Thursday 26 May 2022

Roman Honour Killings - Lucretia and Verginia by Elisabeth Storrs

The women of very early Rome were definitely second-class citizens with no rights to vote or hold property. They were known only by one name, that of their father’s in feminine form. As I mentioned in my previous post, The Legend of Tarpeia – A Roman Morality Tale, it’s interesting the Roman foundation stories chronicle the deaths of the matron, Lucretia, and the virgin, Verginia, as catalysts for significant political upheaval.

The fables of the doomed women have been handed down to us through Roman and Greek historians such as Livy, Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, however, it should be noted that these scholars wrote their accounts centuries after the events described, and without access to primary sources. Accordingly, readers should recognize the exploits of the characters do not reflect the actual history of that city. Nevertheless, while the existence of these women is debatable, their legends have been passed down through the ages as examples of the Roman virtues of chastity, modesty and fidelity.

Tarqinio e Lucrezia by Jan Massys ca 1550

In telling their stories, it’s important to understand the concept of a ‘blood taint’ in Roman customary laws. A woman was expected to be chaste if she was a maiden, and faithful if she was a wife. A husband or father was entitled to kill their wife or daughter if she had an affair. They could also kill them if they deemed a woman’s honour had been sullied regardless of whether she was innocent or guilty of the act that may have constituted her ‘corruption’. This covered the spectrum from a girl being discovered alone with a man without a chaperone to the commission of a rape. Once a woman’s sexual purity had been compromised her blood became ‘tainted’. A woman was also expected to value her own honour as can be seen from the story of the rape of Lucretia.

Lucretia was married to the Roman nobleman, Collatinus, during the reign of the tyrannical Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus. When Collatinus boasted his wife was more virtuous than Etruscan wives, the king’s son, Prince Sextus Tarquinius, visited Lucretia to test this claim. Holding a sword to her throat, he demanded she sleep with him.  When she refused, he threatened to not only kill her but also leave the corpse of a naked slave beside her so that Collatinus (and all Rome) would think she had committed adultery with a servant.  To avoid bringing such shame upon her husband, the matron yielded to Sextus. The next day Collatinus discovered the rape and was prepared to forgive Lucretia for her blood taint. Despite his pleas, though, she took her own life rather than live with dishonour.  Her defilement and self-sacrifice incited the Romans to rise up and rid Rome of their oppressive and depraved Etruscan rulers. After this, the Romans vowed never again to be governed by a monarch and the Republic of Rome was born.

Verginia’s story is similarly tragic. She was a pawn whose death stirred the men of Rome to rise up and depose the corrupt government of the Decemvirs, ‘ten men’ elected to rule Rome after King Tarquinius had been expelled.

Verginia was the daughter of a centurion, Lucius Verginius.  The plebeian maiden was known for her exceptional beauty. She caught the eye of the patrician judge, Appius Claudius, who was one of the Decemvirs. Whilst Verginius was away, Claudius organized for a client to bring a thinly veiled court case claiming Verginia was his slave on the basis he would then hand the girl over for Claudius to use.  The fact the girl was deprived of her liberty by a wrongful assertion of slavery outraged the populace as it was clear Claudius was abusing his power to enable him to debauch the girl. Even though Verginius returned in time to discover the scheme, Claudius ruled Verginia should be removed from her father’s house anyway.  Not wishing his daughter to be subjected to the shame of being a rich man’s whore and a slave, the centurion took a butcher’s knife and slew her.  The outcry that followed led to the downfall of the Decemvirs. Verginius himself was not condemned as a murderer, though, because he had power of life and death over his daughter.

The Death of Verginia by Heinrich Frierich Fuger

The paternalism of these stories jars because we see these women only as victims of the ‘system’ rather than active champions of rebellion. As such, the ravaged and self-sacrificing Lucretia is not depicted as being an instigator of reform in her own right by the ancient historians. Nevertheless, on my reading of Livy’s From the Founding of the City, I like to interpret Lucretia as exhorting both insurrection as well as personal vengeance based on her challenge to her father and husband: “He [Sextus] . . . 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”. Those four words, “if you are men”, are telling. Rape was a capital crime. As such, her father and husband had the right to lawfully take retribution against Sextus. Killing a prince of the Tarquinian royal house, however, was far more problematic, and required considerable courage. Given no Roman man had been valiant enough to rebel against the Etruscan tyrants, Lucretia’s taunt was powerful and defiant. It was only after her shocking suicide the men of Rome were finally spurred to rebellion. As such I like to see her as a woman with a passion for justice. And it gives me satisfaction to know her name is perhaps more famous than the men who avenged her. The tragic matron has not been forgotten. Her name lives on in literature, poetry and art.

Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Jan Massys – Tarquino e Lucrezia,  ca 1550

Heinrich Friedrich Fuger – The Death of Virginia ca 1800

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. She has also written a short story based on the Lucretia legend which can be obtained at her website

No comments: