The rape, and subsequent suicide of Lucretia, wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, was one of the pivotal and iconic moments in the history of the Roman republic. It was supposedly the spark that resulted in the expulsion of the Tarquin monarchy and the formation of the republic. But besides the obvious political implications of the event, it presents an opportunity for an interesting study of the Roman character. The classic understanding of the story glorifies Lucretia that kills herself for the sake of her honor, and this seems in keeping with the view of suicide throughout Roman history. But this exaltation of suicide seems strange, and some thinkers, such as St. Augustine, have struggled with her choice of suicide, and with the Roman tendency to glorify such an end. We might therefore wonder why the Roman character is attracted to suicide, how Rome sees suicide as choiceworthy. I contend that it is because of a twofold misunderstanding on the part of Rome – a misconception of the reality of immortality and happiness, and a failure to see the relationship between happiness and self-control or self-sufficiency. To illustrate this hypothesis, I will compare different accounts of the rape story – Livy, Augustine, and Machiavelli – to reveal the underlying philosophy of each narrative, and propose that both Christianity and modern republicanism provide a means to rescue the citizen from the suicide that the Roman ethos leads one to seek.
According to Livy, Sextus Tarquinius, “spurred on as he was by her redoubtable beauty and chastity,” arrived at the house of Collatinus and Lucretia when Collatinus was gone, and after everyone was asleep, invaded Lucretia’s bedroom and with a drawn sword, “confessed his passion, pleaded with her, intermingling threats with entreaties, and working in every way upon her feelings as a woman.” Neither threat of death nor Tarquin’s pleading was effective in moving Lucretia. But when Tarquin threatened to kill her and also to put the body of a male slave by, making it appear that she had been killed in the act of adultery, Livy says, “By this threat his lust vanquished her resolute chastity.” Lucretia then sent for her husband and father, and after proclaiming, “[O]nly my body was defiled; my soul is not guilty. Death will be my witness to this...I absolve myself from wrong, but not from punishment,” she killed herself.
Death itself was clearly not an issue for Lucretia – she was willing to let Tarquin kill her rather than give in to him. But death followed by dishonor was a price she was not willing to pay to save her chastity. Then, having lost her chastity and her damaged her honor, Lucretia attempted to gain back what she could – her chastity was lost, but her honor could be regained through death, or so she thought. What is important to note here is that she held herself to be guiltless and yet still worthy of punishment, by her own hands. This seems like a strange situation in which to be...