Saving Lucretia 4: Livy, Ovid and Rembrandt

According to Roman tradition, Lucretia died shortly before the deposition of the Roman kings in 509 BC.  We can presume she was part of both oral and written tradition before Livy recorded her story in Book 1 of his History sometime before 25 BC.  Ovid’s version in the Fasti II is from 8 AD.   It is clearly an embellished version of the Livy story.  In fact, Ovid, a knowingly inter-textual author, very likely expects his version to be read alongside the Livy version and supplemented by knowledge of it.  He can afford, for example, to let Brutus suddenly materialise to swear the oath of vengeance, although in his version, Lucretia summons only her father and husband – we know Brutus had come too, because he is in Livy.

Livy is mainly concerned with Lucretia as a female hero of Rome.  We see very little of her except her extraordinary virtue – first expressed in diligence about her domestic duties, and then by the strength of mind and moral clarity with which she sets about accomplishing her (for him) purposeful and honourable death.  Livy’s Lucretia marries perfect womanly virtue with the highest degree of the virtues which men and women share – courage, love of honour, duty – and in which most women are deficient.  Like Cloelia, in the same book, she attains masculine levels of virtue without compromising her femininity – she exercises virtues appropriate to a woman beyond the level attainable by most women.  Her use of the dagger is significant – she attains honour suicide, like a man and with a man’s weapon.  The typical female weapon of despair is the noose, or poison.   Lucretia also speaks out like a man, tells the men their duty and exacts an oath. She earns this right by her exemplary behaviour.  She becomes their conscience.

Ovid is the originator of the line of pathetic, erotic victim Lucretias , although he can’t be fully blamed for their cavorting excesses.  To illustrate this post, I have chosen Rembrandt’s studies of Lucretia.   Ovid and Rembrandt are both more interested in establishing Lucretia as a suffering woman.  Both erode the toughness of Livy’s Lucretia to create a warmer and more ‘feminine’ character.  Both are more interested in her victimhood than her agency.  But they both allow her dignity as well as pathos, and the capacity for choice.

Lucretia 1664, attributed to Rembrandt, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Leaving aside the question of attribution, the 1664 Lucretia is fully dressed – and dressed with care.  Where some of the more melodramatic portraits break her pearls here they are glowing and  intact – her virtue is unsullied.   This Lucretia is sorrowful, but determined.  She looks perfectly capable of using her dagger and wards off opposition with the gesture of her free hand.  She has left her bodice loosely undone at the top and the dagger will pass through her shift.

Simon Schama has a Guardian article on the painting and this second Rembrandt, of 1666, below.

Lucretia, 1666, Rembrandt, Minneapolis

This Lucretia has a similar dagger and dress, but the dress is only loosely thrown on, exposing a modest shift, stained with blood.  She has done the deed, and life fades from her face. In an odd detail, she supports herself by a curtain cord, or summons a servant with a bell-pull.

Both the 1664 and 1666 painting are studies of a woman in crisis which eliminate the overtly erotic.  The Lucretias are beautiful, but we are drawn to their troubled faces, not to their luscious bodies.  These are suffering souls freeing themselves by death from their earthly troubles.  Rembrandt has found something universal in Lucretia’s pain, but also has brought back some of the violent contrast between domesticity and horror which typifies the Roman account – it is Lucretia’s secure and perfect home which becomes the place of her torment.  In these paintings, Lucretia has to die amid the gewgaws of her normal life, respectably clothed, properly coiffured, even holding a curtain cord.  Her suffering is of the mind.  Nothing except her thoughts prevents her from carrying on as usual.  Sextus has outraged the ordinary.

In dressing Lucretia modestly, Rembrandt follows the Roman sources in spirit.  In reality, Lucretia should be in mourning.  Livy calls her ‘sorrowful’ (maesta) twice.  And she summons the men in an emergency, because a terrible thing (rem atrocem) has happened.  Grief over a significant loss is not a private psychological state at Rome – it is manifested by mourning garments.  Death, obviously, requires deep mourning, but other family catastrophes cause the wearing of mourning: attending the trial of a family member, for example.  Summoned urgently home to hear terrible news, Lucretia’s husband and father should expect to find her dressed as a woman who is ‘maesta’ does dress – she should let her hair down, and dirty her clothing with ash.  This is consistent with the way Livy’s Lucretia behaves – remaining in her room out of public gaze, and crying.

Ovid is completely in agreement with Livy.  Lucretia sits, with hair unbound, ‘like a mother setting out for her son’s funeral.  She summons her aged father and husband, who notice both her grief and her ‘habitum‘ – her mourning dress.   So I think we can absolve Ovid from responsibility for the flaunting nude Lucretias of lurid imagining.  Even when she falls, she does so modestly, borrowing a trope from Polyxena’s death in the Trojan Women.

Ovid does nonetheless move the balance towards Lucretia as victim.  Ovid’s Lucretia speaks a great deal in comparison with Livy’s, but says less.  When her husband and friends visit unexpectedly, they overhear a tearful speech about her devotion to her husband and her fears for him.  She is faint and fearful, helpless to protect her husband except by sending warm clothing.  She seems to have stayed up late to finish this task, rather than being habitually industrious like Livy’s Lucretia.  When her husband reveals himself, she rushes into his arms and hangs ‘a sweet burden’ from his neck.  This is definitely not the standard behaviour of a Republican matrona, but stresses Lucretia’s small physique and childlike naivety Later, she is described as a ‘nupta’ or bride.

Ovid expends a great deal of skill on the domestic idyll and Lucretia’s emotional attachment to her husband – sentimentalising Livy’s bare account.  He allows Tarquin to rehearse Lucretia’s physical beauty, but carefully places the lust in Tarquin’s mind, not in the reader’s.  In Ovid, the rape scene is expressed through empathy with Lucretia.  She is  fearful and helpless, speechless and confused.  She trembles like a lamb.  We catch snatches of her thoughts as the rape progresses – she is too weak to fight, she feels him violate her breast with his hand.   This picks up a detail in the Livy – this is how Tarquin wakes Lucretia, warning her at the same time to be silent.  But although initially frightened (pavida), Livy’s Lucretia is strong, not swayed ‘even by fear of death.’   Tarquin wants cooperation – she refuses it at sword-point, until he reveals his complicated plan to stage her death as an adulteress.  At this point, terrified (territa) not by physical violence, but by shame, she gives way – his ‘lust had conquered her inflexible chastity’.  Ovid outlines the same events, except that his Lucretia seems incapable of putting up much resistance, and so his programme makes less psychological sense.  Ovid’s Lucretia is awake before Tarquin touches her – it is her mental collapse which prevents her crying out.  Livy’s Tarquin comes up with his plan of entrapment when frustrated by Lucretia’s indifference to death.  In Ovid, the plan is just part of Tarquin’s nastiness and Lucretia’s resistance is sketched in the vaguest terms.

Neither Roman author is interested in the steamy details of the physical act of rape.  Livy is presenting Lucretia as a hero of chastity, Ovid as a pathetic innocent – they have no interest in the steamy carnality which typifies many of the paintings we have seen.  Ovid is a famously erotic poet, so his choice here is deliberate.

After the rape, Livy’s Lucretia is ‘maesta’  but orderly to the point of coldness.  She assumes mourning, she sends for the appropriate men and their witnesses.  As soon as they arrive, she makes a short speech, of almost lawyerly type.  She asserts that Tarquin is guilty and that she is not, and demands vengeance in a combative manner.  She is in command, and has a plan.  The men’s words are not heard.  They get a line in which they generically offer consolation and exoneration which Lucretia doesn’t require.  She interrupts them with a second statement, extraordinarily affirming that she absolves herself (effectively making their views redundant), but has resolved to die in any case.  She then kills herself as she has planned.  At the end, in a reversal of normal roles, it is the men who raise the cry of mourning.

Livy’s Lucretia also states the reason why she chooses freely to die, despite being innocent of fault.  I want to look at this separately in yet another post.  In the context it is also clear that she knows her death will force the men to avenge her – Livy has made it clear that the Romans have already been too cowed by the Tarquins.  Everything about her death is planned and purposeful.  Her grief is incidental.  She dies in honourable sacrifice for Rome, just as a man might die on the battlefield.  Her reward is the expulsion of the kings, the founding of the Republic and glory for herself and her family – a glory renewed by Livy’s retelling of her story.

Ovid’s Lucretia is quite different.  She is not so calculated and bold as to summon witnesses, and until Brutus is mentioned, we imagine her in privacy with her father and husband.  She is inarticulate.  She weeps and is comforted before she attempts to speak at all.  It takes her four attempts to utter a sentence, and then she speaks elliptically, too ashamed to tell the truth immediately.  We are told she told ‘what she could’ – it seems the men put together the story from her broken words.  She weeps and blushes.  Her menfolk offer her pardon (veniam) on the grounds she was coerced.  This seems odd to modern minds, but the Romans are act-based thinkers – Lucretia has committed adultery, but it wasn’t her fault, so she gets ‘venia’.   This is quite enlightened for the ancient world; in ancient Athens a raped wife had to be divorced.  Lucretia’s Roman menfolk are exemplary in their support – but suddenly she speaks a few words and stabs herself with the hidden dagger – ‘the pardon which you offer, I myself refuse’ (ipsa nego).

Ovid’s Lucretia doesn’t explain.  Suddenly she is dead, and the reader is as shocked as her family.  Why does she refuse the pardon?  We can fill in the motivation given in Livy, which Ovid intends us to know, but Ovid has made his Lucretia very unlike Livy’s reasoned and determined hero.   Ovid was deeply interested in female psychology.  It is true that his Lucretia celebrates a male stereotype of the pure woman, gentle, helpless, chaste, so fragile that she is mentally destroyed by the violation of her body.  But he also creates a psychological story which sees a rape from a female point of view, and does not cast the reader in the role of perpetrator.  Her death induces wonder.  How could someone so broken have planned this?  Does she act from fixed decision, or is she wavering until the last moment?  Where does she find this unexpected defiance?  How does someone so gentle achieve such violence?   Could she have lived?  I find these questions echoed in the Rembrandt portraits.

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