Lucretia declaring rape incited Roman men to war without questioning

Lucretia inciting men to war

According to her story, which dominates Roman history, Lucretia suffered rape from Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the king ruling Rome. Her story incited Roman men to war against the king of Rome and to establishing the Roman Republic. No one questioned Sextus Tarquinus about what happened between him and Lucretia. Lucretia gave no one the opportunity to question her. Among authorities today, questioning Lucretia’s declaration of rape would be an outrage. That’s a form of tyranny that resonates with today’s campus sex tribunals and bitter disputes over immigrants and rape. While a republic can be founded without questioning, it will not endure without questioning. Uprooting the tyrannical authority of rape is necessary to provide the blessings of liberty for posterity.

The Roman historian Livy recorded Lucretia’s story of rape and her incitement of Roman men. Lucretia summoned her husband, her father, and their faithful friends:

They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears. To her husband’s inquiry whether all was well, she replied, “No! what can be well with a woman when her honor is lost? Collatinus, the marks of a stranger are in your bed. But it is only my body that has been violated. My soul is pure. My death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished.” [1]

Lucretia had already premeditated her own death. Drawing upon the power of a woman’s tears, she immediately sought an oath from them to punish an unnamed man, described prejudicially as an adulterer. That’s an important rhetorical strategy given that the unnamed man was the son of the king. She then specified the target:

{Lucretia said} “It is Sextus Tarquinius. Coming as an enemy instead of a guest, he forced from me last night by brutal violence a pleasure fatal to me, and, if you are men, fatal to him.”

Women explicitly or implicitly questioning men’s manliness seek to control men’s actions.[2] Lucretia asserted that, as men, they should kill Sextus Tarquinius. Persons committed to justice would seek evidence, hear from all relevant parties, thoroughly investigate the matter, and seek to know the truth of the specific case. The men here, like many men throughout history, merely did what a woman told them to do:

They all successively pledged their word. They tried to console the distracted woman by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator. They urged that it is the mind that sins, not the body, and where there has been no consent, there is no guilt.

The men’s primary concern was to comfort Lucretia, not to kill Sextus Tarquinius. Lucretia re-directed them:

“It is for you,” she said, “to see that he gets his deserts. Although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty. No unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia’s example.” She had a knife concealed in her dress. She plunged it into her heart and fell dying on the floor.

Lucretia thus killed herself before anyone had the opportunity to question her about her story. She provided as pretext for killing herself the potential mendacity of other women. Some women lie about sex. So too do some men. Killing without questioning isn’t a reasonable response to the human problem of lying about sex.[3]

Claims of men raping women powerfully incite men to violence against men. Livy presented that inciting force sensationally:

While they were absorbed in grief, Brutus drew the knife from Lucretia’s wound and holding it, dripping with blood, in front of him, said, “By this blood — most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son — I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness, that I will drive from here Lucius Tarquinius Superbus {the king ruling Rome}, his cursed wife, and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power. I will not tolerate them or any one else reigning in Rome.”

Brutus vowed a change in government for Rome from monarchy to a republic. Yet Brutus’s vow rests on gynocentrism and social devaluation of men’s lives. Those aspects of social order have withstood change and held themselves above public discussion. Brutus easily enlisted other men in gynocentric revolution:

Then he handed the knife to Collatinus and then to Lucretius and Valerius, who were all astounded at the marvel of the thing, wondering whence Brutus had acquired this new character. They swore as they were directed. All their grief changed to wrath. They followed the lead of Brutus, who summoned them to abolish the monarchy immediately. They carried the body of Lucretia from her home down to the Forum. There, owing to the unheard-of atrocity of the crime, they at once attracted a crowd.

The crowd took up arms against the king and overthrew his rule in Rome. At least one account indicates that many men were killed in battle between opponents and supporters of the king.[4]

In written history, the rape of Lucretia incited men to found the Roman Republic. Rape of women and false accusations of rape have throughout history been treated as deadly serious matters.[5] Yet the seriousness of the crime of rape doesn’t explain why Lucretia’s story became history of the founding of the Roman Republic. Roman men writing history never questioned Lucretia’s story. Her story incited men to violence against men without questioning. That rape tyranny comes readily with gynocentric society. The Roman revolution against tyranny was incomplete. The Roman Republic thus fell to the Roman Empire, which collapsed. To have an enduring republic, the tyranny of rape must be overturned.[6]

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[1] Livy, Ab Urbe Condita / History of Rome, 1.58.6-8, from Latin trans. Canon Roberts (1912), with my adaptations for modern English fluency. All subsequent quotes above are likewise from id. 1.58-9. Roberts’ translation of the Lucretia section is available online in a more easily readable form. The translation of Benjamin Oliver Foster (1919) is also available online. Here’s the Latin text.

“The story of the rape of Lucretia is one of the most familiar of all stories from the ancient world.” Donaldson (1982) p. iv. Id. considers the story across the past two and half millennia. Other early accounts of the rape of Lucretia are in Ovid, Fasti 2: February 24 (The Regifugium); and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities IV.64-85.

[2] In Cassius Dio’s history, written early in the third century, Lucretia asserts at greater length that men are required by their gender to respond with violence against men:

And, whereas I (for I am a woman) shall act in a manner which is fitting for me: you, if you are men, and if you care for your wives and children, exact vengeance on my behalf and free yourselves and show the tyrants what sort of woman they outraged, and what sort of men were her menfolk!

Cassius Dio, Roman History, F 11.19, from Greek trans. Mallen (2014) p. 768.

[3] The vast literature on the rape of Lucretia shows almost no critical analysis of justified belief about what happened between Lucretia and Sextus Tarquinius. See e.g. Donaldson (1982) and Mallen (2014). The rape of Lucretia is a “regular choice” among examples (exempli) that Livy “set out on a clear monument.” Chaplin (2000) p. 1, referring to Livy, Preface 10.

Across all of written history to the present, Augustine of Hippo provides the most critical analysis of the situation concerning Lucretia. From Augustine’s Christian perspective, if Lucretia didn’t consent in her will to Sextus Tarquinius having sex with her, then she was guilty of killing an innocent person (herself), without even any formal judicial ruling. Augustine considered hypothetically the possibility that she did consent in her will to sex with Sextus. If she did, Augustine declared that she would then be an adulteress. Yet Augustine followed history in not questioning whether any evidence other than her story indicated rape:

What shall we say? Should she be judged an adulteress or a chaste woman? Who can think it worthwhile to argue over such a question? A certain person, reciting this story with distinction and veracity, says, “Marvelous to relate, there were two persons, but only one of them committed adultery.” Splendidly and truly said!

Augustine, City of God, Bk. 1, Ch 19, from Latin trans. Dyson (1998) p. 29. In addition to not critically analyzing the historical evidence for determining whether Lucretia was raped, Augustine also didn’t consider the effect of her suicide on investigation of the case.

The widely disseminated medieval work Gesta Romanorum includes the story of Lucretia. Gesta Romanorum explicitly cites its story of Lucretia to Augustine’s City of God. In its application, Gesta Romanorum honors Lucretia and condemns Sextus. It declares: “Lucretia is the soul. Sextus is the devil.” Gesta Romanorum, Tale 135, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 239-41.

For a spectacle of recent, earnest academic-political posing about Augustine and Lucretia, consider the interview with scholars Thomas Laqueur and Virginia Burrus, and the response from Lincoln Mullen. Such posing deflects attention from realities of rape and new, totalitarian sex regulations.

[4] See Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities V.15-6.

[5] In a significant historical difference, U.S. authorities today tend to trivialize the problem of false accusations of rape.

[6] Tendentious, gynocentric analysis of the rape of Lucretia and the founding of republics is associated with dominant, oppressive, and false beliefs about sex and violence. See Matthes (2000).

[image] The Story of Lucretia, detail. Painting by Sandro Botticelli, 1500-1501. Held in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Image from Wikimedia Commons.


Chaplin, Jane D. 2000. Livy’s exemplary history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Donaldson, Ian. 1982. The rapes of Lucretia: a myth and its transformations. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dyson, R. W, trans. 1998. Augustine: the city of God against the pagans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mallan C.T. 2014. “The rape of Lucretia in Cassius Dio’s Roman History.” Classical Quarterly. 64 (2): 758-771.

Matthes, Melissa M. 2000. The rape of Lucretia and the founding of republics: readings in Livy, Machiavelli, and Rousseau. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).