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Legend of Lucretia

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Lucretia and Sextus - a painting by Titian
Lucretia and Sextus - a painting by Titian

Lucretia is a legendary figure from the 6th century BCE, given by historians Livy, Diodorus, Florus and others. She was the daughter of the Roman patrician Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus and the wife of Lucinius Tarquinius Collatinus, cousin of king Tarquinius the Proud. In her husband’s absence, she was terrorized and raped by the son of Tarquinius Superbus, Sextus Tarquinius. She could not bear the disgrace and committed suicide after telling everything to Collatina.

According to the legend, her harm was to become the direct cause of the outbreak of the uprising led by Brutus, which led in 509 BCE to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic. The first consuls of the republic were Brutus and Collatina.

In later times, Lucretia was considered a model of virtue and honour of a Roman matron, and the legend itself became the source of many uplifting stories about virtuous women who prefer death to shame. The legend of Lucretia and the fall of royal rule in Rome was the subject of Lucius Actius’ tragedy “Lucretia”, ​​while Ovid described it in the poem “Fasti”.

The legendary event is described by Tadeusz Zieliński in “Rzeczpospolitej rzymskiej”:

Lucretia surpassed all the women of Rome not only in virtue but also in beauty. So Sextus had an unbridled passion for her. Not counting on reciprocity, he decided to conquer it by force. Lucretia could not bear the disgrace and to prove her loyalty she pierced her breast with a dagger1.

Statue of Brutus holding a knife and Lucretia.
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

This is how Titius Livius describes the event in “Ab urbe condita”:

After an interval of a few days, Sextus Tarquinius, without the knowledge of Collatinus, came to Collatia with one attendant only: there he was made welcome by them, as they had no suspicion of his design, and, having been conducted after supper into the guest chamber, burning with passion, when all around seemed sufficiently secure, and all fast asleep, he came to the bedside of Lucretia, as she lay asleep, with a drawn sword, and with his left hand pressing down the woman’s breast, said: “Be silent, Lucretia; I am Sextus Tarquinius. I have a sword in my hand. You shall die if you utter a word.” When the woman, awaking terrified from sleep, saw there was no help, and that impending death was nigh at hand, then Tarquin declared his passion, entreated, mixed threats with entreaties, tried all means to influence the woman’s mind. When he saw she was resolved, and uninfluenced even by the fear of death, to the fear of death he added the fear of dishonour, declaring that he would lay a murdered slave naked by her side when dead, so that it should be said that she had been slain in base adultery. When by the terror of this disgrace his lust (as it were victorious) had overcome her inflexible chastity, and Tarquin had departed, exulting in having triumphed over a woman’s honour by force, Lucretia, in melancholy distress at so dreadful a misfortune, despatched one and the same messenger both to her father at Rome, and to her husband at Ardea, bidding them come each with a trusty friend; that they must do so, and use despatch, for a monstrous deed had been wrought.

Titius Livius, Ab urbe condita, I.57

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