Livy: The Rape of the Sabines

Not many details are known about Livy's life. He is said to have written philosophical dialogues in his youth (Elder Seneca, Controversiae 10 Praef. 2), but his fame rests on his 142 book history of Rome, called Ab Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City), which he began to write around 29 BCE, after he had moved to Rome. As far as we know, Livy never held public office nor played a role in public life. Livy was acquainted with the emperor Augustus, but scholars debate the extent to which they shared common goals. The later Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 4. 34) reports that Augustus called Livy a "Pompeian", i.e. thought that he had Republican sympathies. He published his history of Rome in installments, working on it for most of his life. He lived three years longer than Augustus, dying in CE 17 in his native Patavium.

This narrative describes an event that may have taken place c. 750 BCE at the founding of the Roman monarchy.

The Roman State had now become so strong that it was a match for any of its neighbours in war, but its greatness threatened to last for only one generation, since through the absence of women there was no hope of offspring, and there was no right of intermarriage with their neighbours. Acting on the advice of the senate, Romulus sent envoys amongst the surrounding nations to ask for alliance and the right of intermarriage on behalf of his new community.…

As to the origin of Rome, it was well known that whilst it had received divine assistance, courage and self-reliance were not wanting. There should, therefore, be no reluctance for men to mingle their blood with their fellow-men. Nowhere did the envoys meet with a favourable reception….

The Roman youth could ill brook such insults, and matters began to look like an appeal to force. To secure a favourable place and time for such an attempt, Romulus, disguising his resentment, made elaborate preparations for the celebration of games in honour of "Equestrian Neptune," which he called "the Consualia."...

There was a great gathering; people were eager to see the new City, all their nearest neighbours … and the whole Sabine population came, with their wives and families. They were invited to accept hospitality at the different houses, and after examining the situation of the City, its walls and the large number of dwelling-houses it included, they were astonished at the rapidity with which the Roman State had grown.

When the hour for the games had come, and their eyes and minds were alike riveted on the spectacle before them, the preconcerted signal was given and the Roman youth dashed in all directions to carry off the maidens who were present. The larger part were carried off indiscriminately….

Alarm and consternation broke up the games, and the parents of the maidens fled, distracted with grief, uttering bitter reproaches on the violators of the laws of hospitality and appealing to the god to whose solemn games they had come, only to be the victims of impious perfidy.

The abducted maidens were quite as despondent and indignant. Romulus, however, went round in person, and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and--dearest of all to human nature-would be the mothers of freemen.

[war breaks out between the Sabines and the Romans]

Then it was that the Sabine women, whose wrongs had led to the war, throwing off all womanish fears in their distress, went boldly into the midst of the flying missiles with dishevelled hair and rent garments. Running across the space between the two armies they tried to stop any further fighting and calm the excited passions by appealing to their fathers in the one army and their husbands in the other not to bring upon themselves a curse by staining their hands with the blood of a father-in-law or a son-in-law, nor upon their posterity the taint of parricide. "If," they cried, " you are weary of these ties of kindred, these marriage-bonds, then turn your anger upon us; it is we who are the cause of the war, it is we who have wounded and slain our husbands and fathers. Better for us to perish rather than live without one or the other of you, as widows or as orphans."