In the 6th century BC, Rome was ruled by a dynasty of tyrannical kings from the nearby city-state of Etrusca. The last of these kings Tarquinius Superbus, was remarkably despotic. He rose to power by assassinating his father-in-law, Servius Tullius, who was king at the time (patricide, the murder of one’s father, was quite a common tool of political advancement in Ancient Rome — and people say our political system is broken!). Tarquinius Superbus was constantly fighting wars with neighboring city-states and the Greeks, who at the time maintained a considerable presence on the Italian peninsula. The Romans, sick of losing their sons in battle and having their considerable wealth drained, were, understandably, tired of this oppressive foreign-born king.
Tarquinius Superbus’s son, Tarquinius the Prince of Rome, was similarly drunk with power. His rape of Lucretia, the chaste and just wife of Collatinus, a prominent Roman nobleman, was the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the Etruscan monarchy and established the Roman Republic. Though many of the specific events surrounding the Roman Republic’s foundation are debatable and mythologized, there is considerable historical evidence that Lucretia existed, that she was indeed the wife of a nobleman named Collatinus, and that she played a critical part in the downfall of the Etruscan dynasty.
The rape of Lucretia was not only a historical incident that kindled the flames of dissatisfaction over the tyrannical methods of foreign rulers. It was, perhaps even more importantly, a representation of purity defiled by power and lust — an image that has captured the imagination of artists, writers, and musicians throughout Western history. Botticelli, Titian, and Rembrandt all sought to portray Lucretia’s inner torment through visual art; St. Augustine, Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare extolled the virtues of pure Lucretia, as did the West Coast heavy metal band Megadeth in their 1990 album, “Rust in Peace.” Eventually, Benjamin Britten took on the subject through a dramaturgically fraught libretto (at least in my opinion) by Ronald Duncan, based on French playwright André Obey's 1931 adaptation of the incident.
The Rape of Lucretia, premiered a year after the close of WWII, is one of Benjamin Britten’s artistic statements on war, along with, of course the hugely impressive War Requiem. Being a conscientious objector, Britten refused to partake in military action during WWII and undoubtedly hated the patriotic idealism of his country during and after the War. Through The Rape of Lucretia, the composer endeavored to encapsulate the distress of Europe during WWII, by choosing a narrative in which a virtuous sensitive individual is traumatically violated and driven to self-destruction. However, in my opinion, this opera transcends contemporary political events. It isn’t just a metaphor for the devastation of England, Germany, and Europe; The Rape of Lucretia is about human tragedy — the violence that men can inflict on one another through jealousy, greed, and lust; and the innocence that such violence can destroy.