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Brutus and Lucretia: Defining 'Pietas' in Ancient Rome

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In Ancient Rome, many heroes represented the Roman virtue pietas. Two such heroes were Lucretia and her avenger, Lucius Junius Brutus. Pietas is defined as a responsibility and duty, even, to one’s family, city, gods, and all of humankind. Lucretia and Brutus represent all of the qualities necessary to be defined as true, Roman heroes.

The story of Lucretia began in 508 BC, with the morals of the story surviving for millennia to follow. In this eventful year, Roman King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, held a party at which both Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, a man from Collatia and spouse to Lucretia, and Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the king, attended. During this party, the two men and some others at the party began discussing the fidelity of each of their wives. Eventually, the discussion turned into a mission to determine who did, indeed, have the most faithful wife, so to the town they went to check at their houses. After checking many houses and finding all of their wives throwing small parties of their own, they came to Collatinus and Lucretia’s house, at which Lucretia sat alone at the loom with only her maids for company. They all decided that she was by far the most faithful and Sextus, having been part of the mission, fell in love with her because of her admirable qualities. This first instance of Lucretia’s fidelity is one example of her pietas, and the other example is shown several days later when Sextus arrives at her house in the middle of the night and rapes her. The only reason she allowed him to do so was because otherwise he threatened to kill her and a male slave and frame them both of committing adultery. Lucretia was left with two terrible options and decided on the one which would bring her family less shame. The following day, after having written to both her husband and father and telling them both to bring a friend, she explained her situation to them. Then, before the even knew what was happening, she stabbed herself and died. She could not bear the burden of shame brought upon herself, her family, her gods, her city, and all of humankind after having been raped, so death was the only honorable option. She could not bear herself because it was unfaithful to her own body and its moral sanctity. She could not bear her family because of the bad reputation that comes along with infidelity. She could not bear her gods because even though they rape women all the time, a mortal woman should not be raped by another mortal being, and she could bear neither her city nor humankind because of her shame she felt at this terrible deed. If she continued to live, her reputation would be an abominable one of an unfaithful woman, thus earning her city a bad reputation for having an unfaithful citizen. She demonstrated pietas in her willing choice of death over shame and immorality.

One of the men at Lucretia’s death was Lucius Junius Brutus, who, at Lucretia’s honorable and brave actions, swore to rid the city of monarchy after thinking over Sextus’ and the rest of the Tarquins’ corrupt way of living. Then he and Collatinus set up a republic in 508 BC. Brutus’ background story was that he had always pretended to be dumb, possibly so he would pose no threat to power. One day, after receiving an oracle saying that whoever kissed his mother first would be the next in power, Brutus showed his true cleverness, for he then pretended to stumble and then kissed Mother Earth. Then Brutus did, in fact, become the next in power, but in a republic, not a monarchy. Together, Collatinus and Brutus supposedly set up the Roman republic as we know it today, making themselves the consuls. Brutus showed pietas here when he helped the city by ridding it of kings. He also showed pietas towards humankind for setting up a fairer government that they could now live under. Brutus showed pietas yet again when his sons plotted to overthrow the republic and reinstate the monarchy for personal benefits, but Brutus, being the just man that he was, sent his sons to trial and then execution for plotting such treachery. This shows pietas towards his family for choosing honor over favoritism. It shows it towards his city for securing its new form of fair government, and it shows it to humankind for choosing justice.

Together, Brutus and Lucretia make a perfect pair of heroes in Ancient Rome, demonstrating pietas in its purest form. From honor and justice to reputation and morals, Brutus and Lucretia show upmost integrity. They are the best examples history has to offer of what a true Roman hero ought to be.



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