While the Roman Empire and the Roman Republic are well remembered today, less well known is the Kingdom of Rome.
Legend claims that the city of Rome was founded in 753BCE. Romulus killed Remus in an act of fratricide and went on to found the city of Rome, naming it after himself. Romulus then invited colonists to settle in his new city. A problem soon developed though. Most of the colonists were men. The Romans then hatched a plan. They would hold a festival and invite people from the neighbouring cities to attend. Then, at a pre-arranged signal, they would grab women from one of the neighbouring cities, Sabine, and then proceed to fight off the Sabine men. Somehow this bizarre plan is said to have worked.
This story, which is almost certainly entirely apocryphal, is remembered to history as the Rape of the Sabine women. Notably no women were raped. While they were briefly detained they were soon given the choice to freely marry the Roman men. The Sabine women, all but one of whom was unmarried, accepted marriage to the Romans. The story makes it clear that they had a choice to accept or reject these Roman men as their husbands.
Not surprisingly the surrounding cities declared war on Rome. Perhaps surprisingly the Sabines themselves were the last to declare war. Maybe they were debating whether they wanted the women back.
After a series of battles a Sabine army approached Rome. A young Roman woman, Tarpeia, saw an opportunity. She betrayed Rome and opened the city gates for the Sabines in return for loot. The story elaborates that Tarpeia was promised whatever the Sabines had on their wrists. She expected gold bracelets but was crushed by their shields as they poured through the city gates instead. Rough justice.
The Romans and Sabines then fought a pitched battle in the city. Suddenly the Sabine women rushed in to the middle of the fray. On one side were their husbands, on the other their fathers. They called on both sides to lay down their arms as they were now family. Peace was achieved. Men met their fathers-in-law for the first time. The story concludes by telling us that the Sabines joined with the Romans, becoming one nation. Thus, according to legend, this was the beginning of Rome.
We can learn a lot about a society from their legends. Even Roman commentator Titus Livius, better known as Livy, made it clear that no sexual assault took place and that the women were free to choose if they wanted to marry the Roman men. While this may seem like a modern concern, Livy made this point 2000 years ago.
The feminist historical narrative would have us believe that women were oppressed by The Patriarchy and are only now escaping its clutches. Even a story with a title as provocative as this reveals a more complex past. Twice in the story women act in a decisive manner to change events. Tarpeia opens the gates, nearly handing the battle to the Sabines. The Sabine women then intercede and stop the fight between their husbands and fathers. The women in this story had agency – a clear indication that this was how Roman society viewed women.
Compared to its contemporary societies ancient Rome had comparatively few women in public life, exerting direct authority. This sort of authority is sometimes called hard power. Roman women though were fully capable of exerting soft power. As wives and daughters, aristocratic women had the ear of powerful men. History is replete with examples of powerful men acting on advice from women close to them. Although their actions were not completely without risk, women historically exerting soft power generally experienced fewer direct threats to their health and safety. The actions of the Sabine women in stopping the battle is a good example of the effectiveness of soft power.
Feminists claim that ancient Rome was a Patriarchy. In the original sense of the word, in which father’s ruled families, this is true. In the sense that feminists mean, in which men systematically oppress women, then it is very clearly not true. Feminism benefits from confusion between these two different meanings of the word Patriarchy.
If ancient Rome was a Patriarchy, in the sense that feminists mean, then neither the Roman not Sabine men would have paid any heed to a bunch of wailing women. Rather, then as now, the men wanted to keep their wives and daughters safe and happy and took their opinions in to account.
Ancient people lived lives far more similar to ours than is generally recognised. Many ancient societies though had better gender relations than we have today in the West. They understood gender differences and gender similarities – information that today has largely been forgotten.
The featured image depicts the painting ‘The Intervention of the Sabine Women’, by Jacques-Louis David, 1799.