Giulio Romano, Tarquin and Lucretia, 1536, fresco panel in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua
In her fascinating book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, historian Mary Beard traces how a culture so staunchly opposed to the idea of kings could have ended up an imperial state. In its early years, Rome was ruled by a series of kings, something written about by early Roman historians but only accepted by modern historians after the discovery of an inscription, containing the word "RECEI," under some black stone in the Roman Forum in 1899. Livy, in his history Ab urbe condita, wrote of a series of six monarchs after the legendary founding of the city under Romulus and Remus. The last of them, Tarquinius Superbus, was a "paranoid autocrat," as Beard writes, "who ruthlessly eliminated his rivals, and a cruel exploiter of the Roman people, forcing them to labor on his fanatical building projects. But the awful breaking point came, as such breaking points did more than once in Roman history, with a rape -- this time the rape of the virtuous Lucretia by one of [the] king's sons (p. 93)." Beard later goes on:
This rape is almost certainly as mythic as the rape of the Sabines: assaults on women symbolically marking the beginning and the end of the regal period. [...] But mythic or not, for the rest of the Roman time the rape of Lucretia marked a turning point in politics, and its morality was debated. The theme has been replayed and reimagined in Western culture almost ever since, from Botticelli, through Titian and Shakespeare, to Benjamin Britten; Lucretia even has her own small part in Judy Chicago's feminist installation The Dinner Party, among some 1,000 heroines of world history. [...]
This was seen as a fundamentally political moment, for in the [Livy] story it leads directly to the expulsion of the kings and the start of the free Republic. As soon as Lucretia stabbed herself, Lucius Junius Brutus -- who had accompanied her husband to the scene --took the dagger from her body and, while her family was too distressed to speak, vowed to rid Rome of kings for ever. This was, of course, partly a retrospective prophecy, for the Brutus who in 44 BCE led the coup against Julius Caesar for his kingly ambitions claimed descent from this Brutus. After ensuring the support of the army and the people, who were appalled by the rape and fed up with laboring on the drain [the Cloaca Maxima], Lucius Junius Brutus forced Tarquin and his sons into exile (pp. 121-23).
Britten, The Rape of Lucretia, I. Bostridge, S. Gritton, A. Kirchschlager, Aldeburgh Festival, O. Knussen
(released on February 5, 2013)
Virgin 50999 60267221 | 105'33"
The only weird part of the opera is the Christian-tinged frame narrative, told by a Male and Female Chorus in an introduction and epilogue. Livy was not the primary source of librettist Ronad Duncan, who based his text on a modern French play, André Obey's Le Viol de Lucrèce (adapted separately in English by Thornton Wilder), itself based on Shakespeare's adaptation, The Rape of Lucrece. In the opera the virtuous wife Lucretia's suffering and suicide, following her rape at the hands of Sextus Tarquinius, is related through the prism of the redemption offered by Jesus Christ.