The Rape of the Sabine Women
The Rape of the Sabine Women, also known as The Abduction of the Sabine Women, was an incident in Roman mythology in which the men of Rome committed a mass abduction of young women from the other cities in the region. It has been a frequent subject of artists, particularly during the Renaissance and post-Renaissance eras.
The word "rape" is the conventional translation of the Latin word raptio used in the ancient accounts of the incident. Modern scholars tend to interpret the word as "abduction" or "kidnapping" as opposed to a sexual assault. Controversy remains, however, as to how the acts committed against the women should be judged.
In the myth, the Rape takes place in the early history of Rome, shortly after its founding (mid 8th century BC) by Romulus and his mostly male followers. Seeking wives in order to establish families, the Romans negotiated unsuccessfully with the Sabines, who populated the surrounding area. The Sabines feared the emergence of a rival society and refused to allow their women to marry the Romans. Consequently, the Romans planned to abduct Sabine women during a festival of Neptune Equester. They planned and announced a marvelous festival to attract people from all nearby towns. According to Livy, many people from Rome's neighboring towns attended, including folk from the Caeninenses, Crustumini, and Antemnates, and many of the Sabines. At the festival, Romulus gave a signal, at which the Romans grabbed the Sabine women and fought off the Sabine men. The indignant abductees were soon implored by Romulus to accept Roman husbands.
Livy claims that no direct sexual assault took place in the story, but some accounts, when compared with actual recorded history, suggest a seduction based on promises by the Romans. Livy says that Romulus offered them free choice and promised civic and property rights to women. According to Livy, Romulus spoke to them each in person, declaring "that what was done was owing to the pride of their fathers, who had refused to grant the privilege of marriage to their neighbours; but notwithstanding, they should be joined in lawful wedlock, participate in all their possessions and civil privileges, and, than which nothing can be dearer to the human heart, in their common children."
War with Sabines and other tribes
Outraged at the occurrence, the king of the Caeninenses entered upon Roman territory with his army. Romulus and the Romans met the Caeninenses in battle, killed their king, and routed their army. Romulus later attacked Caenina and took it upon the first assault. Returning to Rome, he dedicated a temple to Jupiter Feretrius (according to Livy, the first temple dedicated in Rome) and offered the spoils of the enemy king as spolia opima. According to the Fasti Triumphales, Romulus celebrated a triumph over the Caeninenses on 1 March 752 BC.
At the same time, the army of the Antemnates invaded Roman territory. The Romans retaliated, and the Antemnates were defeated in battle and their town captured. According to the Fasti Triumphales, Romulus celebrated a second triumph in 752 BC over the Antemnates.
The Crustumini also started a war, but they too were defeated and their town captured.
Roman colonists subsequently were sent to Antemnae and Crustumerium by Romulus, and many citizens of those towns also migrated to Rome (particularly the families of the captured women).
The Sabines themselves finally declared war, led into battle by their king, Titus Tatius. Tatius almost succeeded in capturing Rome, thanks to the treason of Tarpeia, daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, Roman governor of the citadel on the Capitoline Hill. She opened the city gates for the Sabines in return for "what they bore on their arms", thinking she would receive their golden bracelets. Instead, the Sabines crushed her to death with their shields, and her body was buried on or thrown from a rock known ever since by her name, the Tarpeian Rock.
The Romans attacked the Sabines, who now held the citadel. The Roman advance was led by Hostus Hostilius, the Sabine defence by Mettus Curtius. Hostus fell in battle, and the Roman line gave way. They retreated to the gate of the Palatium. Romulus rallied his men by promising to build a temple to Jupiter Stator on the site. He then led them back into battle. Mettus Curtius was unhorsed and fled on foot, and the Romans appeared to be winning.
At this point in the story, however, the Sabine women decided to intervened:
[They], from the outrage on whom the war originated, with hair dishevelled and garments rent, the timidity of their sex being overcome by such dreadful scenes, had the courage to throw themselves amid the flying weapons, and making a rush across, to part the incensed armies, and assuage their fury; imploring their fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other, "that as fathers-in-law and sons-in-law they would not contaminate each other with impious blood, nor stain their offspring with parricide, the one their grandchildren, the other their children. If you are dissatisfied with the affinity between you, if with our marriages, turn your resentment against us; we are the cause of war, we of wounds and of bloodshed to our husbands and parents. It were better that we perish than live widowed or fatherless without one or other of you."
The battle came to an end, and the Sabines agreed to unite in one nation with the Romans. Titus Tatius jointly ruled with Romulus until Tatius's death five years later.
Many treatments of the legend combined a suitably inspiring example of the hardiness and courage of ancient Romans with the opportunity to depict multiple figures, including heroically semi-nude figures, in intensely passionate struggle.
The subject was popular during the Renaissance as symbolising the importance of marriage for the continuity of families and cultures. It was also an example of a battle subject in which the artist could demonstrate his skill in depicting female as well as male figures in extreme poses, with the added advantage of a sexual theme. It was depicted regularly on 15th-century Italian cassoni and later in larger paintings. A comparable opportunity from the New Testament was afforded by the theme of the Massacre of the Innocents.
The Rape of the Sabines (after Poussin), c. 1861–1862
"The masters must be copied over and over again", Degas said, "and it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature." Degas first received permission to copy paintings at the Louvre in 1853 when he was eighteen. He was most interested in the great works of the Italian Renaissance and of his own classical French heritage, hence this detailed copy of Poussin's painting.
16th-century Italo-Flemish sculptor Giambologna sculpted a representation of this theme with three figures (a man lifting a woman into the air while a second man crouches), carved from a single block of marble. This sculpture is considered Giambologna's masterpiece Originally intended as nothing more than a demonstration of the artist's ability to create a complex sculptural group, its subject matter, the legendary rape of the Sabines, had to be invented after Francesco I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, decreed that it be put on public display in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria, Florence.
The proposed site for the sculpture, opposite Benvenuto Cellini's statue of Perseus, prompted suggestions that the group should illustrate a theme related to the former work, such as the rape of Andromeda by Phineus. The respective rapes of Proserpina and Helen were also mooted as possible themes. It was eventually decided that the sculpture was to be identified as one of the Sabine virgins.
The work is signed OPVS IOANNIS BOLONII FLANDRI MDLXXXII ("The work of Johannes of Boulogne of Flanders, 1582"). An early preparatory bronze featuring only two figures is in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples. Giambologna then revised the scheme, this time with a third figure, in two wax models now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The artist's full-scale gesso for the finished sculpture, executed in 1582, is on display at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence.
The woman and the kneeling man reference figures from the ancient sculpture Laocoön and His Sons.
Bronze reductions of the sculpture, produced in Giambologna's own studio and imitated by others, were a staple of connoisseurs' collections into the 19th century.
Nicolas Poussin produced two major versions of this subject, which enabled him to display to the full his unsurpassed antiquarian knowledge, together with his mastery of complicated relations of figures in dramatic encounter. One, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, was executed in Rome in 1634–35. It depicts Romulus at the left giving the signal to the Romans for the abduction.
The second version, of 1636–37, now at the Louvre Museum, shows that, though some of the principal figures are similar, Poussin had not exhausted the subject. The architectural setting is more developed.
Peter Paul Rubens
Jacques-Louis David painted the other end of the story, when the women intervene to reconcile the warring parties. The Sabine Women Enforcing Peace by Running Between the Combatants (also known as The Intervention of the Sabine Women) was completed in 1799. It is in the Louvre Museum.
David had worked on it from 1796, when France was at war with other European nations, after a period of civil conflict culminating in the Reign of Terror and the Thermidorian Reaction, during which David himself had been imprisoned as a supporter of Robespierre. After David's estranged wife visited him in jail, he conceived the idea of telling the story, to honor his wife, with the theme being love prevailing over conflict. The painting was also seen as a plea for the people to reunite after the bloodshed of the revolution.
The painting depicts Romulus's wife Hersilia — the daughter of Titus Tatius, leader of the Sabines — rushing between her husband and her father and placing her babies between them. A vigorous Romulus prepares to strike a half-retreating Tatius with his spear, but hesitates. Other soldiers are already sheathing their swords.
The rocky outcrop in the background is the Tarpeian Rock.
The English 19th-century satirical painter John Leech included in his Comic History of Rome a depiction of the Rape of the Sabine Women, where the women are portrayed, with a deliberate anachronism, in Victorian costume and being carried off from the "Corona et Ancora" ("Crown and Anchor", a common English pub sign in seafaring towns).
Pablo Picasso visited this theme in his several versions of the Rape of the Sabine Women (1962–63), one of which is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. These are based on David's version. These conflate the beginning and end of the story, depicting the brutish Romulus and Tatius ignoring and trampling on the exposed figure of Hersilia and her child.
Charles Christian Nahl
Charles Christian Nahl painted the subject in a trio of works entitled The Abduction, The Captivity, and The Invasion.
Literature and performing arts
Stephen Vincent Benét wrote a short story called "The Sobbin' Women" that parodied the legend. Later adapted into the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, it tells the story of seven gauche but sincere backwoodsmen, one of whom gets married, encouraging the others to seek partners. After a social where they meet girls they are attracted to, they are denied the chance to pursue their courtship by the latter's menfolk. Following the Roman example, they abduct the girls. As in the original tale, the women are at first indignant but are eventually won over.
The story was parodied by Lady Carlotta, the mischief-making character in Saki's short story "The Schartz-Metterklume Method".
The midrash Sefer haYashar (first attested AD 1624) portrays the story as part of a war between the Sabines, descended from Tubal, and the Roman Kittim (Jasher 17:1–15). A more detailed version of this narrative is found in the earlier mediaeval rabbinic work Yosippon.
In 1962, a Spanish "sword and sandal" film based on the story was made, directed by Alberto Gout. Titled El Rapto de las Sabinas, the film was released in the USA under the titles The Rape of the Sabine Women and The Shame of the Sabine Women.
Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead features a group of all-male players offering to put on a performance of The Rape of the Sabine Women, to the disgust of the title characters.
Scholars have cited parallels between the Rape of the Sabine Women, the Æsir–Vanir War in Norse mythology, and the Mahabharata from Hindu mythology, providing support for a Proto-Indo-European "war of the functions". Regarding these parallels, J. P. Mallory states:
Basically, the parallels concern the presence of first-(magico-juridical) and second-(warrior) function representatives on the victorious side of a war that ultimately subdues and incorporates third function characters, for example, the Sabine women or the Norse Vanir. Indeed, the Iliad itself has also been examined in a similar light. The ultimate structure of the myth, then, is that the three estates of Proto-Indo-European society were fused only after a war between the first two against the third.
- Il ratto delle sabine (1961, film)
- Packman ZM (January 1999). "Rape and consequences in the Latin declamations" (PDF). Scholia: Studies in Classical Antiquity vol. 8: 34. Retrieved 26 November 2016.
- Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Book 1 Ch. 9, p. 15.
- Livy, Ab urbe condita 1.9.
- Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1.10
- Livy, Ab urbe condita 1.13
- Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1:33
- "The Rape of the Sabines – Edgar Degas – www.edgar-degas.org". www.edgar-degas.org. Retrieved 2016-03-26.
- "The Rape of the Sabines (after Poussin) - Browse by Title - Norton Simon Museum". www.nortonsimon.org. Retrieved 2016-03-26.
- Liam E. Semler, The English Mannerist Poets and the Visual Arts 1998, ISBN 978-0-8386-3759-3, page 34.
- De la Croix, Horst; Tansey, Richard G.; Kirkpatrick, Diane (1991). Gardner's Art Through the Ages (9th ed.). Thomson/Wadsworth. p. 673. ISBN 0-15-503769-2.
- La tomba del principe sabino — Glossario Archived 2011-01-02 at the Wayback Machine.
- H. H. Munro (Saki), Beasts and Super-Beasts: Beasts, available at Read book online Archived 2009-01-06 at the Wayback Machine
- Roberta Smith (February 21, 2007). "The Rape of the Sabine Women: Present at an Empire's Corrupted Birth". New York Times.
- "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead". Shmoop.
- Mallory (2005:139).
Media related to Rape of the Sabine Women at Wikimedia Commons