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For other uses, see Lucretia (disambiguation).
File:Sandro Botticelli 078.jpg
The Story of Lucretia (ca. 1500-1501), an artistic and symbolic rendition of the event by Sandro Botticelli. In this detail of the center of the painting, citizens with swords are swearing the overthrow of the monarchy.[1]

Lucretia (/lʊˈkrʃə/; died c. 510 BC) was a legendary Roman housewife whose fate played a vital role in the transition from a Roman Kingdom into a Roman Republic. While there were no contemporary sources, accounts from Roman historian Livy (Livius) and Greek-Roman historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus from the time of Emperor Caesar Augustus (around the start of the Common Era) agreed that there was such a woman and that her suicide after being raped by an Etruscan king's son was the immediate cause of the anti-monarchist rebellion that overthrew the monarchy.

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 tribal Latin intervention. Due to 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 is Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, the husband of Lucretia. 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, anyhow, is therefore not deemed 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;"[2] 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.[3]

The incident

File:Lucretia and her Maids.gif
Lucretia and her Maids

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, Arruns Tarquinius, former governor of Collatia and first of the Tarquinii Collatini. Lucius' wife, Lucretia, daughter of Spurius Lucretius, prefect of Rome, "a man of distinction",[4] 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,[5] Sextus and Lucius, at a wine party on furlough, were debating the virtues of wives when Lucius 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 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 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.

The consequences

Symbolic rendition of Brutus holding the knife, with Lucretia, and swearing the oath.

Sextus 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 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."[6]

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 happened and after exacting an oath of vengeance: "Pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished,"[7] 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. He acquired the cognomen Brutus, "Dullard",[8] 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 entertainment.[9]

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,[10] 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:[11]
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."[11] 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.[11]

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:[12]

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

File:Lucretia MR.jpg
Marcantonio Raimondi's 1534 image of her suicide.

Ovid recounts the story of Lucretia in Book II of his Fasti, published in 8AD; it also appears in Livy's History of Rome. 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. 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;[13] 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). Niccolò Machiavelli's comedy La Mandragola is loosely based on Lucretia.

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
For chastity

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. 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.

Jacques Gallot (d. ca. 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 play in Menorca called 'Lucrecia'. The play is written in Catalan language using a neoclassical style. 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.

In 1946 Benjamin Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia premiered at Glyndebourne.

The theme in the arts

File:Monogrammist I.W. - Lucretia (1525).jpg
Lucrecia, 1525, Monogrammist I.W.
active in the Cranach studio c. 1520-40

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.

See also


  1. ^ 'The Tragedy of Lucretia,' ca. 1500-1501, Sandro Botticelli, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
  2. ^ D.H. V.1.
  3. ^ Cornell, Timothy J (1995). "9. The Beginnings of the Roman Republic: 2. The Problem of Chronology". The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC). The Routledge History of the Ancient World. Routledge. pp. 218–225. ISBN 978-0-415-01596-7. 
  4. ^ D.H. IV.64.
  5. ^ T.L. I.57.
  6. ^ D.H. IV.66.
  7. ^ T.L. I.58.
  8. ^ "Wiktionary, definition of Brutus". Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 2015-01-20. 
  9. ^ D.H. IV.68.
  10. ^ D.H. IV.70.
  11. ^ a b c T.L. I.59.
  12. ^ D.H. IV.78.
  13. ^ Shakespeare's Poems: Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and the Shorter Poems, ed. by Katherine Duncan Jones (Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edn., 2007), 'Introduction', passim.


External links

  • Parada, Carlos (1997). "Lucretia". Greek Mythology Link. Retrieved 30 July 2009. 
  • Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1666). "Lucretia". The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Retrieved 30 July 2009. 

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