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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 19

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 19.—Of Lucretia, Who Put an End to Her Life Because of the Outrage Done Her.

This, then, is our position, and it seems sufficiently lucid.  We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her.  But do they against whom we have to defend not only the souls, but the sacred bodies too of these outraged Christian captives,—do they, perhaps, dare to dispute our position?  But all know how loudly they extol the purity of Lucretia, that noble matron of ancient Rome.  When King Tarquin’s son had violated her body, she made known the wickedness of this young profligate to her husband Collatinus, and to Brutus her kinsman, men of high rank and full of courage, and bound them by an oath to avenge it.  Then, heart-sick, and unable to bear the shame, she put an end to her life.  What shall we call her?  An adulteress, or chaste?  There is no question which she was.  Not more happily than truly did a declaimer say of this sad occurrence:  “Here was a marvel:  there were two, and only one committed adultery.”  Most forcibly and truly spoken.  For this declaimer, seeing in the union of the two bodies the foul lust of the one, and the chaste will of the other, and giving heed not to the contact of the bodily members, but to the wide diversity of their souls, says:  “There were two, but the adultery was committed only by one.”

But how is it, that she who was no partner to the crime bears the heavier punishment of the two?  For the adulterer was only banished along with his father; she suffered the extreme penalty.  If that was not impurity by which she was unwillingly ravished, then this is not justice by which she, being chaste, is punished.  To you I appeal, ye laws and judges of Rome.  Even after the perpetration of great enormities, you do not suffer the criminal to be slain untried.  If, then, one were to bring to your bar this case, and were to prove to you that a woman not only untried, but chaste and innocent, had been killed, would you not visit the murderer with punishment proportionably severe?  This crime was committed by Lucretia; that Lucretia so celebrated and lauded slew the innocent, chaste, outraged Lucretia.  Pronounce sentence.  But if you cannot, because there does not appear any one whom you can punish, why do you extol with such unmeasured laudation her who slew an innocent and chaste woman?  Assuredly you will find it impossible to defend her before the judges of the realms below, if they be such as your poets are fond of representing them; for she is among those

“Who guiltless sent themselves to doom,

And all for loathing of the day,

In madness threw their lives away.”

And if she with the others wishes to return,

“Fate bars the way:  around their keep

The slow unlovely waters creep,

And bind with ninefold chain.” 78

Or perhaps she is not there, because she slew herself conscious of guilt, not of innocence?  She herself alone knows her reason; but what if she was betrayed by the pleasure of the act, and gave some consent to Sextus, though so violently abusing her, and then was so affected with remorse, that she thought death alone could expiate her sin?  Even though this were the case, she ought still to have held her hand from suicide, if she could with her false p. 14 gods have accomplished a fruitful repentance.  However, if such were the state of the case, and if it were false that there were two, but one only committed adultery; if the truth were that both were involved in it, one by open assault, the other by secret consent, then she did not kill an innocent woman; and therefore her erudite defenders may maintain that she is not among that class of the dwellers below “who guiltless sent themselves to doom.”  But this case of Lucretia is in such a dilemma, that if you extenuate the homicide, you confirm the adultery:  if you acquit her of adultery, you make the charge of homicide heavier; and there is no way out of the dilemma, when one asks, If she was adulterous, why praise her? if chaste, why slay her?

Nevertheless, for our purpose of refuting those who are unable to comprehend what true sanctity is, and who therefore insult over our outraged Christian women, it is enough that in the instance of this noble Roman matron it was said in her praise, “There were two, but the adultery was the crime of only one.”  For Lucretia was confidently believed to be superior to the contamination of any consenting thought to the adultery.  And accordingly, since she killed herself for being subjected to an outrage in which she had no guilty part, it is obvious that this act of hers was prompted not by the love of purity, but by the overwhelming burden of her shame.  She was ashamed that so foul a crime had been perpetrated upon her, though without her abetting; and this matron, with the Roman love of glory in her veins, was seized with a proud dread that, if she continued to live, it would be supposed she willingly did not resent the wrong that had been done her.  She could not exhibit to men her conscience but she judged that her self-inflicted punishment would testify her state of mind; and she burned with shame at the thought that her patient endurance of the foul affront that another had done her, should be construed into complicity with him.  Not such was the decision of the Christian women who suffered as she did, and yet survive.  They declined to avenge upon themselves the guilt of others, and so add crimes of their own to those crimes in which they had no share.  For this they would have done had their shame driven them to homicide, as the lust of their enemies had driven them to adultery.  Within their own souls, in the witness of their own conscience, they enjoy the glory of chastity.  In the sight of God, too, they are esteemed pure, and this contents them; they ask no more:  it suffices them to have opportunity of doing good, and they decline to evade the distress of human suspicion, lest they thereby deviate from the divine law.


Footnotes

13:78

Virgil, Æneid, vi. 434.


Next: Chapter 20

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