Lucretia and the archetype of Etruscan promiscuity

Scholarship has tended to downplay the promiscuity of Etruscan women as described by Greek sources. But with evolving modern sexual sensibilities, perhaps a different approach is required.

Joshua R. Hall

The myth known as the Rape of Lucretia, one of the foundational stories of the Roman Republic, is one of the most famous episodes from early Rome. As with the tale of Coriolanus, William Shakespeare was even moved to retell the story of Lucretia in 1594 as a poem (T.P. Wiseman, The Myths of Rome (Exeter, 2004), p. 136, for further references from Chaucer onward). From Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (4-7):

And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire,
And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine’s fair love, Lucrece the chaste.

The legend itself tells the story of how the Roman Republic came to be born and why the last king, Tarquinius Superbus, and his kin were forced out. As reported by Livy (1.58.1-5; transl. from Perseus):

Sextus Tarquinius, without letting Collatinus know, took a single attendant and went to Collatia. Being kindly welcomed, for no one suspected his purpose, he was brought after dinner to a guest-chamber. Burning with passion, he waited till it seemed to him that all about him was secure and everybody fast asleep; then, drawing his sword, he came to the sleeping Lucretia. Holding the woman down with his left hand on her breast, he said, “Be still, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquinius. My sword is in my hand. Utter a sound, and you die!” In affright the woman started out of her sleep. No help was in sight, but only imminent death. Then Tarquinius began to declare his love, to plead, to mingle threats with prayers, to bring every resource to bear upon her woman’s heart. When he found her obdurate and not to be moved even by fear of death, he went farther and threatened her with disgrace, saying that when she was dead he would kill his slave and lay him naked by her side, that she might be said to have been put to death in adultery with a man of base condition. At this dreadful prospect her resolute modesty was overcome, as if with force, by his victorious lust; and Tarquinius departed, exulting in his conquest of a woman’s honour.

Lucretia, humiliated at herself for giving into Sextus, summoned her family and revealed what had happened. After doing this, she killed herself as a means of preserving some sort of dignity. Or, at least, that is how the Roman sources present it. Her kin used this as an excuse to rebel against the Tarquins and eventually expelled them from the city.

As with all of the details of early Rome, the historicity of this episode is dubious. Although it is possible that the rape of an elite woman led to the downfall of Roman kingship, the true foundations of sedition were likely more complex. Nevertheless, the story of Lucretia had probably entered into the Roman canon of foundation stories by the third century BC when the Romans started writing down their “history” (Dion. Hal., Ant. Rom. 4.64.3; cf. G. Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome (2005), p. 77).

Roman chastity and Etruscan promiscuity

Throughout the narrative we find in the ancient authors, and the reception of the story in later writers, one aspect of Lucretia is emphasised: her chastity. This is contrasted with the wives of the Tarquinii, often presumed to be Etruscan women, who could be found partying and banqueting late into the night with their young friends, while the chaste Roman Lucretia was at home spinning wool.

There are two important elements to this story in understanding Roman perceptions. The first is their moral superiority over other peoples; in this case, over the Etruscans as personified by Sextus Tarquinius. The second is the importance that they put in female chastity. In many ways, the actual rape of Lucretia is less important in the narrative than was her response to it. Her suicide was her way of maintaining her chastity, at least in the eyes of her male kinsmen or elite male historians writing (or creating) her story sometime after the sixth century.

Thus, to Roman authors (and probably Romans more widely) Lucretia’s tragedy was not being raped, but being a chaste Roman woman whose chastity had been compromised. And while it is improper to compare sexual assault to consensual sexual activity in modern discourse, this story played right into the common perception amongst the Greeks and Romans that the Etruscans were a promiscuous people.

A fragment of Theopompus, preserved in Athenaeus, refers to this (12.14):

It is a law among the Tyrrhenians that all their women should be in common: and that the women pay the greatest attention to their persons, and often practise gymnastic exercises, naked, among the men, and sometimes with one another; for that it is not accounted shameful for them to be seen naked. And that they sup not with their own husbands, but with any one who happens to be present; and they pledge whoever they please in their cups: and that they are wonderful women to drink, and very and some. And that the Tyrrhenians bring up all the children that are born, no one knowing to what father each child belongs.

Etruscan women, though, are not singled out as being sexually non-exclusive, and earlier in the passage Athenaeus notes a fragment of Timaeus who wrote that in Etruria “the female servants wait on the men in a state of nudity.” It would be naive not to presume the meaning of this to be that they were also sexually exploited. These characteristics are all portrayed in a negative light by the Greek authors.

Some of the points, however, are demonstrably false. Firstly, countless inscriptions uncovered throughout Etruria show both patrilineal and matrilineal decent were recorded, with the former almost always to be found with the latter being less common, though still present. This indicates that there was at least some importance placed on lineage. While this suggests that Etruscans knew who their parents were, it is possible that not all of these were biological relationships.

Secondly, by saying Etruscan women dined with men who were not their husbands implies that their bonds of marriage were looser than those of the authors criticising them, which is again probably a falsehood. While there are many types of evidence to suggest that this was untrue, the most spectacular are the sarcophagi that show men and women reclining together on a banqueting couch.

View of the lid of the Sarcophagus of the Spouses. Dated to the sixth century BC. Currently in the National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome. Photo: Gerard M (source).

These seem to be images of happy couples. They are generally referred to as the Sarcophagus of the Spouses. (There are two examples, probably made in the same workshop, both found near the Etruscan city of Caere. One is displayed in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia and the other is in the Louvre. A good overview of the sarcophagi can be found in a piece written by Jeffrey A. Becker for Khan Academy.) Although generally assumed to be husband and wife, there is no definitive proof of this in the way of an inscription or otherwise. There is also nowhere in our archaeological evidence any indication of the “Tuscan fashion” of earning a dowry, that is through prostitution (Plaut. Cist. 562-563).

The question could be rightly asked, however, in the absence of literary evidence what kind of evidence could we hope to find to support or refute this claim? Interestingly, the considerable body of archaeological evidence from the archaic period shows a conspicuous absence of female nudity. This has led Sybille Haynes to conclude that “the archaeological evidence thus massively contradicts the notorious defamatory passages of the fourth-century-B.C. Greek historians” (S. Haynes, Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History (2000), p. 256).

Often, the views of the Greeks are dismissed as misconstrued based on their observation of “husbands and wives so unexpectedly together” (L. Bonfante, “Daily lfe and afterlife,” in: L. Bonfante (ed.), Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies (1986), pp. 232-78, at p. 235). This is because of “the ethnocentrism of those Greeks” that “led them to the prejudicial conclusion that the Etruscans were lacking in appropriate social behaviours” (M.J. Becker and J.M. Turfa, The Etruscans and the History of Dentistry: The Golden Smile through the Ages (2017), p. 120). But have modern authors committed a similar mistake in our complete rejection of Theopompus and his compatriots?

Closing thoughts

We quickly point out that there were differences between women in Etruscan society and those in Greek and Roman society, such as being given actual first names (unlike Roman women) and not being confined to the house (unlike Greek women). (There are now many discussions of Etruscan women and the differences with Greece and Rome, but the discussion of J. Heurgon, Daily Life of the Etruscans (1964), pp. 74-96, is still very good and relevant. Shorter coverage can be found in J. E. Salisbury (ed.), Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World (2001), pp. 106-108, and B. MacLachlan, Women in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook (2013), pp. 25-27. The latter of these contains a translation of the full passage from Athenaeus.) But how often do modern scholars take into account the possible differences between our society and perceptions of gender and sexual norms when discussing those of Etruria?

It is taken for granted that the Etruscans shared in the Greek, Roman, and generally European conceptions of gender roles, particularly that female chastity was a virtue. What if this was not the case? While it is easy for us to point to archaeological evidence which may show happily married couples or the rarity of female nudity in iconography and sculpture, none of this is definitive. At best, the latter is evidence for public modesty (in a modern sense).

Changing trends in modern western sexuality should make us question whether or not we can resolutely reject the idea that Etruscans were promiscuous. The rise of polyamory, open relationships, and general acceptance of promiscuity are particularly telling. To this list we can add the growing acceptance of children being raised by non-biological parents, and in “non-traditional” settings (e.g. by same-sex couples).

Trying to “tell the future” is beyond the remit of the ancient historian or archaeologist, but it would be interesting to know how future scholars will treat these notices about Etruscan sexuality. Of course, there were Etruscan sexual behaviours that modern society would abhor, such as the sexual exploitation of servants as noted above; it must be noted, though, that this was not irregular in the ancient world and was common amongst both the Greeks and the Romans.

But, in a United States or a United Kingdom in which polyamorous relationships are the norm and strict monogamy is irregular, would we still be discussing Hellenic misunderstandings of Etruscan behaviour, or would the discussion shift solely to the misguided moralising of those authors and find that what they truly misunderstood was Etruscan sexual morality rather than Etruscan sexual behaviour?