Livy, The Rape of the Sabines

By this point, the Roman military was the equal of its neighbors; but Rome had no women and thus no children, so the Romans feared their power would not last.  On the advice of the senate, Romulus sent embassies to the neighboring peoples, requesting alliances and wives.1 

“Cities,” the ambassadors said, “are born from humble beginnings, but with the help of the gods, cities of virtuous men grow powerful and famous.  Rome lacks neither virtuous men nor the aid of the gods; thus, mixing with Romans will not corrupt your bloodlines.” 

Not a single city responded favorably to these entreaties since they all despised the Romans and feared Rome’s growing power.  Rather, the neighboring cities responded, “Why don’t you grant asylum to female criminals too?  That is the only way you are getting equal marriage terms with anyone.”

The Roman youths could not bear this insult and thus prepared for war.  Romulus, however, concealed his bitterness and prepared the solemn games in honor of Equestrian Neptune, thinking this the perfect opportunity to secure wives for the Romans.  He announced to the neighboring cities that Rome would hold a great spectacle.  For their part, the Romans made lavish preparations for it, hoping to draw a large crowd.

Many peoples came to these games, eager to see the new city. Foremost among these were the Caeninenses, Crustomini, and Antemnates.2  Many Sabines came as well, bringing their wives and children. The Romans invited their guests into their homes and showed them great hospitality; the guests observed the fortifications and houses of the city, marveling at how quickly Rome had grown.  Finally came the time for the show.  While all eyes were on this spectacle, the signal was given, and the Roman youths proceeded to seize all the virgins in the crowd and drag them off to their houses. 

Most of them were carried off willy-nilly; however, some of the patricians had selected certain of the choicest beauties ahead of time and deputed their plebeian clients to carry them off to their homes.  One particularly gorgeous woman was carried off by the Thalassi family.  People kept asking where they were taking her, and in order to avoid being robbed of their quarry, the plebs carried her away crying out “thalassio.”  This is why thalassio is said at weddings.

Overcome by fear, the virgins’ families ran away, condemning the outrage as a violation of hospitality and calling on Neptune to avenge the indignity.  Nor did the virgins themselves feel any less despair and indignation. 

But Romulus himself went around to all the women and said, “We have only taken you because of the pride of your fathers, who have withheld from us the right of marriage.  Let go of your anger, Sabine daughters, for you are to become Roman wives and share in the fortunes of this great city.  What’s more?  You will become the mothers of free men.  So give your souls over to the destiny that fate has given your bodies.  Indeed, outrage (iniuria) often blossoms into affection, 3 and these men will treat you better than wives, for they will be as fathers and brothers to you as well.”

The men added flatteries of their own, trying to excuse the deed with protestations of passion and love, which is the best way to persuade women of anything.

Thus, the women relented of their anger, but their relatives put on mourning garb and stirred up the neighboring cities with tears and laments.  Nor was their anger limited to their own cities; rather, they sent diplomats to Titus Tatius, King of the Sabines and the most powerful man in those regions.  However, the Caeninenses, Crustomini, and Antemnates complained that Tatius and the Sabines acted too slowly, so these three peoples prepared to go to war by themselves.  Yet the Caeninenses thought that both the Crustomini and Antemnates were too slow, so they attacked the Roman lands alone.  When they were pillaging different parts of the Roman fields, Romulus attacked them with his army and defeated them easily, thus teaching them that anger is useless without numbers.  He routed and pursued their army, killed the king in combat, and stripped him of his armor.  Having killed the enemy leader, he took the city of Caenina on the first assault.  When he returned to Rome with his victorious army, he wanted to show his military prowess to everyone, so he ascended the Capitoline with the enemy king’s armor hung from a litter.  He hung the armor on a sacred oak and designated that spot as a temple to Jupiter, renaming him Jupiter Feretri. 

He then spoke these words. “I, the victor King Romulus, bring these royal arms to you, and I dedicate a temple in this place.  My descendants will bring the spoils of enemy kings to this spot.” 

This is the origin of the first temple consecrated in Rome.  The gods assured that Romulus’ descendants would fulfill his oath, but none of Rome’s future success would diminish Romulus’ first glory.  After so many years and so many wars, these spoils have only been offered two times, so rarely does fortune consider such a prize to be fitting.

While the Romans were busy with the Caeninenses, the Antemnates army took the opportunity to attack.  Romulus quickly marched the Roman legion into battle and crushed the Antemnates when they were scattered in the fields.   As soon as the Roman legion gave out a war cry and charged, the enemy was routed and their city captured. 

While the Romans were rejoicing in their double victory, Romulus’ wife Hersilia, having been worn down by the virgins’ pleas, asked her husband to allow their relatives to come to the city to sue for peace.  Romulus immediately granted her request, then, he made war against the Crustomini, who were much less enthusiastic after seeing the defeat of their neighbors.  The Romans built colonies in the lands of the Crustomini and Antemnates, and many Romans emigrated there because of the fertility of the soil.  Conversely, many of the abducted virgins’ relatives immigrated to Rome from the surrounding areas.

The Sabines proved to be the most dangerous enemy, for they let neither anger nor greed dictate their tactics, nor did they reveal their military preparations until they were ready to move.  To this strategy was added a little deceit.  A man named Spurius Tarpeius was in charge of the Roman citadel. When his daughter had gone outside the walls to fetch water for some religious ceremonies, Tatius bribed her to let his army into the citadel.  Once they had captured the citadel, they killed the girl, either to make it seem as if the citadel had been taken by force or to show that promises were not to be kept with traitors.  According to another story, the girl had asked to be paid with everything the Sabines wore on their left arms, the arms with which the Sabines carried their shields.  Now, at that time, the Sabines were in the habit of adorning their shield arms with golden bracelets and rings, but instead of giving her these, they crushed her with the shields they carried in those arms instead.  Some say that in asking for what was on their left arms, she meant their weapons and that she was going to betray them, but having seen through the fraud, the Sabines paid her back with death instead.

In any case, the Sabines now held the citadel.  The next day, the Roman army drew up ranks between the Palatine and Capitoline hills, but the Sabines did not come down from the high ground until the infuriated Romans rushed the citadel.  As the armies closed, the Sabine Mettius Curius and the Roman Hostius Hostilius flew in front of the ranks and met each other in single combat.  Even though Hostilius was fighting on bad ground, his courage and audacity sustained the Roman cause, but when he was killed, the Romans immediately began to falter. 

When the fleeing ranks had reached the old gate of the Palatine, Romulus threw up his arms and invoking heaven, exclaimed, “Jupiter, at the founding of this city, you sent me an augury at this spot.  The Sabines have treacherously seized the citadel and having defeated us in battle, they rush into the valley.  Father of gods and men, do not let our enemies pass this spot; banish fear from Roman hearts and put a stop to this flight.   I vow to build a temple to you at this spot so that future generations might remember what happened here.” 

Having cried this out in a loud voice, he acted as if his prayers had been heard and added, “At this place, Romans, Jupiter orders you to stand your ground and fight.” 

The Romans fought as if the command had come from heaven itself.  Romulus himself dashed forward to the front of the ranks.  Now, Mettius had run out from the citadel, leading the Sabine ranks, scattering the Roman legion, and driving the Romans to the spot where the forum is now.  He was nearly at the gates of the Palatine, crying, “We have conquered these treacherous weaklings; now they know how much harder it is to fight against real men than to carry off defenseless girls.” 

When he was thus exulting in his victory, Romulus and a band of the most ferocious young Romans set on him.  Mettius was at a disadvantage because he was fighting on horseback, and the Romans easily pushed him back.  Inspired by the boldness of the king, the Romans beat back the Sabines, pursued them into the valley, and routed their armies.   With his horse trembling from the noise of battle, Mettius accidentally rode into a marsh. This distracted the Sabines, who went over to call out encouragement to him.  He courageously extracted himself, and the Romans and the Sabines reengaged in battle in the valley, but the Romans now had the upper hand.

At this point, the Sabine virgins, who had been the original cause of the troubles, dared to fling themselves into the midst of the battle and the flying spears.  Having conquered their womanly fear, they rent their garments and tore at their hair, and tried to separate the two sides, begging both to let go of their anger. 

“Fathers,” they pleaded, “do not shed the blood of our husbands.  For you will be murdering your own sons-in-law.  Husbands, our fathers are now your fathers as well.  Do not stain yourselves and your children with the crime of parricide.  If you cannot bear this kinship and our marriage, turn your anger on us.  We are the cause of this war.  We are responsible for the slaughter of our husbands and our relatives.  Better that we should die than live as widows and orphans.” 

This appeal moved both the leaders and the multitude, and everyone fell silent. The leaders proceeded to make a treaty, agreeing to bind the two cities into one.  They would share the kingship and confer all imperium on the Romans.  The city was thus doubled, and the Romans citizens were given the name of Quirites, after the Sabine capital, Cures.  They erected a monument to the battle in the place in which Mettius Curtius got his horse out of the marsh and renamed the lake after him.

Thus, misery was changed to happiness, and this episode made the Sabine women more beloved by their husbands and fathers, and most of all by Romulus himself.   Thus, when he divided the people into thirty tribes, he gave one Sabine woman’s name to each tribe.  There were certainly more than thirty women, yet we don’t know why he chose these thirty.  At the same time, he conscripted three companies of knights; the Ramnenses were named after Romulus and the Titienses after Tatius; the origin of the name of the Luceres is unknown.  From that point on, the kingdom was jointly and harmoniously ruled by the two kings. 

  1. This story is traditionally called the Rape of the Sabines, but the reader should note that the Latin term from which it is derived, raptus, means abduction, not rape.  There really is no perfect Latin equivalent for our word rape. 
  2. Groups from nearby cities.
  3. Iniuria can mean injury, outrage, or what we might call sexual assault.