Disclaimer: The artwork this article explores presents disturbing and graphic subject matter that often shocks viewers, mainly because it depicts historically overlooked events.
The rape of the Sabine women is one of the earliest atrocities in Roman history. Interestingly, besides being a part of history, there are various art pieces such as statues, paintings, and cartoons that depict the rape of the Sabine women. Unfortunately, unlike famous sculptors, such as Michelangelo’s marble statue David or Antonio del Pallaiuolo’s Lupe Capitolina, the rape of the Sabine women isn’t talked about enough. For one of the earliest atrocities in history, there’s only the artwork of a few artists that represent and acknowledge what happened to the women.
King Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, ordered the rape of the Sabine women due to counteract the severe decline of women in Rome at the time. The Roman men desired to “procreate” and repopulate the city. Fortunately for the Romans, the Sabine villages were nearby. Therefore, King Romulus held a festival in Rome, inviting the nearby towns, such as the Sabine village. However, during the festival, he and his men abducted thirty women and girls. According to Adaptation, “In the midst of the festivities, Romulus gave a signal by raising his cloak, and, acting in concert, the Roman warriors seized the Sabine women and abducted them, one for each, to serve as their wives.” The Sabine women were sacrificed by Roman men to “save” the future of Rome. Historically speaking, all the women were “virgins” except for one who became the wife of Romulus.
Historical events, of course, influence artwork that gains popularity or later becomes famous. The examination of these three pieces of artwork explores illustrations of these events to shed light on and acknowledge the victims of a deeply nefarious occurrence in Roman history.
The Rape of the Sabines Statue
The first and most well-known statue depicting the ancient atrocity is The Abduction of the Sabine Woman, also known as The Rape of the Sabines. Sculpted by Giambologna in 1583 from a block of marble, the sculpture reveals a Sabine woman trying to escape a Roman man while a senior man below shields himself from the horror. Today, the statue is displayed in the Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. According to SmartHistory, the sculpture was placed in the Loggia dei Lanzi upon its completion in August 1582, and it was referred to as a “group of three statues.” In addition, Matthew A. McIntosh, a public historian and writer for Brewminate, wrote that the sculpture was “Originally intended as nothing more than a demonstration of the artist’s ability to create a complex sculptural group, its subject matter, the legendary rape of the Sabines, had to be invented after Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, decreed that it be put on public display in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria, Florence.” Shortly after the carefully curated statue was unveiled to the public, the work was widely interpreted as representing an ancient Roman event. Giambologna produced a “bronze narrative” to be interested in the base of the sculpture to help clarify the three figures. Giambologna’s sculpture brings light to the raw and true nature of the event. Even back in the 16th century, the individuals were unaware of the rape of Sabine women.
The Abduction of the Sabine Women Paintings
In 1635, two paintings were titled The Abduction of the Sabine Women. Both paintings were done by two different artists, Peter Paul Rubens and Nicolas Poussin. Wendy Gray, a writer for Daily Art Magazine, gives her analysis of the two paintings, writing, “The story of how King Romulus of Rome took by force the Sabine women has fascinated artists for centuries, and through these two works, we can see how the 17th-century passion for storytelling is conveyed.” Ruben and Poussin, two of many artists aghast by the atrocity, gave their interpretation through their paintings. Although both paintings focus on the chaos and horror of the atrocity, they do have their slight differences. Firstly, Gray noted in Poussin’s work, “each figure plays a part and the poses are ‘statuesque’ and with the ‘perfect’ proportion of the semi-naked soldier at the forefront of the canvas.” Poussin's usage of the semi-nude bodies of the soldiers and women taps into a classical Roman style. There’s a sense of movement among the bodies, especially the soldiers grabbing the women. Viewers can further see the Roman style of Corinthian columns.
Meanwhile, in Ruben’s work, Gray wrote, “Here, Romulus is hidden in the shadows, whereas Poussin puts him into an elevated position, thereby creating a more sinister scene, especially where we note the states of undress that Ruben’s Sabines are portrayed and how his palette is more muted than Poussin’s.” Although both paintings represent the same atrocity, they’re stylistically different. Through the different placement of Romulus, each painting offers another focus on the rape and abduction of the Sabine women.
The Romans Walking Off with the Sabine Women Cartoon
Unlike Giambologna's and Rubens’ representation, British illustrator and cartoonist John Leech drew a satirical engraving cartoon of the Sabine women. In 1850, Leech illustrated the cartoon for “The Comic History of Rome” by Gilbert Abbot á Beckett, which Bradbury and Evans published in London, England. Leech was known for illustrating the picture in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The closer viewers look at the cartoon, the more evident it is that the women do not look terrified, nor are they being assaulted or kidnapped. Instead, they look happy and jolly while sitting on the shoulders of the Roman men. Thus, the atrocity the other artwork has previously depicted is a complete satire. In addition, the women in Leech’s cartoon are wearing Victorian clothing. According to Getty Images, “The illustrator has included a few Victorian details, such as some of the women being dressed in crinolines and poke bonnets,” which indicates Britain's cultural dismissal of women’s struggles as individuals. In Britain during the eighteenth- century, Britain was known for its patriarchal society where women were strictly under their husband’s care and home. Women had no voice of their own in society or their own homes. Leech's illustrator truly captured how ancient Rome and eighteenth-century Britain viewed women.
Tragically, our society does not acknowledge the rape of the Sabine women. Our collective history is no stranger to violence, rape, and atrocity, but what’s equally disheartening is the plethora of events that we aren’t even aware of still to this day. Fortunately, the artwork of Giambologna, Ruben, Poussin, and Leech represents the Sabine women. However, all four artists interpreted the event from the perspective of the era they lived in. While these types of artwork have allowed the historical event to go unnoticed for many years, they still call into question what exactly happened, raising awareness of the fact that the victims were never given the recognition they deserve. Thus, the artists provided insight into how women were not valued and treated as property and a transaction during early Roman days.
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