In this paper I shall argue that Tarpeia’s use of foedus in Propertius 4.4 becomes a focal point for considering how erotic relationships can join people together in the public realm and the potential pitfalls of incorporating emotions into the political process of resolving war. In poem 4.4, Propertius tells the legend of Tarpeia’s betrayal of Rome to the Sabines in the war between the Romans and Sabines that follows the Romans’ rape of the Sabine women, famously recounted in Livy AUC 1.13. In Livy’s and others’ versions of the legend Tarpeia is motivated by a bribe offered by Sabine soldiers. Propertius offers an alternate version where her erotic desire for Tatius, king of the Sabines, motivates her betrayal. In a tour-de-force example of rationalizing, Tarpeia convinces herself that her desire can serve a political aim – peace between the Sabines and Romans (4.4.55-60). Tarpeia offers herself in marriage as a way to stop the war: commissas acies ego possum soluere: nuptae / uos medium palla foedus inite mea (“I can dissolve the joined battle lines: undertake a reconciling treaty with my wedding dress,” 4.4.59-60).
Book 4 challenges the assumed dichotomies of Romanitas, gender, and law through role reversals, among other means (Janan 2001: 19-28). Tarpeia’s use of foedus creates a similar inversion through having a woman, rather than a man, use sociopolitical language to describe her desired relationship. When at Propertius 4.4.59-60, Tarpeia offers herself in marriage as a treaty in her apostrophe to Tatius, she is representing her domestic concerns in political terms. For Tarpeia, representing herself to Tatius as a means to conquer Rome is best expressed in terms of a metaphor that maps marriage onto the political (4.4.60). Not only does the narrator thematize the ability to resolve war through marriage, but the female character herself vocalizes this theme. I argue in this paper that Propertius 4.4 portrays Tarpeia’s speech and action as the connection between the domestic and political beyond her role in the poem as a symbol of gender and status; the male voice of this text can best conceive of this role in legal-political terms.
This paper concludes by way of suggesting the broader implications of how female characters in Augustan literature use the word ‘treaty’ (foedus) to describe marriage and its consequences in the context of war. The Sabine women end the fighting between the Sabines and Romans, Dido’s curse is the mythic reason for the Punic wars, and Tarpeia helps the Sabine king Tatius in the Roman-Sabine war. All these women figure their domestic roles (that of wives, lovers, or mothers) in political terms through the word foedus. As has been argued by scholars such as Kristina Milnor, this literary move serves to bring the domestic into the political and to incorporate women into the body politic while reifying their marginalized status. This vocalization of a woman’s perceived role communicates a certain agency heretofore overlooked in scholarship; in particular the way that gender and politics intersect through male authors constructing a legal-political role for women in the social contract.