The Rape of Lucretia: Politics and the Woman’s Body

We would often see her images and, perhaps just as often, forget her name. We see her in many classical paintings as a beautiful yet tragic figure, looking up helplessly towards a figure of a Roman soldier standing over her. However, in 16th century Europe, the opposite happened: There was no other ancient name that fuels an artist’s imagination like “Lucretia”. Shakespeare mentions her in his plays such as Titus AndronicusAs You Like It and Twelfth Night, made allusions of her in Macbeth, and draws extensively on Ovid’s treatment of her story in his poem The Rape of Lucrece (1594). However, he was not the only one fascinated by Lucretia. Among many others, mentions of her were also made by Dante in his Inferno, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women and John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Lucretia’s name and her story were so popular that the Paduan philosopher and literary critic Sperone Speroni wrote, “There is no one so stupid that he has not heard of her.” Indeed, from the extensive portrayals of her at the time, there was simply no escaping her.

"Tarquinius and Lucretia" by Titian (1490-1576)
“Tarquinius and Lucretia” by Titian (1490-1576)

The Death a Ancient Roman Wife

Sextus Tarquinius was the son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome who was engaged in the siege of Ardea at the time. One day, Sextus invited his friends for supper and drinks at his house. Among his guests was Tarquinius Collatinus, one of his distant kinsmen. The men started talking about their wives and, fueled by wine, each of them praised his own wife excessively. Collatinus finally declared that no one was more worthy than his wife, Lucretia.

As his friends scoffed, Collatinus invited them to ride their horses to his house and see for themselves what his wife was doing at home. The men agreed and they all went on horseback to the city. They visited each of their houses and found every single one of their wives getting ready for a night out. Finally, they arrived at the house of Collatinus and found Lucretia, with her servants, working on her spinning in the middle of her house. It was then that Sextus was said to have been seduced both by Lucretia’s beauty and virtue.

"Tarquin’s Sons Admiring Lucretia’s Virtue" by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée (1781)
“Tarquin’s Sons Admiring Lucretia’s Virtue” by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée (1781)

A few days later, Sextus returned to the house of Collatinus. Collatinus was, at this time, away at Ardea. Lucretia received him graciously and granted him the hospitality according to his status as the son of the king. Sextus waited until everyone else was asleep before taking up his sword and went to Lucretia’s bedroom. Placing his sword against her, Sextus woke Lucretia with a low voice and declared his love for her. After begging, threatening and exhausting every method of seducing Lucretia, who would rather die than submit to him, Sextus finally said, “when I have killed you, I will put next to you the body of a nude slave. Everyone will say that you were killed during a dishonorable act of adultery.” With this final threat, Sextus succeeded. After he raped Lucretia, he left. 

A cliff full of flowers is the body of the woman - Nikos Kazantzakis

The distraught Lucretia sent messengers to her husband and her father, Spurius Lucretius – prefect of Rome, asking them each to come at once with a good friend, because a terrible thing had happened in her husband’s house. Spurius Lucretius came with Publius Valerius and Collatinus came with Lucius Junius Brutus. When she saw them, Lucretia began to cry. She told them what has happened to her and charged them to avenge her honor. After promising her that they would pursue Sextus, they tried to appease Lucretia’s sorrow by saying what had happened to her was not her fault. Lucretia said, Nec ulla deinde inpudica Lucretiae exemplo vivet. (“Not in time to come shall ever unchaste woman live through the example of Lucretia”) Then, as the men looked at each other in despair and confusion, Lucretia took up a dagger and plunged it into her heart. She died amid the cries of her husband and father.

How a Woman Overthrows the King of Rome

Brutus, who came with Collatinus, took the dagger from Lucretia’s wound, called the grieving party to order and proposed that they drive the Tarquinii from Rome. Holding the bloody dagger in his hand, he swore that he would do everything in his power to overthrow the dominion of the Tarquinii. If he should violate his oath, he prayed that he and his children might meet with the same end as Lucretia. Brutus passed the dagger to each mourner and they all swore the same oath. As Lucretia lay dead, a revolutionary committee to overthrow the king of Rome was born.

Statue of Junius Brutus, swearing revenge at Lucretia's corpse, by Ignaz Platzer at Great Parterre, Schönbrunn.
Statue of Junius Brutus, swearing revenge at Lucretia’s corpse, by Ignaz Platzer at Great Parterre, Schönbrunn. Photo by Yair Haklai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Deceased as she was, evidently Lucretia’s influence was far from over. The newly formed committee paraded her bloody corpse to the Forum and began to enlist an army. Brutus summoned the crowd and gave one of the most noted and effective speeches of ancient Rome. He leveled charges against the king and his family, listing the king’s offences, protesting against the king’s tyranny and showing his outrage on behalf of Lucretia, whose body could be seen on the dais.

A beautiful woman dies twice - Pierre Claude Boiste

Brutus proposed the banishment of the Tarquins from all the territories of Rome and appointment of an interrex to nominate new magistrates. They had decided on a republican form of government with two consuls in place of a king executing the will of a patrician senate. In subsequent years the powers of the king were divided among various elected magistracies.

Spurius Lucretius, who was swiftly elected interrex, proposed Brutus and Collatinus as the first two consuls. The monarchy was then at an end, even while Lucretia’s body was still displayed in the Forum. Lucretia’s story became one of the most famous pieces of prose in Roman history and the centerpiece for Augustine’s argument about virginity in the siege of Rome almost five centuries later.

"Tarquinius Attacking Lucretia" by Hubert Gerhard (1550-1618)
“Tarquinius Attacking Lucretia” by Hubert Gerhard (1550-1618)

Lucretia’s Suicide

Despite the emotionally charged story of Lucretia and the general depiction of ancient women as the fairer sex at the mercy of their husbands or fathers, a woman of Lucretia’s status was by no means a fool. As a rule, aristocratic women in ancient Rome managed a large and complex household. As wealthy couples often owned homes and country estates with dozens or hundreds of slaves, some of whom were educated and highly skilled, this responsibility would have been the equivalent of running a small corporation. On top of the social and political duties of entertaining guests and visiting dignitaries from Rome and abroad, a husband usually held his morning business meetings at home. Therefore, a wife would have been demanded to entertain important guests as well as make sure that things were running smoothly behind the scenes.

Woman is sacred; the woman one loves is holy - Alexandre Dumas

The domus (home), therefore, served as the public and private center of the family’s social identity. One of the most important tasks for women to oversee in a household was clothing production. The spinning of wool was considered a central domestic occupation, and indicated a family’s self-sufficiency, since it showed that the estates could produce wool. As such, wool was often a symbol of a Roman wife’s duties, and equipment for spinning often appears on the funeral monument of a woman to show that she was an honorable matron. Even women of the upper classes were expected to be able to spin and weave in virtuous emulation of their ancestors— a practice observed by Lucretia herself.

"Tarquin and Lucretia", by Pietro Tacca
“Tarquin and Lucretia”, by Pietro Tacca. Photo by Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0

As most men, such as Collatinus, were frequently away from home on military campaign or administrative duty in the provinces, the maintenance of the family’s property and business decisions were left to their wives. When Ovid was exiled by Augustus in 8 CE, for example, his wife utilized her social connections and legal maneuvers to keep the family’s property, as it was the source of their livelihood. These were Lucretia’s daily duties, which she evidently did well. However, Livy describes her as the paradigm of a Roman matron by highlighting the importance of her chastity, although it caused her to commit suicide under circumstances in which she was not to blame. In Livy’s version of the event, Lucretia explicitly said that she wished to become an example, albeit without drawing any distinction between rape and adultery, so no Roman women caught in adultery would cry rape and escape punishment. Lucretia was understandably distraught after what she has had to endure, but although her motivation is not primarily political, in the times she lived in, she would have been aware of the political implications of her act for Tarquinius’ rule, given that his son was involved.

The four cornerstones of this world: bread, wine, fire, woman - Nikos Kazantzakis

The State, the Home and the Female Body

The association of Brutus’ revolt with Lucretia’s dramatic suicide had long since been made by Quintus Fabius Pictor (born c. 270 BCE), the earliest known Roman historian and widely considered as the first of the annalists. However, Livy’s version of this story highlights the concepts of honor versus shame, connecting them to the idea that a pure woman maintained a good household and was therefore a good citizen. Finding the lady of the house in bed with a slave violateed the idea of purity and the natural hierarchy of the house, which would explain Lucretia’s fear of Sextus’ final threat.

"Lucrezia" by Filippo Parodi (1630 - 1702).
“Lucrezia” by Filippo Parodi (1630 – 1702). Photo by Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Livy wrote this version of the story as the emperor Augustus began to launch his campaign for moral virtue in Roman society. This was a time in Rome’s political history where Lucretia’s wish to be an example of a chaste woman was used as an example to call back Roman women to their duties to the household and to the state. Lucretia’s death also reminded men of their natural duty to protect their womenfolk.

The story of Lucretia has also proven to be an effective statement against tyranny, in that tyranny seeks out and destroys the family unit. In Lucretia’s case, tyranny manifested itself through rape, creating private tragedy and public civil war. The definition of tyranny in this context is where passions dominated honor and reputation became less important than desires.

Another demonstration of the link between the political world and the private world in the mind of the Roman was that when Brutus swore to avenge Lucretia, he vowed against Tarquin instead of the rapist, Sextus. This takes the matter beyond the private to the public/political. One might even argue that, for Livy, the private matter of the rape of Lucretia is not as important as the public tragedy, which is the violation of the family unit by a member of the royal family.

"Lucretia committing suicide after her rape" by Philippe Bertrand (1664 - 1724)
“Lucretia committing suicide after her rape” by Philippe Bertrand (1664 – 1724) By Philippe Bertrand – Own work by Fordmadoxfraud, Public Domain

Retelling History without Much Facts: Livy’s Style

Despite the rather clumsy narrative, Lucretia’s message is aimed at adulterous women instead of rape victims. Instead of trying to encourage rape victims to commit suicide, Lucretia was trying to discourage married women from adultery by forcing on them her view of how seriously the consequences should be assessed and punished. She was apparently successful in this as Brutus seemed to have been inspired by Lucretia’s stand.

In general, Livy’s historical writings also have been heavily debated. Livy was not a historian who insisted on high standards of evidence or critical analysis, nor were his interests primarily political and military in nature. He was, in fact, a historian who was more interested in morality and inspiration, especially in examples of virtue and vice. The story of Lucretia as told by Livy remains useful as it shows and interprets the collective memory of the identity and character of the ancient Romans. Retelling history through examples seems to be something Livy shares in common with his contemporaries, in particular the emperor Augustus, whose Forum was populated with statues of noble men designed as reminders of the glorious past and examples for present and future generations.

"The Body of Lucretia Exposed to the Romans" by James Jefferys (1751 - 1784) 
“The Body of Lucretia Exposed to the Romans” by James Jefferys (1751 – 1784) 

Lucretia’s story results in a momentous change in the political form of the Roman state as the monarchy gives way to the republic. Livy associates Lucretia with this change as the female figure exercising decisive and destabilizing power on the public stage. Although some scholars may consider Livy to be sexist in his treatment of the story, Lucretia promotes concord as well as inspires discord and change in the developing sociopolitical environment. She serves as an example for the men and women around her. Consequently, her characterization and role in Livy’s story is much more complex than that of a victim.

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