Rome is an ancient city that has existed for around 3,000 years. Like any city of its age, Rome has several myths that account for its history, traditions and the important changes the city went through during its long existence.
In the modern world, the myths of ancient Rome are as famous as its history. Today we discuss two such myths that are related to two very important transitions in Roman history: Rome’s initiation as a monarchy soon after its foundation and the beginning of the Republic some centuries later.
The abduction of the Sabine women
One of the most famous myths of ancient Rome, the abduction of the Sabine women relates to the city’s beginnings as a monarchy and its development into a powerful city-state.
When Rome was founded by Romulus, most of its citizens were freedmen, slaves and men of questionable character who fled from neighboring towns in search of a second chance. Romulus wanted to turn Rome into a powerful city. But due to the character of its citizens, neighboring towns were unwilling to have their women marry any man of Rome. Romulus sent envoys to the neighboring cities requesting the right to intermarriage. But even though the city had been founded by divine assistance, no father wanted his daughter to be married to a Roman. The lack of women in the city threatened to end any glimmer of hope regarding Rome’s bright future.
To deal with this problem, Romulus, who was then filled with resentment against his neighbors formulated a plan. According to Plutarch, a Greek historian and philosopher, he spread the word that he had discovered an altar of a certain god hidden underground in the area where the Circus Maximus is now located. To honor the god, he organized a great spectacle to which he invited all his neighbors, including the Sabines. While everyone was distracted by the festivities, a signal was given and the Romans carried off the women, to the utter dismay of their parents.
Livy, a Roman historian, tells us that the kidnapped women were distressed and resentful. But Romulus went around in person convincing them that they would lead happy married lives since their husbands would do their best to provide them with everything they needed, to make up for the loss of their parents. Romulus and the other Roman men pleaded for the affection of the women whose feelings of anger were finally subdued.
The parents of these women who were still reeling from their loss, attacked Rome several times, the most serious one being the attack by the Sabines. The Sabines managed to enter the fortifications of Rome and took hold of the citadel. They then fought a battle with the Romans in the valley between the Palatine and the Capitoline hills. The battle was stopped by the Sabine women who couldn’t bear to see their husbands and fathers kill each other. They rushed between the two armies and appealed to them to stop fighting.
According to Livy, the women cried: “If 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.”
Moved by the sentiments of these women, the men decided to stop fighting and the generals on both sides arranged terms for a peace treaty. The Sabines and the Romans united to form one state and the seat of the government was established in Rome.
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The story of Lucretia
A second, and one of the most important myths of ancient Rome, is a tale that signals the city’s transition to a new political phase: the story of Luceretia. Lucretia’s death is credited as the tragic event that led to the downfall of the monarchy in Rome which led to the birth of the Republic. Livy claims that her story was set in 509 BC during the reign of the last king of Rome. It began as a drunken conversation among a group of young men at the house of Sextus Tarquinius, the king’s son, regarding whose wife was the most virtuous. As the debate got heated Collatinus, one of the men present, suggested that they pay their wives a visit in order to judge their behavior and finally settle the matter.
It was Lucretia, the wife of Collatinus, who emerged victorious but it was this victory that led to the tragic circumstances that followed. Sextus Tarquinius on seeing Lucretia’s beauty and purity, was immediately infatuated with her and decided that he wanted her for himself. A few days later while Collatinus was away, Tarquinius returned to the house and was welcomed by the unsuspecting hosts. That night Tarquinius entered Lucretia’s chamber and confessed his feelings and pleaded, bribed and threatened her to be his. When Lucretia finally gave in to his threats, he violated her, leaving her grief-stricken and overcome with guilt.
Lucretia sent for her father and husband and asked them each to bring along a trusted friend. On reaching the house they found a distressed Lucretia in her room, who then recounted the terrible incident that had occurred. After making them pledge that they would kill Sextus Tarquinius, Lucretia, who was hiding a knife in her dress, plunged it into her heart.
Lucretia’s bloodied corpse was then displayed in the forum where an enraged crowd, that was already dissatisfied with the existing monarchy, had gathered. This ultimately led to a revolution, with the monarchy being abolished and the aristocratic families establishing a Republic.
Similarities between these famous myths of ancient Rome
While Rome has several other important myths regarding its history, such as the story of Aeneas and the foundation of the city by Romulus, we have chosen these two myths since they contain many parallels. Both these myths represent important periods in Roman history. While the abduction of the Sabine women signals the beginning of the monarchy, the rape of Lucretia initiates its end. In both these myths of ancient Rome, assault on women is used as a catalyst to bring about social and political change.
This opens the door to a discussion regarding the role of women in Roman mythology and the use of violence against them to bring about a great outcome. Such themes were common in both Roman and Greek mythology as can be seen in stories about the rape of Rhea Silvia by the god Mars that led to the birth of Remus and Romulus and the abduction of Helen that led to the Trojan war. But this is a complex subject to be discussed in our future articles.
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