The ancient Roman document The Rape of Lucretia presents reasons for the start of the Roman revolution in 509 B.C.E. While the story has a unique voice describing Roman history, it also gives the reader insight into gender roles in Roman civilization. First, Roman men had an image of the perfect woman that demonstrates how they collectively viewed women. Next, a man corrupting another man’s wife angered the Roman population. Finally, Romans’ anger and passion could move them to make decisions in the heat of the moment. Although The Rape of Lucretia may not be a true story about the monarchy, it reveals the virtues important to the Romans and the vices that they disliked.
Roman men believed that a virtuous wife was the ideal woman, which demonstrates that they objectified their women. Roman matron Lucretia was an example of a perfect woman because the friends of her husband Tarquinius Conlatinus agreed that she was the best wife out of all of their wives. The men made a drunken game to stop in on their wives unexpectedly, and to judge whose wife was the best. When they reached the house of Conlatinus, “Lucretia, even though it was night, was still working on her spinning, with her servants, in the middle of the house. They were all impressed by Lucretia’s chaste honor.” Lucretia showed her devotion to her husband by staying in the house and working. An ideal woman spun throughout the night and did not mingle with friends because she belonged to her husband. Men wanted wives that did not socialize throughout the night because that showed her connection to people other than her husband. A comparison is made between Lucretia and the King’s daughter-in-laws who the men found feasting and having a party with friends. The men thought Lucretia was impressive while the King’s daughter-in-laws were not because they valued women who knew that their place was in the home. A wife was supposed to keep the house together and stay at home while the husband went out drinking with friends. Men and women of the Roman Republic had a double standard. Men could socialize while they looked down on women who had festive parties.
Another part of Roman society showed that women treasured their worth to men. Women believed that they were to blame for men treating them wrong, and that they should be punished for being raped. For instance, Lucretia said, “How can anything go well for a woman who has lost her honor? There are the marks of another man in your bed, Conlatinus. My body is greatly soiled, though my heart is still pure, as my death will prove.” She was significantly ashamed that King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus raped her. The act of rape humiliated her and encouraged her to take her own life. Virtuous women cherished their honor and did not have the courage to live without it. Gender constructs in the Roman Republic contributed to them thinking that their chastity was what gave them self-worth. A chaste woman knew that people thought highly of her for being a virtuous homemaker. Without her chastity, she lost the honor that made men value her.
The objectification of women was also clear in the document because another man seducing someone’s wife by force infuriated the men of Rome. For instance, a friend of Lucretia’s husband, Lucius Junius Brutus, vowed to avenge the rape of Lucretia. He said, “I swear before you, O gods, to chase the King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, with his criminal wife and all their offspring, by fire, iron, and all the methods I have at my disposal, and never to tolerate Kings in Rome evermore, whether of that family of any other.” The story of The Rape of Lucretia reveals how the Roman revolution began. The story shows the characteristics that society thought was important by showing that the Romans got together to fight against their immoral King. Men valued their women and the ownership they had of them that they perhaps fought battles over men who overstepped their boundaries. According to the story, all of society rebelled after the rape and refused to submit to their king anymore. The rebellion was significant for demonstrating that women were possessions, and that to violate someone else’s possession was a crime deserving of severe punishment.
Men were owners of their wives because they had a superior position in their families. According to authors A. Daniel Frankforter and William M. Spellman in the book The West: a Narrative History, “the male head of a familia, the paterfamilias, had absolute authority over all its members.” When Lucretia told her husband, father, and their two friends about the rape, they take quick action against the King because they are angry. They want to avenge her rape because of pride and ownership, while they are perhaps not going after Sextus Tarquinius to demonstrate their love for Lucretia. While Romans valued their property, a wife was an important object to them. They wanted to protect their property from harm. The story of Lucretia’s rape is not a love story. It is a demonstration of agreements Romans made to protect each other’s property when it was harmed.
While Brutus made his decision to avenge Lucretia’s rape in the heat of the moment after seeing her commit suicide, Sextus Tarquinius was also moved out of passion to commit the act of rape. He “was seized by the desire to violate Lucretia’s chastity, seduced both by her beauty and by her exemplary virtue.” The Romans utilized the act of rape to show that they were people who fought and loved with passion rather than reason. They made monumental decisions that influenced their lives perhaps without thoroughly thinking through what their actions meant. Romans knew which virtues they admired and rewarded them. They also were aware of the vices they despised, and they acted swiftly to punish them. The passionate reactions they had sometimes benefited the people, although sometimes their passion got them into trouble.
The Rape of Lucretia is an important story because it exemplifies the characteristics valued by the Roman people. Lucretia was a model of perfection because she was loyal to her husband and cherished her place in the home. Her husband Tarquinius Conlatinus owned her, which is the reason that other men were infuriated that Sextus Tarquinius raped her. They moved to avenge her rape out of rage, while Sextus Tarquinius also made choices from passion. The Rape of Lucretia reveals the virtues and vices of Roman society, while it also gives insight into family life before the Roman Revolution.
“Livy: The Rape of Lucretia.” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/livy-rape.html (accessed September 19, 2010).
Spellman, William and Daniel Frankforter. The West: a Narrative History. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, Inc, 2009: 133-134.