The story of the Sabine women is one of the best-known Roman legends. It has been a subject for many artists and since antiquity, it shed a very negative light on the circumstances of the formation of the Roman nation.
The usual version of the story includes Romulus, the city’s founder and the first king devising a cunning plan to overcome the lack of women in his newly built city. You see, the population of Rome consisted, according to the ancient legend, mainly of the old shepherd friends of Romulus, adventurers of Alba Longa and refugees from the near cities who desired to use the new city’s proclaimed asylum (a place where those facing persecution could seek refuge). Such population was predominantly male and something needed to be done to increase the number of women and ensure the natural growth of the nation.
He tried to ask nicely first, sending envoys to neighbouring cities and asking them to send some women over for the Romans to marry, but this attempt failed. Romulus wouldn’t give up so easily though. He invited the neighbours to attend a religious festival and there the Romans used violence to abduct the women. The incident led to the subsequent war between the Romans and the Sabines, but the fight was effectively ended by the women themselves who begged the armies for peace between their fathers and brothers on one side and their new husbands on the other.
While the story itself is hardly new, one could be surprised by a couple of less known details:
- The motivation of Romulus is not that clear – The ancient authors (e.g. Dionysius) list several reasons for the deed. One of them is the general lack of women, but the other two are connected to the king’s long-term strategy. According to one version, he orchestrated the abduction to provoke the war. This theory counts on his warlike nature and a goal to establish Rome as a force to be reckoned with from the very beginning. An alternative story proposes the very opposite motivation. Romulus sought long-term allies and knew that no alliance is stronger than one based on family ties. Therefore he established those ties even at the expense of early war.
- The “Rape” of the Sabine women is an incorrect translation – Although this is the word most frequently used to describe the incident, it is far from precise in describing the event. The Latin word “raptio” meant “abduction” or “seizure” rather than “rape”. Moreover, Dionysius wrote that Romulus gave a strict order not to touch the women on the first night in a sexual way.
- Abduction of women was a Greek custom at the time. Several authors, including Dionysius who was a Greek himself, claimed that the Rape of the Sabines was not that special and the Greeks had been doing it for ages. Plutarch mentions Spartans as one of those engaging in this practice.
- Romulus consulted the deed with the king of Alba Longa and got permission to do it – as with many other things, Romulus asked Numitor, the king of Alba Longa for advice. Rome was a colony of Alba Longa and Numitor, Romulus’ grandfather and the Alban king, often provided advice. In this case, Numitor had no objections.
- Almost seven hundred women were seized by the Romans – Dionysius gives us a specific number – 683 (his source being probably Iuba), Valerius Antias claims there were 527, but there was also a version talking about only 30 abducted women (the Romans allegedly named their 30 curiae after them)
- Not all seized women were Sabines – Romulus invited many neighbours to the festival. In fact, three cities (Ceanina, Antemnae, and Crustumerium) declared war on Rome before the Sabines did. Romulus, however, defeated them quickly.
- The “Rape” is said to have happened on the 18th of August in the year of Rome’s founding (traditionally 753 BCE). It was the day of the Consualia festival in Rome.
- The festival that was used as an excuse for inviting the Sabines was a religious one. The sources differ what deity was celebrated. Some mention a god called Consus, notable for giving advice. Others (apparently a majority) identify the deity Neptune, the god of horses.
- The abduction took place either at the theatre or at chariot races. While the version with the races appears to be widely spread and older, the one with the theatre is used by Ovid in his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) accompanied with some good advice on how to pick up women in public places.
- The events of rape inspired the Roman wedding traditions – One of the abducted virgins, especially notable for her beauty, was seized by the plebeian group appointed by a certain Thalassius. Running through the streets they were often asked to whom do they bring her and they responded “Thalassius!”. This word later became part of Roman weddings as a wedding-cry. Also, the custom of carrying the bride over the porch originates here, as the seized virgins were carried by their abductors violently to their bedrooms.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities
Livy – Ab Urbe Condita
Plutarch – Parallel Lives
Ovid – Metamorphoses
A. E. Wardman – The Rape of the Sabines; The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1