This story that is told about Rome’s founding, formulation, and populating, and has bothered me for a long time. The story is usually called The Rape of the Sabine Women. Current attempts to make the story title less horrific has it being called The Abduction of the Sabine Women. It seems that every painter from the Renaissance on into the Romantic era seems to have depicted the story in a painting; some artists painted multiple paintings of the story.
The crux of the story is that the two founders of Rome needed to solidify relations with neighboring cities and needed women for the predominantly male and military encampment if the area was to be developed according to their vision. The Sabine people were neighbors and not interested in joining forces with nascent Rome strategically or biologically via their daughters marrying the Romans. Rome had a party and invited everyone. Rome abducted the Sabine women and fought off their fathers and brothers.
The Romans promised much to the women, but less was given than promised. But families were started and the women were, so the story goes, some of the first mothers of Rome. But the Sabine fathers and brothers were still ticked off about the theft of their family members (without recompense) so they attacked Rome again. This time the women interceded as is shown in this 1799 painting where the woman in white is flanked by children. Basic translation, “Dad, Brother mine, Husband, do not harm each other for your progeny, sons, nephews, grandsons need you.” The women are then celebrated as peacemakers. The Sabines all join in with this new city of Rome and everyone lived happily ever after.
The initial reaction to this story is that the abduction is terrible. Well yes, but it is such an iconic patriarchal story. Suitors do not reach agreement with males for the women they want to have as wives and have probably begun seducing. Would it have really been any better if the trade of young women for goods, services, or alliances by the young women’s male relatives been successful? The women’s perspective on being traded or abducted does not really enter into the story. Their only message seems to be, “Think of the children.”
I am pretty sure this story has undergone conversion to mythic structure, but it still has the element of historical truth about the basic status of women as chattel in the early European States. Another implicit message is that women, once bred, will become good wives and mothers no matter how they were procured.
This is really not that big of a difference from what happened earlier and to the north in Europe. This dispersal of women at marriage is referred to as patrilocal household structure. Men stay where they are born and women travel to a husband’s village upon marriage. Evidence from Germanic settlements as culture shifted from the Neolithic to Bronze Age showed this patrilocality too. It probably was not abduction as such as artifacts and burial patterns suggest that women brought in trade goods from their home areas, and that burial customs from the women’s cultural tradition were observed. The distinction between positioning of bodies in graves according to sex seems to show that there was a great deal of differentiation between women and men’s cultural traditions.
The unique thing about the Sabine story is that there was mass movement of many women, perhaps an entire generation from their place of birth to their husband’s residence.
What I want to find out is whether there was matrilocal residence patterns in the groups in this area before this time. Such an explanatory tale might be created to justify a change from one major cultural behavior such as marriage patterns and residence.
In any case, I think the Sabine women did not have much self-determination. Of course we all know the Romans were obsessed with patriarchal behavior. We also know that women are naturally arbiters in families and communities.