Famous Women of the Roman Republic: Lucretia

                                                      Women of Ancient Rome

 

Lucretia

Lucretia, the wife of Tarquinius Collatinus

This is the first in a series of blogs about women of ancient Rome.

All of the societies of the ancient world were male dominated. In no society was a woman routinely allowed to vote, hold public office, plead law cases or lead military forces. (A rare exception to this last  item was Fulvia, the second wife of Marc Antony, and she would eventually pay dearly for the privilege.) There were a few instances in the ancient world of female monarchs, such as Dido of Carthage and Tueta of Illyria, but it is unlikely that the presence of a female monarch affected the general condition of women in these societies.

 

Ancient societies that have recorded their histories have, however, left accounts of influential woman who were matriarchs or heroines. The ancient Israelites tell of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Naomi, Ruth, Esther, Deborah and others whom they celebrated. The Greeks produced but few female celebrities, but we still may read of Penelope, Helen, Electra,  Briseis, Antigone, Aspacia the wife of Pericles,  Sappho, the poetess queen of Lesbos, and Thais, the courtesan of Ptolemy.

 

I propose, in this blog, to tell the stories of women who were influential in the history of the Roman republic, starting with Lucretia and ending with Livia, the wife of Caesar Augustus. This present blog will tell the story of Lucretia. Quotations are from Ab Urbe Condita, by Titus Livius.

 

Tarquin the Proud, also known as Lucius Tarquinius, the last king of Rome, won his throne by foul means. In the year 534 B.C,  he usurped the throne of his father-in-law Servilius Tullius who had ruled well and wisely for twenty-four years. Tarquin’s wife, Tullia, had prodded him in this endeavor. She might be said to have been the original prototype for Lady Mac Beth. Tarquin had the old king thrown down the steps of his palace and then sent thugs to murder him. Tullia gained lasting opprobrium among the Romans by driving her chariot over her own father’s body.

 

Tarquin then ruled Rome for the next twenty-five years with an iron fist. He abandoned the traditional practice of consulting the senate in matters of state, and, indeed, killed a number of the senators and other influential Romans and confiscated their wealth. He killed the son of his own sister Tarquinia. His sister’s younger son, Junius Brutus escaped a similar fate by pretending to be a fool and declining to amass any wealth.

 

Tarquin was fairly successful in the wars he undertook with the Volci and other local tribes. Toward the end of his reign he decided to take the city of Ardea, possessed by the very wealthy Rutilians. He had depleted  his treasury by sponsoring numerous public works, including a number of temples and the Cloaca Maximus-the great sewer system of ancient Rome. He hoped that the wealth gained by conquering Ardea would replenish his treasury and appease his restive subjects. The war effort had gotten bogged down in siege and the soldiers had little with which to occupy themselves.

 

Tarquin and his wife had three sons, Lucius, Aruns and Sextus. The sons and their companions were feasting and drinking one afternoon in the tent of the youngest son Sextus during the siege of Ardea,  A cousin, Collatinus Tarquinius had been invited to the feast. The young men fell to boasting about their wives. Each claimed that his own wife was the most worthy and virtuous. Collatinus claimed that none of the other wives could possibly surpass in virtue  his own wife Lucretia, and that if they wanted to be sure of the matter they could go in a group and visit each of the wives in turn and see what each was doing in the absence of her husband.  They rode off to visit each of the wives in turn and found that each of the wives was engaged in feasting and lavish entertainments. When they got to Collatinus’

home they found Lucretia working her wool with her maid servants. All were forced to concede that Lucretia was, by far, the most virtuous among their wives. Lucretia invited her husband and his companions in and prepared supper for them. Unfortunately, Sextus, the youngest son of King Tarquin became obsessed with Lucretia and overwhelmed by lust for her.

 

Two days later, Sextus Tarquinius returned to the house of Collatinus, accompanied by just one servant. Lucretia and her servants invited the young man in and gave him supper and conducted him to the guest chamber. When it appeared that everyone in the household was asleep, Sextus crept to Lucretia’s chamber where she lay asleep and with a naked sword pressed his left hand down upon her breast and said: “Be silent, Lucretia. I am Sextus Tarquin, I have a sword in my hand. You shall die if you utter a word.”

 

Mixing threats with entreaties Sextus attempted to persuade Lucretia to yield to him and accommodate his lust. Lucretia vowed that she would die first. Finally Sextus threatened that he would not only kill her but would lay the dead body of his slave beside her so that it would appear that she had been “slain in infamous adultery.” Lucretia could see that her options were to perish thus disgraced, or to yield to this man’s lust. She would die by her own hand, but only after she had avenged the wrong done to her.

 

The next morning, after Sextus Tarquinius had done his foul deed and departed, Lucretia sent a messenger to her husband Collatinus and to her father Lucretius. Collatinus arrived accompanied by Junius Brutus and Lucretius by Publius Valerius. On their arrival Lucretia burst into tears and remained inconsolable. Collatinus asked if everything was all right. “By no means.” replied Lucretia, “For what can be right with a woman who has lost her honor? The traces of another are on your bed, Collatinus. But the body only had been violated, the mind is guiltless; death shall be my witness. But give me your right hands, and your honor, that the adulterer shall not come off unpunished. It is Sextus Tarquin, who, an enemy in the guise of a guest had borne away hence a triumph fatal to me, and to himself, if you are men.”

 

Her husband and father attempted to comfort her, assuring her that she had done nothing wrong, but she would not be detered from her purpose. “It is for you to see” she said “What is due to him. As for me, though I acquit myself of guilt, from punishment I do not discharge muself: nor shall any woman survive her dishonor pleading the example of Lucretia.” And before they could stop her, she drew a knife that she had concealed in her robes and plunged the blade into her heart.

 

Junius Brutus, long the enemy of King Tarquin, drew the knife out of the wound, and holding  it up  before him,  reeking with blood, proclaimed “By this blood, most pure before the pollution of royal villany, I swear, and I call you, O gods, to witness my oath, that I shall pursue Lucius Tarquin the Proud, his wicked wife, and all their race, with fire and sword, and all other means in my power; nor shall I ever suffer them or any other to reign at Rome.”

 

Brutus then lead the rebellion against King Tarquin the Proud and drove him and his family from Rome. He and Collatinus were the first consuls of the new Roman Republic, a republic that would last for over four hundred and fifty years.

 

 

Comments

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