Traditionally, Ardea, near Rome, ca. 510 B.C. (Livy, History of Rome 1.57.6-58. Late 1st cent. B.C.-early 1st cent. A.D. L)
While they were drinking at Sextus Tarquinius’ house, where Tarquinius Collatinus, son of Egerius, was also dining, the conversation happened to turn to their wives. Each one praised his own, and the discussion heated up. Collatinus said there was no need for all the talk as only a few hours were needed to prove beyond a doubt that his wife was the most virtuous.
‘We are young and strong. Why don’t we get on our horses and make a surprise visit. Then we’ll see with our own eyes how our wives behave when we’re not around.’ The wine had got them fired up.
‘Let’s go!’ they cried and flew off towards Rome, which they reached as twilight was falling. There they found the daughters-in-law of the king banqueting with their friends. They continued on to Collatia to check on Lucretia, whom they found, not at dinner like the others, but in the atrium of the house, with only her maidservants, working at her wool by lamplight.
There was no question who won the contest. She greeted her husband and the Tarquins, and the victorious husband graciously invited the others to dine. That was when Sextus Tarquinius became inflamed by lust and became possessed by the idea of raping Lucretia.
A few days later, unbeknownst to Collatinus, Sextus Tarquinius returned to Collatia with a single companion. The household received him warmly, as no one realized why he had come, and after dinner he was shown to the guestroom already seething with passion.
When he was sure everyone in the house was asleep, he went, with his sword drawn, to Lucretia’s room, where she was asleep. With his left hand he pinned her to the bed and said, ‘Not a sound, Lucretia. It is I, Sextus Tarquinius. I’ve got a sword in my hand. One sound and you will die.’ The terrified woman, awakened like that, was sure she was going to die. Tarquinius confessed his love and tried to persuade her with a combination of entreaties and threats. But when he saw that the fear of death was having no effect, he tried that of dishonour.
He said that next to her dead body he would place the corpse of a slave with his throat cut. That way it would seem that she had been killed in the act of adultery. With such terror his lust triumphed over her tenacious chastity, and then he went away, proud of having blotted the woman’s honour.
Lucretia, overwrought by her ordeal, send a messenger to her father in Rome and her husband in Ardea for them to come to her each with one trusted friend and that they should hurry as something terrible had happened. Spurius Lucretius came with Publius Valerius, son of Volesus, while her husband brought Lucius Junius Brutus with whom he happened to be returned to Rome when he met his wife’s messenger.
They found Lucretia weeping in her room. ‘Are you all right?’ asked her husband. ‘No’, she replied, ‘how can anything be all right if a woman has lost her honour? In your bed, Collatinus, you’ll find the traces of another man. But only the body was violated, the mind is innocent, as my death shall attest. Promise me that the adulterer will be punished. He is Sextus Tarquinius. Last night, he came an enemy masquerading as a guest and by force of arms took his pleasure. But that pleasure, if you are men, will be death for him as well as for me.’
They all promised and reassured her that she, who had been forced, was not guilty, but only the author of the crime. ‘You’ll see,’ she said, ‘what punishment he deserves. As for me, although I absolve myself of guilt, I do not release myself from paying the penalty. From now on, no woman can use the example of Lucretia to live unchaste.’ With that she took the dagger she had hidden in her clothes, plunged in into her heart, and fell forward dead. Her husband and father cried out.