babylonian women were treated; and although he describes their behavior as voluntary, we need not doubt that in fact it was not. Greek and Roman authors nearly always blamed women for being raped.

Section 5.1.36-38 of Curtius Rufus' History of Alexander the Great of Macedonia was translated by John Yardley.

The rape of the Babylonian women

[5.1.36] Alexander's stop in Babylon was longer than anywhere else, and here he undermined military discipline more than in any other place. The moral corruption there is unparalleled; its ability to stimulate and arouse unbridled passions is incomparable.

[5.1.37] Parents and husbands permit their children and wives to have sex with strangers, as long as this infamy is paid for. All over the Persian empire kings and their courtiers are fond of parties, and the Babylonians are especially addicted to wine and the excesses that go along with drunkenness.

[5.1.38] Women attend dinner parties. At first they are decently dressed, then they remove their top-clothing and by degrees disgrace their respectability until (I beg my reader's pardon for saying it) they finally throw off their most intimate garments. This disgusting conduct is characteristic not only of courtesans but also of married women and young girls, who regard such vile prostitution as "being sociable".

This page was created in 2000; last modified on 14 July 2020.