By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
The Rape of the Sabine Women by Pietro da Cortona, 1627-29 ( public domain )
According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded in the 8 th century B.C. by Romulus. The Roman historian Livy wrote that the city of Rome grew strong quickly, and was able to defend itself against the other tribes which lived beyond the city’s borders. At this point of time however, Rome was facing a threat not from without, but from within. The followers of Romulus were mostly men, as he had granted sanctuary to the rabble and outcasts of other cities. Whilst the population of Rome increased immediately, there was a shortage of women in the new settlement. As a result, it seemed that Rome’s greatness was destined to last only for a generation, as these pioneers would not have children to carry on their legacy.
‘The Intervention of the Sabine Women’ by Jacques-Louis David, 1799 ( public domain )
Initially, the Romans sought to form alliances with and requested the right of marriage from their neighbors. The emissaries sent to the neighboring tribes, however, failed in their mission, as Rome’s neighbors were not bothered with entertaining her requests. Some were even afraid that Rome’s growing power would become a threat to them and their descendants. As a result, Romulus decided to take more drastic actions in order to secure the future of his city.
Famous statue in Florence depicting the abduction of the women of Sabine by Giambologna ( public domain photo )
Romulus found the perfect opportunity during the celebration of the Consualia. According to the ancient writer Plutarch, this festival was founded by Romulus himself. Apparently, Romulus had discovered an altar of a god called Consus hidden underground. This god was said to have been either a god of counsel or the Equestrian Neptune. To celebrate this discovery, Romulus established the Consualia, a day of sacrifices, public games and shows. Then, he announced the festival to the neighboring peoples, and many came to Rome. One of the neighboring tribes that attended the Consualia was the Sabines. According to Livy, the entire Sabine population, including women and children, came to Rome.
Romulus oversees the abduction of the Sabine women ( public domain )
According to Plutarch, Romulus’ signal to the men of Rome was to be whenever he rose up to gather up his cloak and throw it over his body. When this signal was seen, the Romans were to fall on the Sabine maidens and carry them away. According to Plutarch, only virgins were abducted, with the exception of one Hersilia, who was a married woman. This, however, was said to be an accident. According to some historians, the abduction of the Sabines was not perpetrated out of lust, but out of a desire to form a strong alliance with them.
Some depictions of the abduction event depict the Sabine women as being willing participants. ‘The Rape of the Sabines: The Invasion’ by Charles Christian Nahl ( public domain )
Instead of an alliance, however, the Romans ended up in a war with the Sabines, as they were obviously outraged that their women were forcibly taken by the Romans. After the allies of the Sabines were defeated, the Romans fought the Sabines themselves. By this time, the Sabine women had accepted their role as the wives of the Romans, and were quite distressed at the war between the two peoples. Finally, in one of the battles, the Sabine women stood between the Roman and Sabine armies, imploring their husbands on one hand, and fathers and brothers on the other to stop fighting. According to Livy, the Sabine women placed the blame for the war on themselves and said that they would rather die than to see bloodshed on either side of their families. Affected by their speech, the Romans and Sabines concluded a peace treaty, and the two peoples were united under the leadership of Rome, hence further strengthening the city of Rome.
Costello, J., 1947. The Rape of the Sabine Women by Nicolas Poussin. [Online]
Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/pubs/bulletins/…/3257295.pdf.bannered.pdf
Livy, History of Rome [Online]
[Freese, J. H. et al. (trans.), 1904. Livy’s History of Rome.]
Available at: https://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_livy_rome_founding.htm
Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Romulus [Online]
[Dryden, J. (trans.), 1683. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives: Romulus.]
Available at: https://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/romulus.html
www.louvre.fr, 2015. The Rape of the Sabine Women. [Online]
Available at: https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/rape-sabine-women
www.pablopicasso.org, 2015. The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Pablo Picasso. [Online]
Available at: https://www.pablopicasso.org/the-rape-of-the-sabine-women.jsp
www.visual-arts-cork.com, 2015. Rape of the Sabine Women: A Marble Sculpture by Giambologna. [Online]
Available at: https://www.visual-arts-cork.com/sculpture/rape-of-the-sabine-women.htm