Notes on Lucretia

Note: This post is really more of the “note to self” variety, so there’s not a lot of elaboration on the classical material. 

An editorial by Sohaila Abdulali in yesterday’s New York Times entitled “I Was Wounded; My Honor Wasn’t” strikes me as offering an important analogue with the issues raised by the Roman legend of Lucretia. The editorial appears in the wake of the horrific Delhi gang rape case now taking place. An Indian woman herself as well as a rape victim, Adbdulali writes about the connection between rape and shame:

Rape is horrible. But it is not horrible for all the reasons that have been drilled into the heads of Indian women. It is horrible because you are violated, you are scared, someone else takes control of your body and hurts you in the most intimate way. It is not horrible because you lose your “virtue.” It is not horrible because your father and your brother are dishonored. I reject the notion that my virtue is located in my vagina, just as I reject the notion that men’s brains are in their genitals.

If we take honor out of the equation, rape will still be horrible, but it will be a personal, and not a societal, horror. We will be able to give women who have been assaulted what they truly need: not a load of rubbish about how they should feel guilty or ashamed, but empathy for going through a terrible trauma.

The week after I was attacked, I heard the story of a woman who was raped in a nearby suburb. She came home, went into the kitchen, set herself on fire and died. The person who told me the story was full of admiration for her selflessness in preserving her husband’s honor. Thanks to my parents, I never did understand this.

What is interesting here is Abdulali’s rejection of a traditional attitude dictating that the victim be ashamed of herself for the crime perpetrated against her. In Livy’s version of the rape of Lucretia, the same struggle between this tradition of blaming the victim and the insistence on her essential innocence is to be found, but it is Lucretia herself who voices the shame, and her male relatives who insist that she has herself done nothing wrong. Nonetheless, Lucretia kills herself, while admitting no guilt: as she says, “although I acquit myself of the sin [peccatum is the Latin term], I do not free myself from the penalty.”

Below is the relevant portion of Livy (first in English, then Latin), and following that is a chapter from St. Augustine’s remarks about Lucretia from City of God (also first in English and then Latin).  In some ways, Augustine takes the position expressed so well by Sohaila Abdulali in yesterday’s Times, that “women who have been assaulted [should be given] what they truly need: not a load of rubbish about how they should feel guilty or ashamed, but empathy for going through a terrible trauma.” Augustine goes so far, in fact, to fault Lucretia for committing suicide as a result of her sense of shame.  This is perhaps somewhat heartless, but his ultimate purpose is not to condemn but to uphold her innocence.

Livy, Book 1, chapter 58 (from UVa’s e-text):

A few days afterwards Sextus Tarquin went, unknown to Collatinus, with one companion to Collatia. He was hospitably received by the household, who suspected nothing, and after supper was conducted to the bedroom set apart for guests. When all around seemed safe and everybody fast asleep, he went in the frenzy of his passion with a naked sword to the sleeping Lucretia, and placing his left hand on her breast, said, “Silence, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquin, and I have a sword in my hand; if you utter a word, you shall die.” When the woman, terrified out of her sleep, saw that no help was near, and instant death threatening her, Tarquin began to confess his passion, pleaded, used threats as well as entreaties, and employed every argument likely to influence a female heart. When he saw that she was inflexible and not moved even by the fear of death, he threatened to disgrace her, declaring that he would lay the naked corpse of the slave by her dead body, so that it might be said that she had been slain in foul adultery. By this awful threat, his lust triumphed over her inflexible chastity, and Tarquin went off exulting in having successfully attacked her honour. Lucretia, overwhelmed with grief at such a frightful outrage, sent a messenger to her father at Rome and to her husband at Ardea, asking them to come to her, each accompanied by one faithful friend; it was necessary to act, and to act promptly; a horrible thing had happened. Spurius Lucretius came with Publius Valerius, the son of Volesus; Collatinus with Lucius Junius Brutus, with whom he happened to be returning to Rome when he was met by his wife’s messenger. They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears, and to her husband’s inquiry whether all was well, replied, “No! what can be well with a woman when her honour is lost? The marks of a stranger, Collatinus, are in your bed. But it is only the body that has been violated, the soul is pure; death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. It is Sextus Tarquin, who, coming as an enemy instead of a guest, forced from me last night by brutal violence a pleasure fatal to me, and, if you are men, fatal to him.” They all successively pledged their word, and tried to console the distracted woman by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator, and urging that it is the mind that sins, not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt. “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 which she plunged into her heart, and fell dying on the floor. Her father and husband raised the death-cry.

Livy, Book 1.58 (from

Paucis interiectis diebus Sex. Tarquinius inscio Collatino cum comite uno Collatiam venit. Vbi exceptus benigne ab ignaris consilii cum post cenam in hospitale cubiculum deductus esset, amore ardens, postquam satis tuta circa sopitique omnes videbantur, stricto gladio ad dormientem Lucretiam venit sinistraque manu mulieris pectore oppresso “Tace, Lucretia” inquit; “Sex. Tarquinius sum; ferrum in manu est; moriere, si emiseris vocem.” Cum pavida ex somno mulier nullam opem, prope mortem imminentem videret, tum Tarquinius fateri amorem, orare, miscere precibus minas, versare in omnes partes muliebrem animum. Vbi obstinatam videbat et ne mortis quidem metu inclinari, addit ad metum dedecus: cum mortua iugulatum seruum nudum positurum ait, ut in sordido adulterio necata dicatur. Quo terrore cum vicisset obstinatam pudicitiam velut vi victrix libido, profectusque inde Tarquinius ferox expugnato decore muliebri esset, Lucretia maesta tanto malo nuntium Romam eundem ad patrem Ardeamque ad virum mittit, ut cum singulis fidelibus amicis veniant; ita facto maturatoque opus esse; rem atrocem incidisse. Sp. Lucretius cum P. Valerio Volesi filio, Collatinus cum L. Iunio Bruto venit, cum quo forte Romam rediens ab nuntio uxoris erat conuentus. Lucretiam sedentem maestam in cubiculo inveniunt. Aduentu suorum lacrimae obortae, quaerentique viro “Satin salue?” “Minime” inquit; “quid enim salui est mulieri amissa pudicitia? Vestigia viri alieni, Collatine, in lecto sunt tuo; ceterum corpus est tantum violatum, animus insons; mors testis erit. Sed date dexteras fidemque haud impune adultero fore. Sex. est Tarquinius qui hostis pro hospite priore nocte vi armatus mihi sibique, si vos viri estis, pestiferum hinc abstulit gaudium.” Dant ordine omnes fidem; consolantur aegram animi avertendo noxam ab coacta in auctorem delicti: mentem peccare, non corpus, et unde consilium afuerit culpam abesse. “Vos” inquit “uideritis quid illi debeatur: ego me etsi peccato absoluo, supplicio non libero; nec ulla deinde impudica Lucretiae exemplo uiuet.” Cultrum, quem sub ueste abditum habebat, eum in corde defigit, prolapsaque in volnus moribunda cecidit. Conclamat vir paterque.

Augustine, City of God, Book 1, Chapter 19
Translation below from; following that is the original Latin

This, then, is our position, and it seems sufficiently lucid. We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her. But do they against whom we have to defend not only the souls, but the sacred bodies too of these outraged Christian captives,— do they, perhaps, dare to dispute our position? But all know how loudly they extol the purity of Lucretia, that noble matron of ancient Rome. When King Tarquin’s son had violated her body, she made known the wickedness of this young profligate to her husband Collatinus, and to Brutus her kinsman, men of high rank and full of courage, and bound them by an oath to avenge it. Then, heart-sick, and unable to bear the shame, she put an end to her life. What shall we call her? An adulteress, or chaste? There is no question which she was. Not more happily than truly did a declaimer say of this sad occurrence: “Here was a marvel: there were two, and only one committed adultery.” Most forcibly and truly spoken. For this declaimer, seeing in the union of the two bodies the foul lust of the one, and the chaste will of the other, and giving heed not to the contact of the bodily members, but to the wide diversity of their souls, says: “There were two, but the adultery was committed only by one.”  But how is it, that she who was no partner to the crime bears the heavier punishment of the two? For the adulterer was only banished along with his father; she suffered the extreme penalty. If that was not impurity by which she was unwillingly ravished, then this is not justice by which she, being chaste, is punished. To you I appeal, you laws and judges of Rome. Even after the perpetration of great enormities, you do not suffer the criminal to be slain untried. If, then, one were to bring to your bar this case, and were to prove to you that a woman not only untried, but chaste and innocent, had been killed, would you not visit the murderer with punishment proportionably severe? This crime was committed by Lucretia; that Lucretia so celebrated and lauded slew the innocent, chaste, outraged Lucretia. Pronounce sentence. But if you cannot, because there does not appear any one whom you can punish, why do you extol with such unmeasured laudation her who slew an innocent and chaste woman? Assuredly you will find it impossible to defend her before the judges of the realms below, if they be such as your poets are fond of representing them; for she is among those

Who guiltless sent themselves to doom,

And all for loathing of the day,
In madness threw their lives away.
And if she with the others wishes to return,
Fate bars the way: around their keep
The slow unlovely waters creep,
And bind with ninefold chain.

Or perhaps she is not there, because she slew herself conscious of guilt, not of innocence? She herself alone knows her reason; but what if she was betrayed by the pleasure of the act, and gave some consent to Sextus, though so violently abusing her, and then was so affected with remorse, that she thought death alone could expiate her sin? Even though this were the case, she ought still to have held her hand from suicide, if she could with her false gods have accomplished a fruitful repentance. However, if such were the state of the case, and if it were false that there were two, but one only committed adultery; if the truth were that both were involved in it, one by open assault, the other by secret consent, then she did not kill an innocent woman; and therefore her erudite defenders may maintain that she is not among that class of the dwellers below “who guiltless sent themselves to doom.” But this case of Lucretia is in such a dilemma, that if you extenuate the homicide, you confirm the adultery: if you acquit her of adultery, you make the charge of homicide heavier; and there is no way out of the dilemma, when one asks, If she was adulterous, why praise her? If chaste, why slay her?  Nevertheless, for our purpose of refuting those who are unable to comprehend what true sanctity is, and who therefore insult over our outraged Christian women, it is enough that in the instance of this noble Roman matron it was said in her praise, “There were two, but the adultery was the crime of only one.” For Lucretia was confidently believed to be superior to the contamination of any consenting thought to the adultery. And accordingly, since she killed herself for being subjected to an outrage in which she had no guilty part, it is obvious that this act of hers was prompted not by the love of purity, but by the overwhelming burden of her shame. She was ashamed that so foul a crime had been perpetrated upon her, though without her abetting; and this matron, with the Roman love of glory in her veins, was seized with a proud dread that, if she continued to live, it would be supposed she willingly did not resent the wrong that had been done her. She could not exhibit to men her conscience but she judged that her self-inflicted punishment would testify her state of mind; and she burned with shame at the thought that her patient endurance of the foul affront that another had done her, should be construed into complicity with him. Not such was the decision of the Christian women who suffered as she did, and yet survive. They declined to avenge upon themselves the guilt of others, and so add crimes of their own to those crimes in which they had no share. For this they would have done had their shame driven them to homicide, as the lust of their enemies had driven them to adultery. Within their own souls, in the witness of their own conscience, they enjoy the glory of chastity. In the sight of God, too, they are esteemed pure, and this contents them; they ask no more: it suffices them to have opportunity of doing good, and they decline to evade the distress of human suspicion, lest they thereby deviate from the divine law.

Augustine, De Civitate Dei, Liber I, from

An forte huic perspicuae rationi, qua dicimus corpore oppresso nequaquam proposito castitatis ulla in malum consensione mutato illius tantum esse flagitium, qui opprimens concubuerit, non illius, quae oppressa concumbenti nulla uoluntate consenserit, contradicere audebunt hi, contra quos feminarum Christianarum in captiuitate oppressarum non tantum mentes, uerum etiam corpora sancta defendimus? Lucretiam certe, matronam nobilem ueteremque Romanam, pudicitiae magnis efferunt laudibus. Huius corpore cum uiolenter oppresso Tarquinii regis filius libidinose potitus esset, illa scelus improbissimi iuuenis marito Collatino et propinquo Bruto, uiris clarissimis et fortissimis, indicauit eosque ad uindicatam constrinxit. Deinde foedi in se commissi aegra atque inpatiens e peremit. Quid dicemus? Adultera haec an casta iudicanda est? Quis in hac controuersia laborandum putauerit? Egregie quidam ex hoc ueraciterque declamans ait: “Mirabile dictu, duo fuerunt et adulterium unus admisit.” Splendide atque uerissime. Intuens enim in duorum corporum commixtione unius inquinatissimam cupiditatem, alterius castissimam uoluntatem, et non quid coniunctione membrorum, sed quid animorum diuersitate ageretur adtendens: “Duo, inquit, fuerunt, et adulterium unus admisit.”

Sed quid est hoc, quod in eam grauius uindicatur, quae adulterium non admisit? Nam ille patria cum patre pulsus est, haec summo est mactata supplicio. Si non est illa inpudicitia qua inuita opprimitur, non est haec iustitia qua casta punitur. Vos appello, leges iudicesque Romani. Nempe post perpetrata facinora nec quemquam scelestum indemnatum inpune uoluistis occidi. Si ergo ad uestrum iudicium quisquam deferret hoc crimen uobisque probaretur non solum indemnatam, uerum etiam castam et innocentem interfectam esse mulierem, nonne eum, qui id fecisset, seueritate congrua plecteretis? hoc fecit illa Lucretia; illa, illa sic praedicata Lucretia innocentem, castam, uim perpessam Lucretiam insuper interemit. Proferte sententiam. Quod si propterea non potestis, quia non adstat quam punire possitis, cur interfectricem innocentis et castae tanta praedicatione laudatis? Quam certe apud infernos iudices etiam tales, quales poetarum uestrorum carminibus cantitantur, nulla ratione defenditis, constitutam scilicet inter illos,

qui sibi letum Insontes peperere manu lucemque perosi Proiecere animas; cui ad superna redire cupienti Fas obstat, tristisque palus inamabilis undae Adligat. An forte ideo ibi non est, quia non insontem, sed male sibi consciam se peremit? Quid si enim (quod ipsa tantummodo nosse poterat) quamuis iuueni uiolenter inruenti etiam sua libidine inlecta consensit idque in se puniens ita doluit, ut morte putaret expiandum? Quamquam ne sic quidem se occidere debuit, si fructuosam posset apud deos falsos agere paenitentiam. Verum tamen si forte ita est falsumque est illud, quod duo fuerunt et adulterium unus admisit, sed potius ambo adulterium commiserunt, unus manifesta inuasione, altera latente consensione: non se occidit insontem, et ideo potest a litteratis eius defensoribus dici non esse apud inferos inter illos, “qui sibi letum insontes peperere manu.” Sed ita haec causa ex utroque latere coartatur, ut, si extenuatur homicidium, adulterium confirmetur; si purgatur adulterium, homicidium cumuletur; nec omnino inuenitur exitus, ubi dicitur: “Si adulterata, cur laudata; si pudica, cur occisa?”

Nobis tamen in hoc tam nobili feminae huius exemplo ad istos refutandos, qui Christianis feminis in captiuitate compressis alieni ab omni cogitatione sanctitatis insultant, sufficit quod in praeclaris eius laudibus dictum est: “Duo fuerunt et adulterium unus admisit.” Talis enim ab eis Lucretia magis credita est, quae se nullo adulterino potuerit maculare consensu. Quod ergo se ipsam, quoniam adulterum pertulit, etiam non adultera occidit, non est pudicitiae caritas, sed pudoris infirmitas. Puduit enim eam turpitudinis alienae in se commissae, etiamsi non secum, et Romana mulier, laudis auida nimium, uerita est ne putaretur, quod uiolenter est passa cum uiueret, libenter passa si uiueret. Unde ad oculos hominum testem mentis suae illam poenam adhibendam putauit, quibus conscientiam demonstrare non potuit. Sociam quippe facti se credi erubuit, si, quod alius in ea fecerat turpiter, ferret ipsa patienter. Non hoc fecerunt feminae Christianae, quae passae similia uiuunt tamen nec in se ultae sunt crimen alienum, ne aliorum sceleribus adderent sua, si, quoniam hostes in eis concupiscendo stupra commiserant, illae in se ipsis homicidia erubescendo commiteerent. Habent quippe intus gloriam castitatis, testimonium conscientiae; habent autem coram oculis Dei sui nec requirunt amplius, ubi quid recte faciant non habent amplius, ne deuient ab auctoriate legis diuinae, cum male deuitant offensionem suspicionis humanae.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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