The Sabine Women

I finished Plutarch’s life of Romulus, which reads a lot like one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Just as Kipling mythologizes animal history such as how the leopard got its spots or how the camel got its hump, Plutarch explains the beginnings of Roman history, including such tidbits as why fast people are said to have celerity, why lawyer-client privilege exists, and even why the bridegroom carries his new bride across the threshold.

Romulus and his twin brother Remus were the mythical founders of Rome. They were said to have been born of a virgin mother and an apparition that came out of an evil king’s fireplace. The king had the twins cast into the river at birth, but the servant tasked with this chore put them in a trough first. The babies floated safely to shore, where a wolf suckled them and a woodpecker fed them bits of food until they were rescued by a swineherd and his wife. Here is a famous statue of the wolf suckling the twins:

The Big M says that this statue looks like a chupacabra, the legendary goat sucker that people periodically claim to see around our part of the country. So would that make Romulus and Remus … chupalobos?

Now, according to Plutarch, the legendary wolf may have been a misnomer. He acknowledges that “wolf” was another name for a woman of “loose morals.” Immediately I pictured the equivalent modern predator:

I suppose if a Courteney Cox-type found the twins and fed them, that would be a bit more plausible than a wolf doing the same.

Anywho, the most interesting part of the story (as far as I was concerned) is the infamous Rape of the Sabine Women. Seems ol’ Romulus had knocked off his brother Remus and was now the ruler of a little town full of men. These men were cast-offs from the surrounding communities and, as such, could not find women willing to marry them.

After unsuccessfully negotiating for women with the nearby Sabine tribe, Romulus got an idea. He would claim to have found a hidden altar, and then throw a giant festival in celebration. There would be a huge sacrifice and food, performances, and—best of all—games in the Circus Maximus.

It worked. All of the surrounding tribes showed up for the festival. Romulus had pre-arranged a signal with his men: at a certain time during the races he would throw his robe over his shoulder, and this would mean “attack.” Swish goes the robe, and suddenly hundreds of men draw swords and rush upon the crowd. They steal away the Sabine women, taking care only to kidnap the marriageable virgins (I’m going to assume they had some sort of distinctive dress that would allow for their quick identification in the melee. ‘Cause otherwise, how would one go about identifying marriageable virgins in a melee?).

By the time the Sabine men finally got around to battling the Romans, their women had had children with their new husbands and in some cases had adjusted well to marriage. The women ran out on the battlefield and entreated the Sabines and the Romans to reconcile, which they did. I imagine it made for a strange family reunion.

“Dad, this is Romulus. You’ll remember him as the guy who kidnapped me and committed an outrage on me to make me his wife. We’re in love now.”

The Rape of the Sabine Women has been a popular subject in art from the Renaissance forward. It’s been covered in sculpture:
(Giambologna, 1582)

and painting (Peter Paul Rubens, 1640),

Jacques Louis David (1799),

and even Pablo Picasso (1962).

If you like musical theater, you’ll recognize the theme in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. (Which may be the only musical that actually names Plutarch in a song.) Seven mountain men kidnap seven unmarried ladies after unsuccessfully wooing them from their families, and eventually the girls fall in love with their kidnappers. Here’s a performance of “Sobbin’ Women”:

Strange aside: when The Big M’s high school put on a production of this musical, the choir kids weren’t allowed to have a bed on the stage because it might imply sex. Never mind that the subject of the play was kidnapping women for sex. No bed, and it’s all good.

Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. The kids also had to change the lyrics of another song from “we’ve got to make it through the winter or else we won’t get lovin’ in the spring” (and later “…or Billy says we won’t get a doggone thing”) to “we’ve got to make it through the winter or else we won’t get to wear a ring.”

So a bed implying married sex was still bad. Kidnapping the brides, okay.

Anyway, Romulus had a long rule as Rome’s head of state before eventually disappearing. Legend had it that members of the Senate he created dismembered him into tiny chunks. At any event his body was never found.

As for why the bridegroom carries his new bride across the threshold?

It is done “in memory that the Sabine virgins were carried in by violence, and did not go in of their own will.”

Categories: Brain Workouts

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