Portia. Photograph John Oleson.

Like all good grammar schoolboys, Shakespeare would have read three Roman historians: Livy*, Plutarch*, and Ovid. Early Roman history is the background for only one of his works, the early narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece.

Titus Livius (59 B.C.-A.D. 17) is considered the greatest of Rome's annalists. Of the 142 books of his History, only Books I-X (to 293 B.C.) and XXI-XLV (218-167 B.C.) remain extant, together with fragments and summaries of the rest. Written as an epic in prose, his interpretation of Roman history was accepted without question until the beginnings of modern criticism in the nineteenth century.

Other writers, before and after Shakespeare, knew and admired Livy: Dante, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Montaigne. Philemon Holland published an English translation of the first ten books ( in 1600, well after The Rape of Lucrece).

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Mestrius Plutarchus of Cheronea (c.46-c.126 A.D.) was a wealthy Greek essayist and biographer. His Parallel Lives consists of 50 biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen and soldiers, written principally as moral lessons.

Sir Thomas North's translation (printed in 1579 and 1595) is based upon the French version by Jacques Amyot (1559). The biographies relevant to Shakespeare's Roman plays are the comparisons of Demetrius with Antony, and Dion with Brutus, and the individual biographies of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Antony, and Octavius Caesar Augustus.

(Click for an example of Shakespeare's use of Plutarch)

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The illustration is a photograph of a Roman woman, one of a couple in which the man is clearly much older. Although their identity is not in fact known, in the Renaissance when they were recovered they were named "Portia" and "Cato" (Portia's father). The complete picture is on the next page.

See the next page for a discussion of Roman women.

Lucretia's rape and the fall of kings

The infamous rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius, the subject of Shakespeare's poem, was the catalyst of the revolution which gave birth to the Republic. Lucretia was a paragon of virtue, who spun wool late into the night while lesser wives of princes were out "dancing and reveling or in several disports" (Lucrece 18-19).

"Lucretia's beauty, and proven chastity, kindled in Sextus Tarquinius the flame of lust, and he determined to debauch her" (Livy). Visiting her alone, he tried every persuasion to induce her cooperation, then finally defeated Lucretia's "resolute chastity" with a threat to her honour (a plan to kill her together with a slave and claim to have punished her justly in the act of adultery).

Afterwards, Lucretia revealed the crime to her husband, Collatinus, then killed herself. ( More. . .*)

The hero of the hour was actually another Tarquin: Lucius Junius Brutus, the cousin of Sextus. Until this time Brutus had pretended to be a half-wit to avoid any dangerous attention from the king. Now swearing to free Rome forever from tyranny, he roused the people and the army to revolt; the Tarquins were exiled (c.510 B.C.), and Brutus and Collatinus became the first consuls of the Republic.

The story of Brutus is one of the origins of the legend of Amleth (Hamlet), although Hamlet's "antic" behaviour attracts attention instead of avoiding it. The Emperor Claudius survived the reign of Caligula by the same methods.

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Footnotes

  1. Livy

    Titus Livius (59 B.C.-A.D. 17) is considered the greatest of Rome's annalists. Of the 142 books of his History, only Books I-X (to 293 B.C.) and XXI-XLV (218-167 B.C.) remain extant, together with fragments and summaries of the rest. Written as an epic in prose, his interpretation of Roman history was accepted without question until the beginnings of modern criticism in the nineteenth century.

    Other writers, before and after Shakespeare, knew and admired Livy: Dante, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Montaigne. Philemon Holland published an English translation of the first ten books ( in 1600, well after The Rape of Lucrece).

  2. Plutarch

    Mestrius Plutarchus of Cheronea (c.46-c.126 A.D.) was a wealthy Greek essayist and biographer. His Parallel Lives consists of 50 biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen and soldiers, written principally as moral lessons.

    Sir Thomas North's translation (printed in 1579 and 1595) is based upon the French version by Jacques Amyot (1559). The biographies relevant to Shakespeare's Roman plays are the comparisons of Demetrius with Antony, and Dion with Brutus, and the individual biographies of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Antony, and Octavius Caesar Augustus.

    (Click for an example of Shakespeare's use of Plutarch)

  3. A smart Tarquin

    The hero of the hour was actually another Tarquin: Lucius Junius Brutus, the cousin of Sextus. Until this time Brutus had pretended to be a half-wit to avoid any dangerous attention from the king. Now swearing to free Rome forever from tyranny, he roused the people and the army to revolt; the Tarquins were exiled (c.510 B.C.), and Brutus and Collatinus became the first consuls of the Republic.

    The story of Brutus is one of the origins of the legend of Amleth (Hamlet), although Hamlet's "antic" behaviour attracts attention instead of avoiding it. The Emperor Claudius survived the reign of Caligula by the same methods.