Moral dilemmas make for compelling stories. Should we nuke this city to stop the virus from spreading? Should we derail the train to save our child caught on the tracks? Honor-dilemmas used to be a favorite type of moral quandary. One legendary honor-dilemma in particular has inspired artists and storytellers for millennia: the rape of Lucretia.
The Roman noblewoman Lucretia lived in 6th century B.C., in the final days of the Roman Kingdom. As Livy tells the tale, she welcomed the Roman prince Sextus Tarquinius into her home while her husband and father were away at war. Taken by her beauty, Tarquinius stole into her bedroom in the middle of the night and begged Lucretia to sleep with him. She refused. He threatened to kill her, but she remained unmoved. At last Tarquinius threatened to kill Lucretia and a male slave, arranging their bodies so that she “might be said to have been put to death in adultery with a man of base condition.” As this threat touches Lucretia’s reputation, she accedes.
After Tarquinius leaves, “exulting in his conquest of a woman’s honour,” Lucretia calls her husband and father back from battle, and in tears tells them how she “lost her honour” to the prince and that they, “if they are men,” will avenge her. The men swear to punish Tarquinius and they do their best to support Lucretia, assuring her that her honor hasn’t been besmirched. But Lucretia is disconsolate and declares,
“Though I acquit myself of the sin, I do not absolve myself from punishment; not in time to come shall ever unchaste woman live through the example of Lucretia,”
at which point she brandishes a hidden dagger and stabs herself to death (as depicted in the banner art of this blog). Appalled, inspired, and outraged, Lucretia’s menfolk revolt against the ruling family and help found the Roman Republic. Continue reading