More about The Abduction of the Sabine Women

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Sr. Contributor

The rape of the Sabine women is your classic tale of boy meets girl, boy rapes girl, boy and girl live happily ever after…you know, basically your typical Daniel Tosh comedy night. 

The Sabine maidens were invited to a party, then forcibly taken from their families and coerced into marriage with Roman men.  Though “rape” here is used in the classical sense of “abduction” (bride stealing), one wonders if there's such a big difference between literally raping a woman and a good-natured kidnapping-then-forcing into marriage. The Roman historian Livy tellingly specifies that no “direct” sexual assault took place. Can one be “indirectly” sexually assaulted? 

Either way, the Sabine women supposedly went on to be proud and dutiful Roman wives.  When the Sabine men later invaded, the women intervened to prevent war.  Interestingly, the Sabine warriors were let into the city by a Roman woman who thought they were bringing her jewelry. The Sabines crushed her to death instead...girl just couldn’t catch a break in ancient Rome.  Moral of the story: women love pretty things and have no control over their own bodies. Sounds like the title of Robin Thicke’s next album.

Like most misogynist texts, the story has inspired chauvinistic artists and patrons for centuries, as well as the occasional disgruntled, satirizing feminist.  The painting’s original owner, Marie-Madeleine, Duchesse d’Aiguillon, was apparently the latter.  She was an independent-minded woman and patron of the arts and sciences, who sponsored a female mathematician, and founded one of the first hospital schools in North America. 

She probably identified with the Sabine women.  Her uncle was Cardinal Richelieu.  You may remember him as the villain in The Three Musketeers, portrayed by such actors as Vincent Price, Tim Curry, and Christoph Waltz. (This gives you an idea of what a warm and fuzzy guy he was.) Richelieu attempted to arrange marriages between the widowed Duchesse and two princes, but Marie-Madeleine resisted, preferring her intellectual pursuits.  Some historians have also hinted that Uncle Richelieu “indulged in relations that were not only amorous but incestuous,” with his beautiful niece.  But we hope that, unlike the unfortunate women of Sabine, Marie-Madeleine was able to keep off the unwanted advances of men…creepy uncle or otherwise.