The Rape of Lucretia

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Lucretia, Hans Baldung, 1927

In antiquity, the rape of Lucretia is one of the most significant occurrences of violence against women. Her rape would  mark the beginning of the Roman Republic, forever affecting Rome itself and all its people. For centuries, Lucretia’s rape would be the topic of numerous poems, artworks, and operas.

To many modern historians, Lucretia was a mythological figure (Joshel, 2008, pg. 113). Despite this belief, her existence is written about by Livy in Ab Urbe Condita Libri  and by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in Roman Antiquities Book IV, suggesting her story has merit despite the possibility of it being exaggerated. The account of her rape differs within each story.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Account in Roman Antiquities Book IV

The story of Lucretia begins with Sextus, the eldest son of Tarquinius, who was sent by his father to a city called Collatia to perform military services. In Collatia he stayed at the house of Tarquinius’ cousin – Lucius Tarquinius, surnamed Collatinus. Lucretia was the wife of Collatinus (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Book IV, Thayer, 64). Sextus saw Lucretia as excelling above all the Roman women in beauty and in virtue and decided he would seduce her (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Book IV, 64, Thayer).

While lodging at Lucretia’s home, Sextus woke late in the night and went to the room where he knew Lucretia slept. Careful not to awake her slaves who slept by her door, he entered her room with his sword in his hand. He woke her, “he told her his name and bade her be silent and remain in the room, threatening to kill her if she attempted either to escape or to cry out” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Book IV, 64, Thayer). With no immediate source of aid, Lucretia was forced to listen to the strange proposition of Sextus as, ‘he said, “if you will consent to gratify me, I will make you my wife, and with me you shall reign, for the present, over the city my father has given me, and, after his death, over the Romans, the Latins, the Tyrrhenians, and all the other nations he rules; for I know that I shall succeed to my father’s kingdom, as is right, since I am his eldest son”‘ (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Book IV, 65, Thayer). Sextus found Lucretia to not be moved to act by either fear of death or the declaration of his love. He then vowed to, “kill [her] and then slay one of [her] slaves, and having laid both [their] bodies together, will state that [he] had caught [Lucretia] misbehaving with the slave and punished [her] to avenge the dishonour of [Sextus’] kinsman; so that [Lucretia’s] death will be attended with shame and reproach and [her] body will be deprived both of burial and every other customary rite” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Book IV, 65, Thayer).

In ancient Rome, “wool-working [represents] the archetype of ideal feminine behaviours held by all Romans as a symbol of their devotion to sexual virtues such as chastity and modesty” (Jeppesen-Wigelsworth, 2010, pg.8). Lucretia, being a chaste and sexually moral woman as represented by the symbolic meaning of wool-weaving she partakes in, allowed Sextus to make his advances. By succumbing to his advances, Lucretia acts sexually moral. This is because the idea of being portrayed to all those that knew her as being an unchaste woman was a fate worse than sexual abuse and death.

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Tarquin and Lucretia, Hubert Gerhard, 1690

In the morning, Sextus returned to his camp in Ardea to continue his military efforts (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Book IV, 66, Thayer). Lucretia travels to Rome to meet her father, carrying a dagger hidden under her cloak. She greeted him and demanded he summon all those he could. Then, “in response to his hasty and urgent summons, the most prominent men had come to his house as she desired, she began at the beginning and told them all that had happened” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Book IV, 66, Thayer). After her sorrowful story, “she drew the dagger she was keeping concealed under her robes, and plunging it into her breast, with a single stroke pierced her heart” and quickly died in her father’s arms. 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” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Book IV, 67, Thayer). Publius Valerius, a Roman aristocrat,  was then sent to inform Lucretia’s husband of the misfortune.

In the account, Lucretia asks those around her to avenge her by the means they find necessary. She does not give direction on how to avenge her and thus those she leaves behind are responsible for the ensuing acts. The ensuing actions are thus in high honour of Lucretia rather than commands from her. Lucretia finds herself to not have sinned but still be worthy of punishment, a trait likely symbolic of her dedication to chastity and a high moral code.

Brutus, the nephew of King Tarquinius Superbus and close friend of Collatinus, and Lucretia’s husband led the battle against Sextus to avenge Lucretia’s death. Brutus was present when Collatinus was told of Lucretia’s death.

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Lucretia, Philippe Bertrand, 1704

With this war led by Brutus and Collatinus, alongside numerous Romans deeply disturbed and upset by Lucretia’s sexual assault, the tyrant led Monarch of Rome was conquered. Sextus was exiled to Gabii where he was murdered by the civilians there for his past wrongdoings to them (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Book IV, 85, Thayer). Collatinus and Brutus were met with rejoice for having successfully exiled Sextus and all his tyrant family members. The Monarchy of Rome collapsed with the revolt powered by Lucretia’s death. The collapse of the Roman Monarchy was the beginning of the Roman Republic. Lucretia’s death changed the entire political and social structure of Rome.

Livy’s Account in Ab Urbe Condita Libri Book 1

Sextus, Collatinus, and their military colleagues decided to determine who has the most virtuous wife. Their plan was to visit their wives without warning so that their wives’ true personality could be discovered. When the men arrived at Lucretia’s home they discovered her wool-working with her slaves by her side (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri Book 1, 57.10, Heinemann & Foster). Sextus saw Lucretia as a beautiful and virtuous woman; in ancient Rome, “wool-working [represents] the archetype of ideal feminine behaviours held by all Romans as a symbol of their devotion to sexual virtues such as chastity and modesty” (Jeppesen-Wigelsworth, 2010, pg.8). Sextus, having decided to seduce Lucretia because of her virtues and modesty, returned to her home a few days later where he was met with exceptional welcoming and a room for himself to sleep.

While lodging at Lucretia’s home, Sextus woke in the late night and went to the room where he knew Lucretia slept. Careful not to awake her slaves who slept by her door, he entered her room with his sword in his hand. He woke her, stating: “Be still, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquinius. My sword is in my hand. Utter a sound, and you die!” (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri Book 1, 58.3, Heinemann & Foster). With no immediate source of aid, Lucretia was forced to listen to the strange proposition of Sextus as he, “began to declare his love, to plead, to mingle threats with prayers, to bring every resource to bear upon her woman’s heart” (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri Book 1, 58.4, Heinemann & Foster) and if she were to decline he would kill her. Then, “When he found her obdurate and not to be moved even by fear of death, he went farther and threatened her with disgrace, saying that when she was dead he would kill his slave and lay him naked by her side, that she might be said to have been put to death in adultery with a man of base condition.” (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri Book 1, 58.5, Heinemann & Foster).

Lucretia, being a chaste and sexually moral woman as represented by the symbolic meaning of wool-weaving she partakes in, allowed Sextus to make his advances. y succumbing to his advances, Lucretia acts sexually moral. The idea of being portrayed to all those that knew her as being an unchaste woman was a fate worse than sexual abuse and death.

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Tarquin and Lucretia, Johann Peter Pichler, 1792

In the morning, “Tarquinius departed, exulting in his conquest of a woman’s honour”(Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri Book 1, 58.6, Heinemann & Foster). Lucretia dispatched an urgent message to her father in Rome and her husband at his camp in Ardea. They came to find her crying in her chambers, upon her husband asking what’s upsetting her she responded with, “pledge your right hands and your words that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. Sextus Tarquinius is he that last night returned hostility for hospitality, and armed with force brought ruin on me, and on himself no less —if you are men —when he worked his pleasure with me” (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri Book 1, 58.8, Heinemann & Foster). Her husband was quick to say that it was not her fault, that she had not sinned. Lucretia did not agree with her husband’s words, “It is for you to determine,” she answers, “what is due to him; for my own part, though I acquit myself of the sin, I do not absolve myself from punishment; not in time to come shall ever unchaste woman live through the example of Lucretia” (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri Book 1, 58.11, Heinemann & Foster). Lucretia plunged the dagger she has concealed under her robe into her heart. Her dead body is then, “carried into the forum, violated and fatally wounded like the roman state, the subsequent outrage results in the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the annual, collegial consulship. So out of the suffering of Lucretia rises the republic” (Strunk, 2014, pg.145). The Roman people were so appalled by Lucretia’s rape and suicide that they joined Brutus, the nephew of King Tarquinius Superbus and close friend of Collatinus, and Collatinus in their attack on the Roman Monarchy.

In the account, Lucretia asks those around her to avenge her by the means they find necessary. She does not give direction on how to avenge her and thus those she leaves behind are responsible for the ensuing acts. The ensuing actions are thus in high honour of Lucretia rather than commands from her. Lucretia finds herself to not have sinned but still be worthy of punishment, a trait likely symbolic of her dedication to chastity and a high moral code.

Brutus and Lucretia’s husband led the battle against Sextus to avenge Lucretia’s death. Brutus was present in Lucretia’s chamber when she died. With a war led by Brutus, Collatinus, and numerous Romans deeply disturbed and upset by Lucretia’s sexual assault, the tyrant led Monarch of Rome was conquered. Sextus was exiled to Gabii where he was murdered by the civilians there for his past wrongdoings to them (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri Book 1, 60.2, Heinemann & Foster). Collatinus and Brutus were met with rejoice for having successfully exiled Sextus and all his tyrant family members. Brutus and Collatinus were then awarded with Presidency over Rome (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri Book 1, 60.3, Heinemann & Foster). The Monarchy of Rome collapsed with the revolt powered by Lucretia’s death. This collapse marked the beginning of the Roman Empire, the entirety of Rome’s political and social orders were changed. Lucretia’s rape was the final act of terror that the Roman people could stand under the Monarchy ruling, her rape was so horrific that the people of Rome were motivated to overthrow the Monarchy and create the Roman Republic.

Significance of the Rape of Lucretia

The accounts of the violence against Lucretia emphasize the excess of tyrannical power, the banishment and death of the offender, and the creation of a new civil order. Whether Lucretia was a real woman or mythical figure, her life is representative of Rome under tyrant ruling. Her rape and suicide acts as a metaphor for the brutal treatment of Romans under tyrant ruling and the citizens’ willingness to die so that the future of Rome may have a higher moral statute. Lucretia commits suicide because she feels she deserves punishment for her acts – I think it is likely that this is a metaphor for the Roman people willing to sacrifice their lives for punishment of letting a tyrant rule.

It is not the moral implications of Lucretia’s suicide that interest me the most, but rather how independent her decision was. Lucretia, while embodying the ideal Roman woman, additionally demonstrates much of her own free will. She is the ultimate decision maker of her life. She upholds her values when deciding her rape is more virtuous than being depicted as an adulterer. Her suicide is planned entirely on her own, she does not ask her father nor her husband for their input. Even when both her husband and her father insist she is innocent, that rape does not affect how moral one and is not an immoral act equal to adultery, she insists she has made her decision. Lucretia values her own opinions over those of her male counterparts – suggesting she potentially has more societal power than currently suggested of women in Roman antiquity.

Whether Lucretia was an actual woman whose rape contributed to the fall of the Roman Monarchy or if she was fabricated by Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, or the Roman people, she is still significant. Her autonomy in decision-making suggests Roman women were intelligent and capable of making decisions on their own. Her morals and depiction as the ideal female Roman provide insight into women in Roman antiquity. Even if her rape were not to be the cause of the fall of the Roman Monarchy, it was a still believed that the sexual assault of a woman was horrendous enough to exile the Monarchy for their participation.

Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus

The primary antiquity sources that account Lucretia are written by Titus Livius (Livy) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. These two writers are responsible for much of what we know of the formation of Rome today.

Livy has, “helped to establish a thread that runs throughout roman history connecting tyranny, violence against women, and resistance to tyranny that leads to greater freedom” (Strunk, 2014, pg.145). He was, “was born in 59 B.C., the year of Caesar’s first consulship, and died in his native town (the modern Padua) in 17 A.D” (Foster, 2006, 1). Livy resided in Rome for most of his life, he was very close friends with Augustus until the end of the Emperor’s life. He adored the history of the Roman republic and he was fascinated by Rome’s history when governed by a senate. At the age of 76 Livy passed away, it is unknown whether Livy died while visiting his home town or if he has retired there. Livy gained a reputation of being a great writer, were it reputation he was looking for he would have stopped writing. But Livy’s, “restless spirit was sustained by work” ((Foster, 2006, 1). He was determined to account, “the story of Rome [in a] more vivid and readable than anyone had yet done which gave him the courage to undertake the task” (Foster, 2006, 1). Livy is an important source of antiquity writings for two reasons. First, his work is a primary source of Roman history. His accounts are if the common believed history of Rome, some are first hand accounts and thus extremely accurate. Second, Livy depicts the Roman’s own idea of Rome; he does not account what the Romans did rather what the Romans were (Foster, 2006, 1). This is a different view than many other accounts offer. Rather than simply providing insight into the lives of Romans, Livy provides historians with information of the Roman people’s personality. This is significant because historians no longer need to interpret who the Romans were from what they did, rather both are provided by Livy.

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Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae: Bust of Livy, Giovanni Ambrogio Brambilla, 1582

Livy accounts multiple instances of violence against women. His work indicates that conflict often led to a violent offence against a female. The offending men in Livy’s accounts are depicted as Rome’s enemies – aligning men who are violent towards women with enemies of Rome itself. If the violent offender was a king or a tyrant, the party to the offended chose resistance, which in the case of Lucretia led to greater political freedom after overthrowing the monarchy.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus is the other primary source that provides an account of the Rape of Lucretia. Dionysius was born in Halicarnassus, “probably sometime between 60 and 55 BCE” (Ballif & Moran, 2005, pg. 137). He thus lived in the same era as Livy. Dionysius went to Rome in 30 BCE to write his Roman Antiquities, “a history in Greek of the Roman state from its earliest beginnings, which he worked on until at least 8 BCE” (Ballif & Moran, 2005, pg. 137). Dionysius of Halicarnassus is a significant source of Roman history. He offers a different view to Roman history, rather than being written from a Roman perspective he writes from a Greek perspective. In combination with Livy, there are two accounts of Roman history, each from a different perspective and offering different insights into the ancient Roman life. Multiple overlaps in writings of both Livy and Dionysius provide a more accurate depiction of the history of Rome, the fact that two ancient writers have such similar accounts of Roman history adds merit to the writings.

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Dionigi Di Alicarnasso (Dionysius of Halicarnassus), Marco Mastrofini, 1823

Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucretia

The Rape of Lucretia is not only significant in the retelling of Roman history but has also appeared in numerous works of art and writings centuries after the fall of the Roman Monarchy. One of the most prominent uses of the Rape of Lucretia for art is in Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece narrative poem. This poem, “helped establish Shakespeare’s seriousness as a poet” (Maus, 1986, pg.66). While following the original story of the Rape of Lucretia as written by Livy, Shakespeare’s poem does not focus on the acts. Rather, the poem focuses on what occurs between the ‘important’ moments, such as Sextus’ thoughts while walking towards Lucretia’s room and what Lucretia does to occupy her time while awaiting her husband’s return after sending her messenger for him. Shakespeare’s account of Lucretia’s rape is unique, “no other version of the Lucretia story explores more minutely or with greater psychological insight the mental processes of the two major characters” (Maus, 1986, pg.68). The poem toys with the reader, occasionally suggesting an alternative outcome. The reader is able to understand the thought processes of the characters, such as Lucretia hastily deciding how to react to Sextus’ advances.

The poem is interesting not only in that it adds to the humanization of the characters. Rather than being portrayed as characters of a story that potentially may be a myth/legend, they are three-dimensional characters capable of thought. The poem also changes how Lucretia is viewed. In both Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus accounts, Lucretia is a virtuous and chaste woman whose suicide is the final act proving how dedicated she is to her virtues. In Shakespeare’s poem, Lucretia’s act of suicide is written about in ways that invite the audience to scrutinize its morality.

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Titian, Tarquin and Lucretia, 1571

 

References

Baldung, H. (1519). Lucretia [Photograph]. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1927, The Met, New York City.

Ballif, M., & Moran, M. G. (2005). Classical rhetorics and rhetoricians: critical studies and sources. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Bertrand, P. (1704). Lucretia [Photograph]. Purchase, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, Joseph M. Cohen Gift, and Fletcher Fund, by exchange, 2003, The Met, New York City.

Brambilla, G. A. (1582). Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae: Bust of Livy [Photograph]. Rogers Fund, Transferred from the Library, 1941, The Met, New York City.

Foster, B. (2006). Titus Livius (Livy), Ab Urbe Condita, books 1-2 Benjamin Oliver Foster, Ph.D., Ed. Retrieved February 18, 2017, from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0151%3Abook%3Dfront%3Achapter%3D2

Gerhard, H. (1690). Tarquin and Lucretia [Photograph]. The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982, The Met, New York City.

Heinemann, W., & Foster, B. O. (2006). Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome, Book 1 Benjamin Oliver Foster, Ph.D., Ed. Retrieved February 17, 2017, from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0151%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D60

Jeppesen-Wigelsworth, A. (2010). The Portrayal of Roman Wives in Literature and Inscriptions . University of Calgary, 1-15. Retrieved February 19, 2017.

Joshel, S. R. (2008). The Body Female and the Body Politic: Livy’s Lucretia and Verginia. Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World, 163-190. doi:10.1002/9780470756188.ch6

Mastrofini, M. (1823). Dionigi di Alicarnasso [Photograph]. Le antichita romane, Volume 1 by Dyonisius Halicarnasseus, , Rados.

Maus, K. E. (1986). Taking Tropes Seriously: Language and Violence in Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece. Shakespeare Quarterly, 37(1), 66. doi:10.2307/2870192

Pichler, J. P. (1792). Tarquin and Lucretia [Photograph]. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951, The Met, New York City.

Strunk, T. (2014). Rape and Revolution: Tacitus on Livia and Augustus. Faculty Scholarship. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from http://www.exhibit.xavier.edu/classics_faculty/18

Thayer, B. (2005, February 7). The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Book IV). Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dionysius_of_Halicarnassus/4D*.html

Titian. (1571). Tarquin and Lucretia [Photograph]. The Yorck Project, The Yorck Project.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Rape of Lucretia

  1. Great work, Kat. I really enjoyed reading this. You chose an interesting topic and executed it well. I especially like the insight you offered in your “Significance of the Rape of Lucretia” section. The web page is well organized and you demonstrate strong writing skills. Nice job!

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  2. Loved this page and the topic! Your writing style is very articulate but also engaging as a blog piece rather than an entirely academic writing piece. I really enjoyed the way you incorporated primary sources and more modern depictions (Shakespeare). I also enjoyed the ‘Significance’ section which provided insight into the story and what it meant for ancient women. The images really added to the post, were really relevant and engaged the reader more with the text! You seem to have a very thorough source list and well-grounded research– I’m interested to follow through with some of the primary texts you analyzed! I would also be interested to learn more about rape in general in the ancient world and how it was perceived, its presence in mythology, and how commonplace it actually was. Overall, great job Kat!!

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