Lucas Cranach der Ältere (1472-1553), The Suicide of Lucretia (detail).
Lucretia (died c.508 B.C.) is a semi-legendary figure in the history of the Roman Republic. According to the story, told mainly by two turn-of-the-millennium historians, the Roman Livy and the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (who lived in Rome at the time of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus), her rape by the etruscan king’s son and consequent suicide were the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic.
The incident kindled the flames of dissatisfaction over the tyrannical methods of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. As a result, the prominent families instituted a republic, drove the extensive Tarquin family from Rome, and successfully defended the republic against attempted Etruscan and Latin intervention. The rape has been a major theme in European art and literature.
The beginning of the Republic is marked by the first appearance of the two consuls elected on a yearly basis. The Romans recorded events by consular year, keeping an official list in various forms called the fasti, used by Roman historians. The list and its events are authentic as far as can be known although debatable problems with many parts of it do exist.
This list confirms that there was a Roman Republic, that it began at the beginning of the fasti, and that it supplanted a monarchy. One of the first two consuls is Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, husband of Lucretia. All the numerous sources on the beginning of the republic reiterate these basic events.
Lucretia and the monarchy cannot therefore be total myth or an elaborate literary hoax to deceive and entertain the Roman people about an early history that can not otherwise be known. The evidence points to the historical existence of a woman named Lucretia and a historical incident that played a critical part in the real downfall of a real monarchy. Many of the specific details are debatable. Later uses of the legend, however, are typically mythical in portrayal, being of artistic rather than historical merit.
As the events of the story move rapidly, the date of the incident is probably the same year as the first of the fasti. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a major source, sets this year “at the beginning of the sixty-eighth Olympiad … Isagoras being the annual archon at Athens;” that is, 508/507 BC (the ancient calendars split years over modern ones). Lucretia therefore died in 508 BC. The other historical sources tend to support this date, but the year is debatable within a range of about five years.