The Rape of the Sabine Women
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cschuster's picture

Sr. Contributor

This painting by Nicolas Poussin IS Western civilization. Everything you need to know about the stuff you ignored in high school history can be found here.

It was commissioned by Cardinal Aluigi Omodei, a General in the Papal Army during the Second War of Castro. He was Il Papa's walking, talking human brass knuckles. But the Pope was far from the story's only fan. This was Poussin's second commission for this scene in just a few years. Cardinal Aluigi's grieving inheritors hocked it off to King Louis XIV. The painting stayed a possession of the French crown until it was nationalized after the French Revolution. Edgar Degas liked it so much that he painted an exact duplicate that today hangs in a museum (the Norton Simon in Pasadena, CA).

"Rape" in this context comes from the Latin raptus. And, the thing is, it's really not what it sounds like. It's way worse. In ancient Rome, to raptus was to take a woman, in every sense of the word. Your basic kidnapping with marital undertones. Only, raptus was considered a property crime. Not deemd "bad" because the woman as an individual was kidnapped and forced into an unwanted union, but bad because a father or husband was denied their caretaker or uterus. And that's only scratching the surface of disturbing stuff found here.

The painting shows the most famous moment of a pivotal myth to the history of Rome. The city's founded but there are no women. Roman men are bummed. Forging a new civilization is a total waste of time if it dies with you and your buddies. The neighboring Sabine peoples have women, and women make babies. So the Romans invite the Sabines to town for dinner and a play. Once the Sabines are all waiting for the show to start, presumably answering trivia about other plays that someone from the stage is shouting, the gold man strutting his stuff to the left (Romulus, Rome's founder) gives the signal. It's lady-grabbin' time. It's that classic bait-n-switch. Invited for a show only to be kidnapped and forced into marriage and childbearing. Years later, the male Sabines return to free the women. Only the formerly Sabine women stand between the battle lines, hold up their Roman spawn and shout, "Will somebody please think of the children?" The Sabine men realize it's not so bad to be Roman and immigrate. The other native peoples of the Italian boot soon follow. Thus, an empire.

Now, why would Cardinal Aluigi have such a hard-on for this scene? He could have asked Poussin to paint anything. Shoot, one equally-vested cardinal had Raphael turn the walls of his Vatican bathroom into a porno starring the pagan god Pan. 17th century princes were, in a word, expected to seek out a rape scene for their private art collections. It showed thoughtful reflection on their duties to preserve the nation at any cost. They looked on the rapists as role models, and the raped as subjects who just didn't get the big picture yet. And now, I don't want to live on this planet anymore.