September 15, 2008

The Rape of Lucretia

'What can be well with a woman who has lost her honour. In your bed, Collatinus, is the impress of another man. My body not only has been violated. My heart is innocent, and death will be my witness. Give me your solemn promise that the adulterer shall be punished- he is Sextus Tarquinius. He it is who last night came as my enemy disguised as my guest, and took his pleasure of me. That pleasure will be my death- and his too, if you are men. ' The promise was given. One after another they tried to console her. They told her she was helpless, and therefore innocent; that he alone was guilty. It was the mind they said that sinned, not the body: without intention there could never be guilt. 'What is due to him,' Lucretia said, 'is for you to decide. As for me I am innocent of fault, but I will take my punishment. Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve'. (I.58)

This is one of the most famous pieces of prose in Roman history- it became the centre point for Augustine's argument about virginity in the seige of Rome almost five centuries later. It is important though because Lucretia's suicide sanctifies the rebellion which sweeps away the monarchy in Rome and brings in the Republic. The story is easily told. One night at the seige of Ardea, a group of noblemen including Sextus Tarquin, were boasting of their wives. One of them proposed that they secretly visit their wives that night- all the other wives were found enjoying themselves- but Lucretia was found spinning and working. Sextus fell in love with her and a couple of days later returned to rape her. This is where it becomes interesting- because Lucretia's response to the rape was to summon her father, and her husband and their friend Brutus and deliver the speech I've quoted above. That speech became the model for the image of the virtuous classical and medieval woman in her reaction to rape- Augustine I have quoted citing it, Dante placed Lucretia in the circle of hell reserved for the virtuous pagans and Shakespeare used the text to form the basis of his Rape of Lucrece.

Analysing what Lucretia says reveals a lot about the way that women were viewed in Republican and Imperial Rome. Let us start with the simple point. Lucretia's language and Livy's for that matter during the whole episode of the rape is very visual- you can see the impress on the bed- we all know the sensation of getting into a bed that has been slept in. This vivid kind of language makes the rape more astonishing. But when it used it is used interestingly. I think there are three particular visual images to do with the rape that immediatly come to mind after reading Livy's story. The first is that Sextus puts his hand upon Lucretia's breast in order to wake her. The second is Lucretia's face when Sextus tells her that he is going to rape her- Livy gives a stage direction that her eyes widen in terror. The third is this impress on the bed. What I think is interesting is that none of them have anything to do with the actual rape- Livy is quite coy about the mechanisms of what happens. They are all though metaphors about the invasion of the household- something that Lucretia herself brings up here in the discussion of the guest and the enemy. Sextus has raped her- by invading the space reserved to Lucretia, her husband and her family. Indeed he does worse, because the way that he procures her consent is by threatening the dissolution of that unit- he tells her that he will kill her and leave her naked body next to that of a servant- something that he says and she beleives will destroy her household.

The images are interesting- but they are more interesting when combined with another aspect of what Lucretia and hence Livy is saying here. The problem that Lucretia faces at this point is that she needs to prove that the rape happened- that the household's unity and its hierarchy were fractured not from within but from without. Compare Lucretia to Helen- who it was often said was raped- the doubt remains about Helen because we never are certain that she didn't want to go off with Paris. At least ancient authors were never certain about that issue. Now Lucretia makes that issue absolutely clear. She says the punishment for lack of chastity is death- I have not been chaste- though it was not my own desire- and to prove that I will commit suicide. I will not live to benefit from the incident. By dying Lucretia creates another image which dominates over the image of the desicrated house and that is the image of the woman so intent on virtue that she would rather die than have her reputation stained.

This image of Lucretia is the image of a woman who cares more about her reputation, her household and her husband than herself. It is not neccessarily anything that any Roman woman actually ever said. Historians of the ancient world were fond of constructing the speeches that their characters should have said. Lucretia represents less a real woman than an ideal of how a woman should respond to the rape of a tyrant. For Livy, women ought to respond to that by prioritising their household and their household's possession in them- their honour- over themselves. The subjugation of women to these ideals was the way that patriachal society functioned in Rome: Roman authors mercilessly attacked women who did meet these ideals. Moving back to Lucretia- what we see is a complex exchange of shame going on through the speech. Lucretia's shame is expunged by her blood and as soon as commits suicide, she forces her menfolk through their shame to avenge her murder. Lucretia was prompted originally to succumb to Sextus by the fear of shame (the ultimate ignominy of being presumed an adultress with a slave) and then she prompts her brother, her father and her husband to kill Sextus through the shame of leaving her unavenged.

We see in the death of Lucretia the expression of a sexist culture. As I have said, we cannot be sure that any of these events actually happened. If we dig further though into the sexism of this culture in which Livy wrote and Lucretia died- we find a deep admiration of honour and a deep fear of shame. For women this was connected to the idea that a pure woman maintained a good household: for a woman to be found in bed with a slave violated the idea of purity and also the natural hierarchy of the house, hence Lucretia's fear of that event. Livy wrote as Augustus began to launch a campaign for moral virtue in Roman society. Lucretia's worry that she might be seen as an example to the unchaste- and her unargued case that she might be doubted unless she died- was an example to call back Roman women to their duties to the household and to the state. Lucretia's death though does something else- because it reminds men of what Livy considers their natural duty to protect their womenfolk. Livy is making a final point about tyranny here too: remember why Lucretia was targetted by Sextus- it was because she alone was virtuous and spinning not partying like the wives of Tarquin's sons. The inference is obvious tyranny seeks out and destroys the family unit- it succeeded in Tarquin's sons through the destabilising form of luxury, in Lucretia's case it succeeded through rape and yet its success created in the latter case private tragedy and public civil war.

These attitudes are foreign to our experience. They are also in my view morally wrong. Yet they do tell us something interesting about the Roman world which is why I have seen fit to record them. What this demonstrates I think is a link between the political world and the private world in the mind of the Roman. The world of tyranny was a world in which the passions dominated honour, reputation became less important than desires. Tyranny is the reign of lust and pride. Republicanism rather is the reign of restraint. Tyranny furthermore is the reign of shame- Lucretia's rape is the last in a long line of insults. This is why when Brutus swears to avenge her, it is not on Sextus but upon Tarquin that he vows to take revenge- the issue goes beyond the sexual to the political. (I.58) Indeed one might argue that Lucretia's private tragedy- that of the rape- is not so important to Livy as the public tragedy, the violation of the family unit by a member of the royal family. Livy's attitude to rape is indisputedly sexist: Lucretia does not matter to him, her reputation does.


James Higham said...

for a woman to be found in bed with a slave violated the idea of purity and also the natural hierarchy of the house

True words, Tiberius.

Gracchi said...

James that was Livy's view and within Rome you are absolutely right- that was the argument.

But just to clarify I don't think there are many people around today who beleive in natural hierarchies (whether between male and female or between those who are slaves and those who are not)- and I definitely do not beleive in such hierarchies!

Anonymous said...

it stirme me that while anicent rome was undobua sexist in many ways what you're talking about here is not patriarchial but honour based and collectivist- the patriarchy is bound almost as much as anyone else to expectation and the collective unit.

Gracchi said...

Collectivist I don't think is a useful concept here- as its used say of very different twentieth century regimes.

I think that prejudiced captures it more- a society ruled by prejudice and also ruled by honour you are right- however both are focused on women in this case and on suspicion of women.

Anonymous said...

I found your explanation very helpful and i appreciate that although you have your own beliefs, you wrote an honest and unbiased article.

Gracchi said...

Thank you for that kind comment