The Legend of Lucretia in Roman History

How Her Rape May Have Led to the Founding of the Roman Republic

Botticelli's The Story of Lucretia, 1500
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The legendary rape of Roman noblewoman Lucretia by Tarquin, king of Rome, and her subsequent suicide are credited as inspiring the revolt against the Tarquin family by Lucius Junius Brutus which led to the founding of the Roman Republic.

  • Dates: 6th century BCE. The rape of Lucretia is said by Livy to have happened in 509 BCE.
  • Also known as: Lucrece

Where Is Her Story Documented?

The Gauls destroyed Roman records in 390 BCE, so any contemporaneous records were destroyed. Stories from before that time are likely to be more legend than history.

The legend of Lucretia is reported by Livy in his Roman history. In his story, she was the daughter of Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus, sister of Publius Lucretius Tricipitinus, niece of Lucius Junius Brutus, and wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus (Conlatinus) who was the son of Egerius. 

Her story is also told in Ovid's "Fasti."

The Story of Lucretia

The story begins with a drinking bet between some young men at the home of Sextus Tarquinius, a son of the king of Rome. They decide to surprise their wives to see how they behave when they are not expecting their husbands. The wife of Collatinus, Lucretia, is behaving virtuously, while the wives of the king's sons are not.

Several days later, Sextus Tarquinius goes to Collatinus' home and is given hospitality. When everyone else is asleep in the house, he goes to Lucretia's bedroom and threatens her with a sword, demanding and begging that she submit to his advances. She shows herself to be unafraid of death, and then he threatens that he will kill her and place her nude body next to the nude body of a servant, bringing shame on her family as this will imply adultery with her social inferior.

She submits, but in the morning calls her father, husband, and uncle to her, and she tells them how she has "lost her honor" and demands that they avenge her rape. Though the men try to convince her that she bears no dishonor, she disagrees and kills herself, her "punishment" for losing her honor. Brutus, her uncle, declares that they will drive the king and all his family from Rome and never have a king in Rome again. When her body is publicly displayed, it reminds many others in Rome of acts of violence by the king's family.

Her rape is thus the trigger for the Roman revolution. Her uncle and husband are leaders of the revolution and the newly-established republic. Lucretia's brother and husband are the first Roman consuls.

The legend of Lucretia—a woman who was sexually violated and therefore shamed her male kinsmen who then took revenge against the rapist and his family—was used not only in the Roman republic to represent proper womanly virtue, but was used by many writers and artists in later times.

William Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece"

In 1594, Shakespeare wrote a narrative poem about Lucretia. The poem is 1855 lines long, with 265 stanzas. Shakespeare used the story of Lucretia's rape in four of his poems via allusions: "Cybeline," "Titus Andronicus," "Macbeth," and "Taming of the Shrew." the poem was published by printer Richard Field and sold by John Harrison the Elder, a bookseller in St. Paul's Churchyard. Shakespeare drew from both Ovid's version in "Fasti" and Livy's in his history of Rome.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The Legend of Lucretia in Roman History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). The Legend of Lucretia in Roman History. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The Legend of Lucretia in Roman History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).