Lucretia and the Founding of Republican Rome

by Alfred J. Drake

Here is an excerpted version of Lucretia's story; it is at the same time the story of Rome's inception as a Republic. Notice that sexual violence against this honorable Roman matron is deeply involved in the founding of the Roman Republic. Rather than be held up as an example of unchastity -- "no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia's example" she says -- Lucretia lets death serve as a pledge for her adherence to the code of female married chastity necessary to preserve Roman family and dynastic bloodlines. The matron's death allows her determined husband Collatinus, Lucius Junius Brutus, and others to use her outraged, silent corpse as a prop for the expulsion of the Tarquin (Etruscan) King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, father of Lucretia's rapist, Sextus Tarquinius. Lucretia, then, more insightful about the severe implications of the rigid, external Roman honor code than her own husband and his male compatriots, provides the blood that spurs Roman valor into throwing off 244 years of Tarquin rule.

Livy's History of Rome, Book 1: The Earliest Legends

1.57: ....The royal princes sometimes spent their leisure hours in feasting and entertainments, and at a wine party given by Sextus Tarquinius at which Collatinus, the son of Egerius, was present, the conversation happened to turn upon their wives, and each began to speak of his own in terms of extraordinarily high praise. As the dispute became warm, Collatinus said that there was no need of words, it could in a few hours be ascertained how far his Lucretia was superior to all the rest. "Why do we not," he exclaimed, "if we have any youthful vigour about us, mount our horses and pay our wives a visit and find out their characters on the spot? What we see of the behaviour of each on the unexpected arrival of her husband, let that be the surest test." They were heated with wine, and all shouted: "Good! Come on!" Setting spur to their horses they galloped off to Rome, where they arrived as darkness was beginning to close in. Thence they proceeded to Collatia, where they found Lucretia very differently employed from the king's daughters-in-law, whom they had seen passing their time in feasting and luxury with their acquaintances. She was sitting at her wool work in the hall, late at night, with her maids busy round her. The palm in this competition of wifely virtue was awarded to Lucretia. She welcomed the arrival of her husband and the Tarquins, whilst her victorious spouse courteously invited the royal princes to remain as his guests. Sextus Tarquin, inflamed by the beauty and exemplary purity of Lucretia, formed the vile project of effecting her dishonour. After their youthful frolic they returned for the time to camp.

1.58: A few days afterwards Sextus Tarquin went, unknown to Collatinus, with one companion to Collatia. He was hospitably received by the household, who suspected nothing, and after supper was conducted to the bedroom set apart for guests. When all around seemed safe and everybody fast asleep, he went in the frenzy of his passion with a naked sword to the sleeping Lucretia, and placing his left hand on her breast, said, "Silence, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquin, and I have a sword in my hand; if you utter a word, you shall die." When the woman, terrified out of her sleep, saw that no help was near, and instant death threatening her, Tarquin began to confess his passion, pleaded, used threats as well as entreaties, and employed every argument likely to influence a female heart. When he saw that she was inflexible and not moved even by the fear of death, he threatened to disgrace her, declaring that he would lay the naked corpse of the slave by her dead body, so that it might be said that she had been slain in foul adultery. By this awful threat, his lust triumphed over her inflexible chastity, and Tarquin went off exulting in having successfully attacked her honour. Lucretia, overwhelmed with grief at such a frightful outrage, sent a messenger to her father at Rome and to her husband at Ardea, asking them to come to her, each accompanied by one faithful friend; it was necessary to act, and to act promptly; a horrible thing had happened. Spurius Lucretius came with Publius Valerius, the son of Volesus; Collatinus with Lucius Junius Brutus, with whom he happened to be returning to Rome when he was met by his wife's messenger. They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears, and to her husband's inquiry whether all was well, replied, "No! what can be well with a woman when her honour is lost? The marks of a stranger, Collatinus, are in your bed. But it is only the body that has been violated, the soul is pure; death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. It is Sextus Tarquin, who, coming as an enemy instead of a guest, forced from me last night by brutal violence a pleasure fatal to me, and, if you are men, fatal to him." They all successively pledged their word, and tried to console the distracted woman by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator, and urging that it is the mind that sins, not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt. "It is for you," she said, "to see that he gets his deserts; although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia's example." She had a knife concealed in her dress which she plunged into her heart, and fell dying on the floor. Her father and husband raised the death-cry.

1.59: Whilst they were absorbed in grief, Brutus drew the knife from Lucretia's wound, and holding it, dripping with blood, in front of him, said, "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 brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome." Then he handed the knife to Collatinus and then to Lucretius and Valerius, who were all astounded at the marvel of the thing, wondering whence Brutus had acquired this new character. They swore as they were directed; all their grief changed to wrath, and they followed the lead of Brutus, who summoned them to abolish the monarchy forthwith. They carried the body of Lucretia from her home down to the Forum, where, owing to the unheard-of atrocity of the crime, they at once collected a crowd. Each had his own complaint to make of the wickedness and violence of the royal house. Whilst all were moved by the father's deep distress, Brutus bade them stop their tears and idle laments, and urged them to act as men and Romans and take up arms against their insolent foes....

1.60: When the news of these proceedings reached the camp, the king, alarmed at the turn affairs were taking, hurried to Rome to quell the outbreak. Brutus, who was on the same road, had become aware of his approach, and to avoid meeting him took another route, so that he reached Ardea and Tarquin Rome almost at the same time, though by different ways. Tarquin found the gates shut, and a decree of banishment passed against him; the Liberator of the City received a joyous welcome in the camp, and the king's sons were expelled from it. Two of them followed their father into exile amongst the Etruscans in Caere. Sextus Tarquin proceeded to Gabii, which he looked upon as his kingdom, but was killed in revenge for the old feuds he had kindled by his rapine and murders. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus reigned twenty-five years. The whole duration of the regal government from the foundation of the City to its liberation was two hundred and forty-four years. Two consuls were then elected in the assembly of centuries by the prefect of the City, in accordance with the regulations of Servius Tullius. They were Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. End of Book 1

From The History of Rome, Vol. I, Titus Livius. Editor Ernest Rhys. Translator Rev. Canon Roberts. Everyman's Library. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1912.