Origin story of the Republic | A history of Latin part 4

‘The Suicide of Lucretia’ by Jörg Breu the Elder, 1528; a Renaissance painting showing two scenes in ancient Rome. On the left Lucretia tells a group of Roman men, including her husband and her father, that she has been raped by King Tarquin. On the right: Lucretia lies dead on a carpet as a group of men look on.

The English word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin res publica, which literally means ‘the public’ (with ‘public’ an adjective, not a noun). From Wikipedia:

Res publica usually is something held in common by many people. For instance a park or garden in the city of Rome could either be ‘private property’ (res privata), or managed by the state, in which case it would be part of the res publica.

Wikipedia article ‘Res publica’, accessed 19 May 2016.

At some point, it’s not clear when, res publica came to mean ‘the state’ or ‘the commonwealth’. In ancient times it always meant ‘the state of Rome’ or ‘the commonwealth of Rome’ – you didn’t have to specify the ‘of Rome’ part; it was understood that Rome was the only republic / state / commonwealth worth talking about.

According its origin story, the Roman Republic was formed around 500 BC. At that time Rome was an unimportant Latin town on the bank of the river Tiber. Latin was a local language, spoken only by a few tribes in central Italy. And Latin was a spoken language, not a written one. Perhaps once in a while someone would try out using the Greco-Phoenician alphabet to carve short Latin messages onto pottery or stone, but it would be centuries before there would be longer works of Latin prose, written in ink onto scrolls of parchment.

The earliest written origin stories of the Republic came about 300 years later, but the most famous one, and the one that is still somewhat well-known today, was written by Livy sometime around 0 AD, roughly 500 years after the events it describes.

The story goes like this: Evil King Tarquin of Rome rapes an aristocratic Roman, Lucretia, probably assuming she’ll keep the attack secret out of shame. However Lucretia sends for her husband and her father, instructing them each to bring a trusted friend. When the men arrive Lucretia tells them what happened, charges them to kill Evil King Tarquin, and then commits suicide. The men are so moved by this that they not only kill the king, but abolish the monarchy altogether and replace it with a new form of government, in which power is shared among a group of people so that no one person gets too much of it.

It’s more exciting the way Livy tells it:

They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears, and to her husband’s inquiry whether all was well, replied, “No! what can be well with a woman when her honour is lost? The marks of a stranger, Collatinus, are in your bed. But it is only the body that has been violated, the soul is pure; death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. It is Sextus Tarquin, who, coming as an enemy instead of a guest, forced from me last night by brutal violence a pleasure fatal to me, and, if you are men, fatal to him.” They all successively pledged their word, and tried to console the distracted woman by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator, and urging that it is the mind that sins, not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt. “It is for you,” she said, “to see that he gets his deserts; although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia’s example.” She had a knife concealed in her dress which she plunged into her heart, and fell dying on the floor. Her father and husband raised the death-cry.

Whilst they were absorbed in grief, Brutus drew the knife from Lucretia’s wound, and holding it, dripping with blood, in front of him, said, “By this blood – most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son – I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.” Then he handed the knife to Collatinus and then to Lucretius and Valerius, who were all astounded at the marvel of the thing, wondering whence Brutus had acquired this new character. They swore as they were directed; all their grief changed to wrath, and they followed the lead of Brutus, who summoned them to abolish the monarchy forthwith.

‘From the Founding of the City’ by Livy.

This is an origin story that exemplifies the qualities that Romans living in Livy’s time considered to be the essence of Roman-ness: upright morality, stiff resolve and courage in battle, and passionate defence of freedom in the face of tyranny.

Oddly enough this story, which emphasizes Romans’ freedom-loving, tyranny-hating qualities, was written shortly after the Roman Republic officially dissolved and became the Roman Empire.

What’s perhaps even stranger is how the ancient Roman Republic has gotten folded in to the myths about the origins of the modern-day West. In a way, our ideas about the Roman Republic make up one of the origin stories of our own political ideals and institutions.

Further notes

In English ‘Lucretia’ is pronounced loo KREESH uh. In Latin (and Italian) it’s spelled ‘Lucrezia’ and pronounced something like loo CRATE zee uh.

Lucretia could be considered an early example of the Women in Refrigerators trope in fiction.

History books and Wikipedia articles sometimes treat Livy’s story of Lucretia, Tarquin and Brutus as if it were a legitimate work of history. Which is bonkers. It’s like treating Beowulf or Le Chanson de Roland or the Christian New Testament as history textbooks.

References and sources

‘From the Founding of the City’ Livy’s history of Rome, written sometime around 0 AD, this translation is from 1905.

‘The Oxford History of the Classical World’, John Boardmann, Jasper Griffin, Oswyn Murray, 1991; chapter 26 ‘Roman Historians’.

Wikipedia article ‘Res publica’.