“The Rape of the Sabine Women” – A Founding Myth of Rome on my Latest Roman Denarius
Updated: Feb 19, 2021
My latest Roman coin acquisition offers a spectacular look at one of the most famous foundational myths of Rome: the Rape of the Sabine women. This Republican denarius minted in 89 BC shows the legendary episode where Romulus and his men, wanting to populate their newly founded city, abducted women of the neighbouring Sabine tribe for their wives. Fascinating in that, here decades before the birth of the historian Livy who would go on to write a monumental history of the foundation of Rome, we see the murky and mysterious ancient myths the Romans told themselves about their own genesis being visually interpreted for a late-Republican audience.
L. Titurius Sabinus Denarius – Rape of the Sabine Women, 89 BC (Crawf. 344/1a)
After founding Rome in the traditional date of 753 BC, the first king Romulus and his mostly male followers encamped on the Palatine Hill were soon struggling with a lack of women in their new settlement; they found themselves unable to start families and questioning the long-term future of their new “Roman” enterprise, which would “only now last for one age of man.”
Appeals to nearby communities were rejected and made rivals of the Sabine tribe north of Rome. In desperation, Romulus resorted to drastic actions: he arranged a lavish pastoral festival as an elaborate ruse and made sure to invite all tribes in the region. This “Consualia” festival in honour of Consus, a deity of the grain store, would entail games, spectacles and of course heavy drinking; the perfect opportunity to launch a strike against his rivals whilst their guard was down. Many tribes attended, curious to see the new city they had heard so much about, including the Sabines who brought all their wives and children. When everyone’s “minds and eyes were intent upon the spectacles”, Romulus gave his youthful followers the signal. In an instant, the Roman men set upon and kidnapped the young Sabine women, “carrying off a great number of the virgins by force.”
At this point we may look at the remarkable depiction of this moment on the reverse of my denarius. Two of Romulus’ soldiers can be seen, each carrying off a Sabine woman in their arms; the women struggle and strike out desperately against their abductors, their flailing arms and flowing robes adding movement and urgency to the scene. The two abductors are seen turned to each other, perhaps avoiding the defensive blows of the young women or maybe encouraging each other in their shocking collective act.
The legend can be seen in the larger context of historical bride-kidnap or “bridenapping”, a practice that has been prevalent in cultures all around the world and sadly not limited to the pages of ancient history. Other famous examples of similar marriage-by-abduction can be seen in the biblical tribe of Benjamin or Paris’ abduction of Helen of Troy as described by Homer.
The naming of this moment as the “rape” of the Sabine women is derived from the word’s older literary meaning of “theft”. Whilst there is undoubtedly an element of sexual dominance to the mythical kidnap, this moment of “rape” is not intended to describe a mass sexual violation but is a traditional translation of Livy’s use of the Latin “raptio”, meaning to seize, steal or abduct – interestingly, from “raptio” we also derive English words like rapture and rapacious.
Needless to say, the parents of the abducted women “retired in grief” at the loss of their daughters, their hurt only made worse by the fact they were “deceived by the pretence of hospitality, religion and good faith.” In this foundation myth we see again how Romans were not necessarily concerned with casting themselves as the honourable heroes in their own legend, even more obvious when considered next to the child-abandonment, feral children and fratricide that are all part of their origin story. Interpreting their own inception, Romans it seems, needed only to be seen as the victors, even if it took deception and dishonour to achieve.
The obverse of the silver coin has a bearded portrait of the legendary Sabine king, Titus Tatius, with his monogram TA beside. After the abduction of the Sabine women, Tatius unsurprisingly declared war on Rome, besieging the city and fighting a series of epic battles. This culminated in a bloody engagement in the swampy valley beneath the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, an area that would of course, later be filled with the monuments of the Roman Forum.
Eventually the Sabine women intervened, begging the rival kings to make peace. Tatius and Romulus reconciled and agreed to rule Rome jointly; an arrangement that lasted about 5 years, until Tatius again fell victim to the treachery of Romulus and was murdered. The Sabine ruler Tatius is not counted as one of the traditional Seven Kings of Rome but it is thought a statue of him probably stood with those of the other rulers on the Capitol, perhaps even contributing to the shaggy and bearded likeness used on this coin.
The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799, J.L. David
Little is known of the moneyer Lucius Titurius Sabinus but his family clearly traced its descent from the Sabines and perhaps from King Tatius himself. He would have been a quaestor or military tribune prior to his stint as moneyer 89 BC, likely serving in the Social War which was raging across the Italian peninsula at the time. Indeed, two other famous coin types from this moneyer celebrate further moments of the Sabine’s dramatic story; notably the execution of Tarpeia, the young Vestal Virgin who betrayed Rome by opening the city gate to the besieging Sabines.
The legendary “Rape of the Sabine Women” scene has proven popular with artists over the centuries, especially during the Renaissance, appearing in paintings, frescoes, tapestries, prints and engravings. It is worth finishing with a small tour through some of the most famous subsequent interpretations, to understand the reception of this complex scene over time. One early painting of the scene was completed by the brothers Guido and Amico Aspertini in 1496; poses seen in this detail view may take some influence from the composition on the Roman Republican denarius. https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-continence-of-scipio-the-rape-of-the-sabines/cc1366b0-8f11-41c4-9f6b-7a76a79d5260
The Rape of the Sabines (1496), Amico and Guido Aspertini, Oil on panel, Prado Museum
Another wonderful Renaissance view of the scene came from Girolamo del Pacchia in 1520. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/571/girolamo-del-pacchia-the-abduction-of-the-sabines-italian-about-1520/
Abduction of the Sabines (1520), Girolamo del Pacchia, Oil on panel, Getty Museum
In the realm of sculpture, the highlight must be the exquisite marble “Abduction of a Sabine Woman” completed by Giambologna in 1582 and still standing today in the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence. https://smarthistory.org/giambologna-abduction-of-a-sabine-woman/
Abduction of a Sabine Woman (1582), Giambologna, Florence
Romulus can be seen proudly overlooking the chaotic scene he has orchestrated in this famous 17th century interpretation by Nicolas Poussin. https://www.metmuseum.org/en/art/collection/search/437329
The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634), Nicolas Poussin, The Met
Just a few years later in 1639, the famous Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens attempted his own interpretation of the scene. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/peter-paul-rubens-the-rape-of-the-sabine-women
The Rape of the Sabine Women (1639), Peter Paul Rubens, National Gallery
Coming to the modern era, Pablo Picasso even created a series of artworks based on the Roman legend at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Like his earlier work “Guernica”, the painting continues to explore themes of the effects of war and the suffering it inflicts on the innocent. https://www.pablopicasso.org/the-rape-of-the-sabine-women.jsp
The Rape of the Sabine Women”, 1962, Pablo Picasso
The foundational myth has also influenced modern popular culture being adapted, parodied and satirised in such literary works as “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”.
The imagery on this Roman Republican denarius ultimately gives a rare insight into the way the Romans visualised and sought to make sense of their distant past. Its well-centred strike and incredibly sharp details make this one of the finest examples of the type, indeed this very coin is used to illustrate the Wikipedia page for the Rape of the Sabine Women: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rape_of_the_Sabine_Women
I hope the exploration of this Roman Republican denarius has helped readers to better understand and contextualise this controversial founding myth of Rome and as a collector, it is also my hope that one day I will also be able to add further numismatic depictions of Rome’s birth to my collection.