(c. 59 B.C.-17 A.D.)

from The History of Rome: The Rape of Lucretia


Livy, or Titus Livius, Roman historian, was born in 59 B.C., according to St. Jerome, and died in 17 A.D. in Patavium, now the north Italian city of Padua. Livy lived much of his life in Rome during the rule of Caesar Augustus. He received the education of one from a wealthy background in philosophy and probably rhetoric, except that his education did not culminate in the usual period of study in a Greek city and his Greek was faulty. He never saw military duty, nor took part in politics.

By 30 B.C., Livy had moved to Rome, where he came to know Augustus. About this time, Livy began his monumental Ab Urbe Condita or History of Rome from its Foundation, usually called The History of Rome. It provides an account of Rome from its founding in 753 B.C. down to 9 B.C. Only 35 of the original 142 books (chapters) of The History survive in complete form, though summaries exist for all of the books save two. Livy’s political purpose in writing this work was to depict Rome as destined to rise from modest beginnings to greatness, and as was the practice of historians of his time, he includes many reconstructed speeches of important figures as purportedly verbatim accounts. However, Livy apparently shared the popular view of the time that Rome had morally degenerated from its comparatively virtuous beginnings. Today The History is valued more for its style and dramatic technique than for its historical accuracy.

In The History, Livy narrates the rape of a Roman matron, Lucretia, the wife of Collatinus, by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), the seventh and last king of Rome (reigned 534/535–509/510 B.C.). This notorious incident led to the downfall of the Tarquin royal family and the establishment of a new republic under Lucius Brutus. Lucretia’s suicide, one of the most famous incidents of early Roman history and understood as representing a Stoic ideal and a model of womanly virtue, has been widely portrayed in art and literature in subsequent centuries. Lucretia’s suicide has also provoked subsequent commentary by many authors in various traditions on the question of whether self-killing can be an appropriate response following, or to prevent, sexual violation.


Titus Livius, The History of Rome, Vol. l. ed. Ernest Rhys, tr. Rev. Canon Roberts, London: J.M. Dent and Sons; New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1912.  Also online at



The two Tarquins conceived the desire to ask which of them would succeed there father as king of Rome.  From the inmost recess of the sanctuary this response is said to have issued:  ‘Whoever of you, my lads, first brings a kiss to his mother shall hold supreme power at Rome.’ The Tarquins gave orders that no one say anything about this: they intended to keep their brother Sextus back inRomein the dark and eliminate him as a possible successor.  Between them they agree to draw lots to determine which, on reaching Rome, would be the first to kiss his mother.  But Brutus thought the pythia’s words meant something quite different.  Pretending to slip, he fell to the ground and pressed his lips to the earth, the mother of us all.

Upon returning to Rome they found that preparations for war against the Rutuli were in full swing.  There people inhabited the city ofArdeaand were very wealthy for that time and place.  Their wealth was the cause of the war: Tarquin wanted to enrich himself, now that his resources were exhausted from his many pubic works, and to mollify the plebeians with Ardea’s plunder, for they disliked his rule both because of his general arrogance and because of their resentment at having been kept at work fit for ordinary workmen and slaves. Tarquin tried to take Ardea in an initial assault, but when this did not succeed, he fell back on blockading the city from behind siegeworks.

A permanent camp grew up and, as happens in a war that is long but not hard-fought, furloughs were freely granted, but more for the officers than the rank and file.  Now the young princes of the royal house were in the habit of spending their free time feasting and carousing among themselves.  It so happened that when they were drinking in the quarters of Sextus Tarquinius, where Tarquinius Collatinus, the son of Egerius, was one of the guests, they fell to discussing there wives. Each man praised his own extravagantly.  When the dispute heated up, Collatinus said there was no need of talk.  Why, in a few hours they could see for themselves that his Lucretia was the best of the lot. ‘We’re young and red-blooded.  Why don’t we ride off and see with our own eyes just what sort of wives we’ve got?  The surest proof will be what each man finds when he shows up unexpectedly.’  By this time they were quite drunk.  ‘Well then, let’s go!’  Spurring their horses they flew off to Rome.

The evening shadows were lengthening when they came upon the royal princesses feasting and frolicking with their friends.  Then they sped off to Collatia: though the evening was late, they found Lucretia still in the main hall of her home, bent over her spinning and surrounded by her maids as they worked by lamplight. Lucretia was the clear winner of the contest. She graciously welcomed her husband and the Tarquins as they approached; Collatinus, happy in his victory, issued a comradely invitation for the royal young men to come in.  When Sexton Tarquin set eyes upon her he was sized by the evil desire to debauch her, spurred on as he was by her beauty and redoubtable chastity.  In the meantime, with the youthful lark now at an end, they returned to camp.

After a few days Sexton Tarquin, without Collatinus’ knowledge, came to Collatia with a single companion.  He was graciously welcomed, for no one suspected what he was up to, and after dinner was shown to a guest room.  When the household was safely asleep, in the heat of passion he came to the sleeping Lucretia sword in hand and, pressing his hand on her breast, whispered, ‘Say no word, Lucretia.  I am Sexton Tarquin.  There is a sword in my hand.  You die if you make a sound.’  She awoke in fright, and when she realized she could not call for help with the threat of death hanging over her, Tarquin confessed his passion, pleaded with her, intermingling threats with entreaties and working in every way upon her feeling as a woman.  When he saw she was resolute and would not yield even out of fear for her life, he threatened to disgrace her even in death by placing the naked body of a murdered slave next to her corpse, evidence that she had been killed in the act of committing adultery of the basest sort.  When by this threat his lust vanquished her resolute chastity, he left the house exulting in his seeming conquest of the woman’s honour.

Lucretia, stricken to the heart at the disgrace, sent the same messenger to her father in Rome and husband in Ardea: each was to come with one trustworthy friend; it must be done this way and done quickly: a terrible thing had happened.  Spurius Lucretius arrived with Publius Valerius son of Volesus, Collatinus with Lucius Iunius Brutus, in whose company he was traveling en route to Rome when his wife’s messenger chanced to meet him.  They found Lucretia seated downcast in her bedchamber.  At the arrival of her father and husband tears welled up, and when her husband asked, ‘Are you all right?’ she replied ‘indeed, no.  What can be right when a woman’s virtue has been taken from her?  The impress of another man is in your bed, Collatinus; yet only my body was defiled; my soul was not guilty.  Death will be my witness to this.  But pledge with your right hands and swear that the adulterer will not go unpunished. Sexton Tarquin did this, a guest who betrayed his host, an enemy in arms last night took his pleasure, fatal, alas, to me—and, if you act as you should, to him.’  Each pledged his word in turn and tried to comfort the heartsick woman by fixing the guilt not upon the victim but the transgressor: the mind sins, they said, not the body, and there is not guilt when intent is absent.  ‘It is up to you’, she said, ‘to punish the man as he deserves.  As for me, I absolve myself of wrong, but not from punishment.  Let no unchaste woman hereafter continue to live because of the precedent of Lucretia.’  She took a knife she was hiding in her garments and drove it into her breast.  Doubling over, she collapsed in death.

Husband and father raised a ritual cry of mourning for the dead.

While they were taken up with lamentation, Brutus pulled the knife dripping with blood from Lucretia’s body.  Holding it before him he cried, ‘By this blood, so pure before defilement by prince Tarquin, I hereby swear—and you, O deities, I make my witness—that I will drive out Lucius Tarquinius Superbus together with his criminal wife and progeny with sword, fire, and whatever force I can muster, nor will I allow them or anyone else to be king at Rome.’  He then handed the dagger to Collatinus, and next to Lucretius and Valerius, who stood amazed at the miraculous change that had come over him.  They repeated the oath after him; from that moment on, anger overmastering grief, they followed Brutus’ lead in bringing the monarchy to an end.

They bore Lucretia’s body from the house to the forum, where they drew a large crowd that was scandalized by the extraordinary turn of events, as anyone would be.  Each man expressed his personal sense of outrage at the rape the prince had committed.  And not just the father’s grief moved them, but Brutus also, when he rebuked them for tears and useless complaints when what they should be doing as men and Romans was to take up arms against those who dared such violence.  The most spirited young men were quick to seize weapons and join the cause; the rest followed their lead.  Then, leaving a garrison at Collatia’s gates to prevent anymore from getting out and reporting the uprising to the royal family, Brutus led the rest of the warriors toRome.

The arrival of a large group of armed men caused fear and commotion wherever it went; on the other hand, the sight of the nation’s leaders at the forefront made people think that whatever was afoot there must be a good reason for it.  Moreover, men were as appalled by Sextus’ heinous deed atRomeas they had been at Collatia.  From all quarters of the city people crowed into the forum, where a herald summoned them to assemble before the tribune of the Celeres, or king’s bodyguard, a post that Brutus chanced to be holding at that moment.  He then delivered a speech that was wholly at odds with the spirit and character he had pretended to have up to that day.  He spoke of the violence and lust of Sextus Tarquin, of the unspeakable rape of Lucretia and her wretched death, of the bereavement of Lucretius Tricipitinus and the cause of his daughter’s death, which for him was more unworthy and more pitiable than the death itself.  He mentioned also the arrogance of the king himself and how the plebs had been forced underground to dig out trenches and sewers: the men ofRome, victorious over all their neighbours, had been turned into drudge and quarry slaves, warriors no longer.  He recalled the appalling murder of King Servius Tullius and how his daughter had driven over her father’s body in that accursed wagon, and he invoked her ancestral gods as avengers.  After saying these things and, I am sure, even more shocking once prompted by his outrage of the moment, which are not easy for writers to capture on paper, he brought his listeners to such a pitch of fury that they revoked the king’s power and ordered the exile of Lucius Tarquinius, together with wife and children.

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