Lucretia (?–510 BCE)

views updated

Lucretia (?–510 bce)

Roman matron of historic and legendary fame whose rape, plea for vengeance, and consequent suicide led to the overthrow of kings in Rome and the establishment of the Roman Republic. Name variations: Lucrece. Pronunciation: Loo-cree-sh(ee)-ah. Born in Rome; date of birth unknown; died in either Collatia or Rome, c. 510 bce; daughter of Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus, a prefect of Rome; married Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, a first consul of Rome.

Raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the king's son; was a catalyst for the Roman overthrow of Etruscan kings and has been the subject of elaborate legend throughout Western history; considered a fictional figure by some.

Lucretia appears in the ancient narratives as a paradigm of womanly virtue and as a catalyst for one of the most dramatic events in early Roman history: the expulsion of Etruscan kings and founding of the Roman Republic. There are several versions of her story from antiquity, varying in details, but all agree that Lucretia was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the king's eldest son, and that her consequent plea for vengeance precipitated the revolt which followed.

The stage for this story is set during a siege of a neighboring town, Ardea, led by Rome's Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus. Legend has it that several young nobles, bored with the lack of military action, turned to comparing their wives. Each claimed that his own was the most virtuous. The Roman poet Ovid recounts that the men further questioned, "What of the loyalty of the marriage bed? And are we as dear to our wives as they to us?" Lucretia's husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, finally offered a challenge: "No need of words! Trust deeds! The night is young. Let us mount our horses and ride for the city!"

On reaching Rome, they surprised many of the wives who were banqueting in luxury. Lucretia, however, in the neighboring village of Collatia, was spinning wool late into the evening and supervising her maidservants in the same activity. Industriously occupied at this traditional womanly task, she was a perfect model of virtue. She greeted her husband warmly, and he, pleased that his wife had vindicated him, extended hospitality to all his companions. Livy, an ancient Roman historian, states: "It was at that fatal supper that Lucretia's beauty and proven chastity kindled in Sextus Tarquinius the flame of lust, and determined him to debauch her." Ovid elaborates: "The royal youth caught fire and fury and, transported by blind love, he raved. Her figure pleased him, and that snowy hue, that yellow hair, and artless grace; pleasing, too, her words and voice and virtue incorruptible; and the less hope he had, the hotter his desire."

Sextus Tarquinius (Tarquin), the eldest son of King Tarquinius Superbus, was next in line to inherit the crown in Rome. He was also distantly related to Lucretia's husband, so that when he came back a few days later on a pretext, Lucretia offered him customary hospitality: dinner and a place to spend the night. After the household was asleep, sneaking past the slaves at Lucretia's door, Tarquin entered her room and attempted to seduce her. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, an ancient Greek historian, suggests that Tarquin offered her marriage and future joint rule over Rome. Livy, more simply, says he "pleaded, threatened, used every weapon that might conquer a woman's heart," including a drawn sword. She refused.

By this girl's blood—none more chaste till a tyrant wronged her—and by the gods, I swear that… never again will I let… any other man be King in Rome.

—Junius Brutus, as quoted by Livy

When Tarquin saw that Lucretia valued chastity over life, he added to the threat: he would not only kill her but also a household slave, claiming to have discovered them engaged in illicit relations. As Ovid tells it, he menaced: "Resistance is vain; I'll rob you of honor and of life. I, the adulterer, will bear false witness to your adultery." Livy remarks, "Even the most resolute chastity could not have stood against this dreadful threat," for a liaison of this nature with a slave would have implied, by ancient Roman lights, that the offenders merited death. Motivated, therefore, by a sense of honor, Lucretia submitted to Tarquin's demands as the lesser of two evils.

The next day, according to Livy, Lucretia wrote to the men most important in her life: her father, Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus, prefect of Rome, and her husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, who was still engaged in the siege of Ardea. When they arrived, they found her mourning and in great distress. She related the story of her violation, asking for vengeance: "Give me your solemn promise that the adulterer shall be punished—he is Sextus Tarquinius. He it is who last night came as my enemy disguised as my guest and took his pleasure of me. That pleasure will be my death—and his, too, if you are men."

They promised to avenge her and assured her that as a coerced victim she was innocent of wrongdoing. Lucretia, however, stated: "What is due to him is for you to decide. As for me, I am innocent of fault, but I will take my punishment. Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent for un-chaste women to escape what they deserve." Or as Ovid records her response, "The pardon that you give I do refuse myself." These were her last words. She drew a knife from her robe and plunged it into her heart. Lucretia died in her father's arms as he ineffectively attempted to minister to her in her last moments.

Inevitably there are some variations between Livy's version and that of Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Dionysius reports that instead of sending letters, Lucretia rode in mourning from Collatia to her father in Rome, asking him to call together friends and kin to hear her story. In this version, her husband Collatinus, delayed at the siege of Ardea, received the news only after Lucretia had taken her life.

Both narrators agree that Brutus, a companion of Collatinus, now seized the initiative offered by Lucretia's tragic death. Brutus had personal grievances against Tarquinius Superbus and perceived that the opportune moment to overthrow the Tarquin kings was at hand. He held the bloody knife before him, says Livy, vowing:

By this girl's blood—none more chaste till a tyrant wronged her—and by the gods, I swear that with sword and fire, and whatever else can lend strength to my arm, I will pursue Lucius Tarquinius the Proud [Superbus], his wicked wife, and all his children, and never again will I let them or any other man be King in Rome.

The emotions of all turned from grief to anger. Lucretia's body, laid out on a black cloth and unprepared for burial, was carried to the public square and placed in a conspicuous position in front of the Senate house, her gaping wound exposed to the crowds. Brutus addressed the populace, relating the pathetic story of Lucretia and enumerating other common grievances under Tarquin rule: how all had been heavily taxed; how commoners were forced to labor on ditches and sewers underground; how Roman men who had formerly battled and conquered neighboring peoples had been robbed of swords and turned into stonecutters and artisans; and how laws had been revoked, assemblies abolished, and the performance of religious rites and sacrifices curtailed.

Brutus compared Lucretia's honor and chastity to the lifestyle of Tullia , wife of Tarquinius Superbus the king. Tullia was infamous for having engineered the murders of her own and her husband's previous spouses. She had then inspired her husband to bid for kingship in Rome, which meant replacing her own father, whose body, after he had been killed, she ran over in a carriage. (This nefarious deed lived on in Roman memory for generations. Nearly 500

years later, Livy mentioned that there still existed a street in Rome called "The Street of the Crime" in reference to her lack of filial piety. There was no crime greater, in the Roman mind, than that of parricide.) Tullia epitomized the moral degeneracy of the current regime, a regime over which she still wielded womanly influence, while virtuous Lucretia was dead as a result of that very family's wickedness.

Brutus turned to Lucretia's inert body and addressed her:

O admirable woman and worthy of great praise for your noble resolution! You are gone, you are dead, being unable to bear the tyrant's insolence and despising all the pleasures of life in order to avoid suffering any such indignity again. After this example, Lucretia, when you, who were given a woman's nature, have shown the resolution of a brave man, shall we, who were born men, show ourselves inferior to women in courage?

Crying out that tears must give way to deeds, Brutus called for all to take up arms against the tyrants who had dared to treat them as a vanquished enemy. But Brutus went beyond the dramatic in his appeal. He pointed out pragmatic considerations: the revolution was being headed by the most prominent citizens of Rome; the king was out of the city at war; they had access to men, money, arms, generals, and equipment for warfare; and the army, with its own grievances, would be likely to support the revolution. (He also pointed out that if any man declined to participate in the revolt, his wife and children could be held hostage in the city.)

In short, Brutus' charismatic presentation of the wrongs done to the Romans, coupled with his reasonable expectation of success in the venture, incited the populace to revolt against the king. Lucretia's father was left in control of Rome. To enlist support of the army, Brutus led the way to the camp where they were still besieging Ardea, and was welcomed by the troops. The townspeople called down curses on Tullia, and when Tarquinius Superbus returned to Rome, having caught wind of the revolt, he was shut out of the city. He left for exile with Tullia in an Etruscan town, and Sextus Tarquinius, whose violence against Lucretia had precipitated the downfall of his family, fled to a different town, where he was later assassinated.

Not only did the Romans oust the Tarquin family, but they also changed their form of government from a monarchy to a republic. Following Brutus' example, all citizens took a solemn oath never again to allow any man to be king in Rome. After a transition period where Lucretia's father ruled Rome in anticipation of an election, her husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus was elected as one of the first two consuls (rulers who shared the power between them and were elected for terms of only one year). Unfortunately, his name made him suspect in the eyes of the Roman people, who had had their fill of Tarquins. In fact, his name held such disgust for the Romans that before his year as consul was completed he was asked to leave Rome. Having participated in the expulsion of the Tarquin king, he was astonished by this, but when even Spurius Lucretius, his father-in-law, joined in the entreaties, he yielded to unanimous sentiment and left Rome with all his belongings. Future Etruscan attempts to retake rule in Rome were unsuccessful.

The historicity of this dramatic tale has often been questioned by scholars. In Livy's narrative, for instance, Lucretia's story follows hard on that of Tullia's, and he makes Lucretia the paradigm of the virtuous Roman woman (simple, industrious, and chaste), contrasted with a wonderfully debauched woman (avaricious, ambitious, and cruel). Both women inspired the men in their lives to act, one for good, the other for evil. Both epitomized, in the Roman mind, the characters of their respective cultures: upright Roman versus decadent Etruscan. Because the stories fit these patterns so nicely, among other considerations, some scholars relegate them to status of pure legend.

Others, however, believe that the evidence for the antiquity of these stories give them credence, at least in their bare outlines. For instance, R.M. Ogilvie, authoritative commentator on the work of Livy, argues that because Lucretia's story was mentioned by the very earliest Roman writers, and because it was so strongly entrenched in the Roman culture, the story should be considered historically based in its core form despite legendary elements.

Some aspects of the story can be confirmed by historical sources apart from literary and historical narratives. They are: that Lucretius is a traditional Roman name, and, since Roman women of that time customarily took the feminine form of the family name as their own, without doubt there were many undocumented women named Lucretia; that Tarquinius is a documented ancient Etruscan name; that the Etruscans did have a predominance in Rome in the late 500s bce; that Etruscan culture valued celebratory living and urban culture, while Romans praised simple living and rural virtues; that kings in Rome were ousted around 510 bce; that a new republican form of government was instituted in Rome about that time; and that the word rex (king) held such negative connotations for the Romans that even as late as the 1st century bce powerful leaders such as Julius Caesar and Augustus made efforts to distance themselves from that appellation.

Lucretia's story was attached to these historical phenomena for the Roman people. Ovid, for instance, relates Lucretia's story in the context of a festival the Romans called Regifugium (Flight of the King) which was celebrated on February 24. While scholars reject Ovid's connection of this particular festival in its earliest origins to the events surrounding Lucretia's tragedy, it is clear that the Roman mind had made its own link.

If the story is accepted as basically valid, the question arises as to why Lucretia committed suicide when she was innocent of wrongdoing. One theory is that in her era she might have expected a trial before a family council and foreseen condemnation despite her victimization. Even if she had been allowed to live, the idea that any subsequent offspring might be tainted by the violation would have been difficult to face, and perhaps she was unwilling to live life as what would have been seen as a marred woman. She certainly believed, accurately, that she would ensure a vendetta against the House of Tarquin by her death.

Lucretia is a stark figure on the white canvas of early Roman history, appearing only long enough to demonstrate industry and chastity as cardinal womanly virtues and then to motivate men to throw off political oppression. But her story has served moral purposes for writers ever since. Among the Roman authors who refer to her in extant writings, always in a laudatory vein, are Cicero, Varro, Valerius Maximus, and Seneca. St. Augustine, on the other hand, castigates Lucretia for her suicide. He argues from a Christian viewpoint, 900 years after the event, that her suicide was immoral and only added another sin to the chain of crimes already committed. Shakespeare, over 1,000 years after St. Augustine, retold her story in "The Rape of Lucrece," a long narrative poem describing her chastity, her dilemma, and her courage. Her suicide, a tragedy to the modern mind, was glorified for thousands of years.


Cambridge Ancient History.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The Roman Antiquities. Translated by Earnest Cary. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937.

Hallett, Judith. Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Livy. The Early History of Rome. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. London: Penguin, 1971.

Ogilvie, R.M. A Commentary on Livy Books 1–5. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Ovid. The Fasti. Translated by Sir James George Frazer. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.

Treves, Piero. "Lucretia," in Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1970.

Sylvia Gray Kaplan , Adjunct Faculty, Humanities, Marylhurst College, Marylhurst, Oregon