As Livy tells it, callous drunks and the rape of a virtuous woman gave birth to the Republic of Rome. The inebriates were young army officers who had grown bored while besieging the nearby town of Ardea. To settle an inane argument, over whose wife was more virtuous, one of their number, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, proposed that they ride home and surprise their wives.
Collatinus won the dispute, because the other wives were discovered partying while their husbands were away. His own wife Lucretia was found in her home, among her maids, working her loom, but this exemplary spouse would pay a terrible price for her husband’s wager. One of the revelers that night was Sextus Tarquinius, the last king of Rome, who became enamored of the young woman and determined to violate her virtue.
The king returned to the home for more hospitality and, with a knife in hand, demanded that Lucretia acquiesce to his desires. Honorable woman that she was, Lucretia chose death rather than infidelity. The wicked king then threatened to kill her and a male slave and subsequently frame them for adultery. With her honored threatened, Lucretia surrendered her body. She sent a message, informing her husband and her father of the crime, and then killed herself.
In SPQR (2015), historian Mary Beard examines the lessons ancient Romans drew from the tale:
Lucretia’s story remained an extraordinarily powerful image in Roman moral culture ever after. For many Romans, it represented a defining moment of female virtue. Lucretia voluntarily paid with her life for losing, as Living put it, her pudicitia—her “chastity,” or better the “fidelity,” on a woman’s part at least, that defined the relationship between Roman wife and husband. (Though) to some Romans, it looked as if she was more concerned with her reputation than with real pudicitia—which surely resided in the guilt or innocence of her mind, not her body, and would have not been remotely affected by false allegations of sex with a slave. In the early fifth century CE, St Augustine, who was well versed in the pagan classics, wondered if Lucretia had been raped at all: for had she not, in the end, consented? It is not hard to detect here versions of some of our own arguments about rape and the issue of responsibility it raises (122-23).
History and, before it, myth have no doubt been male dominated concerns, reflecting men’s attitudes towards women and sexuality, so it’s not surprising that women are often chiseled into jejune categories of virtue and vice. Some have suggested that this is what lies beneath the gospel proclamation of Mary’s virginity, though that’s not looking deeply enough at the mystery.
Motherhood and procreation are deep Hebrew values. It would have been more than acceptable for Jesus to have been born of a natural, lawful marriage. It would only heightened the promise of progeny made to Abraham. No, something deeper is being proclaimed in the Virginal Birth. It’s a new beginning, which an ever-creative God makes in the Christ.
The Virgin Birth isn’t a spurning of sexuality or a straightjacketing of woman. It is rather the proclamation of a paradox. Through his mother Mary, Christ comes from the covenant, out of the people and promise made to Abraham. But his birth, his entrance into our history, is a new creation. The same spirit that breathed over the waters, in the creation account of Genesis, now breathes upon the Virgin (Gen 1:2). God is faithful to his creation. The Christ emerges from it. Yet God is ever fruitful, ever new. A Virgin gives him birth.
That’s why, very early in the life of the church, this first feast day of Virgin arose on the first day of the new year. Mary is the Morning Star, the new dawn of grace. And in contrast to Lucretia, and to so many other women, she is not merely an object, an instrument of the will of others, male or divine. She is the New Eve, the one who says “yes” to the new creation of God.
Is this new creation difficult to believe? No more than the original. Both requires eyes that see the world and the Christ as gifts of God, a God ever faithful, ever free.
Numbers 6: 22-27 Galatians 4: 4-7 Luke 2: 16-21