Lucretia is a legendary figure in the history of the Roman Republic. According to the story, told mainly by the Roman historian Livy and the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (who lived in Rome at the time of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus), her rape by the king’s son and consequent suicide were the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic. The incident kindled the flames of dissatisfaction over the tyrannical methods of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. As a result, the prominent families instituted a republic, drove the extensive Tarquin family from Rome, and successfully defended the republic against attempted Etruscan and Latin intervention. The rape has been a major theme in European art and literature.
The beginning of the republic is marked by the first appearance of the two consuls elected on a yearly basis. The Romans recorded events by consular year, keeping an official list in various forms called the fasti, utilized by Roman historians. The list and its events are authentic as far as can be known although debatable problems with many parts of it do exist. This list proves, as far as can be proved, that there was a Roman republic, that it began at the beginning of the fasti, and that it supplanted a monarchy. One of the first two consuls is Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, husband of Lucretia. All the numerous sources on the beginning of the republic reiterate these basic events. Lucretia and the monarchy cannot therefore be total myth or an elaborate literary hoax to deceive and entertain the Roman people about an early history that can’t be known. The evidence points to the historical existence of a woman named Lucretia and a historical incident playing a critical part in the real downfall of a real monarchy. Many of the specific details are debatable. Later uses of the legend, however, are typically totally mythical, being of artistic rather than historical merit.
As the events of the story move rapidly, the date of the incident is probably the same year as the first of the fasti. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a major source, sets this year “at the beginning of the sixty-eighth Olympiad … Isagoras being the annual archon at Athens;”that is, 508/507 BC (the ancient calendars split years over modern ones). Lucretia therefore died in 508 BC. The other historical sources tend to support this date, but the year is debatable within a range of about five years.
Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, last king of Rome, being engaged in the siege of Ardea, sent his son, Sextus Tarquinius, on a military errand to Collatia. Sextus was received with great hospitality at the governor’s mansion, home of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, son of the king’s nephew, Egerius Tarquinius Collatinus, former governor of Collatia and first of the Tarquinii Collatini. Lucius’ wife, Lucretia, daughter of Spurius Lucretius, prefect of Rome, “a man of distinction”, made sure that the king’s son was treated as became his rank, although her husband was away at the siege. In a variant of the story, Sextus and Lucius, at a wine party on furlough, were debating the virtues of wives when Lucius volunteered to settle the debate by their all riding to his home to see what Lucretia was doing. She was weaving with her maids. The party awarded her the palm of victory and Lucius invited them to visit, but for the time being they returned to camp.
At night Sextus entered her bedroom by stealth, quietly going around the slaves who were sleeping at her door. She awakened, he identified himself and offered her two choices: she could submit to his sexual advances and become his wife and future queen, or he would kill her and one of her slaves and placing the bodies together claim he had caught her having adulterous sex (in flagrante delicto). In the alternative story, he returned from camp a few days later with one companion to take Collatinus up on his invitation to visit and was lodged in a guest bedroom. He entered Lucretia’s room while she lay naked in her bed and started to wash her belly with water, which woke her up.
Sextus returned to camp. The next day Lucretia dressed in black, went to her father’s house in Rome and cast herself down in the suppliant’s position (embracing the knees), weeping. Asked to explain herself she insisted on first summoning witnesses and after disclosing the rape called on him and them for vengeance, a plea that could not be ignored, as she was speaking to the chief magistrate of Rome. While they were debating she drew a concealed dagger and stabbed herself in the heart. She died in her father’s arms, with the women present keening and lamenting. “This dreadful scene struck the Romans who were present with so much horror and compassion that they all cried out with one voice that they would rather die a thousand deaths in defence of their liberty than suffer such outrages to be committed by the tyrants.”
In the alternative version she did not go to Rome but sent to it for her father and to Ardea for her husband asking them to bring one friend each. Those selected were Publius Valerius Publicola from Rome and Lucius Junius Brutus from the camp at Ardea. They found Lucretia in her room. She explained what happened and after exacting an oath of vengeance: “Pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished,” while they were discussing the matter drew the poignard and stabbed herself, again in the heart.
In either version Collatinus and Brutus were encountered returning to Rome unaware, were briefed and were brought to the death scene. Brutus happened to be a politically motivated participant. By kinship he was a Tarquin on his mother’s side, the son of Tarquinia, daughter of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the third king before last. He was a candidate for the throne if anything should happen to Superbus. By law, however, as he was a Junius on his father’s side, he was not a Tarquin and therefore could later propose the exile of the Tarquins without fear for himself. He acquired the cognomen Brutus, “Dullard”, by playing the pleasant fool so as not to attract the king’s onus. Superbus had taken his inheritance and left him a pittance, keeping him at court for the entertainment of it.
Collatinus, seeing his wife dead, became distraught. He held her, kissed her, called her name and spoke to her. Seeing the hand of Destiny in these events his friend Brutus called the grieving party to order, explained that his simplicity had been a sham, and proposed that they drive the Tarquins from Rome. Grasping the bloody dagger,
he swore by Mars and all the other gods that he would do everything in his power to overthrow the dominion of the Tarquinii and that he would neither be reconciled to the tyrants himself nor tolerate any who should be reconciled to them, but would look upon every man who thought otherwise as an enemy and till his death would pursue with unrelenting hatred both the tyranny and its abettors; and if he should violate his oath, he prayed that he and his children might meet with the same end as Lucretia.
He passed the dagger around and each mourner swore the same oath by it. The two stories agree on this point: Livy’s version is:
By this blood – most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son – I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole blood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.
The newly sworn revolutionary committee paraded the bloody corpse to the Roman Forum and arriving there heard grievances against the Tarquins and began to enlist an army. Brutus “urged them to act as men and Romans and take up arms against their insolent foes.” The gates of Rome were blockaded by the new revolutionary soldiers and more were sent to guard Collatia. By now a crowd had gathered in the forum, The presence of the magistrates among the revolutionaries kept them in good order. Brutus happened to be Tribune of the Celeres, a minor office of some religious duties, but one which as a magistracy gave him the theoretical power to summon the curiae, an organization of patrician families used mainly to ratify the decrees of the king. Summoning them on the spot he transformed the crowd into an authoritative legislative assembly and began to harangue them in one of the more noted and effective speeches of ancient Rome.
He began by revealing that his pose as fool was a sham designed to protect him against an evil king. He leveled a number of charges against the king and his family: the outrage against Lucretia, whom everyone could see on the dais, the king’s tyranny, the forced labor of the plebeians in the ditches and sewers of Rome. He pointed out that Superbus had come to rule by the murder of Servius Tullius, his wife’s father, next-to-the-last king of Rome. He “solemnly invoked the gods as the avengers of murdered parents.” The king’s wife, Tullia, was in fact in Rome and probably was a witness to the proceedings from her palace near the forum. Seeing herself the target of so much animosity she fled from the palace in fear of her life and proceeded to the camp at Ardea.
Brutus opened a debate on the form of government Rome ought to have; there were many speakers (all patricians). In summation he proposed the banishment of the Tarquins from all the territories of Rome and appointment of an interrex to nominate new magistrates and conduct an election of ratification. They had decided on a republican form of government with two consuls in place of a king executing the will of a patrician senate. This was a temporary measure until they could consider the details more carefully. Brutus renounced all right to the throne. In subsequent years the powers of the king were divided among various elected magistracies.
A final vote of the curiae carried the interim constitution. Spurius Lucretius was swiftly elected interrex; he was prefect of the city anyway. He proposed Brutus and Collatinus as the first two consuls and that choice was ratified by the curiae. Needing to acquire the assent of the population as a whole they paraded Lucretia through the streets summoning the plebeians to legal assembly in the forum. Once there they heard a constitutional speech by Brutus not unlike many speeches and documents of western civilization subsequently. It began:
Inasmuch as Tarquinius neither obtained the sovereignty in accordance with our ancestral customs and laws, nor, since he obtained it — in whatever manner he got it — has he been exercising it in an honourable or kingly manner, but has surpassed in insolence and lawlessness all the tyrants the world ever saw, we patricians met together and resolved to deprive him of his power, a thing we ought to have done long ago, but are doing now when a favourable opportunity has offered. And we have called you together, plebeians, in order to declare our own decision and then ask for your assistance in achieving liberty for our country ….
A general election was held. The vote was for the republic. The monarchy was at an end, even while Lucretia was still displayed in the forum.
The constitutional consequences of this event were, formally at least, to reverberate for more than two thousand years. Rome would never again have a hereditary “king”, even if later emperors were absolute rulers in all but name. This constitutional tradition prevented both Julius Caesar and Octavian Augustus from accepting a crown; instead they had to devise a confluence of several republican offices onto their persons in order to secure absolute power. Their successors both in Rome and in Constantinople adhered to this tradition in form if not in essence, and even the office of German Holy Roman Emperor remained typically elective rather than hereditary – up to its abolition in the Napoleonic Wars, 2314 years later.
Hearing of the doings at Rome the king, his sons and a party of retainers rode posthaste for the city, leaving Titus Herminius and Marcus Horatius in command of the troops at Ardea. The gates of Rome being barred and armed men on the wall, they returned to camp. Meanwhile letters had arrived from the revolutionary committee and were read to the troops by Herminius and Horatius. The men were assembled by unit for a vote, by which the revolution was confirmed. In one story the Tarquins escaped to Gabii. A 15-year truce was made with Ardea. The troops returned to Rome.
Superbus was not long in Gabii. He had to retire with his men to Tarquinii, where he raised the standard of intervention among the Etruscans. In an alternative story he went directly to Tarquinii with two of his sons; the third, Sextus, attempted to resume control of Gabii, but was assassinated. The Romans had to face one intervention by the Etruscans (Horatius Cocles) and another by the Latin League (Battle of Lake Regillus). Sentiment ran high against the Tarquins. Collatinus was asked to resign over constitutional issues. He complied and was replaced by Publius Valerius Publicola.
The theme in literature and music
St. Augustine made use of the figure of Lucretia in The City of God to defend the honour of Christian women who had been raped in the sack of Rome and had not committed suicide.
Megadeth, (Band), made a song about Lucretia in which her ghost lives in Lead singer/Guitarist Dave Mustaine’s attic.
The story of Lucretia was a popular moral tale in the later Middle Ages. The story has been recounted in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (Book VII), and John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes. Lucrece is also featured in William Shakespeare’s 1594 long poem The Rape of Lucrece; he also mentioned her in Titus Andronicus, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night (Malvolio authenticates his fateful letter by spotting Olivia’s Lucrece seal).
She is also mentioned in the poem Appius and Virginia by John Webster and Thomas Heywood, which includes the following lines:
Two ladies fair, but most unfortunate
Have in their ruins rais’d declining Rome,
Lucretia and Virginia, both renowned
Thomas Heywood’s play The Rape of Lucrece dates from 1607. The subject also enjoyed a revival in the mid twentieth century; André Obey’s 1931 play Le Viol de Lucrèce was adapted into a 1946 opera by Benjamin Britten. Ernst Krenek set Emmet Lavery’s libretto Tarquin (1940), a version in a contemporary setting.
Lucretia appears to Dante in the section of Limbo reserved to the nobles of Rome and other “virtuous pagans” in Canto IV of the Inferno. Christine de Pizan used Lucretia just as St. Augustine of Hippo did in her City of Ladies, defending a woman’s sanctity.
In Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, Mr. B. cites the story of Lucretia as a reason why Pamela ought not fear for her reputation, should he rape her. Pamela quickly sets him straight with a better reading of the story. Colonial Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz also mentions “Lucrecia” in her poem Redondillas, a commentary on prostitution and who is to blame.