Nine women in a gallery: Lucretia


Is that a dagger I see in Lucretia’s left hand? Yes, it is. She’s about to thrust it into her breast and die in her father’s arms, following her rape by Tarquin, son of the last King of Rome.

Lucretia, a “semi-legendary figure”, who suicided around 510BC is the fourth of my Ballarat Women.

When I saw this print I didn’t know her story and didn’t see the dagger. What struck me instead was its beauty. Look at the way her body occupies the frame, the beautiful classical stance with the right hip pushed out, the rounded draperies and best of all, the anguish in her profile, the flying hair, that right hand flung open. It’s exquisite. She’s on the cross, she is the cross, right there in public, with Rome behind.

There are several versions of her story. Here’s one.

Lucretia lived in a time before the Roman Republic was established, when Rome was still ruled by kings. She was married to Lucius, and was the daughter of Spurius Lucretius, the first Prefect of Rome. One day, the king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus sent his son, Tarquin, on an errand to the region where Lucretia lived. He was received into their home, and he and her husband went off on a hunting trip.

Tarquin and Lucius “were debating the virtues of wives” when Lucius volunteered to settle the debate by having them all ride to his home to see what Lucretia was doing. She was weaving with her maids. The party awarded her the palm of victory and Lucius invited them to stay but they returned to their own camp. Later that night, Tarquin “entered her bedroom by stealth, quietly going around the slaves who were sleeping at her door.” When Lucretia woke, he identified himself and offered her two choices.

She could submit to his sexual advances and become his wife and future queen, or he would kill her and one of her slaves and place the bodies together, then claim he had caught her having adulterous sex.

The next day Lucretia went to her father’s house in Rome. She first summoned witnesses, disclosed the rape and called on them for vengeance, “a plea that could not be ignored, as she was speaking to the chief magistrate of Rome.”

While they were debating, she drew a concealed dagger and stabbed herself in the heart.

Lucretia’s rape and death is credited with causing the fall of the last Roman king and the establishment of the Roman Republic.

Her body was taken to the Forum and put on display while a general election was held.  The vote was for the republic.

The constitutional consequences of this event were, formally at least, to reverberate for more than two thousand years. Rome would never again have a hereditary “king”, even if later emperors were absolute rulers in all but name.

On hearing of the vote, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and his sons rode for Rome but their entry was barred. Tarquin was eventually assassinated and the Tarquin clan became outcasts.

There’s so much in Lucretia’s story. The aspect that stands out for me is the awful and persistent questionability of women’s virtue. Why does she stab herself? To restore her “honour”? To restore her father’s honour? What does that even mean? To protest her innocence? To overthrow the Tarquin clan? To be avenged? To cauterise the enormity of the act?

And lest you think any of these questions have gone away, I draw your attention to the thousands of examples of the abominable crime – so-called honour killings – being practised in many countries right now. In an example last month in Afghanistan, a religious mullah was convicted and sentenced for raping a 10-year-old girl. It was reported that, after the attack, the young girl’s family was planning to kill her. Her life was only saved by the intervention of a group called Women for Afghan Women.

I cannot think of any act as terrible as what this young girl has had to endure. To be raped and to have one’s family plan to kill you as a result. What desolation!

More Ballarat Women to come …


Image: Lucretia’s suicide, engraving, 1541, Enea Vico (Italian, 1523-1567) in the studio of Marcantonio Raimondi (Italian c. 1470-1527) after a drawing by Raphael (Italian, 1483-1520) from the exhibition, Radicals, slayers and villains: Prints from the Bailleau Library, currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.


7 thoughts on “Nine women in a gallery: Lucretia

  1. You are so right: these outrages are still happening today in many countries, including Canada.

    My first thought about Lucretia’s suicide was that she put her life on the line to protest an injustice. Also, having told her story, she did not think she would receive justice. In our time, that is why most women do not report rape to the authorities. What desolation, indeed.


    • Thinking about this further. Lucretia goes public with the rape, significantly, in front of her father who’s also Chief Magistrate, ie, calling on the power of familial love and the power of the law. She hears something in the deliberations. She panicks that maybe she’s not going to be heard, that her word’s not going to be honoured, and she escalates the situation. She cannot bear the thought that her word is not going to count. She escalates the situation with the only trump she has (as she sees it): her life.

      What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

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