According to Roman tradition, Lucretia () or Lucrece (Latin: Lucretia; died c. 510 BC) was a noblewoman in ancient Rome whose rape by Sextus Tarquinius (Tarquin), an Etruscan king's son, was the cause of a rebellion that overthrew the Roman monarchy and led to the transition of Roman government from a kingdom to a republic. There were no contemporary sources; information regarding Lucretia, her rape and suicide, and the consequence of this being the start of the Roman Republic, come from the later accounts of Roman historian Livy and Greco-Roman historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
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 royal family of Tarquin from Rome, and successfully defended the republic against attempted Etruscan and Latian intervention. As a result of its sheer impact, the rape itself became a major theme in European art and literature.
One of the first two consuls of the Roman Republic, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus was Lucretia's husband. All the numerous sources on the establishment of the republic reiterate the basic events of Lucretia's story, though accounts vary slightly. Lucretia's story is not considered a myth by most historians, but rather a historical legend about an early history that was already a major part of Roman folklore before it was first written about. The evidence points to the historical existence of a woman named Lucretia and a historical incident that played a critical part in the real downfall of a real monarchy. Many of the specific details, though, are debatable, and vary depending on the writer. Post-Roman uses of the legend typically became mythical in portrayal, 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, Tarquin, on a military errand to Collatia. Tarquin was received with great hospitality at the governor's mansion, home of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, son of the king's nephew, Arruns Tarquinius, former governor of Collatia and first of the Tarquinii Collatini. Collatinus' 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, Tarquin and Collatinus, at a wine party on furlough, were debating the virtues of wives when Collatinus volunteered to settle the debate by all of them 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 Collatinus invited them to visit, but for the time being they returned to camp.
At night, Tarquin 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 place the bodies together, then claim he had caught her having adulterous sex (see sexuality in ancient Rome for Roman attitudes toward sex). 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.
Tarquin returned to camp. The next day Lucretia dressed in black and went to her father's house in Rome and cast herself down in the supplicant's position (embracing the knees), weeping. Asked to explain herself, she insisted on first summoning witnesses and after disclosing the rape, called on them for vengeance, a plea that could not be ignored, as she was speaking to the chief magistrate of Rome. While they were debating the proper course of action, 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 for her father and 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 had happened and after exacting an oath of vengeance—"Pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished."— and while they were discussing the matter, drew the poignard and stabbed herself in her heart.
In another 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. Superbus had taken his inheritance and left him a pittance, keeping him at court for entertainment.
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 anyone 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, a debate at which many patricians spoke. 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 already. 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:
In as much 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, Tarquin, 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.
In literature and music
Livy's account in Ab Urbe Condita Libri (c. 25–8 BC) is the earliest surviving full historical treatment. In his account her husband has boasted of the virtue of his wife to Tarquin and others. Livy contrasts the virtue of the Roman Lucretia, who remained in her room weaving, with the Etruscan ladies who feasted with friends. Ovid recounts the story of Lucretia in Book II of his Fasti, published in 8 AD, concentrating on the bold over-reaching character of Tarquin. Later, St. Augustine made use of the figure of Lucretia in The City of God (published 426AD) to defend the honour of Christian women who had been raped in the sack of Rome and had not committed suicide.
The story of Lucretia was a popular moral tale in the later Middle Ages. 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.
It is recounted in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, John Gower's Confessio Amantis (Book VII), and John Lydgate's Fall of Princes. Lucretia's rape and suicide is also the subject of William Shakespeare's 1594 long poem The Rape of Lucrece, which draws extensively on Ovid's treatment of the story; he also mentioned her in Titus Andronicus, in As You Like It, and in Twelfth Night in which Malvolio authenticates his fateful letter by spotting Olivia's Lucrece seal, and alludes to her in Macbeth. Niccolò Machiavelli's comedy La Mandragola is loosely based on the Lucretia story.
Two fair, but ladies most infortunate,
Have in their ruins rais'd declining Rome,
Lucretia and Virginia, both renown'd
Thomas Heywood's play The Rape of Lucretia dates from 1607. The subject also enjoyed a revival in the mid twentieth century; André Obey's 1931 play Le Viol de Lucrèce [fr] was adapted by librettist Ronald Duncan for The Rape of Lucretia, a 1946 opera by Benjamin Britten which premiered at Glyndebourne. Ernst Krenek set Emmet Lavery's libretto Tarquin (1940), a version in a contemporary setting.
Jacques Gallot (died c. 1690) composed the allemandes "Lucrèce" and "Tarquin" for baroque lute.
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.
In 1769, doctor Joan Ramis wrote a tragedy in Menorca entitled Lucrecia. The play is written in the Catalan language using a neoclassical style and is the most important work of the eighteenth century written in this language.
In 1932, the play Lucrece was produced on Broadway starring legendary actress Katharine Cornell in the title part. It was mostly performed in pantomime.
Subject in art
Since the Renaissance, the suicide of Lucretia has been an enduring subject for visual artists, including Titian, Rembrandt, Dürer, Raphael, Botticelli, Jörg Breu the Elder, Johannes Moreelse, Artemisia Gentileschi, Damià Campeny, Eduardo Rosales, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and others. Most commonly, either the moment of the rape is shown or Lucretia is shown alone at the moment of her suicide. In either situation, her clothing is loosened or absent, while Tarquin is normally clothed.
The subject was one of a group showing women from legend or the Bible who were either powerless or only able to escape their situations by suicide, such as Susanna, Dido of Carthage, and Verginia. These formed a counterpoint to, or sub-group of, the set of subjects known as the Power of Women, showing female violence against, or domination of, men. These were often depicted by the same artists, and especially popular in Northern Renaissance art. The story of Esther lay somewhere between these two extremes.
- Examples with articles
- Tarquin and Lucretia— life-size image of the rape by Titian
- The Story of Lucretia (Botticelli)—three scenes, of the rape, denunciation and suicide
- The Suicide of Lucretia (Dürer)—single figure painting
- Lucretia and her Husband—distinctive depiction of Lucretia with a knife, and a shadowy male figure just behind. He is either Tarquin or her husband. By either Titian or Palma Vecchio.
- Lucretia (Veronese)