Livy, The Rape of Lucretia

The Rutuli were a wealthy people who held the region of Ardea.  Their wealth was the cause of the war, for Tarquin had exhausted his funds in building public works and sought to enrich himself and quell his own unpopularity by looting the Rutuli.   He tried to seize the territory quickly, but when this failed, he besieged them instead.

In wars such as these, which are long but not especially fierce, soldiers are granted frequent leave, especially if they are nobles.  Thus, Tarquin’s sons wasted much time in laziness, banquets, and merrymaking.  During one of Sextus’ drinking parties, a debate arose over who had the best wife.  Each man praised his wife in many ways, and the dispute grew heated, whereat Sextus’ cousin Collatinus claimed that he could show the superiority of his wife Lucretia in a matter of hours. 

 “We are young, yet,” he challenged his comrades, “Let us ride home and drop in unexpectedly on our wives.  What we see them doing when we are not there will show us their true characters.”

They all enthusiastically agreed. 

Arriving in Rome just after dark, they found most of their wives wasting their time in feasting and luxury with other nobles; Lucretia, however, was not.  When they reached her house in Collatia, they found her sitting amongst her ladies-in-waiting and spinning wool by lamp light.  Thus, Lucretia was clearly the victor in this contest of womanly virtue. 

She welcomed her husband and the other Tarquins and invited them all to dine.  At dinner, both the beauty and presumed chastity of Lucretia pricked Sextus with an evil desire to defile her.  He did nothing at that time, and after dinner, they returned to camp.

A few days later, Sextus showed back up at Collatinus’ house.  Lucretia welcomed him warmly and fed him dinner; then he was given a room in the guest quarters.  After Sextus saw that all the guards were asleep, he drew his sword and snuck into the sleeping Lucretia’s bedchamber.

While he held her down with one hand, he pressed his blade against her with the other, threatening, “Keep your mouth shut, Lucretia.  I am Sextus Tarquin.  I have a blade in my hand, and if you make a sound, I will slit your throat.” 

The terrified Lucretia awoke to the threat of imminent death; indeed, there was no help in sight. 

Tarquin confessed his love.  He begged.  He threatened.  He pleaded.  He said anything he could think of to sway a woman’s heart. When he saw that not even the fear of death could move her, he threatened her with shame. 

“If you do not let me have my way with you,” he hissed, “I will kill you and strangle your manservant.  Then I will place your nude bodies together in your bed, so it will seem that you have been justly slain in the filthy act of adultery.”

This threat finally conquered Lucretia’s chastity, and Tarquin took her feminine honor.  After he left, the miserable Lucretia sent messengers to her father at Rome and to her husband at Ardea, telling them to come at once and bring one trusted friend, for a horrible thing had happened, and it demanded action.  By chance, her husband brought Junius Brutus, who was just then returning to Rome from Delphi.

They found the unhappy woman sitting in a small room.   At their arrival, she burst into tears.

“Are you well?” the men asked. 

“Hardly,” she responded, “for how can a defiled woman be well?  Another man has stained your sheets, Collatinus.  His traces still remain there.  Yet though my body has been violated, my soul is yet pure.  Death will be witness to my innocence.  Give me your word, men; punish the man who raped me, for it was Sextus Tarquin.  A few days ago he came here as my guest, but last night he came as my enemy.  He has taken my happiness from me; now you must take away his.  Promise me, as you are men; Sextus must pay.”

As they promised this, they tried to console her.  “It is not your fault.  Sextus alone has committed a crime.  Only the mind can sin, and a woman who does not consent cannot be at fault.”

But she could not be consoled.  “You men,” she said, “will see to it that Sextus gets what he deserves.  I absolve myself from this sin.  I do not ask pardon, but no unchaste woman will ever choose to live because of my example.”

With these words, she pulled out a dagger that she had hidden under her clothes and stabbed it into her heart, dying on the spot. 

Her husband and father cried out in sorrow, but Brutus bent down and took the bloody dagger from Lucretia’s wound.  Holding it in front of himself, he vowed “With the gods as my witness, I swear by this most chaste blood that I will drive out Lucius Tarquin, together with his wicked wife and all of his wicked family.  I will spare them neither sword nor fire nor anything in my power.  No Tarquin, nor any man, will ever rule Rome as king again.”

He then handed the blade to Collatinus.  The other men were awestruck at the change that had come over Brutus, wondering where this man had come from.  Brutus made them swear to avenge Lucretia, and all of their grief was thereby turned to anger.  He then called them to abolish the kingship, and they followed him as their leader.

They carried Lucretia’s body out of the house and into the forum, inciting the people to rebellion with news of this atrocity.  Moved to tears by the sadness of Lucretia’s father, the people each added their own complaints of royal wickedness

Brutus, however, chastised them. “Stop your lamenting and complaining and act like real men,” he said. “Act like true Romans.  Pick up your weapons and fight your enemies.”

The fiercest youths immediately heeded Brutus’ call, and the rest soon followed.  Some of the men stood guard at the gates of Collatia to prevent anyone from bringing word of the uprising to the king; the others set out for Rome.  When they arrived there, this mob of armed men threw everyone into a panic, which only died down when the people realized that the mob was composed of some of the leading men of Rome and that something important was afoot.  Lucretia’s rape raised just as much uproar in Rome as it had in Collatia, and people hurried to the forum from all corners of the city.  The crier then summoned them to hear the Tribune of the Celeres, which office Brutus happened to be holding at the time.  Brutus delivered an oration that amazed all those who had hitherto considered him an imbecile.  

“Gentlemen and plebs of Rome,” he said, “the son of your king is a lustful and violent man.  He has forced himself on the noble and chaste matron Lucretia.  In shame, she has taken her own life.  In shame, her father hangs his head in sorrow, more for the cause of her death than the death itself.” 

“Your king,” he continued, “is a proud and arrogant man.  He has set the plebs to digging ditches for his sewers.  He has made you, you Romans who are the conquerors of all the surrounding nations, into workmen and stonecutters.  He has most shamefully taken his throne from his father-in-law, whose dead body his wife crushed under the wheels of her chariot.  Let the vengeance of the gods rain down on the Tarquins for these atrocities.  Let us, Romans, be rid of kings forever.  Let us be rid of Tarquin.  Let us be rid of his whole stinking brood.  Now is the time to live free, Romans.”

Having incited the crowd, Brutus and a group of volunteers marched to the army in Ardea to incite them to insurrection.  He left Lucretia’s father, then serving as prefect of the city, in charge at Rome.  During these tumults, Tullia fled her home and was cursed by everyone she passed, who invoked the fury of her murdered victims.

When news of the uprising reached camp, the frightened king went to Rome to put down the rebellion.  Brutus heard of the king’s route and changed his own, in order to avoid him on the road.  Thus, Brutus reached Ardea about the same time that Tarquin reached Rome.  At Rome, Tarquin found the gates closed against him and a sentence of exile passed on his person.  Brutus, on the other hand, was welcomed jubilantly by the army, which expelled the king’s sons from camp.  Two sons followed their father into exile in Etruria.  Sextus went to the Gabii, which he thought of as his own kingdom, but they killed him on account of the old feuds that his murders and thefts had stirred up.   

Lucius Tarquin the Proud reigned twenty-five years.  By this point, Rome had been ruled by kings for 244 years.  The prefect of the city then elected Brutus and Collatinus as the first two consuls in the Assembly of the Centuries, in accordance with the regulations of Servius Tullius.