"I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin forth, Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia, And saw alone, apart, the Saladin"

The rape of Lucretia
Public DomainThe rape of Lucretia - Credit: Tizian

(Canto 4, lines 127-129)

"That Brutus" is Lucius Junius Brutus, nephew of the last Roman king, Tarquinius. The details of his story vary; according to one version, when his friend Collatinus' wife Lucretia was raped by Tarquinius' son Sextus (around 510 BC), she stabbed herself in front of her husband after imploring him to revenge her, which led Brutus and Collatinus to start an uprising among the people of Rome. They succeeded in driving away Tarquinius and abolished the monarchy, instead establishing a republic of patricians. Brutus and Collatinus themselves became two of the first consuls of the new republic. Later, Brutus was forced to sentence two of his own sons to death, after they had been conspiring to restore the monarchy. His death came during a war against Tarquinius' forces: the son of the old king, Aruns and Brutus speared each other to death, maybe in 508 BC.

Julia (83-54 BC) was the daughter of Julius Caesar, famed for her virtue. She was married to Pompey after the breaking-off of a previous engagement.

Marcia was the wife of Roman statesman Cato (95-46 BC). She was divorced by Cato and was instead married to orator and advocate Hortensius, after whose death she returned to Cato. Dante applauded her fidelity and love to her first husband: in the Convivio, he says: "Marcia returned at the beginning of her widowhood to Cato, signifying that the noble soul returns to God at the beginning of senility."

Cornelia declining Ptolemy's crown
Public DomainCornelia declining Ptolemy's crown - Credit: Laurent de la Hyre
Cornelia (c. 190-100 BC) was a classic Roman example of a woman of perfect virtue. She was the daughter of the famous general Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War, and wife of the politician Gracchus. She was noted for her modesty, intelligence and devotion to her sons, Tiberius and Gaius. As tribunes of the Republic, both of these sons incurred patrician opposition for proposing popular reforms of agrarian legislation and were murdered when their reforms failed, in 133 and 121 BC respectively. After the death of her sons, Cornelia devoted herself to the study of Greek and Roman literature, and she is believed to have refused a marriage proposal from Egyptian king Ptolemy shortly after her husband's demise. A famous anecdote concerning her tells of a noblewoman showing off her jewels to her; in response, she pointed to her sons and said: "These are my jewels." The Romans greatly revered her virtuous character and erected a statue of her after her death, bearing the inscription "Mother of the Gracchi". Note that a minority of commentators believe this "Cornelia" to refer to Pompey's fifth wife.

Saladin victorious
Public DomainSaladin victorious - Credit: Gustave Doré
Saladin (1137-1193) was a famous Muslim lord. He became the Sultan of Egypt in 1174, whereafter he conquered Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine. In 1187 he occupied Jerusalem; during the Third Crusade, he fought against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, Richard the Lionheart of England and Philip II of France. He was recognized as a man of many accomplishments, military and civil, winning much respect even in Western countries. Boccaccio speaks well of him in his "Decameron", and Dante, in the Convivio, numbers him among other generous, liberal lords. Probably because of his Muslim faith, Dante describes him as "alone, apart".