The Sabine Women in Mary Beard

Rome was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus who were raised by a she-wolf.

Mary Beard: The Latin word for ‘wolf’ (lupa) was also used as a colloquial term for ‘prostitute’. (lupanare was one standard term for ‘brothel’).

Romulus assassinated Remus and decided his city needed more citizens so he named it an ‘asylum’ and encouraged “the rabble and dispossessed of the rest of Italy to join him.” One particularly clever ploy was to invite “the neighboring peoples, the Sabines and the Latins . . . ” to come to Rome to “enjoy a religious festival plus entertainments, families and all. In the middle of the proceedings, he gave a signal for his men to abduct the young women among the visitors and to carry them off . . . ”

There are many many many depictions of this savage deed so it seems to have exerted a particularly cruel hold on the imagination. Go to the British Museum or Florence (the Uffizi) and there will be depictions in both paintings and sculpture. So in fact it did happen, though the number of women taken varies from “just thirty” (even one is more than enough) to 683.

“This occasion was . . . the very first Roman marriage . . . ” (SPQR, p. 61)

Roman historian Livy stresses that “only unmarried women were seized . . . this was the origin of marriage, not of adultery.” The women were not chosen but taken “at random” and therefore it was clear that the goal was for a higher cause, which was to increase the population by reproduction.


Self doesn’t think the abductions were as impartial as all that because the Sabines were a neighboring people. Which means the Romans must have had a chance to evaluate the suitability of their women for reproduction, beforehand.

And if they didn’t, shouldn’t they have invited way more people to the feast than just the Sabines and the other tribe (whose women are not mentioned at all; why have only the Sabine women come down through history?)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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