The Rape of the Sabines

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Fine Art’s Pairing Picasso exhibit, which “centers on pairing and juxtaposing works by Pablo Picasso.”

I was particularly taken with two pieces I’d long admired online, but had never before seen in person. From his 1962-63 series The Rape of the Sabines  (L’enlèvement des Sabines), the MFA paired the first piece in the series with the final piece from their own collection.

They were beautiful and grotesque. Picasso’s cubic and abstract style expressively dehumanizing the perpetrators and painfully illustrating the horrors of war.

Now, my high school Latin teacher would be very disappointed if I didn’t clarify that “rape” in this context is taken from the Latin raptio, more properly translated as “abduction.” Though the distinction in this story is muddy.

As Livy recounts in Book 9 of Ab Urbe Conduit Libri, following Romulus’ founding of Rome, the bourgeoning empire found itself with a problem:

And now the Roman state was become so powerful, that it was a match for any of the neighbouring nations in war, but, from the paucity of women, its greatness could only last for one age of man; for they had no hope of issue at home, nor had they any intermarriages with their neighbours. Therefore, by the advice of the Fathers, Romulus sent ambassadors to the neighbouring states to solicit an alliance and the privilege of intermarriage for his new subjects. “That cities, like every thing else, rose from very humble beginnings. That those which the gods and their own merit aided, gained great power and high renown. That he knew full well, both that the gods had aided the origin of Rome, and that merit would not be wanting. Wherefore that, as men, they should feel no reluctance to mix their blood and race with men.” No where did the embassy obtain a favourable hearing: so much did they at the same time despise, and dread for themselves and their posterity, so great a power growing up in the midst of them.

Find themselves so declined by their neighbors, “The Roman youth resented this conduct bitterly, and the matter unquestionably began to point towards violence.”

Romulus, therefore, planned a trap. Inviting neighboring people into the great city for the festival of Neptune Equester. Hearing of this great spectacle, “great numbers assembled, from a desire also of seeing the new city; especially their nearest neighbours, the Cæninenses, Crustumini, and Antemnates. Moreover the whole multitude of the Sabines came, with their wives and children.”

Livy is generally interpreted as claiming that the rape involved only benevolent kidnapping and not sexual assault. The Romans, after all, were not malevolent towards their intended property; they were only interested in acquiring proper wives:

…upon a signal given the Roman youth ran different ways to carry off the virgins by force. A great number were carried off at hap-hazard, according as they fell into their hands. Persons from the common people, who had been charged with the task, conveyed to their houses some women of surpassing beauty, destined for the leading senators. They say that one, far distinguished beyond the others for stature and beauty, was carried off by the party of one Thalassius, and whilst many inquired to whom they were carrying her, they cried out every now and then, in order that no one might molest her, that she was being taken to Thalassius; that from this circumstance this term became a nuptial one

…Romulus in person went about and declared, “That what was done was owing to the pride of their fathers, who had refused to grant the privilege of marriage to their neighbours; but notwithstanding, they should be joined in lawful wedlock, participate in all their possessions and civil privileges, and, than which nothing can be dearer to the human heart, in their common children. He begged them only to assuage the fierceness of their anger, and cheerfully surrender their affections to those to whom fortune had consigned their persons.” [He added,] “That from injuries love and friendship often arise; and that they should find them kinder husbands on this account, because each of them, besides the performance of his conjugal duty, would endeavour to the utmost of his power to make up for the want of their parents and native country.” To this the caresses of the husbands were added, excusing what they had done on the plea of passion and love, arguments that work most successfully on women’s hearts. The minds of the ravished virgins were soon much soothed…

Picasso’s interpretation seems distinctly less kind.

With the first piece completed just ten days after American reconnaissance planes recorded the construction of Soviet missile bases in Cuba, Picasso quickly turned to the dark fable of the Sabine women as the world appeared on the brink of destruction.

As Aegean prehistorian, Malcolm Wiener described:

On October 22, 1962, then 81-year old Picasso was at his grand estate in southern France when he turned on the television to hear President Kennedy announcing the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba capable of reaching the U.S. with nuclear warheads. Dismayed at the immense danger facing the world, Picasso contacted his friend Hélène Parmelin and her husband Edouard Pignon in Paris and asked them to bring him slides of Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents and David’s Rape of the Sabines, depicting a fabled abduction of Sabine women by ancient Romans. Wiener writes that according to Parmelin, the two couples stayed up much of the night as Picasso studied and viewed the slides superimposed on his wall. 

The results are astounding and horrendous; a testament to the relentless violence and brutality of man.

Pablo Picasso, The Rape of the Sabines (L’enlèvement des Sabines), Mas Notre-Dame-de-Vie, Mougins, November 2–4, 1962


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