Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Story of Lucretia

We have next to tell how Tarquin the Proud lost his throne, through his own tyranny and the criminal action of his son. Once upon a time, when this king was at the height of his power, he, as was usual, offered sacrifices to the gods on the altar in the palace court-yard. But from the altar there crawled out a snake, which devoured the offerings before the flames could reach them.

This was an alarming omen. The augurs were consulted, but none of them could explain it. So Tarquin sent two of his sons to the Temple of Delphi, in Greece, whose oracle was famous in all lands, to ask counsel of Apollo concerning this prodigy. With these two princes, Titus and Aruns by name, went their cousin, Lucius Junius, a youth who seemed so lacking in wit that men called him Brutus,—that is, the "Dullard." One evidence of his lack of wit was that he would eat wild figs with honey. Just in what way this was an evidence of want of good sense we do not know, though doubtless the Romans did.

But Brutus was by no means the fool that men fancied him. He was shrewd instead of stupid. His father had left him abundant wealth, to which his uncle, King Tarquin, might at any time take a fancy, and sweep him away to enjoy it. The king had killed his brother for his wealth, and would be likely to serve him in the same way if he deemed him wise enough to fight for his inheritance. So, preferring life to money, Brutus feigned to be wanting in sense.

When he went to Delphi he took with him a hollow staff of horn, which he had filled with gold, and offered this staff to the oracle as a likeness of himself,—perhaps as one empty of wit and whose whole merit lay in his gold. When the three young men had performed the bidding of the king, and asked the oracle the meaning of the prodigy, they were told that it portended the fall of Tarquin. Then they said, "O Lord Apollo, tell us which of us shall be king of Rome." From the depth of the sanctuary there came a voice in reply, "The one among you who shall first kiss his mother."

This was one of those enigmas in which the Delphian oracle usually spoke, saying things with a double meaning, and which men were apt to take amiss. It was so now. The two princes drew lots which of them should first kiss their mother on his return; and they agreed to keep the oracle secret from their brother Sextus, lest he should be king rather than they. But Brutus was wiser than them both. As they left the temple together, he pretended to stumble and fell with his face to the ground. He then kissed the earth, saying, "The earth is the true mother of us all."

On their return to Rome the princes found that their father was at war. He was besieging the city of Ardea, which lay south of Rome; and as this city was strong and well defended the king and his army were kept a long while before it, waiting until famine, their ally, should force the inhabitants to surrender. While the army was thus waiting in idleness its officers had leisure for feasts and diversions, and one of the king's sons found time to indulge in fatal mischief. This arose from a supper in the tent of Prince Sextus, at which his brothers Titus and Aruns, and his cousin Tarquin of Collatia, were present.

While they feasted a dispute arose between them, as to which had the worthiest wife. It ended in a proposition of Tarquin, "Let us go and see with our own eyes what our wives are doing, and we can then best decide which is the worthiest." This proposition hit with their humor, and, mounting their horses, they rode to Rome. Here they found the wives of the three princes merrily engaged at a banquet. They then rode on to Collatia. It was now late at night, but they found Lucretia, the wife of their cousin, neither sleeping nor feasting, but working at the loom, with her handmaids busily engaged around her.

On seeing this, they all cried, "Lucretia is the worthiest lady." She ceased her work to entertain them, after which they took to their horses again, and rode back to the camp before Ardea.

But Sextus was seized with a vile passion for his cousin's wife, and a few days afterwards went alone to Collatia, where Lucretia received him with much hospitality, as her husband's kinsman. He treated her shamefully in return, forcing her, with wicked threats, to accept him as her lover and husband, in defiance of the laws of God and man.

As soon as Sextus had left her and returned to the camp, Lucretia sent to Rome for her father and to Ardea for her husband. Tarquin brought with him his cousin Lucius Junius, or Brutus the Dullard. When they arrived the lady, with bitter tears, told them of the wickedness of Sextus, and said, "If you are men, avenge it!" They heard her tale in horror, and swore to deeply revenge her wrong.

"I am not guilty," she now said; "yet I too must share in the punishment of this deed, lest any should think that they may be false to their husbands and live." As she spoke she drew a knife from her bosom and stabbed herself to the heart.

As they saw her fall, a cry of horror arose from her husband and father. But Brutus, who saw that the time had come for him to throw off his pretence of stupidity and act the man, drew the knife from the bleeding wound and held it up, saying, in solemn accents, "By this blood, I swear that I will visit this deed upon King Tarquin and all his accursed race! And no man hereafter shall reign as king in Rome, lest he may do the like wickedness."

He then handed the knife to the others, and bade them to take the same oath. This they did, wondering at the sudden transformation in Brutus. They then took up the body of the slain woman and carried it into the forum of the town, crying to the gathering people, "Behold the deeds of the wicked family of Tarquin, the tyrant of Rome!"

The people, maddened by the sight, hastily sought their arms, and while some guarded the gates, that none might carry the news to the king, the others followed Brutus to Rome. Here the story of the wickedness of Sextus and the self-sacrifice of Lucretia ran through the city like wildfire, and a multitude gathered in the Forum, where Brutus addressed them in fervent words. He recalled to them all the tyranny of Tarquin and the vices of his sons, reminding them of the murder of Servius, the impious act of Tullia, and ending with an earnest recital of the wrongs of the virtuous Lucretia, whose bleeding corpse still lay in evidence in the forum of Collatia.

His words went to the souls of his hearers. An assembly of the people being quickly called, it was voted that the Tarquins should be banished, and the office of king should be forever abolished in Rome. Tullia, learning of the cause of the tumult, hastily left the palace, and fled from Rome in her chariot through throngs that followed her with threats and curses. Brutus, perhaps with the crimsoned knife still in his hand, bade the young men to follow him, and set off in haste to Ardea, to spread through the army the story of the deed of crime and blood.

Meanwhile, Tarquin had been told of the revolt, and was hurrying to Rome to put it down. Brutus turned aside from the road that he might not meet him, and hastened on to the camp, where the story of the revolt and its cause was told the soldiers. On hearing the story the whole army broke into a tumult of indignation, drove the king's sons from the camp, and demanded to be led to Rome. The siege of Ardea was at once abandoned and the backward march began.

Meanwhile, Tarquin had reached the city, but only to find the gates closed against him and stern men on the walls. "You cannot enter here," they cried. "You are banished from Rome, you and all of yours, and shall never set foot within its walls again. And you are the last of our kings. No man after you shall ever call himself king of Rome."

Just in what threats, promises, and persuasions Tarquin indulged we do not know. But the men on the walls were not to be moved by threats or promises, and he was obliged to take himself away, a crownless wanderer. As for Sextus, to whom all the trouble was due, some say that he was killed in a town whose people he had betrayed, while others say that he was slain in battle while his father was fighting to regain his throne.

But this is certain, no king ever reigned in Rome again. The people, talking among each other, said, "Let us follow the wise laws of good King Servius. He bade us to meet in our centuries (or hundreds) and to choose two men year by year to govern us, instead of a king. This let us do, as Servius would have done himself had he not been basely murdered."

So the centuries of the people met in the Campus Martius (Field of Mars), and there chose two men,—Brutus, the leader in the revolution, and Lucius Tarquin, the husband of the fated Lucretia. These officials were afterwards called Consuls, and were given ruling power in Rome. But they had to lay down their office at the end of the year and be succeeded by two others elected in their stead. The people, however, were afraid of the very name of Tarquin, and in electing Lucius to the consulate it seemed as if they had put a new Tarquin on the throne. So they prayed him to leave the city; and, taking all his goods, he went away and settled at Lavinium, a new consul being elected in his place. A law was now passed that all the house of the Tarquins should be banished, whether they were of the king's family or not.

Junius Brutus


Thus ended the kingly period in Rome, after six kings had followed Romulus. With the consuls many of the laws of King Servius, which Tarquin had set aside, were restored, and a much greater degree of freedom came to the people of Rome. But that there might not now seem to be two kings instead of one, it was decreed that only one of the consuls should rule at a time, each of them acting as ruler for a month, and then giving over the power to his associate.