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Do not confuse with Lucrezia Borgia, see also Lucretia (disambiguation) and suicide in art

Lucretia (died c.510 B.C. (traditionally)) is a semi-legendary figure in the history of the Roman Republic. According to the story, told mainly by two turn-of-the-millennium historians, the Roman Livy and the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (who lived in Rome at the time of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus), her rape by the Etruscan king's son and consequent suicide were the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic.


Account by Livy

"When all around seemed safe and everybody fast asleep, he went in the frenzy of his passion with a naked sword to the sleeping Lucretia, and placing his left hand on her breast, said, "Silence, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquin, and I have a sword in my hand; if you utter a word, you shall die." When the woman, terrified out of her sleep, saw that no help was near, and instant death threatening her, Tarquin began to confess his passion, pleaded, used threats as well as entreaties, and employed every argument likely to influence a female heart. When he saw that she was inflexible and not moved even by the fear of death, he threatened to disgrace her, declaring that he would lay the naked corpse of the slave by her dead body, so that it might be said that she had been slain in foul adultery. By this awful threat, his lust triumphed over her inflexible chastity, and Tarquin went off exulting in having successfully attacked her honour. Lucretia, overwhelmed with grief at such a frightful outrage, sent a messenger to her father at Rome and to her husband at Ardea, asking them to come to her, each accompanied by one faithful friend; it was necessary to act, and to act promptly; a horrible thing had happened. Spurius Lucretius came with Publius Valerius, the son of Volesus; Collatinus with Lucius Junius Brutus, with whom he happened to be returning to Rome when he was met by his wife's messenger. They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears, and to her husband's inquiry whether all was well, replied, "No! what can be well with a woman when her honour is lost? The marks of a stranger, Collatinus, are in your bed. But it is only the body that has been violated, the soul is pure; death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. It is Sextus Tarquin, who, coming as an enemy instead of a guest, forced from me last night by brutal violence a pleasure fatal to me, and, if you are men, fatal to him." They all successively pledged their word, and tried to console the distracted woman by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator, and urging that it is the mind that sins, not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt. "It is for you," she said, "to see that he gets his deserts; although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia's example." She had a knife concealed in her dress which she plunged into her heart, and fell dying on the floor. Her father and husband raised the death-cry." --From the Founding of the City by Livy[1] (translated by Canon Roberts)

Account by Dionysius of Halicarnassus

[...] he got up and came to the room where he knew Lucretia slept, and without being discovered by her slaves, who lay asleep at the door, he went into the room sword in hand.

LXV. When he paused at the woman's bedside and she, hearing the noise, awakened and asked who it was, 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. Having terrified the woman in this manner, he offered her two alternatives, bidding her choose whichever she herself preferred — death with dishonour or life with happiness. " For," 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. But why need I inform you of the many advantages which attend royalty, all of which you shall share with me, since you are well acquainted with them ? If, however, you endeavour to resist from a desire to preserve your virtue, I will kill you and then slay one of your slaves, and having laid both your bodies together, will state that I had caught you misbehaving with the slave and punished you to avenge the dishonour of my kinsman ; so that your death will be attended with shame and reproach and your body will be deprived both of burial and every other customary rite." And as he kept urgently repeating his threats and entreaties and swearing that he was speaking the truth as to each alternative, Lucretia, fearing the ignominy of the death he threatened, was forced to yield and to allow him to accomplish his desire.

LXVI. When it was day, Sextus, having gratified his wicked and baneful passion, returned to the camp.[2]

In the arts


St. Augustine made use of the figure of Lucretia in The City of God to defend the honour of Christian women who had been raped in the sack of Rome and had not committed suicide.

The story of Lucretia was a popular moral tale in the later Middle Ages. The story has been recounted in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, John Gower's Confessio Amantis (Book VII), and John Lydgate's Fall of Princes. Lucrece is also featured in William Shakespeare's 1594 long poem The Rape of Lucrece; he also mentioned her in Titus Andronicus, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night (Malvolio authenticates his fateful letter by spotting Olivia's Lucrece seal). Niccolò Machiavelli's comedy La Mandragola is loosely based on Lucretia.

She is also mentioned in the poem Appius and Virginia by John Webster and Thomas Heywood, which includes the following lines:

Two ladies fair, but most unfortunate
Have in their ruins rais'd declining Rome,
Lucretia and Virginia, both renowned
For chastity

Thomas Heywood's play The Rape of Lucretia dates from 1607. The subject also enjoyed a revival in the mid twentieth century; André Obey's 1931 play Le Viol de Lucrèce was adapted into a 1946 opera by Benjamin Britten. Ernst Krenek set Emmet Lavery's libretto Tarquin (1940), a version in a contemporary setting.

Lucretia appears to Dante in the section of Limbo reserved to the nobles of Rome and other "virtuous pagans" in Canto IV of the Inferno. Christine de Pizan used Lucretia just as St. Augustine of Hippo did in her City of Ladies, defending a woman's sanctity.

In Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel Pamela, Mr. B. cites the story of Lucretia as a reason why Pamela ought not fear for her reputation, should he rape her. Pamela quickly sets him straight with a better reading of the story. Colonial Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz also mentions "Lucrecia" in her poem Redondillas, a commentary on prostitution and who is to blame.

In 1769 doctor Joan Ramis wrote a tragedy play in Menorca called 'Lucrecia'. The play is written in Catalan language using a neoclassical style. Is the most important work of the eighteenth century written in this language.

In 1932, the play "Lucrece" was produced on Broadway starring legendary actress Katharine Cornell in the title part. It was mostly performed in pantomime.


The suicide of Lucretia has been an enduring subject for visual artists, including Titian, Rembrandt, Dürer, Raphael, Botticelli, Jörg Breu the Elder, Johannes Moreelse, Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucas Cranach the Elder (who treated the subject numerous times) and others.

List of paintings


See also

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