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Art and Images in Psychiatry
March 2008

Tarquin and Lucretia (Rape of Lucretia)

Author Affiliations

James C.HarrisMD

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(3):250-251. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.65.3.250

Tears harden lust, though marble wear with raining./ . . . Her pity-pleading eyes are sadly fix’d/In the remorseless wrinkles of his face . . . 

She conjures him by high almighty Jove/ . . . By her untimely tears, her husband's love,/By holy human law, and common troth,/By heaven and earth and all the power of both,/That to his borrow’d bed he make retire,/And stoop to honor, not to foul desire.1(p17)

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:

Imagine her as one in dead of night/ . . . That thinks she has beheld some ghastly sprite/ . . . What terror ‘tis! . . . From sleep disturbed, heedfully doth view/The sight that makes supposed terror true.1(p15)

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).

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).

Recognizing her assailant, she pleads with him (epigraph). But he seeks to dominate his victim and makes it clear to her that if she refuses him, he will kill her and his slave and humiliate her and her family by placing their dead bodies together so that it would appear that she was caught in adultery with a slave. To avoid this shame, she must submit to him for the sake of her husband and children. The encounter was dramatized by Shakespeare:

Lucrece, . . . If thou deny [my pleasure], then force must work my way,/For in thy bed I purpose to destroy thee;/That done, some worthless slave of mine I’ll slay./To kill thine honor with thy life's decay;/And in thy dead arms do I mean to place him,/Swearing I slew him, seeing thee embrace him.1(p16)

Venetian artists Titian (c 1488-1576) and Tintoretto (1518-1594) each painted Tarquin and Lucretia.3,4For Titian, her resistance to rape is unambiguous as she tearfully pushes back her assailant, who brandishes a knife; she appears cowed and imploring. At the left of the painting, Tarquin’s slave holds back the curtain of Lucretia's bed. The light falls on Lucretia's face and body; it catches the tip of Tarquin's dagger, the tear on Lucretia's cheek, the bracelet on her arm, and the wedding ring on the finger of the hand that pushes him back.5It is a violent scene that could be that of murder as well as rape.4Tintoretto presents a frighteningly violent rape scene (Figure). Tarquin's sword is cast to the floor and he is nude; his face is in shadow so his expression is concealed as he rips off Lucretia's remaining clothing. Lucretia physically resists his violence and brutality. A sculpture decorating the bed has fallen to the floor, the sheets are in disarray, and Lucretia's necklace is broken, her pearls scattered. Both artists transmit emotion to the viewer, Titian through her facial expression and Tintoretto in the violent corporeal chaos of the rape itself.

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.

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.

Lucretia survived the rape but committed suicide. After enduring the rape, she called her husband and her father to her and asked them to seek revenge. When so assured, she killed herself, despite their pleas, to prove her innocence and to demonstrate her refusal to live with tainted honor.4For Shakespeare, although she stabs herself, it is Tarquin who pushed the dagger into her heart. Revenge for her death led to a pivotal event in Roman history: the Tarquin monarchy was overthrown, leading to the birth of the first Roman Republic.2

Medieval and Renaissance artists illustrated many themes from classical mythology or ancient history involving abduction and rape. The word rapeis derived from the Latin rapere: to seize, to carry off by force, to abduct. It was rarely used in Latin for sexual violation. The typical Latin word for what is now referred to as rape is stuprum, referring to disgrace, defilement, dishonor, debauchery, and violation.

Tarquin and Lucretiawas not the only rape painted by Titian and Tintoretto. Tintoretto painted the Rape of Helen[of Troy], a painting well known for its battle scenes.4Mythological abductions were portrayed as well. The Rape of Europais one of Titian's best paintings. Jupiter, who was enamored with Europa, decided to abduct her. He transformed himself into a tame white bull. When Europa was drawn to the beautiful bull, she caressed his flanks and climbed onto his back. The painting depicts the moment that she was suddenly and unexpectedly carried away by Jupiter to Crete. There he seduced her or ravished her. Both painted the rape of Danae, a legendary princess of Argos. Her father, Acrisius, heeding an oracle that foretold that her son would kill him, kept her locked away in a bronze tower. Seeing her alone, Jupiter turned himself into a shower of gold that passed through the roof, poured down into her lap, and impregnated her.

Perhaps the best-known painting illustrating abduction is Nicolas Poussin's Rape of the Sabine Women.6The Romans needed brides and invited the Sabine men and women to a celebration, where they abducted the women. In the painting, nearly all the women are shown resisting the Romans. The men, husbands and fathers, are shown trying to prevent the abduction, rape, and marriage of the women to the Romans. Women were viewed as property and the crime of their abduction was against their husbands and fathers. Although clearly apparent, the distress of the Sabine women is rarely emphasized by art historians. Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome who ordered the capture of the Sabine women, justified his deed by celebrating the Sabine women as the mothers of Rome who later became peacemakers between the Sabines and Romans.

Modern critics question whether art historians, who focus on works of art for their aesthetic value, have sanitized women's experience of rape, a violent sexual crime, and glamorized and eroticized it, not sufficiently emphasizing the suffering of the victim.6Heroic rape images, particularly those involving the gods, adorned marriage chests in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy. They were meant to signify to the bride the importance of chastity, sexual submission to her husband, sacrifice for family, and the role as peacemaker.6The suffering of the abducted woman was not emphasized.

Renaissance artists portrayed woman as well as men as sexual aggressors. The story of Iempsar, Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39), is a cautionary tale about a married woman who pursues a man who does not return her affection. Potiphar was a captain in Pharaoh's army who bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites. Recognizing his abilities, he promoted Joseph to oversee his estate, where he meets Iemspar. She pressures Joseph to lie with her, but he resists. Finally when alone with him, she grabs his garment and demands that he do her bidding. He flees, leaving his garment in her hands. She falsely accuses him of attempted rape and he is put into prison.

The ancient view of women as property persisted. In Shakespeare's London, under English common law, wives and daughters were legally considered property. Thus the complaint against a tyrant7was unlawful seizure of the property of the husband or father. In 17th-century England under the law of coverture, a married woman was feme covert; her legal existence was suspended or incorporated into that of her husband.7(p171)She could not contract or bring suit in her own name.

Rape has always been underreported: rapists were rarely convicted, and when they were convicted, sentences varied. Sentences were often light, but when assaultive rape was definitively proved, it was punishable by death as a capital crime under common law. If the defendant was acquitted, the woman could be punished for bringing false charges. In 1248 in Berkshire, England, 78% of alleged victims of rape were found to have brought false charges; in London in 1321, the number was 50%.6

Modern times have brought a major shift in women's rights. Beginning in the 1960s, many of the assumptions on which rape laws were based, such as the emphasis on protecting men from false accusations and laws that required evidence of utmost resistance to rape, were successfully challenged. Rape shield laws were passed to highlight the rights of the complainants rather than those of the accused rapists. Rape shield laws limit the introduction of evidence about victims' sexual history, reputation, or past conduct. Every state and the District of Columbia have rape shield laws that apply in criminal cases. In the 1970s many states redefined rape and eliminated some of the common-law doctrines with their biases against victims. The identification of rape trauma syndromeand psychopathology associated with rape has affected attitudes and laws about rape. The first US rape crisis telephone line was established in 1971.

Until 1977, in keeping with the English model, some US states punished rape as a capital offense. A 1977 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States (Coker v Georgia) ruled this practice unconstitutional and prohibited death penalty sentences for rape. State statutes now typically provide for a substantial number of years of imprisonment, including life imprisonment, for persons convicted of rape. Some states have passed laws that make the rape of a child a capital crime punishable by death.

Although national military codes and international agreements such as the Geneva Conventions (1949) prohibit rape by soldiers during times of war or civil conflict, international tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo after the second World War did not classify wartime rape as a war crime. Rape in wartime has both immediate and long-term consequences on the mental health of women victims.8Nearly 200 000 women are believed to have been raped during the battle for Bangladeshi independence in 1971, and women were systematically raped in Bosnia in the 1990s. In 1996 at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Bosnian Serbs were tried for mass rape and sexual enslavement in time of war. For the first time, rape was regarded as a crime against humanity, second in severity only to genocide. With this ruling, perpetrators can and must be held to account.

Rape law continues to evolve. The US Supreme Court is currently considering the constitutionality of a state law requiring the death penalty for child rape. Considerable attention has been paid to a woman’s false accusation of rape by 3 members of the Duke lacrosse team. Rape is most commonly carried out by serial offenders; reporting it is critical to its prosecution. Still, the rights of the victim and the personal impact of rape require the greatest attention. Rape is a crime committed against individuals, primarily women, who deserve compassion and respect in the uniqueness of their suffering.

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