The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of a Republic

Now, you might recall the tale of Tarquin the Proud, the last Roman King; in that post, we recounted his rather unpleasant deeds, in addition to his encounter with the Cumaean Sybil, which resulted in his acquisition of the highly prized Sibylline Prophecies.

Here’s a brief recap of Tarquin’s activities:

  • He and his sister-in-law plotted to kill their respective spouses, who also happened to be their siblings. After killing their spouses, they married, and plotted to kill the king (his father-in-law, her father).
  • After accusing the king of being a socialist, Tarquin tossed his father-in-law out of a window. Adding insult to injury, his wife ran over the corpse. Tarquin then proceeded to declare himself king of Rome.
  • Tarquin then went on to subjugate most of the surrounding city-states, either through brute force, or Hashashin-like techniques (including infiltration and assassination).
  • On a plus note, when he wasn’t building empire, he was engaged in public works, including overseeing the construction of the Temple of Jupiter (which housed the Sibylline prophecies) as well as building the Cloaca Maximus, one of the world’s oldest sewage systems.
  • An important side note: Tarquin had four children: three sons and a daughter, one of whom, Sextus would prove a key player in the final act of Tarquin’s life…


At this point in the story, Tarquin’s children were grown up. He sent Sextus on a military errand to Collatia, which is roughly 10 miles away from Rome. There, Sextus was greeted at the governor’s mansion by his blood relative, Collatinus.

There’s a variant to this story, in which Sextus and Collatinus were discussing the merits (or demerits) of having wives over wine. Collatinus pointed to the virtue of his wife, Lucretia, and took his comrades to his house to show off her honor. As she was busy weaving with her handmaidens (cf. Penelope in the Odyssey) it is clear how pure she was.

Add to that her beauty, and it was clear that Collatinus was a lucky man…

Tarquin was smitten by Lucretia…

Dangerously, violently smitten…

The rest is art history:

Tarquin and Lucretia, Titian (1571 C.E.)
lucretia - titian 1515
Lucretia and her Husband (Tarquin) – Titian or Palma Vecchio, 1515
lucretia - gentieschi
The Rape – Artemisia Gentileschi (1645)

Tarquin made Lucretia an offer: submit to his desires and become his Queen, or refuse. Should she choose the latter, he would kill her, and then slay a male slave, placing the two corpses in a lover’s embrace.

His defense for killing them would be well within Roman social norms: adultery was sin enough for a wife, but to lie with a slave? That was a moral outrage…

She went with the first option.


As to what exactly happened the next day, we do not know. There are variants of the story, though all agree on one thing:

She demanded an oath: that her husband and his best friend, Brutus, would avenge her rape. All in attendance, including her father, agreed. Then Lucretia made the ultimate sacrifice for her honor (once again, all of this is from a 6th century BCE Roman perspective).

Lucretia ran a dagger through her heart.


lucretia lucas cranach
Lucretia, Lucas Cranach the Elder (mid 1500s)

Lucretia’s grieving husband took her dagger in hand, and enjoined all of those present to take a second oath:

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 anyone else to reign in Rome. (Livy)

Collatinus was true to his word.


In as much 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 …

The speech above is attributed to Collatinus’ friend, Brutus, orated before a swelling mob. Collatinus had been carrying his dead wife through the streets, and the masses had followed.

Collatinus demanded justice.

Brutus demanded revolution.

An end to the Empire, and the birth of a Republic.

And thus, indeed, ended the reign of the Tarquins. While Tarquin the Proud would survive in exile, he would never effectively retake Rome.

He really should have purchased all nine volumes of the Sibylline Prophecies


While the real Lucretia probably died around 510 BCE, the mythic Lucretia has lived on for two and half millennia. You know you have mythic staying power when the likes of Ovid, St. Augustine and Dante are looking to you for inspiration.

Even the Bard himself couldn’t resist Lucretia. She is referenced in several plays (Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew Twelfth Night) in addition to being the protagonist of one of his earlier poems, the Rape of Lucrece.

While I find the equation of rape=shame; suicide=honor offensive at best, it obviously fit into the Western zeitgeist up until the mid-20th century (parallels can be drawn with the Sita narrative in the East, as well as the myth of Sati).

So, is it time for a new myth, something that breaks the rape=shame; suicide=honor motif?

Perhaps it is. Maybe we need a new narrative.

One that values life over honor, and tomorrow over today.

One that doesn’t shame the victim.

One that finally lets Lucretia rest.

lucretia dead
Dead Lucrecia – Damià Campeny (1804)

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