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Roman denarius (silver coin) issued in 89 BC by the moneyer Lucius Titurius Sabinus

The reverse ("tails" side) of the coin depicts Sabine soldiers burying Tarpeia with their shields ("buying" on the caption of the image is a typo). For the story, read further in this file. To see the coin's reverse, click here; then hit BACK on your browser to return.

Livy, From the Foundation of the City 1.11.5-9

(based on the text of C. F. Walters, OCT 1914)

The latest war [of a series launched in reaction to the Romans' abducting the neighboring peoples' young women because, the Romans claimed, they had not been allowed to marry them] was begun by the Sabines, and it was much the greatest: for nothing was done out of anger or passion, nor did they show a sign of war before they waged it. To their strategy was also added guile. Spurius Tarpeius held the command of the Roman citadel. His daughter, a virgin, [the Sabine king] Tatius bribed to admit his armed men into the citadel: by chance, she had gone out of the walls to seek water for sacred rites at that time. When they had been admitted, they crushed her with their weapons and killed her, either so that the citadel might rather seem to have been captured by force, or in order to set an example, so that no faith might ever be kept with a traitor. An additional story claims that since the Sabines commonly wore gold bracelets of great weight on their left arms, and jewel-studded rings of great beauty, [Tarpeia] had made her bargain for "what they had on their left arms": therefore shields were piled upon her in place of golden presents. There are those who say that from that agreement to hand over "what was on their left arms," [Tarpeia] had meant to get [the Sabines'] weapons -- but, since they saw she was acting deceitfully, they destroyed her by means of her own remuneration.

Propertius, Elegy 4.4

(based on the text of G. P. Goold, LCL 1990)

Of Tarpeian crime and Tarpeia's1 dishonorable tomb
I shall tell, and how the thresholds of ancient Jupiter2 were captured.

What was Rome then, when a bugler from [Sabine] Cures-town
was close enough to shake Jupiter's boulders with his long blast?
The city-wall was the hills: where now the Senate-house is fenced in,
from that spring a war-horse used to drink.
And where now laws are pronounced for subjected lands
Sabine missiles were standing in the Roman forum.3

There was a fruitful grove, bosomed in an ivy-filled grotto,
and many a tree echoes with the waters that rise there:
Silvanus's4 bough-filled home, where the sweet pipe
used to order sheep to go drink, away from summer's heat.
In front of it, Tatius5 girds his camp with a maple palisade
and encompasses it safely with outworks of piled-up earth.

From here Tarpeia took a little liquid for her goddess:6 the earthenware
jar pressed hard on the crown of her head.
She saw that Tatius was training in the sandy fields
and lifted up ornate weapons along [his horse's] tawny mane.
She was thunderstruck at the king's looks and regal weapons
and the jar fell from between her distracted hands.

Often she pleaded omens from the undeserving moon,
and said she must rinse out her tresses in the stream;
often she brought silvery lilies to the alluring Nymphs
so that a Roman spear might not wound the visage of Tatius.
And while the cloudy Capitoline sank under the first haze
she brought back arms cut by bristly shrubs.
And lingering, from her own citadel Tarpeia wept over her
wounds unendurable to nearby Jupiter:

"Fires of the camp and tents of Tatius's squadron,
and Sabine weapons lovely in my eyes,
if only I might sit captive by your family gods,
so long as, as a captive, I might espy the face of my own Tatius!
Roman hills, and Rome built on the hills,
and Vesta too, farewell, who must feel shame at my disgrace!
That horse, that one, will return my darling to the camp,
whose mane Tatius himself dresses to the right.

"What wonder that Scylla7 savaged her father's hair,
and her ivory loins turned into savage dogs?
What wonder that [Ariadne's] monster-brother's horns were betrayed
when a wound-up thread laid open the twisted way?8
How great an indictment am I about to make for Italian maidens:
an immoral attendant chosen to the virgin hearth?
If anyone will wonder that Pallas's9 fires are put out,
let him excuse it: the altar is sprinkled with my tears.

"Tomorrow, as the rumor says, the whole city will stand down:
that's the time to sieze the thorny ridge's dewy back!
The whole way is slippery and treacherous, since the turf hides
lurking waters with its deceitful pathway.
Oh, would that I knew the incantations of the magic Muse!
This tongue too would have brought aid to a gorgeous man.10
The embroidered toga11 suits you, not the man whom, without a mother's grace,
the leathery pap of an inhuman wolf gave suck.12

"Thus, visitor, do I range, a queen within your halls?
As dowry, not a lowly one, you're getting Rome betrayed.
If that's too much, yet don't let the Sabine women have been ravished unavenged:
ravish me and pay back the trade by the law of tit for tat!
Married, I can dissolve the armies that are engaged:
enter into a treaty between you by means of my matron's gown.
Hymenaeus,13 add your measures! bugler,14 put up your untamed blasting!
Have faith, my marriage-bed will soften your weapons.

"And already the fourth horn sings the coming light,
the very stars, exhausted, fall into Ocean.
I shall make trial of sleep, about you shall I try to find dreams:
see that you come to my eyes as a well-meaning shade!"

She spoke, and relaxed her arms to uneasy sleep,
not knowing she had lain down with new furies.
For Venus,15 fruitful guardian of the Trojan ember,
feeds up her fault and plants more torches in her bones.
[Tarpeia] rages like a bare-breasted Thracian woman
near the swift river Thermodon, the bosom of her garment torn away.

The city had a holiday (our fathers called it "Parilia"):
this day began to be the first for the city-walls,
annual shepherds' banquets, playing in the city,
when rustic barrows drip with riches
and when the drunken crowd flings up its dirty feet
over haphazard heaps of flaming hay.
Romulus decreed that the outposts should be released at ease
and the camps be silent, the bugle interrupted.

Thinking this was her time, Tarpeia accosts the enemy.
She binds her terms, herself a future partner in the terms.
All things were patently asleep; but Jupiter alone
decided to stand guard over his own penalties.
The hill was mounted, relaxed for feasts and festival,
nor was there a delay: barking dogs she cuts off with a sword.
She had betrayed the trust of the gate and of her native country as it lay:
she seeks the marriage date he should desire.

Yet Tatius (for the enemy did not give honor to a crime)
said, "Marry, and mount my kingdom's bed!"
He spoke, and crushed her with his comrades' piled-up weapons.
This, virgin, was a fitting dowry for your services.
Nor could a single death be enough for an evil maiden
who wished to deceive your flames, Vesta.

From the guide the hill took its familiar name "Tarpeian".16
Oh, watcher, you have the reward of your unjust fate.


1. Roman women normally were known by a feminine form of their father's names. The commander of the Roman citadel at this time, on top of the Capitoline Hill, is supposed to have been named Tarpeius: therefore his daughter is named Tarpeia. The name can also be used as an adjective. BACK

2. The Roman state's chief temple, of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, on top of the Capitoline. BACK

3. The center of Roman government, located in a valley just below the Capitoline Hill. BACK

4. A woodland god of Italian cult, here also associated with shepherding. BACK

5. King of the Sabines, who were making war on Rome in response to the Romans' abducting their young women. BACK

6. Tarpeia is pictured as a member of the state priesthood of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and thus of the inviolability of the Roman state as its people's home. BACK

7. Tarpeia thinks of mythological stories. Scylla fell in love with Minos when he was attacking her father Nisus's kingdom (Megara). Scylla promised to cut off a magic lock of purple hair that made Nisus invulnerable, if Minos would marry her when he captured Megara. Minos agreed and Scylla cut the lock, but Minos in victory reneged and refused to marry someone who would betray her own father. Scylla in desperation swam after Minos's ship as he left; in the water the lower half of her body turned into a pack of mad dogs, so that she became a sea-monster. BACK

8. Ariadne can be said to have betrayed her half-brother, the Minotaur (a half-human monster with a bull's head, who ate human flesh), because she had fallen in love with Theseus: she gave him a ball of thread to unwind as he walked into the Labyrinth where the Minotaur lived, so he would be able to kill the Minotaur and get back out again. BACK

9. A different virgin goddess from Vesta, but here partially identified with her: besides an ever-burning flame, Vesta's shrine also preserved the Palladium, a protective, super-archaic image of Pallas Athene. BACK

10. Tarpeia refers to the sorceress Medea, who fell in love with Jason and with her magic helped him get the Golden Fleece away from her father. BACK

11. The embroidered toga (as opposed to the plain toga, that all male Roman citizens wore) was the special garment of Roman kings. BACK

12. Tarpeia refers to the legend that Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, at birth was taken away from his mother and left to die in the wilderness, but was rescued because a she-wolf nursed him. BACK

13. Traditional divinity of wedding-festivity, here asked to lend celebratory song; also the etymology of "hymen". BACK

14. As in the beginning of the poem, the "bugler" (tubicen) is invoked especially as a symbol of war. BACK

15. Goddess of sex and mother of the legendary hero Aeneas, who the Romans liked to believe established the Trojan blood-line in Italy. Romulus was supposed to have been directly descended from Aeneas, but the whole people shared a "Trojan spark" which was also symbolized in Vesta's eternal flame. Aeneas is credited with bringing the Palladium from Troy (see note 9). BACK

16. Thus the poem takes the traditional form of explaining the story behind a name: the Capitoline Hill, and especially the part of it where the Romans executed traitors by throwing them off it, was called the "Tarpeian Rock". BACK

translations (c) Jacqueline Long, 2000

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Revised 3 November 2011 by jlong1@luc.edu