Women do not often figure prominently, or well, in the histories of the ancient world. Sometimes women appear –generally or specifically – in the ancient sources, only to be ignored and omitted by later, even modern, historians. Sometimes their actions, as reported, beg a re-interpretation.
History, Women, and the Wife, in the time of Romulus, Founder of Rome
Romulus acquires wives for the men of his new Rome by abducting young women during a festival.
One of the abducted women may have become Romulus’ wife, Hersilia. Livy of Rome, who wrote during Augustus’ reign, says she was an abducted Sabine who married Romulus. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halikarnassus, who also wrote during the reign of Augustus, says that Hersilia was already a Sabine mother, who when her daughter was abducted, chose freely to go to Rome with her. He makes no mention of Hersilia in turn marrying a Roman. The Greek biographer-historian Plutarch, who wrote in the latter part of the first century AD and early second century AD, has Hersilia, formerly married, be seized by mistake and then later either marrying Romulus or another Roman named Hostilius.
When the abduction is mentioned in modern histories or in discussions of the behaviors between men and women in ancient times, two issues are rarely if ever mentioned.
One is that Romulus first tried diplomacy, sending ambassadors and envoys to the neighboring cities to arrange for marriages. He did not simply arrange to have women dragged off into the shadows and ravished. The sources agree that his diplomatic attempts were rebuffed. So then he arranged a festival, and invited everyone from the cities to attend. During that festival, the women were indeed carried off-and subsequently, perhaps even as soon as possible, married according to rite and ritual. They became honored wives and mothers of Rome and were treated as such.
The second often ignored element is that those women eventually engineered the peace between Rome and the Sabine army. Three cities had gone to war against Rome, provoked by the parents of the abducted women. Rome had defeated each of these, and had then been attacked by the Sabines, for the same reason. Livy writes that Hersilia pleaded with Romulus to pardon the women’s parents, after the first three cities had been defeated, and he agrees, allowing them to come live in Rome and keep their property. Livy writes later that, while the Roman and Sabine armies faced off against each other on the field, all the women, these wives of Rome, some carrying their young children, walked into the battlefield and then pleaded with their fathers, brothers, husbands, and all, to cease the fighting and to make a peace. Dionysius writes that Hersilia herself proposed to the women that they go to the battlefield and plead for peace. Both Dionysius and Plutarch agree that Hersilia is the spokesperson for the women after they interrupt the battle. The women are also shown caring for the wounded after the fighting stopped. This is a powerful scene (whether or not it really happened, three ancient historians included the event in their accounts.)
History and a Woman under Tarquinius Superbus, last King of Rome
The story of the death of Lucretia, which is traditionally the provoking incident for the overthrow of L Tarquinius “Superbus,” the tyrant and last king of ancient Rome and the birth of the Republic, is a tale that might encourage a re-interpretation of the event.
The usual story is that Lucretia was the sweet and innocent wife of Collatinus. Rome was currently besieging a city, and a handful of the noble officers decided to look in on their wives to see who was most dutiful. Lucretia caught the eye of the son of the king, who later returned to her secretly and by threats, seduced her. She then called for her husband, her father, and one or two other men, told them what had happened, and then, as an example to all women that unchastity is intolerable, committed suicide. Angered and grief-stricken her relatives incite the crowd to depose the king and form a new government.
This account might be re-interpreted for two reasons.
From a historical basis, the account of the overthrow and formation of consulship is a bit odd. Both Lucretia’s husband Collatinus, and L Brutus, who is traditionally considered the founder of Rome’s republic and one of its first consuls, were actually part of the Tarquin family. While the sources have them eager to get rid of the entire family, they themselves are part of that family. Were they simply ambitious and looking toward their own power in rule? In the accounts, eventually T Superbus seeks aid from the Etruscan Porsenna, supposedly to have him restore Tarquin to the throne. Porsenna indeed invades, takes over the Janiculum hill and holds Rome for a while-but never restores Tarquin to the throne. Never. Not at all. The Roman historian Tacitus makes a brief reference that Porsenna actually conquered and held Rome for a time-but says nothing about Tarquin. Other attempts by Tarquin to gain help from Greek Cumae also fail and he dies in exile.
The second and more interesting reason for re-interpretation is a social one. The death of Lucretia has been accepted as the suicide of a violated proper wife. But there is a possible, Etruscan, variant of that tale that infers that perhaps Lucretia was a more willing participant in an affair with the Tarquin prince, and that her husband, Brutus, her father, and others, while seeking to avenge their own humiliation, were not simply avenging her honor.
Neither re-interpretation really changes the flow of the events. The last king was deposed, and the Republic was born. Those are clear facts. But perhaps the people involved in the events had different motives and goals.
Perhaps this makes for interesting drama, at least.