Question for the Museworthy women: Your husband and your father are about to go to war with each other. Whose side do you take? Swords are drawn and blood is about to be shed. It’s go time. Where do you stand? One man is your parent, your loving protector, the other is your provider and the father of your children. Your loyalties are torn. You could pick a side, or you could remain neutral, or you could make a case for peace, and do everything in your power to broker a truce between the warring sides. According to Roman legend, that’s exactly what the Sabine Women managed to achieve. Someone get those ladies over to the Gaza border ASAP.
As the story goes, brothers Romulus and Remus together founded a great city. But in a case of violent sibling rivalry, Romulus slew his brother and, of course, anointed himself king of the new city which he named “Rome” after himself. Populated exclusively by his male followers and soldiers, Romulus realized that Rome had no women! It was a giant stag party. No wives, no mothers. Without women to procreate, the city and it’s citizens would go extinct within a generation. So a plot was hatched to “take” women from neighboring areas, such as the Sabine region.
Romulus used a festival invitation as a ruse for the mass kidnapping. Unaware of the king’s scheme, members of the Sabine tribe attended the festival and enjoyed what seemed to be genuine hospitality. When their attention was diverted by the spectacular entertainment, the Roman army swooped in and snatched the women. The Sabine men tried to fight them off but were no match for the Romans. This event is known in art and literature as “The Rape of the Sabine Women”, the word “rape” in this case meaning “abduction”, not sexual violation.
Italian sculptor Giambologna portrays the Rape in this famous 1582 work, carved from marble:
French painter Nicholas Poussin created his version of the abductions. This is a detail of his 1635 painting which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum. You can see the terrified faces of the Sabine women as they are carried off in the strong, muscular arms of those . . . strapping . . . manly . . . oh my . . . ahem . . . very “take charge” Roman soldiers . . . oooh . . . :gets flustered: . . . mmm, baby . . . Okay, okay! Fine! Yes, I confess! I’m a little turned on!! Everyone has fantasies, right? You people caught me, are you happy? Jeesh!
:emerges from cold shower. Resumes blogging:
So where was I? Oh yeah. With a bunch of frightened women on his hands, Romulus had to make a hard sell. And it worked. He assured the Sabine women that they would have good lives in Rome, with freedoms, civil rights, and prosperity, and that Roman men would make fine husbands. With no other recourse, the women relented and settled into life as Roman subjects and dutiful Roman wives. That’s the first part of the story.
The second part is the good part. Tormented and still aggrieved over the theft of their women, the Sabine men plotted to get their women back. That plot meant only one thing: war. So the fathers of the Sabine women and their Roman husbands prepped for battle.
But this was all too much for the Sabine women to take. As if getting kidnapped and pressured into forced marriages wasn’t bad enough, now they’d have to witness either the murders of their own fathers or the fathers of their children. So what did they do? They stuck their necks out, literally. They bravely threw themselves and their children into the middle of the fray, begging, pleading, imploring the men to cease the violence, and pronounced themselves as the cause of the conflict, essentially daring the men to kill them rather than each other. Romulus’ own wife was among the protesters. The Roman poet Livy narrates the tale:
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.”
In this painting from 1799, Jacques-Louis David depicts the courageous, self-sacrificing actions of the Sabine Women with powerful imagery and stunning detail fraught with emotions. Look at the dramatic gesture of the woman’s outstretched arms, a valiant plea for peace and an end to the hostilities. And look at the other woman on the ground desperately grabbing the man’s leg. And another woman has placed her children at the soldiers’ feet. I recommend enlarging this image to fully appreciate it.
David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women:
The bold, drastic measures of the Sabine women worked. By forcing the warring men to confront the consequences of their actions, by appealing to their emotions and getting “in their faces”, the aggressions ceased. Fences were mended and tensions were pacified. I know this is just a blog post, but I really feel sad at the conclusion of this entry – sad that we have to turn to a centuries-old mythological story to see reconciliation. Sad that the lives of women and children don’t warrant efforts toward peace in the real world today.