OMG: Lucretia and the Death of an Era

Of all Rome’s morbidly depressing legends, that of Lucretia is one of the worst. Lucretia was the ideal Roman woman: virtuous, stoic, chaste bloodthirsty, and valued her honor more than her life. (You can tell that this story was written by a man, can’t you). Anyway, poor Lucretia was the wife of Lucius Tarquinus Collatinus, the governor of Collatia, and the daughter of Spurius Lucretius, a prefect and chief magistrate of Rome. Needless to say, this meant she was pretty well connected.

Which means it was incredibly stupid for Sextus Tarquinus (son of Tarquinus Superbus, remember what happened to him?) to try what happened next. Sextus was beating up barbarians at the siege of Ardea with Collatinus—Lucretia’s husband. Over the course of some friendly drinking, Collatinus got to bragging about what an amazing wife he had. Sextus, being the son of the king, decided it was his privilege to find out just how wonderful Lucretia was for himself. Sneaking away from the siege, he rode over to Collatia and announced his intention to stay the night as a guest. Although her husband was away from home, Lucretia gave him a royal welcome.

Taking the welcome a little too far, Sextus crept into Lucretia’s bedchamber that night and offered her two choices: sleep with him, or he would kill her and one of her slaves and claim he had caught them having an affair. Finding she couldn’t live with the second choice, literally, Lucretia gave in. The next day Sextus left and Lucretia decided to take matters into her own hands. Dressing entirely in black, she traveled to her father’s house in Rome and confessed everything. Then she asked for Sextus’s head on a platter (I wish I could say figuratively, but the Romans were bloodthirsty little bastards, so who knows.) Now killing a king is no easy matter—look at Caesar, he had no crown and it still took sixty men to kill him—so her father was in a bit of a quandary. While he and the rest of the men were dithering, Lucretia pulled out a dagger and stabbed herself in the heart, killing herself to erase the shame of her rape. (Definitely written by a man.)

Now, Collatinus and his friend Brutus (a relative of the king) happened to drop by and were met with the fresh corpse of his wife.  After much hair tearing and chest pounding, Collatinus said, “is this a dagger I see before me?” (Sorry, wrong play.) He then swore an oath by Mars and all the gods to take down Tarquinus and his sons, and to never again let them or anyone else rule Rome. Then, still holding the dagger, he made everybody else take the oath too. Voluntarily. It was all very dramatic. Carrying Lucretia’s bloody corpse, they marched to the Roman Forum. Here they began whining about the king and recruiting an army to free the land from tyranny. Oddly enough, Caesar’s assassination several hundred years later follows the death of Lucretia fairly closely. Apparently Romans had a thing for speeches made over bloody bodies in the name of freedom from tyranny. Except with Lucretia, Brutus was one of the good guys.

Brutus, being a distant relative of the king, had enough power to call together the curiae, a group of patricians who ratified decrees of the king. This made their revolutionary group suddenly become legal. And now that he had a captive audience, literally, revolutionary recruits were holding the city gates, Brutus gave them the talk. First, he asked everyone to stop calling him by his nickname, Dullard. He promised that he’d only been pretending to be a bumbling fool to keep Tarquinus from finding a more permanent solution for a potential rival. The people might not have bought it, but it made for good street theater so they stayed. Brutus then reminded them that the king not only sucked at being king, but he had murdered the last king to get there. And Rome shouldn’t be ruled by corrupt murderers (Romulus being an exception—besides he was raised by a wolf so it wasn’t his fault). Instead, Rome should be ruled by the people (read: patricians) led by a pair of consuls (read: him and his buddy Collatinus).  

Everyone was getting a little tired by this point, and the corpse was starting to smell, so they put it to a vote. The Republic won. Rome would never again have a hereditary king. Even the later emperors were elected and not hereditary, although everyone knew the elections were probably rigged. But that was okay too.

Tarquinus Superbus and his sons heard what was up and fled Rome, going back home to Tarquinii. Superbus spent the rest of his life mucking about with Etruscan politics instead—and people wonder why there aren’t any Etruscans left today…