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The famous story of the Sabine women was told by Livy in his earliest book and is part of a series of foundation myths that he uses to describe the creation of Rome. Livy’s version of events describe how the legendary Romulus needed one element to complete the founding of the great city of Rome; women who would be able provide the city with children in order to ensure the continuous growth of Rome.
As no neighbouring tribe of Rome would agree to allow their females to marry into Roman society, Romulus devised a plan where Rome would invite their neighbouring peoples for a festival in honour of Neptune and then take their women by force.
It concludes when the Sabines, the last of those wronged to attack Rome, captured the citadel on the Capitoline and continued to fight the Romans until the kidnapped women interposed themselves between their husband captors and brothers and fathers.
The women’s intervention would assure peace and lead to the two peoples becoming one with Rome as the seat of power. When considering what kind of image this story portrays of Roman society one must take into consideration numerous factors.
Livy’s position and motives in writing the piece must be examined extensively as should the significance of mass rape being a key element in the growth of the Roman Empire.
It must also be considered what Livy was suggesting were the ultimate consequences, both political and social, of the abduction of the Sabine women. By examining these factors and then assessing them as a whole, one should have a clearer image of what Roman society. The story of the Sabine women can be used to tell us much about Roman concepts of women.
Romans of the imperial period believed that women in the archaic era inspired others by their practice of Roman virtues and the story of the Sabine women was not unique in its attempts to portray Roman women as being courageous, with the myth of Lucretia also exemplifying numerous Roman virtues. This does not mean however that Rome treated its women as equals, in fact possibly the opposite, hence the reason Livy felt it necessary to instil these moral messages.
Livy also claims that the rape of these women was justified, as it was vital to the continuation of the Roman race. For someone as devoted to Rome as Livy to have been happy to include the rape of these innocent women in his writings portrays an image of a state that treated women with a lack of respect. Livy also removes any blame from Romulus by claiming that Rome’s neighbour’s refusal to allow them to marry their daughters led to Rome having no choice but to act in such a manner.
Amazingly, he further distances Rome from blame when he claims that it was the Sabine women whose wrongs had led to the war, with the women pleading for an end to the fighting by declaring that the men should turn their anger towards them, as it was they who were the cause of the war. Whether Livy’s message is suggesting that rape in the early Roman republic was acceptable is highly questionable. However, it does suggest that the action of rape was not one that was neither uncommon nor treated with shock and disgust. If that were the case then it would have been unlikely that Livy would have included it in his writings.
What Livy seems to be suggesting is that women’s were not seen as equals, although if we look at the treatment of women in some cultures today this can hardly be seen as surprising. Even in Britain it was not seen as illegal for a husband to rape his wife until the early nineteen nineties and in most third world countries, especially most of Africa, it is not illegal for a husband to rape his wife. This therefore suggests that although Roman society was far from being one that practiced sexual equality, nor was it worse than would have been witnessed in any state at this time and for the following two thousand years.
One wonders that when Livy writes about this rape if it has any associations with imperialism and the possibility that he is using the women of Sabine metaphorically. In comparison with the story of the Sabine women, when Rome created it’s empire it is likely that they wished that its newly conquered subjects would behave in the same manner as the Sabine women, displaying loyalty to their new rulers and living happily under the new regime.
It also portrays Rome as being blameless when acting aggressively, something that would have justified their actions in expanding their empire and the ability for previous enemies to live in peace, albeit with Rome still at the head of affairs. Of course, Livy may have wittingly used these metaphors with the intention that the story would leave a subconscious message in his audience’s minds, something that is possibly backed by suggestions from historian Phyllis Culham that Livy wanted to inspire his contemporaries1.
Since it is generally perceived that Livy instilled moral messages in his writings, surely it would not be hard to imagine that he could use techniques such as using metaphors to deliver a message in his writing. Of course to support the claims that Livy wanted to deliver such a message one must consider his position to justify it. Although Livy’s writing cannot be considered as faultlessly accurate, it can be used to tell us much about who Rome were and how they perceived themselves and others at the time when Livy was writing.
Livy was quite unique among Roman historians in that he played no part in Roman politics, something that would have possibly denied him of access to certain material in official quarters. However, evidence suggests that Livy did not seek historical explanations in political terms; instead he saw history in personal and moral terms. Livy would not have been unique in this sense, as Horace and Virgil’s poetry also suggested similar moral messages. Perhaps one of the clearest indications that Livy is clearly trying to deliver a moral message in his writing is his preface where he writes, Here are the questions to which I should like every reader to give his close attention: what life and morals were like; through what men and what policies, in peace and in war, empire was established and enlarged. Then let him note how, with the gradual relaxation of discipline, morals first subsided, as it were, then sank lower and lower, and finally began the downward plunge which has brought us to our present time, when we can endure neither our vices nor their cure.
What chiefly makes the study of history beneficial and fruitful is this, that you behold the lessons of every kind of experience as upon a famous monument; from these you may choose for your own state what to imitate, and mark for avoidance what is shameful…. ” It seems clear just from reading the above abstract that Livy is suggesting that people read his works and realise that Rome was built successfully because of the strength of Roman morals and then nearly defeated by their lack of discipline to maintain them.
This suggests that the importance in the story of the Sabine women is in its message that Rome was built successfully by the Sabine women’s courage in preventing their fathers and husbands from fighting and the amicable agreement that was reached between the two parties, that would lead to a stronger and larger Roman state. In conclusion, the story of the Sabine women can be used to tell us much about Roman society, even though the story itself it holds little historical value.
The significance of mass rape as a prominent factor in the growth of Rome is possibly not as significant to the story as one may at first believe, as argued earlier by displaying that how even today sexual equality is something that is not widespread in many societies. However, what the story of the Sabine women is able to display is that women were considered to be not only members of the family but also citizens of the state, hence the reason Livy felt it necessary to instil a message that would be addressable to both women and men.
In this sense it is possible to argue that Rome were actually far more advanced than their neighbouring states in their attitudes towards women and sexual equality. However political the use of these heroines such as the women of Sabine in Livy’s histories, they do represent feminine values which were cherished in the early Republic and Empire, arguably by women as well as men. This story displays to us that Rome viewed courage and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the state as admired qualities.
It also suggests that women were equally as capable as men in having these qualities, something that displays the recognition of the importance of the female role to society, even though the story also suggest women should be prepared to accept the authority and protection of their husbands and fathers. The Story of Sabine can be used to display that although few women had power or prestige, Roman women, within the limits of a male dominated world, were comparatively proactive and respected, especially in comparison to other contemporary cultures. They were viewed as embodying values vital to the culture of which they were an integral part.