Have you sat by the banks of Old Father Tiber before? On quiet days you may hear it murmur. Sometimes it grumbles as old men do, sometimes it sings, and sometimes it tells stories. I have heard a few stories in my lifetime, but none are so sorrowful as that of the woman Lucretia.
In the days when proud tyrants and kings still ruled from Rome’s seven hills, none was more proud and arrogant than Tarquin the Superb. Now King Tarquin had spent lavishly to make Rome beautiful. But the money ran out, so Tarquin eyed the rich city of Ardea. He saw her wealth and high walls, and he wanted those for himself. He saw the richness of her market and her people, and he wanted to take them. So he gathered his men and marched to the city, to take her.
Now Ardea was strong, and the people there did not yield to the Roman army. Again and again our men attacked the walls to break through, but again and again they threw us back. So King Tarquin pulled his soldiers away and surrounded the city, waiting for Ardea to starve.
Now this siege lasted a long time. The Roman camp was miserable, too many horses and bored men together in one place. There was nothing to eat, nothing to do, and the smell was unbearable. And so, as you can imagine, the young nobles in the army grew restless. Then they grew bored, and would sneak off to one of their tents to get drunk and play games whenever they could.
One day they were in the tent of Sextus Tarquin, son of the King, drinking and talking. The topic came to which of the men’s wives was the best, and the young noble Collatinus spoke up “All of this talk is pointless. Very soon I can show you that my Lucretia is the best among our wives. Come, we are young men, let’s ride to each of our homes and surprise our wives. Whichever is doing best when we arrive at her door will indeed be the best!” This seemed good to all the young nobles, drunk as they were on wine.
So off they went, rushing out of the camp. They arrived at Rome, and surprised each of the women in turn. It was not yet late in the day, yet most of them were already having parties and feasting – not unlike their husbands! Collatinus smiled, knowing that he would soon win this contest.
Later that day they arrived at the house of Collatinus. The sun was already going down as the men got off their horses and sneaked into the women’s rooms. There were lamps lighting the darkened room, and women servants sat all around, hard at work on their looms. And in the middle sat Lucretia, doing the same.
The different versions of the story say she was wearing this or that amount of jewelry, or had this or that amount of makeup on her cheeks. But they all agree that she seemed to all the young nobles the most beautiful and excellent of the women they had seen that day, because she cared more about looking after her home than enjoying herself. When she rose, smiling and greeting her husband, all of them saw that beauty! And so Collatinus smiled broadly, saying “Now you will agree that I have won our contest! For my wife is the most excellent of all.” The young nobles all agreed, and having settled their bet they got on their horses and rode back to the camp.
One of the young men however had evil in his eyes. Sextus Tarquin, proud son of the proud King, saw the beauty of Lucretia, and he wanted it for his own. He saw her good heart, her gentle eyes and her warm smile, and he wanted to take them. So he decided then and there to come back and rape her.
A few days later, Sextus Tarquin did the deed. He brought along one of his servants and sneaked off to Collatinus’ house. The sun was already going down as the two men got off their horses and walked through the door. The servants recognised Sextus and welcomed him. Of course they had no idea what he wanted to do.
Sextus waited till the house was quiet and everyone asleep. Then he got up, took his sword and sneaked into Lucretia’s room. He remembered the way. When he saw her lying in bed he grabbed her, and whispered “Be silent. I am Sextus Tarquin, and I have a sword in my hand. If you call for help I will kill you.” He then told her how much he wanted her, one moment begging to have her, another moment threatening her. But Lucretia would not yield.
Sextus then whispered “If I cannot have you then I will kill you. And then I will kill one of your menservants and lay his naked body next to yours. You know the laws of our people. Everyone will say that you died while being unfaithful to your husband, and I will vouch for it. Imagine the shame that will come to him and your family, and the shame upon your memory!”
Lucretia grew terrified, and so she finally gave in. And so Sextus raped her.
The young prince rode back to the camp next morning. Lucretia meanwhile sent for Collatinus and her father, begging them to come quickly. When the two men arrived, along with a friend named Brutus, they found her weeping bitterly in her room. “Dear wife,” Collatinus said “what bad has happened?” Weeping, Lucretia said “Everything is bad for a woman who has lost her honour! Look, husband, there on my bed is the trace of another man’s body! But please believe me, I did not do it willingly, I stayed true.” Her father, Collatinus and Brutus were deeply troubled but told her again and again that they believed her, that the law could not blame her, that she had been forced into it.
But she would not be comforted, and weeping she said “It was Sextus Tarquin, he did this to me. Swear to me that you will punish him.” The men promised her with many oaths, but she finally said “Whatever happens to that man, you decide. As for me, though I know I am innocent I hold myself guilty before the law.” She quickly drew a knife from under her robe, and cried “May no woman survive her dishonour because I did!” With those words she plunged the knife into her own heart and died.
I’d like to end my story here. You’ve probably heard the rest before: how Collatinus wailed and wept bitterly, how young Brutus took up the knife from Lucretia’s breast and swore then and there to wipe out Tarquin’s proud family. You’ve heard how the King and his son were chased out of Rome after a short struggle, and how young Sextus was murdered soon afterward by an old enemy. As for me I will always remember poor, poor Lucretia, bound by such fear for the law, for its sake done to death by her own hand. But she is not the last to be devoured by the law.