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The Sabine Women

December 3, 2013

There are several accounts of the rape of the Sabine women including those of Livy, Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The story of the Sabine women describes the capture of women from neighbouring cities in order to secure Rome’s future. The accounts of this story vary in their consistency but there are common themes that run through such as the importance of women for marriage and children, the influence of women and trust. Though it is a story, through examining the ideas expressed by the authors it may allow some insight into what meaning it held to Romans of the first century BC/AD.

Marriage and Children

Livy (The History of Rome 1.9) details that due to the absence of women the newly founded city of Rome would have only lasted one generation. Brown (1995:295-6) considers that Livy places, ‘the spotlight on the women themselves rather than the political benefits which will accrue from establishing friendly relations.’ The survival of Rome becomes a central theme and women important for breeding purposes only, though this role changes and develops further. Brown observes that this is a distinctly different approach to the accounts of Plutarch (Romulus 14.1-2) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 2.31.1), noting their views that Romulus is seeking political alliances through the intermarriage agreements with neighbouring cities. The authors have each written their own interpretation of the story drawing from their own opinions and views. These biases account for some of the differences in the accounts, but it could be argued that the contradictions reflect in part some degree of disagreement within Roman society as to their own history.

Through the act of abduction the Sabine women are brought within the sphere of the Roman family combining ‘the ritual of marriage by capture with the guarantee of the purity of Rome’s first mothers’ (Fantham et al 1994:217). Livy (The History of Rome 1.9) describes how the young Romans ‘dashed in all directions to carry off the maidens who were present’ and the capture of one lady who was ‘carried off by a group led by a certain Talassius, and to the many inquiries as to whom she was intended for, the invariable answer was given, “For Talassius”.’ Elements of this story may have been used to explain certain marriage rites; Livy (The History of Rome 1.9) advises that this is why the word Talassius is used during weddings. Though Livy does not expressly state it, the women were not violated sexually. This is inferred through Romulus’ statement that, ‘they would live in honourable wedlock’ (Livy The History of Rome 1.9). Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 2.30.5) and Plutarch (Romulus 14.6) explicitly state that the women remained virgins until they were married. It is likely that the Romans of the first century BC/AD identified with the ability to maintain personal self-control and not give into their desires or lust. Furthermore, they would have identified with the ideals of marriage Romulus imparted to the Sabine women, ‘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 freemen’ (Livy The History of Rome 1.9).

In the closing section of his oration to the captive women Romulus expresses that ‘they would find their husbands all the more affectionate, because each would do his utmost, so far as in him lay, to make up for the loss of parents and country’ (Livy The History of Rome 1.9). This would have resonated with Roman males, particularly as their wives would have left their own families to take up residence with them. Women may well have expected nothing less than a caring and loving husband after leaving the security of her family. It may have become increasingly important for a husband to provide for the emotional needs of his wife, particularly given that divorce was common, easily achieved and could be initiated by either husband or wife (Pomeroy 1994:158).

The Sabine women following their capture are reported as being, ‘quite…despondent and indignant’. However, following Romulus’ speech ‘the feelings of the abducted maidens were now pretty completely appeased’ (Livy The History of Rome 1.9-10). The feelings of the women are communicated from a simplistic male perspective; the women are upset and then immediately appeased within a matter of lines. Livy does not give the women a voice of their own or a say in the matter. This may reflect a more realistic male attitude towards women and marriage demonstrated through the example of the paterfamilias who chooses whom his daughter marries; she has no say in the matter. Livy (The History of Rome 1.9) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 2.30.5-6) provide examples of this within their interpretations of the story. Livy suggests that the prettier women were to go to the patricians and Dionysius explains that Romulus chose whom each man would marry adopting the role of the paterfamilias. This may have been used as some form of historical justification for the male head of the household deciding on a husband for his daughters.

Influence of women

Dionysius of Halicarnassus provides evidences that the Sabine women had no choice in who they married but they will have had some influence upon their husbands. The prime example of this is their instrumental role in securing a peace between the Roman and Sabine armies. Livy (The History of Rome 1.13) describes them as ‘throwing off all womanish fears in their distress, went boldly into the midst of the flying missiles… 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.’ Livy’s story is similar to the version provided by Plutarch (Romulus 19.1-2). Dionysius of Halicarnassus on the other hand (Roman Antiquities 2.45-46) provides a very different version of events where the Sabine women present a case to the Senate before seeking to secure peace. Instead of rushing into the midst of battle, they meet with each army and secure the start of peace negotiations between their husbands and fathers. Pomeroy (1994:176) considers that the story demonstrates the important role of women between husband and father in maintaining peace. This may have resonated with a Roman man as a father whose daughter was not emancipated from him could insist on a divorce, resulting in the return of the dowry. It is likely that within the home a woman had some influence over her husband but whether this extended to the wider political setting is questionable. The situation within the story of the Sabine women relates to a larger scale familial battle between husbands and fathers in law. This is demonstrated in Hersilia’s entreaty to her husband Romulus to ‘pardon their parents and receive them into citizenship, for so the State would increase in unity and strength’, a pardon that he grants (Livy The History of Rome 1.11).

Trust of Women

Livy’s account puts the emphasis on the importance of women for marriage and child bearing but he appears to express a note of caution in respect of trust towards them. Tarpeia is said to have made an agreement with the king of the Sabines Tatius to allow his troops access to Rome in exchange for golden bracelets (Livy The History of Rome 1.11 and Plutarch Romulus 17). Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 2.38-40) provides a different interpretation and suggests that there were several versions of the story. Dionysius reports a similar version to that of Livy and Plutarch. However, he also states that Tarpeia may have tried to set up Tatius informing Romulus of the agreement, in an attempt to obtain their defensive arms through the ambiguity in her request for what was worn on the left wrist. Tarpeia’s punishment is death for her deceitful actions but Romulus and the men of Rome are not punished for their theft of the Sabine women. The consequence is war but Romulus might be considered the victor of this as he obtains the alliances he wanted in the first instance and the wives for the Roman citizens. The histories written from a male perspective may be treated in an unsympathetic way. The women, for example, blame themselves for the war (Livy The History of Rome 1.13 and Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 2.45.1). This may have been seen by some as a warning, particularly given Livy’s (The History of Rome 1.48) description of Tullia’s actions later on. However, there are also descriptions of ‘good wives’ who focus on the needs of the state and their own virtue and so the examples of ‘bad women’ may not have been a primary focus.


The story of the Sabine women outlines a number of important conventions that Romans would likely have found important within their own marriage such as; marriages as a political alliance, the importance of marriage to an honourable woman and ensuring that you have heirs to your lineage. Arguably, the main theme within the story of the Sabine women is that of the importance of women for the continuation of the Roman society and marriage as the centre for this. Other themes and meaning have been identified within the texts that, to a certain extent supplement this. It is difficult to conclude whether such meanings were drawn from the story by any or all Romans but there are messages that would have resonated with at least some of the populace.


Primary Sources

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Loeb Classical Library Translated by E. Cary, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950. LacusCurtius [Accessed: 27 November 2013]

Livy, The History of Rome, E. Rhys (Ed) Translated by Rev. C. Roberts,

New York   E.P. Dutton and Co. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library [Accessed:27 November 2013]

Plutarch, RomulusPlutarch’s Lives, Translated by Perrin, B. (1914) Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed:27 November 2013]

Secondary Texts

Brown, R. Livy’s Sabine Women and the Ideal of Concordia Transactions of the American Philological Association Vol. 125, 1995, pp. 291-319.

Fantham, E. et al Women in the Classical World Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Pomeroy, S. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves Women in Classical AntiquityLondon: Pimlico, 1994.


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