This painting, by the French artist Nicolas Poussin (c. 1594–1665), was inspired by an uncomfortable and infamous legend from the history of ancient Rome. The legendary episode in question was said to have occurred during the time of Rome’s founder, Romulus, whose mythical or legendary reign was traditionally dated to about 753-717 BCE. According to the Roman historian, Livy (59 BCE-17 CE), Romulus recognized that primitive Rome’s greatest existential threat was that “There were not enough women,” and that without boosting the female population of the fledgling city-state, Roman “greatness seemed likely to last only for a single generation” (Livy, Roman History, 1.9). In true ancient tribal warfare fashion, Romulus decided that the best way for Rome to increase its female population was to capture women from nearby rival cities—notably the Sabine settlements. Therefore, the Romans concocted a plot to orchestrate a mass-abduction of Sabine women.
In order to lure women to Rome, Romulus and his people were said to have advertised to neighboring settlements that Rome would be hosting a religious festival. Unfortunately, curiosity was indeed piqued in nearby communities by the deceitful news of Rome’s upcoming festivities. Whole families visited Rome on the appointed day to partake in the religious worship and the accompanying entertainments that had been promised. The hoped-for day of family fun, however, turned into an infamous incident of chaos and trauma. As narrated by the historian Livy, “at a given signal all the able-bodied [Roman] men burst through the crowd and seized the young women. Most of the girls were the prize of whoever got hold of them, but a few conspicuously handsome ones had been previously marked down for leading senators, and these were brought to their houses by special gangs” (Roman History, 1.9). Such is the scene that can be seen unfolding in Poussin’s painting.
As can be guessed, the actions of Romulus and his Romans enraged the Sabines, and war quickly erupted between the two peoples. Nevertheless, the Sabine women, who after the initial shock of abduction had begun to accept life in Rome, were conflicted by the war. According to legend, the Sabine women rushed out onto the battlefield, and putting themselves between the two armies, they forced the Romans and the Sabines to make peace and unite.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.