Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 1b Romulus, from the rape of the Sabines

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), oil on canvas, 385 x 522 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

With the newly-founded city of Rome built and populated by the slaves and outcasts from Alba, it faced a serious problem: its inhabitants were almost entirely male, and were in desperate need of wives.

Plutarch’s account of the solution, the abduction (or rape) of a group of Sabine women, makes it clear that this was a planned and calculated act by Romulus. First, rumours were spread that an altar had been discovered hidden underground. Romulus then decreed that this would be celebrated with games and festivities, as well as sacrifices, which were attended by many from a neighbouring and friendly tribe, the Sabines.

When Romulus gave the signal at the celebrations, armed Romans rushed in, put the Sabine men to flight with their swords, and abducted their women. Plutarch reports the number of women taken by the Romans was between thirty and 683, all of whom were maidens, with the notable exception of one married woman, Hersilia, who was apparently captured by mistake (really?!).

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Abduction of the Sabine Women (c 1634-35), oil on canvas, 154.6 x 209.9 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

The ‘rape of the Sabine women’ has become one of the great motifs in painting, a set piece on a grand scale with many figures and rapid action in a classical setting. Nicolas Poussin painted two versions which survive, the earlier of which is his Abduction of the Sabine Women from about 1634-35, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A bearded Romulus stands, other dignitaries behind him, at the left, watching the scene below. Assorted Romans are there carrying off young Sabine women, whose arms are raised in protest. In the foreground is a woman with her two young babies and an old nurse, who is most probably Hersilia, although her abduction appears quite deliberate. Swords are raised in the air behind, as the Romans chase Sabine men away from their daughters.

The Sabines demanded that Romulus returned their women, disavowed the shameful act, and made peace. He refused, making a counter-demand that the Sabines should allow their marriage to Romans. The two sides prepared for war.

Before they could join in battle, though, Acron king of the Caeninenses led his army against Rome. Acron and Romulus met outside the city, and agreed to settle the matter between themselves, rather than with their forces.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Romulus’ Victory over Acron, (1812), tempera on canvas, 276 x 530 cm, École des Beaux Arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Before the fight, Romulus made a vow that, if he should conquer and overthrow Acron, he would carry home the king’s armour and dedicate it in person to Jupiter. Ingres’ painting of Romulus’ Victory over Acron (1812) shows him doing just that, as he carries Acron’s golden suit of armour in the first Roman-style ‘triumph’. In the background, Acron’s city is in flames, and his army annihilated in the battle that ensued.

Romulus invited the defeated Caeninenses to join the Romans in their new city, which many did. Afterwards, other neighbouring tribes challenged Romulus, and each was defeated, their lands and people being absorbed into Rome.

Eventually, the Sabines were ready for war under their king and general Tatius, who led them in their march against Rome. Their task wasn’t easy, as in those days its citadel was on the Capitol hill, a strongpoint for defence. The captain of the guard there had a daughter named Tarpeia. In return for the golden armlets which Sabine warriors wore on the left arm, Tarpeia betrayed the city of Rome by leaving its gates open at night, allowing the Sabines to enter.

As the Sabines swarmed in, Tatius told them to leave what they carried on their left arm with Tarpeia. As they also carried their shields, many misunderstood the command, and Tarpeia was buried under so many shields and golden armlets that she was crushed to death. She was buried where she fell, and that became known as the Tarpeian Rock. It was the place from which traitors and other enemies of Rome were thrown to their death.

With the Sabines in possession of the Capitol, Romulus challenged them to fight. There followed a series of indecisive battles, until Romulus was struck on the head by a rock, and his troops started to retreat to the Palatine hill. He had just regained order and commanded his forces to stand and fight, when the abducted Sabine women invaded the battlefield.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), oil on canvas, 385 x 522 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

That is the remarkable scene depicted in Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), which is sometimes mistakenly assumed to show an event immediately following their abduction.

Looming over the city is the rugged Tarpeian Rock, where the traitorous Tarpeia had just been buried. Highlighted in her brilliant white robes in the foreground, and separating two of the warriors, is the daughter of Tatius, Hersilia, whom Romulus had married. The warriors are, of course, her father and her husband, and the infants strategically placed by a nurse between the men are the children of Romulus.

Guercino (1591–1666), Hersilia Separating Romulus and Tatius (1645), oil on canvas, 253 x 267 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Guercino’s Hersilia Separating Romulus and Tatius (1645) concentrates on the three figures of Tatius, Hersilia, and Romulus, and tucks the rest of the battle away in the distance behind them.

Plutarch summarises the Sabine women’s words as beginning “with argument and reproach”, and ending “with supplication and entreaty”. These forced a truce, allowing the women to bring food and water to those who needed them, and to tend the wounded.

When negotiations were completed, the women were allowed to continue to live with their husbands if they wished, and they were freed from all work other than spinning. Rome became a joint city of the Romans and Sabines, with Romulus and Tatius its joint sovereigns.

One hundred Sabines were added to the patricians, and a code of conduct with women was introduced. The latter included men giving women the right of way when walking, and not uttering indecent words in the presence of a woman. The new Roman forces adopted Sabine armour, including their rectangular shields, in place of the earlier circular ones.

Tatius was later killed by the relatives of some ambassadors who had been killed by robbers, leaving Romulus as the sole king of Rome. When a plague bringing sudden death was affecting the Romans, they were attacked by the people of Cameria. Romulus defeated them, and once again they were used to augment the population of Rome, and to increase its territory. This was repeated with the Fidenae, but in their case Romulus was unable to achieve a victory over them, and arranged peace instead.

When the grandfather of Romulus, King Numitor of Alba, finally died, Romulus inherited his throne. He tried appointing an annual ruler for that city, and encouraged Rome to adopt a similar system. This brought suspicion and opposition, in the midst of which Romulus, then aged fifty-four, suddenly disappeared.

Plutarch gives various accounts as to how Romulus could have vanished, including claims that he was murdered and his body dismembered and dispersed.

Jean-Baptiste Nattier (1678–1726), Romulus being taken up to Olympus by Mars (c 1700), oil on canvas, 99 × 96.5 cm, Muzeum Kolekcji im. Jana Pawła II, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

The story which remains strongest in the myths about Romulus is that of his apotheosis, painted here by Jean-Baptiste Nattier in his Romulus being taken up to Olympus by Mars from about 1700. Mars is embracing Romulus, with the standard of Rome being borne at the lower left, and the divine chariot ready to take Romulus up to the upper right corner, where the rest of the gods await him.

Comparing Theseus with Romulus

Plutarch warned us at the start of his biography of these two founding fathers of great cities and nations that they were far from being perfect gentlemen.

Had Theseus wished, he could have ruled Troezen, and it was his choice to embark on the course that he did. He had other options which would have spared him killing the robbers and others than he met on his first journey to Athens. Romulus, though, was driven from fear to kill the tyrannical Amulius, king of Alba.

Theseus accomplished many daring deeds: his battle against the Centaurs, campaign against the Amazons, and most notably his courage in killing the Minotaur.

Plutarch stresses how Romulus rose from the humblest of beginnings, as the adopted son of a swineherd. Although there is uncertainty as to whether it was he who killed his brother Remus, Romulus saved his mother’s life and restored his grandfather to the throne.

It was Theseus’ neglect that led to his father’s suicide, and his conduct with women was inexcusable. Plutarch lists his abduction or rape of Ariadne, Antiope, Anaxo of Troezen, and finally Helen when she was still a child and Theseus was too old for lawful marriage. The only reason for these was the “lustful wantonness” of Theseus the man.

The abduction of the Sabine women was perhaps the worst of Romulus’ deeds of violence and injustice. But Plutarch finds mitigations for this act, and claims that it resulted in stable marriages and the union of the Roman and Sabine peoples.

Finally, Plutarch recalls the support given the two men by the gods: Romulus “was preserved by a signal favour of the gods”, while the very birth of Theseus “was not agreeable to the will of the gods” – quite a damning conclusion.


Whole text in English translation at Penelope.