Rape of Lucretia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Lucretia, a Roman noblewoman, was raped by Tarquinius Sextus, the king’s son. Her appeal to her husband and father for vengeance brought about the end of the Roman monarchy and the beginning of the Roman Republic.

Summary of Event

The traditional date for the end of the Roman monarchy and the beginning of the Roman Republic is 509 b.c.e. The canonical version of the story was written by Titus Livius, better known as Livy (59 b.c.e.-17 c.e.), in his Ab urbe condita libre (c. 26 b.c.e.-15 c.e.; The History of Rome, 1600). According to Livy, the seventh and last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was a tyrant who treated the Roman people like slaves and executed those who might oppose him or whose wealth he coveted. During the siege of the wealthy town of Ardea, the leading young men—including Superbus’s son, Tarquinius Sextus—spent their evenings drinking and talking. One night, the discussion turned to wives. Each man argued that his own wife was the most beautiful and virtuous. Then Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, nephew of the king and a cousin of Sextus, declared that they should all ride to Rome and to Collatia, where they would see that his wife, Lucretia, was by far the best. Lucretia Tarquinius Superbus, Lucius Tarquinius Sextus Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus Lucretius Publius Valerius Junius Brutus, Lucius

The intoxicated young men agreed and rode first to Rome, where they found their wives spending time eating and talking with friends. When they arrived at Collatinus’s house, they found Lucretia with her maidservants working wool by lamplight. She received them graciously, and as a result, Collatinus was declared the winner. While the men enjoyed Lucretia’s hospitality, Sextus took special note of Lucretia’s beauty and modesty, and an immoral lust began to grow in him.

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A few days later, Sextus secretly returned to Collatinus’s home. Because Sextus was her husband’s cousin, Lucretia invited him in and offered him hospitality. After she and the rest of the household retired for the night, Sextus, sword in hand, crept into Lucretia’s bedroom and woke her by placing his hand over her mouth. He warned her that he would kill her if she cried out. Then he confessed his love and begged Lucretia to acquiesce to his desire. When she refused, he threatened her with death. She still refused. He then threatened to kill a male slave, put him naked in Lucretia’s bed with her body and tell all that he found them together. Faced with the prospect of both death and dishonor without the chance of clearing her name, Lucretia submitted to Sextus’s lust, and Sextus returned to the camp.

Lucretia sent messages to her father and husband to come immediately with trusted friends. Lucretius (Lucretia’s father) with Publius Valerius and Collatinus with Lucius Junius Brutus arrived at the house without delay. When Collatinus asked his wife if she was well, Lucretia responded that no woman could be well who had lost her honor. Through her tears, she informed the men that Tarquinius Sextus had raped her and demanded that they avenge her. She said, however, that she could not forget that her body had been defiled and vowed to commit suicide. The men tried to dissuade her, but Lucretia ignored their pleas, responding that no immoral woman should be allowed to live. She then drew a knife from under her garment and ended her life.

A meeting between Lucretia and Tarquinius Sextus (third from left).

(F. R. Niglutsch)

While her father and husband raised a lament, Brutus (who had for some time pretended to be a half-wit to prevent Superbus from considering him a threat) seized Lucretia’s knife and vowed that by her most sacred blood the Tarquins would be expelled. Then the men carried Lucretia’s body out of the house and into the forum of Collatia, where all could see and hear what had happened. From there they rode to Rome, where Brutus summoned the people to the Roman Forum and delivered a fiery speech detailing the wrongs Superbus had committed against the Roman people and rallying them to expel the family. Superbus’s sons and his wife fled, and Superbus found the gates of Rome locked against him when he returned to the city to quell the rebellion. The Romans then elected two consuls (magistrates) to serve yearly terms. The first to hold the new office were Brutus and Collatinus, but because Collatinus was related to the former king, he was asked to step down and to leave Rome; he was replaced by Lucretius, and after Lucretius’s death, by Valerius.

Significance

The truth of this tradition has sometimes been questioned by scholars, but what is most important in this story is not whether it happened exactly as Livy told it, but what this story shows of the Romans’ view of themselves as a people.

The first glimpse of the Roman character comes in the Roman response to the rule of the city by the Tarquins, an Etruscan family. The archaeological record does show that Etruscans ruled the city during the sixth century b.c.e. and brought their symbols and customs to Rome. That Etruscan rule did not disappear immediately is represented through the figure of Lucius Junius Brutus, who was himself related to the Tarquins (his mother was the daughter of Superbus) and was the first to hold a consulship. Yet, the “Roman” aspect of Brutus did not emerge until the Tarquin family had done something so horrible it could not be overlooked. Even though Superbus had killed Brutus’s own father and uncles and had forced Brutus to pretend to be stupid (brutus is Latin for “dull” or “stupid”), it was not until the Tarquins had turned their illicit use of power against a woman that he and the other Romans were willing to revolt against the king. These elements of the tradition represent the Romans as a people who willingly accepted influence from other cultures. Moreover, the Romans respected power and did not easily resort to rebellion. Abuse of men was not sufficient reason for rebellion, but abuse of women could not be tolerated.

A second statement about Rome and the Romans comes through Lucretia. She is presented as a young Roman woman married to a member of the Tarquin family. When the men, mostly members of the Tarquin family, began to argue about who had the best wife, no one hesitated to show off his wife to the others. Scholars have argued that in Etruscan society, women were very visible and lived lives closer to those of men than either their Greek or even Roman counterparts. Livy’s story conveys this idea through the actions of the wives the men find in the palace—they, like the men, are spending time with friends. Only Lucretia was found participating in work that was specific to women: She was working wool.

More important, through Lucretia, Livy demonstrates Roman bravery, Roman morality, and the ability of women to change the course of history. First Lucretia acted with kindness and respect, greeting her husband and his friends when they arrived unexpectedly and greeting her husband’s cousin when he returned a few days later. Lucretia was willing to face death rather than give in to Sextus’s lust, but death with dishonor—the knowledge that her reputation would be destroyed—she could not accept. By choosing to submit, Lucretia determined that it was more important for her to have the opportunity to speak out, to name her attacker, and to ensure that he would pay. As a married woman inside her own home, she had the authority to give orders to the men in her family and they were expected to listen and to determine the proper course of action outside the home. Lucretia’s further refusal to live as a compromised woman, one whose story others could manipulate for their own purposes, sealed her reputation as the brave and virtuous woman who brought an end to the hated monarchy of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and thereby initiated the Roman Republic.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonfante, Larissa. “Etruscan Women.” Archaeology 26 (1973): 242-249. Bonfante argues for an elevated role of women in Etruscan culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cornell, T. J. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c. 1000-264 b.c.e. New York: Routledge, 1995. A detailed study of the archaeological evidence as well as the historical tradition surrounding Rome’s founding and development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dixon, Suzanne. The Roman Mother. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988. Dixon surveys the nature of a woman’s authority within the home and within Roman society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Livy. The Early History of Rome, Books I-V. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, introduction by R. M. Ogilvie. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 2002. The story of Lucretia and the founding of the Republic occurs in book 1.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDougall, I. “Livy and Etruscan Woman.” Ancient Historical Bulletin 4 (1990): 24-30. McDougall questions Bonfante’s view that Etruscan women had political power to match their social freedom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vandiver, E. “The Founding Mothers of Livy’s Rome.” In The Eye Expanded: Life and the Arts in Greco-Roman Antiquity, edited by F. B. Titchener and R. F. Moorton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Vandiver demonstrates the central role of women in founding Rome, first as a monarchy and then as a republic.
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