Rome has her fair share of heroes and heroines, all chosen and remembered for displaying the attributes of a true and honorable Roman. Part history, part legend, thses stories have worked their way into the Roman ideology as moralistic folklore.
The story of Lucretia is a bit different, not only the tone of the story, but the outcome. Here, Lucretia becomes a catlyst for political action, one of the few times a woman is placed in that role.
As the story goes, Sextus Tarquinius, son of King Tarquinius Superbus, was on military furlough with a group of men, all claiming their wife was more virtuous than the other. Collantinus claims that his wife Lucretia is by far the most virtuous. They ride out to see what each wife is doing while their husbands are away, only to find each is feasting and enjoying herself. Only Lucretia is diligently at her loom weaving.
Over come by her chastity, Sextus return to Collantinus’s home several days later and forces himself on her. He blackmails her, threatening to kill her than kill a slave, implicating Lucretia in commiting adultery with a slave, dishonoring her husband. Lucretia submits to Sextus, then sends word to her husband and father, both authority figures for a roman woman.
When they arrive, she tells them what Sextus did, and confesses her adultery. She begs Collatinus to pursue Sextus and make him pay for his deeds, which Colantinus promises. Then, rather than live in dishonor as an example to other women, Lucretia stabs herself with a knife.
One of the witnesses, Lucius Junius Brutus, immediately takes up the promise Lucretia asked of them. Here is Brutus’s speech according to Livy, posted by Fordham University. Follow the link for full text.
“By this blood, which was so pure before the crime of the prince, I swear before you, O gods, to chase the King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, with his criminal wife and all their offspring, by fire, iron, and all the methods I have at my disposal, and never to tolerate Kings in Rome evermore, whether of that family of any other.”
Tarquinius Superbus and his family were chased out of Rome. He sought support from the Etruscans to no avail. By the time the dust from his horse’s hooves settled, Rome was on its way to becoming a Republic.
We’ll be seeing another famous relation of Brutus, once again at the heart of political unrest, in 44 BC.
(Fordham University has a ton of great sources like this one and I’d recommend reading a few if you have an interest!)