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Rome’s Feminine Foundations and the Agency of the Sabine Women

Caleb Dance

Washington and Lee University

This paper submits that Ovid rewrites Livy’s narrative of the “Rape of the Sabine Women” (AUC 1.9-10 and 1.13) in Ars Amatoria 1 and Fasti 3 to grant greater—if still imperfect—agency to the abducted women (raptae). After revisiting the relevant passages of Livy Book 1 wherein the Sabine women (rather than the fighting male Sabini) feature, I propose that Ovid’s account, split across two works with two different narrators, humanizes those young women compelled to become wives to the first generation of the populus Romanus and mothers to the next.

Building upon those who detect strains of ambivalence in either or both of Ovid’s narratives (Wardman 1965, Eidenow 1993, Labate 2006, and Wise 2017), I note Ovid’s allusive engagement with Livy and his elaboration of scenes that the historian neglects. Hersilia’s statement at Fasti 3.211 (quaerendum est uiduae fieri malitis an orbae) closely resembles that of the collective Sabine women at AUC 1.13.3 (melius peribimus quam sine alteris uestrum uiduae aut orbae uiuemus). Despite these similarities, the women in Livy claim responsibility for the ensuing war (which Livy also suggests: cf. 1.13.1); those in the Fasti do not, even as they work to resolve it (Wise 2017: 154).

The centerpiece of the rape in Ars Amatoria 1 is not, as in Livy, a recounting of the roles played in the abduction by men of different social classes or a report of the “flatteries” that Romulus and the abductors offer (AUC 1.9.11-16) but a detailed description of how the women’s fear manifests during the abduction (1.119-126). The women are granted no interiority by the praeceptor (with the “catalog of fear” mediated through his own gaze—nam timor unus erat, facies non una timoris, 1.121), but they remain active and sympathetic in their distress. Rather than a straightforward celebration of early Rome, the episode reads as an explanation of why theaters remain dangerous for women (formosis insidiosa, 1.133-4).

Apostrophes to Romulus at the beginning and end of the Ars Amatoria passage (101, 131) and in the middle of the Fasti passage (3.197) link the narratives and function as repeated reminders of the Roman founder’s pivotal role in the dishonest abduction. Mars, who narrates the Fasti episode, claims to have inspired Romulus to use violence to secure intermarriage (3.197), but he details no plan, elides the rape, and resumes the tale only after the women have been abducted (iamque fere raptae, 3.203) and the Roman men are at war with their neighbors.

Mars states that Consus will narrate the omitted story on his own festive day (the Consualia, which is variably etymologized from consilium, consul, census, contio, and condo; see Noonan 1990), but when he quotes Hersilia speaking to the other abducted women, she outlines their dilemma and shares a plan (consilium . . . dabo, 3.212). The repetition of consilium in the 3.213 hints at an origin of the Consualia that derives from Hersilia’s plan rather than that of Romulus. Ovid thus has the concerned council of mothers subtly reclaim the name of the festival otherwise associated with their abduction.

The description of the actions of Hersilia and the abductees/mothers suggests that Mars himself poorly understands their plan. When he says that the women carry pignora cara (3.218) into the middle of the battlefield, the phrase could mean “beloved pledges” but also “valuable hostages.” Indeed, the mothers place their children in danger and compel them to speak (3.221-4). (The children play no comparable role in Livy’s account.) The women avoid becoming widowed or orphaned (uiduae . . . an orbae, 3.211) by risking becoming childless (also orbae). Yet in so doing, they establish an intergenerational Roman peace. I consider in my conclusion whether Ovid’s narrative offers an embedded critique of Augustan marriage legislation including the Lex Papia Poppaea, a law imposing financial penalties on orbi, or married men and women with no children.

Session/Panel Title

Variant Voices in Roman Foundation Narratives

Session/Paper Number

84.3

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