Abducting the Sabine Women in the Mid-2oth Century

Christopher M. McDonough

University of the South

An inherent problem, at least for me, of Livy's account of the Sabine women (1.9, 13) is that of approach.  Scholars in recent years have offered compelling accounts which place the story in historical or anthropological perspective (see especially Gary B. Miles, Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995] and Gary Forsythe, Livy and Early Rome: A Study in Historical Method and Judgment [Stuttgart : Franz Steiner, 1999]). Historicizing aside, though, what precisely am I as a contemporary reader to make of this charming tale of rape that the Romans took as a critical foundation legend?  Can I like the story and hate it simultaneously? The point of this paper is to confront this problem by considering two mid-2oth century representations of the legend– Picasso's Rape of the Sabine Women (1962) and MGM's musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)– in the hopes that this unlikely juxtaposition might offer some sort of resolution.  Picasso's painting, a powerful anti-war statement, draws on and interacts with older depictions of the legend, notably those of Jacques-Louis David and Nicholas Poussin.  Although the painting's immediate target was the Cuban missile crisis, the point of Picasso's appropriation of the story was to use the tradition as a way of setting his criticism of the two superpowers on a higher plane.  (For some discussion, see Susan Grace Galassi, Picasso's Variations on the Masters: Confrontations with the Past [New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996])  The hit MGM musical, produced only a few years earlier than this late Picasso masterpiece, was based on Stephen Vincent BenĂ©t's parodic short story, "The Sobbin' Women."  The sense of parody was to some degree lost in the translation to screen, and has for some ended up, in the words of writer Francine Prose, "one of the most repulsive movies about men and women and sexual relations that has ever been made" (The Movie That Changed My Life, ed. David Rosenberg [New York: Viking, 1991]).  Prose perhaps over-reads the movie, but gives us a clue to approaching the legend generally.  While it is a far less weighty interaction than Picasso's with the Sabine women story, Seven Brides is a no less significant reading of the story, revealing the powerful influence of genre on the telling of the ancient tale.  It may be that the enduring quality of this legend is its very inability to be read decisively as either a hideous crime against humanity or a fun-loving romantic romp:  whenever the Sabine women are abducted–be it by Livy, Picasso, or Hollywood–we are forced to adjust our lenses accordingly.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page