The Rape of the Sabine Women  

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The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1796-99, detail) by Jacques-Louis David

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Rape of the Sabine Women is an episode in the legendary history of Rome in which the first generation of Roman men acquired wives for themselves from the neighboring Sabine families. (In this context, rape means abductionraptio — rather than its prevalent modern meaning of sexual violation.) Recounted by Livy and Plutarch ('Parallel Lives' II, 15 and 19), it provided a subject for Renaissance and post-Renaissance works of art that combined a suitably inspiring example of the hardihood and courage of ancient Romans with the opportunity to depict multiple semi-clothed figures in intensely passionate struggle. Comparable subjects from Classical Antiquity are the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs and the theme of Amazonomachy, the battle of Theseus with the Amazons. A comparable opportunity drawn from Christian legend was afforded by the theme of the Massacre of the Innocents.



The Rape is supposed to have occurred in the early history of Rome, shortly after its foundation by Romulus and his mostly male followers. Seeking wives in order to found families, the Romans negotiated unsuccessfully with the Sabines, who populated the area. Fearing the emergence of a rival society, the Sabines refused to allow their women to marry the Romans; consequently, the Romans planned to abduct Sabine women. Romulus devised a festival of Neptune Equester and proclaimed the festival amongst Rome's neighbours. According to Livy, many people from Rome's neighbours attended, including from the Caeninenses, Crustumini, and Antemnates, and many of the Sabines. According to Livy, at the festival he gave a signal, at which the Romans grabbed the Sabine women and fought off the Sabine men. The indignant abductees were implored by Romulus to accept Roman husbands.

Livy is clear that no sexual assault took place. On the contrary, Romulus offered them free choice and promised civic and property rights to women. According to Livy he spoke to them each in person, "and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and — dearest of all to human nature — would be the mothers of free men."

War with the Latins and Sabines after the Rape of the Sabine Women

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 subsequently attacked Caenina and took it at the first assault. Returning to Rome, Romulus 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 made an incursion into Roman territory. The Romans retaliated, and the Antemnates were defeated in battle and their town conquered. According to the Fasti Triumphales, Romulus celebrated a second triumph in 752 BC over the Antemnates.

The Crustumini also commenced hostilities, but their town too was captured by the Romans.

Roman colonies were subsequently 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 also went to war with the Romans, led by their king Titus Tatius. When Tatius attacked Rome, he almost succeeded in capturing the city because of the treason of Tarpeia, daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, 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.' She believed that she would receive their golden bracelets. Instead, the Sabines crushed her to death with their shields, and she was thrown from the rock which since bore her name, the Tarpeian Rock.

The Roman forces attacked the Sabines, who were now in possession of the citadel. The Roman advance was led by Hostus Hostilius, and the Sabine front by Mettus Curtius. When the former fell, the Roman line gave way, and they retreated to the gate of the Palatium. There Romulus gathered his men and, promising to build a temple to Jupiter Stator on that site, led the Romans back to battle.

The battle continued. Mettus Curtius was unhorsed and fled the battle, and the Romans gained the upper hand.

At that point the women intervened in the battle to reconcile the warring parties:

[They] went boldly into the midst of the flying missiles with dishevelled hair and rent garments. Running across the space between the two armies they tried to stop any further fighting and calm the excited passions by appealing to their fathers in the one army and their husbands in the other not to bring upon themselves a curse by staining their hands with the blood of a father-in-law or a son-in-law, nor upon their posterity the taint of parricide. "If," they cried, "you are weary of these ties of kindred, these marriage-bonds, then turn your anger upon us; it is we who are the cause of the war, it is we who have wounded and slain our husbands and fathers. Better for us to perish rather than live without one or the other of you, as widows or as orphans."

Following the reconciliation, the Sabines agreed to form one nation with the Romans and the Sabine king, Titus Tatius, jointly ruled Rome with Romulus until Tatius' death five years later.

The new Sabine residents of Rome lived on the Capitoline Hill.

Artistic representations

During the Renaissance the subject was popular as a story symbolising the central importance of marriage for the continuity of families and cultures. As such it was regularly depicted on cassoni.

Several important examples of the subject include:


The sculpture by Giambologna (1579–1583) that was reinterpreted as expressing this theme depicts three figures (a man lifting a woman into the air while a second man crouches) and was carved from a single block of marble. This sculpture is considered Giambolona'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. True to mannerist densely-packed, intertwined figural compositions and ambitious overinclusive efforts, the statue renders a dynamic panoply of emotions, in poses that offer multiple viewpoints. When contrasted with the serene single-viewpoint pose of the nearby Michelangelo's David, finished nearly 80 years before, this statue is infused with the dynamics that lead towards Baroque, but the tight, uncomfortable, verticality— self-imposed by the author's virtuosic restriction to a composition that could be carved from a single block of marble— lacks the diagonal thrusts that Bernini would achieve forty years later with his Rape of Proserpina and Apollo and Daphne, both at the Galleria Borghese, Rome.

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 Accademia Gallery in Florence. The finished sculpture can be seen in the Loggia dei Lanzi to the side of the Piazza della Signoria.

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

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, was executed in Rome, 1634–35. It depicts Romulus at the left giving the signal for the abduction.

The second version, of 1637–38, now at the Louvre Museum, shows that, though some of the principal figures are similar, he had not exhausted the subject. The architectural setting is more developed.

Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens painted a version of the subject about 1635–40. It is at the National Gallery, London.

Jacques-Louis David

The Intervention of the Sabine Women

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.

John Leech

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

Pablo Picasso deconstructed 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.

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 barn-raising 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.

In 1961, a Spanish "sword and sandal" film based on the story was made, directed by Albert Gout.

The latest adaptation is a video film, The Rape of the Sabine Women without dialogue, which was produced in 2005 by Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation.

Cultural context

raptio, bride kidnapping

Scholars have cited parallels between the 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-juridicial) 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 been examined in a similar light. The ultimate structure of the myth, then, is that the three part Proto-Indo-European society were fused only after a war between the first two against the third.


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