The tragic story of Lucretia, which was recounted by the Roman historian Livy, occurred during the reign of the tyrannical ruler Tarquinius Superbus in Rome in the sixth century B.C. While away during the siege of Ardea, Ludretia's husband, Collatinus, boasted of Lucretia's loyalty and virtue, which he argued was greater than his compatriots' wives. Taking the challenge, the men rode immediately to Rome, where they discovered Lucretia alone with her handmaidens spinning wool, while the other wives were idly enjoying their leisure. Lucretia's very virtue, however, enflamed the desire of Tarquinius' son, Sextus Tarquinius, who returned without Collatinus' knowledge a few days later. Having been received as an honored guest, he later stole secretly to Lucretia's chamber, drew his sword and threatened to kill her if she did not yield to him. She resisted, but, when Sextus threatened to kill his own slave as well and place their naked bodies together to give the appearance that they had been killed in the act of adultery, she yielded to his demands rather than die in such disgrace.
The next day Lucretia summoned her father and husband to her side and related what happened, saying that her body only had been violated but not her heart. Nevertheless, despite their protestations of her innocence, she was determined to take her own life, saying: "Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve." Livy then relates that with these words Lucretia drew a knife from under her robe, drove it into her heart, and fell forward, dead.
Overwhelmed by grief, the father, husband, and two accompanying friends swore to avenge her death. Lucretia's death helped raise the populace's anger against the tyrannical rule of Tarquinius Superbus, who then left in exile. Sextus Tarquinius, who was also driven from Rome, was shortly thereafter assassinated. In Livy's account Lucretia embodied chastity, but her tragedy assumed wider political dimensions because she was also considered a metaphor for Rome itself. Lucretia's rape came to symbolize the tyrannical subjugation of the city by Tarquinius Superbus and his family. Her rape triggered the revolt that led to the overthrow of tyranny and the creation of political freedom in the form of republican government.
In terms of composition, the Minneapolis Lucretia is based on a painting of a totally different subject: David with the Head of Goliath by Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, 1605-1606 (Galleria Borghese, Rome). Both figures hold a knife or sword in their right hands, and gaze downwards in the same direction, their torsos illuminated. With her left hand Lucretia pulls on what is apparently a bell rope to sustain the same pose as David's as he holds up the head of Goliath. The compositional parallels between these works, and even the pensive moods of David and Lucretia, are so close that one can only conclude that Rembrandt must have known the work or a copy after it, which he adapted for his own purposes. Whatever the compositional or thematic connection, Caravaggio's image inspired Rembrandt to portray a moment that no artist had ever before depicted: Lucretia, in a moment between life and death, when she has removed the sword she had so recently plunged into her heart.