Monday, May 3, 2010

The Rape of the Sabine Women

After spending Saturday in the Sabine Hills, I cannot continue with this blog without a nod to those famous women, without whom Rome would never have survived. Especially since our table wine was called--ever so aptly--Il Ratto delle Sabine.

To pick up where I left off on last Monday's "history" post, Romulus, descendant of the Alban King Numitor, was the founder and first king of Rome. Initially a tiny settlement on the banks of the Tiber, Rome grew and prospered under Romulus' leadership. Most of the tribe was made up of men fleeing from other tribes: refugees, escaped slaves or prisoners, or anyone looking for a better life. These men were often powerful warriors, thus Rome's strength was least for that generation.

But what Rome lacked was women. Without females to reproduce with, the tribe would quickly die out. Simple enough--they thought--just propose intermarriage with the neighboring tribes. Problem was, no one wanted to give their daughters to a group of rough bandits. Romulus and his tribe were rejected out of hand.

Far from being deterred, Romulus decided to add kidnapping to fratricide on his resume of how he built Rome. The Romans cleverly hid their resentment at being rejected and proposed a festival with solemn games, honoring Consualia. All neighboring tribes were invited to take part, including the prosperous mountain tribe, the Sabines.

The tribes were amazed at the vastness and prosperity of the new city. And when the attention of all was distracted by the performances, the Romans attacked. They forcibly carried off the youngest of the Sabine women (reserving the most beautiful for Senators and patricians) while their families fled in terror. The women, who were at first outraged at this violence, were eventually persuaded by Romulus that their situation was really not so bad. They were not to be captives, but legally wedded wives, enjoying citizenship and the same rights of their husbands. As Livy puts it, they were asked to "moderate their anger, and give their hearts to those whom fortune had given their persons."

In time they grew to live peaceably, even happily, with their new husbands. But eventually their offended families came for revenge. After failed attempts by other tribes whose daughters had also been stolen, the Sabines succeeded in entering the city. When a young Roman maiden, daughter of the commander Spurius Tarpeius, went outside the city to fetch water, she encountered Sabine soldiers, who bribed her to let them into the city. She easily agreed, asking for their large gold bracelets in return. Instead, they crushed her to death with their shields for her treachery, and attacked the city.

First the Sabines dominated, but soon the virile Romans overcame them. In the midst of the bloody battle, just as the Romans were on the point of annihilating their opponents, the Sabine women rushed onto the battle field. They literally placed their bodies between the opponents, and begged them--as brothers and fathers on one side, and husbands on the other--to cease fighting in honor of the bond of marriage that united the two tribes.

"Silence fell. Not a man moved. A moment later Romulus and the Sabine commander stepped forward to make peace. Indeed they went further: the two peoples were united under a single government, with Rome as the seat of power." (Livy, The Early History of Rome, Book I of the Ab Urbe Condita.)

(Above, Il Ratto delle Sabine, Pietro da Cortona, Below, Il Ratto delle Sabine, Jean Louis David)

Photo sources: 1, 2
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  1. Why does every great story of Rome start with a rape? Rhea Silvia...the Sabines...Lucrezia...
    Interesting to learn how the women of this story handled the domination of their new Roman husbands and loyalty to their pedigree. Leave it to ladies! Thanks again for the information!

  2. This post brings reconfirms something i've already been thinking: The Rape of the Sabines is a misnomer, isn't it. In modern English it should be called The Kidnapping of the Sabines, no?

  3. Yes, you're right in today's modern meaning of the word. But an archaic definition of the word comes from the Latin 'rapere': to seize, to carry off by force, to plunder.

  4. Wow! Times have changed. A lot!

    Since the Grand Tour Rome has become the epicentre of female sex tourism. Every year women, predominantly Anglo-Saxon, flock to the Eternal City to find a lover.

  5. Hi, I'm finding these posts very interesting but also find it difficult to access them in chronological order as they are quite old. Would you maybe consider creating a sub menu somewhere with only these?....

  6. Hi, I'm finding these posts very interesting but also find it difficult to access them in chronological order as they are quite old. Would you maybe consider creating a sub menu somewhere with only these?....


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