The Story of Lucretia in Text and Image

The tragic tale of the Roman matron Lucretia is one of the most famous early Roman legends, if for no other reason than that it exerted such a profound effect on later artists, both literary and visual. Beyond that, however, it gives insight into gendered Roman cultural values and demonstrates the interplay of the personal and the political in classical Rome.
My goal is to encourage teachers to incorporate into their Latin classes art, the creative process, the classical tradition, and the inspiration of classics on later literature and art by offering an activity and associated materials around a single tragic yet triumphant Roman heroine. Below are listed some of the materials I have found on the web and used fruitfully with my high school Latin 3 class.

Part I. An Introductory Exercise:

Go to the Greek Mythology Link by Carlos Parada where you can read about the people and events in the story of Lucretia. Then answer the questions that follow. Note that the questions are not necessarily intended to provide a laundry list of answers. Rather, they are designed to get you thinking about the right sort of topics. You should think about these questions and use them to formulate a coherent answer.

  1. Describe the rule of Tarquinius Superbus. What did he do that made him a bad king (be specific)? How does his rule relate to the "nature of tyranny"? How might he represent everything that Romans did not want in a ruler?
  2. How does the war against Ardea provide suitable foreshadowing for the tragedy that is to come? How does it reflect the negative side of Tarquinius Superbus' reign?
  3. What cultural values of the Romans are evident in the fact that Lucretia was deemed the most virtuous of the wives? What virtues does she display? ("weaving wool" is not an appropriate answer here)
  4. When Lucretia initially resists the advances of Sextus Tarquinius, how does he eventually coerce her? What was his rationale for this? What was Lucretia’s rationale for assenting to his proposal?
  5. Why did Lucretia kill herself (‘because she was raped’ is not an acceptable answer)?
  6. What was the result of Lucretia’s death? What motivated Brutus' actions (again, "Lucretia’s rape" is not an acceptable answer)?

Part II. Lucretia in Literature: Sources for Study

Below are some of the most famous narrations of Lucretia's story in classical and medieval Latin and Middle and Renaissance English (some are annotated, others are translated). I make these available so that teachers can choose one or more sources to use, depending on their goals, the time available, and their students' Latin ability.

  1. Titus Livius (59 BCE-17 CE or 5 years prior on both dates), Ab Urbe Condita I. 57-60 : annotated Latin text.
    By way of introduction to the issues of State that arise from this tale of a virtuous matrona violated, read the introduction to the World of State.
  2. Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE-17 CE), FastiII. 685-852: in Latin; February 24: Regifugium: in English.
  3. Anonymous, Gesta Romanorum 19: an annotated Latin text.
    This is a medieval (13-14th century) compilation of Latin anecdotes and stories to which moral rubrics and reflections were added by unknown authors. Widespread and popular, it was probably used by preachers; it survives in multiple manuscript traditions, providing source material for much literature written later (significant tales follow).
  4. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), De mulieribus claris 48: Latin with English translation.
    This work is the first compendium of the lives of women ever written. More famous for his collection of the often bawdy novella The Decameron, Boccaccio nonetheless spent the majority of his career writing a very different sort of literature; the latter portion of that career, inspired by the humanism of his friend Petrarch, was devoted to Latin prose works concerning ancient Rome and Greece. De mulieribus claris (1361-2) includes 104 women, from Greek to biblical to Roman to imaginary. His treatment of Lucretia owes much to Livy’s Latin, but includes a moralizing tone that reveals Boccaccio’s Christian interest in the story.
  5. Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1342-1400), The Legend of Good Women: Lucretia (c. 1385-6): in Middle English (for a synopsis click here); in modern English.
    This is a poem in heroic couplets, in the form of a dream vision. It is the third longest of Chaucer’s works, after The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde. In the prologue Chaucer is reprimanded by the god of love and his queen, Alceste, for writings that depict women in a poor light -- such as Troilus and Criseyde. In retribution, Alceste demands a poem that extolls the loyalty of women and their good deeds in the face of false men. Chaucer recounts ten stories of virtuous women, of whom Lucretia is the sixth; he depends on Ovid for his version.
  6. William Shakespeare (1564-1616), The Rape of Lucrece (1594): in English.
    Shakespeare is best known for his verse dramas Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar. But playwriting in the late 1500s was not the best path to literary reknown; it can perhaps best be analogized to screenwriting today as a possible way to make a comfortable living, but not necessarily the best avenue to artistic fame. Since poetry held pride of place, Shakespeare wrote sonnets and several lengthier epyllia (short epic poems on classical subjects with tragic themes): Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece. Both poems garnered Shakespeare the literary praise that he was seeking, although the former, more sensual and more popular, had greater success. While Shakespeare knew of both Livy's and Ovid’s versions of Lucretia's story (and probably Chaucer's as well), his Rape seems closest to Ovid's. Leaving aside much of the traditional action, Shakespeare focused on the two protagonists, Lucrece and Tarquin.

Part III. Lucretia in Art: A Project

Lucretia and her story have inpired artists from the Middle Ages to the present day. The volume of depictions of the woman and her tragedy was a total surprise to me. Click here to access the project Lucretia in Art; the project document is in PDF form and contains full instructions, requirements, and grading rubrics. Click here to view the hyperlinked list of images which provides access to the images in situ (check the links before assigning the project, as museums appear to change addresses with no provision for old links).

Submitted by Edmund DeHoratius
March 2007
Return to Instruction: Activities