Lucretia was a legendary heroine of ancient Rome, the quintessence of virtue, the beautiful wife of the nobleman Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus.2In a lull in the war at Ardea in 509 BCE, the young noblemen passed their idle time together at dinners and in drinking bouts. When the subject of their wives came up, every man enthusiastically praised his own, and as their rivalry grew, Collatinus proposed that they mount horses and see the disposition of the wives for themselves, believing that the best test is what meets his eyes when a woman's husband enters unexpectedly. Arriving in Rome at dusk, the others found their wives whiling away the time at a luxurious banquet and engaging in other pleasures. Yet Lucretia, although it was late at night, was busily spinning her wool in the lamplight in the hall of their home; she was declared most virtuous.
On seeing her, Sextus Tarquinius, son of the Etruscan king of Rome, was seized with desire for her, not only with her beauty, but also for her chastity. Several days later, Tarquin took a male slave as an attendant and went to Lucretia's home without Collatinus' knowledge.
As his kinsman, Tarquin was courteously received as a guest. That night after dinner, he entered Lucretia's bed chamber armed with a knife. William Shakespeare1tells the story of what happened in his epic poem The Rape of Lucrece:
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Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (c 1488-1576), Italian. Tarquin and Lucretia, c 1571. Oil on canvas, 189 × 145
cm. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk).
Tintoretto's (1518-1594), Italian. Tarquin and Lucretia, 1580/90. Oil on canvas, 175 x 152 cm. Art Institute (http://www.artic.edu), Chicago, Illinois. Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York.
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