Thursday, 16 February 2012

Romulus and the Sabine Women

The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799) by Jacques-Louis David

Romulus, and his twin brother Remus, are the traditional, mythological founders of Rome. But having decided to build their new city, they fell into brotherly dispute over where to locate it.
"I want it here!" said Romulus.
"Well I want it here!" said Remus.
Unable to agree they decided to take the matter to arbitration by consulting an augur. The augur duly deliberated by studying the flight of birds - how else? - and made his decision. But the twins still argued, the dispute only being settled with Romulus resorting to violence and killing Remus, then building the city where he wanted it and naming it after himself.

The city attracted newcomers and quickly began to grow. But there was a problem - most of the newcomers were men. Romulus quickly spotted that his could be a severe handicap to producing a new generation to succeed the older generation when they passed away. So he entered into negotiations with neighbouring tribes, including the Sabines, with the aim of getting his hands on their womenfolk. Not surprisingly the men refused, so Romulus once more opted for violence... (It had worked once so it could work again. And who says we never learn the lessons of history?) ...and came up with a plan to abduct the women instead.

He concocted a festival and invited the neighbours round: the Caeninenses, the Crustumini, the Antemnates, and, of course, the Sabines. Then, at a given moment, Romulus signalled each Roman to grab a woman, and to fight off any resistance from the men. It was a simple strategy, but a good one - and it worked! 

Of course the neighbours were just a little peeved, and the king of Caenina even marched an army into Roman territory. But Romulus saw them off, killing their king in the process. The Sabine women were then persuaded to marry their Roman abductors. And the rest, as they say, is legend.

All the above supposedly took place around 750 BC (Rome was traditionally founded on 21 April 752 BC), and about 2,000 years later it became a popular story and soon found its way into artistic interpretations, at first on marriage chests, known as cassoni, then later in sculpture and paintings.

Among the artists attracted by the episode was Pietro da Cortona with his painting The Rape of the Sabine Women (1627-1629); Nicholas Poussin with two interpretations The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-1635) and The Rape of the Sabine Women (1637-1638); and Jacques-Louis David with his canvas The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), also known as The Sabine Women Enforcing Peace by Running Between the Combatants. This latter was to inspire Picasso to take up the theme in the 20th Century with several of his inimitable interpretations.

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