Dying for Rome – Lucretia by Elisabeth Storrs

Posted by on Aug 23, 2012 in Ancient Rome, Historical Research | 3 comments

The women of the early Roman Republic were definitely second class citizens (see Damn Whores or God’s Police). It is interesting, though, that two of them, Lucretia and Virginia were catalysts for significant changes in early Roman history. While the existence of these women is debatable, their legends have been passed down through the ages as examples of the Roman virtues of chastity, modesty and fidelity. Here, in the first of two blog posts, are their stories.

The concept of a ‘blood taint’ is important here. A woman was expected to be chaste if she was a maiden, and faithful if she was a wife. A husband or father was entitled to kill their wife or daughter if she had an affair. They could also kill them if they deemed a woman’s honour had been sullied regardless of whether she was innocent or guilty of the act that may have constituted her ‘corruption’. This covered the spectrum from a girl being discovered alone with a man without a chaperone to the commission of a rape. Once a woman’s sexual purity had been compromised her blood became ‘tainted’.

A woman was also expected to value her honour as can be seen from the story of the rape of Lucretia. Here is her story:

Lucretia was married to the Roman nobleman, Collinatus. When he boasted that his wife was more virtuous than Etruscan wives, Sextus, the son of the Etruscan King, visited Lucretia to test this claim. Holding a sword to her throat, he demanded that she sleep with him.  When she refused, he threatened to not only kill her but also leave the corpse of a naked slave beside her so that Collinatus (and all Rome) would think she had committed adultery with a servant.  To avoid bringing such shame upon her husband, the matron yielded to Sextus. The next day Collinatus discovered the rape and was prepared to forgive Lucretia for her blood taint. Despite his pleas, though, she took her own life rather than live with dishonour.  Her defilement and self sacrifice incited the Romans to rise up and rid Rome of their oppressive and depraved Etruscan rulers by expelling King Tarquinius Superbus. After this, the Romans vowed never again to be governed by a monarch and the Republic of Rome was born.

At the time this crime occurred the last of three Etruscan kings reigned over Rome. Despite the fact that these rulers introduced important political reforms and converted Rome from a village into a great city, the Romans hated them for what they perceived to be their decadence. In particular, Etruscan women were considered sinful and dissolute because of their independence. Hence Collinatus’ boast as to the superior virtues of his Roman wife.

In my novel, The Wedding Shroud, my protagonist, Caecilia, lives in dread of having to live in the debauched Etruscan society. She questions whether or not she should follow Lucretia’s example and kill herself rather than suffer such shame. However when she discovers the pleasures and freedoms of Etruscan women, she begins to grapple with conflicting moralities and realises that Rome’s view of Etruria could well be flawed, and that she might not want to emulate Lucretia after all.

The image is of a painting of the Rape of Lucretia by the C17th painter, Simon Vouet. The story has been inspiration for numerous C6th and C17th painters such as Raphael, Rubens, Tintoretto and Rembrandt. She is a symbol of virtue and self sacrifice triumphing over corruption .

Elisabeth Storrs August 23, 2012

This post was first published on the author’s website 10 September 2011 on her blog

3 Comments

  1. Excellent essay, Elisabeth. And it’s another example of how some things about humankind don’t change all that much across the centuries. The “blood taint” mentality flourishes today in some parts of the world.

  2. Intriguing stuff. I’m always interested in what a society perceives to be moral. Sociologists tell us it’s determined by circumstances; e.g., a society that needs lots of babies will allow and even promote polygamy. Religion, of course, claims the “rules” come from the gods. And rules seem to hang on even after whatever the rationale for their evolution is gone.
    Marriage is a societal hot potato, and what we’ve all been taught is “right” makes it hard to see outside the boundaries. Today’s woman might ask the women of Rome, “Why is it only the wife who commits suicide from shame? I know some men who should be falling on their swords!”

  3. Suzanne and Peg, thanks for stopping by. It is indeed hard to understand why a woman should bear the shame but it is sobering to think that some rape victims canstill considered to be ‘inviting’ assault. As for honour killings, it is horrifying how such a crime is condoned by some societies today. One step forward and two steps back for women’s rights?