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10 - Machiavelli’s Lucretia and the Origins of the Roman Republic: Rape, Gender, and Founding Violence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 January 2022

Sukanta Chaudhuri
Affiliation:
Jadavpur University, Kolkata
Prasanta Chakravarty
Affiliation:
University of Delhi
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Summary

As many commentators have noted, ‘founding’ is a key category for Machiavelli. Both in The Prince and the Discourses, and arguably in his other works as well, Machiavelli praises the role played by founders in establishing and regenerating political institutions. Founding is important because it challenges the traditional principle of heredity. In contrast to the hereditary schema, which apportions legitimacy on the basis of one's lineage, family, and pedigree, founding valorizes action. Founders create new political and social orders; in so doing, they challenge convention and exhibit a central value Machiavelli associates with free life: autonomy. Founders act alone, Machiavelli insists repeatedly. They are authorized not by ancestry and tradition but by what they create. They are often outsiders, arrivistes, men of humble origin whose backgrounds do not obviously destine them to positions of power. Founders pursue their political objectives with great ambition, and often by ruthless means. Lethal violence, Machiavelli intimates, is central to creating new institutions. It fulfils at least two functions: it coerces the enemies of the new order, typically powerful and wealthy elites, into submission, and it inaugurates the new order symbolically.

Given the importance that Machiavelli accords to founders and to forms of founding violence in particular, it is important to inquire into the criteria for what makes an appropriate founder and appropriate forms of founding violence. At issue is the question of who can play the role of founder, and what forms of violence count as constitutively political. In this chapter, I approach this question through a reading of the legendary figure of Lucretia, the Roman woman whose rape and subsequent suicide triggered the revolution against the Etruscan kings and the establishment of the Roman republic.

Lucretia is an interesting figure. Her role in the overthrow of the Tarquins is treated extensively by Roman historians and by medieval and Renaissance authors. In this literature, she is frequently hailed as a courageous heroine, and even those who criticize her actions on moral or religious grounds (above all Augustine) treat her as one of the protagonists of the revolution that transformed Rome from a monarchy into a republic.

In his account of the Roman revolution, Machiavelli, by contrast, sidelines Lucretia and greatly diminishes her role.

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Machiavelli Then and Now
History, Politics, Literature
, pp. 174 - 190
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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