This poem showcases a range of women committing sexual transgressions. Although the Roman girl (puella) Tarpeia is universally hated for her betrayal of Rome, in this poem her transgression is seeking legitimate marriage—something Roman girls were expected to do. This is seen as a criminal act because her legitimate desire goes against the path society has alotted her, as she has been chosen (lecta) to serve as a Vestal Virgin. Despite the fact that the men of her community have recently transgressed sexual boundaries by stealing the Sabine women from their homes to populate their city, Tarpeia alone bears the consequences of committing a sexual taboo. Moreover, the portrayal of the domestic goddess of chastity Vesta as a rampaging bare-breasted Amazon shows the confusion of male perspectives of women’s sexuality by blurring the bounds of asexuality and sexual wantonness.
Tarpeium nemus et Tarpeiae
fabor et antiqui limina capta Iouis.
lucus erat felix hederoso conditus antro,
multaque natiuis obstrepit arbor aquis,
Siluani ramosa domus, quo dulcis ab aestu
fistula poturas ire iubebat ouis.
hunc Tatius fontem uallo praecingit acerno,
fidaque suggesta castra coronat humo.
quid tum Roma fuit, tubicen uicina Curetis
cum quateret lento murmure saxa Iouis?
atque ubi nunc terris dicuntur iura subactis,
stabant Romano pila Sabina Foro.
murus erant montes: ubi nunc est curia saepta,
bellicus ex illo fonte bibebat equus.
hinc Tarpeia deae fontem libauit: at illi
urgebat medium fictilis urna caput.
et satis una malae potuit mors esse puellae,
quae uoluit flammas fallere, Vesta, tuas?
uidit harenosis Tatium proludere campis
pictaque per flauas arma leuare iubas:
obstipuit regis facie et regalibus armis,
interque oblitas excidit urna manus.
saepe illa immeritae causata est omina lunae,
et sibi tingendas dixit in amne comas:
saepe tulit blandis argentea lilia Nymphis,
Romula ne faciem laederet hasta Tati.
dumque subit primo Capitolia nubila fumo,
rettulit hirsutis bracchia secta rubis,
et sua Tarpeia residens ita fleuit ab arce
uulnera, uicino non patienda Ioui:
"ignes castrorum et Tatiae praetoria turmae
et formosa oculis arma Sabina meis,
o utinam ad uestros sedeam captiua Penatis,
dum captiua mei conspicer ora Tati!
Romani montes, et montibus addita Roma,
et ualeat probro Vesta pudenda meo:
ille equus, ille meos in castra reponet amores,
cui Tatius dextras collocat ipse iubas!
quid mirum in patrios Scyllam saeuisse capillos,
candidaque in saeuos inguina uersa canis?
prodita quid mirum fraterni cornua monstri,
cum patuit lecto stamine torta uia?
quantum ego sum Ausoniis crimen factura puellis,
improba uirgineo lecta ministra foco!
Pallados exstinctos si quis mirabitur ignis,
ignoscat: lacrimis spargitur ara meis.
cras, ut rumor ait, tota potabitur urbe:
tu cape spinosi rorida terga iugi.
lubrica tota uia est et perfida: quippe tacentis
fallaci celat limite semper aquas.
o utinam magicae nossem cantamina Musae!
haec quoque formoso lingua tulisset opem.
te toga picta decet, non quem sine matris honore
nutrit inhumanae dura papilla lupae.
hic, hospes, patria metuar regina sub aula?
dos tibi non humilis prodita Roma uenit.
si minus, at raptae ne sint impune Sabinae:
me rape et alterna lege repende uices!
commissas acies ego possum soluere: nuptae
uos medium palla foedus inite mea.
adde Hymenaee modos, tubicen fera murmura conde:
credite, uestra meus molliet arma torus.
et iam quarta canit uenturam bucina lucem,
ipsaque in Oceanum sidera lapsa cadunt.
experiar somnum, de te mihi somnia quaeram:
fac uenias oculis umbra benigna meis."
dixit, et incerto permisit bracchia somno,
nescia se furiis accubuisse nouis.
nam Vesta, Iliacae felix tutela fauillae,
culpam alit et plures condit in ossa faces.
illa ruit, qualis celerem prope Thermodonta
Strymonis abscisso fertur aperta sinu.
urbi festus erat (dixere Parilia patres),
hic primus coepit moenibus esse dies,
annua pastorum conuiuia, lusus in urbe,
cum pagana madent fercula diuitiis,
cumque super raros faeni flammantis aceruos
traicit immundos ebria turba pedes.
Romulus excubias decreuit in otia solui
atque intermissa castra silere tuba.
hoc Tarpeia suum tempus rata conuenit hostem:
pacta ligat, pactis ipsa futura comes.
mons erat ascensu dubius festoque remissus
nec mora, uocalis occupat ense canis.
omnia praebebant somnos: sed Iuppiter unus
decreuit poenis inuigilare suis.
prodiderat portaeque fidem patriamque iacentem,
nubendique petit, quem uelit, ipsa diem.
at Tatius (neque enim sceleri dedit hostis honorem)
"nube" ait "et regni scande cubile mei!"
dixit, et ingestis comitum super obruit armis.
haec, uirgo, officiis dos erat apta tuis.
a duce Tarpeia mons est cognomen adeptus:
o uigil, iniustae praemia sortis habes.
--Propertius, Eleg. IV.4
There was once a blessed grove situated in an ivy-covered grotto, where many trees resounded with the echo of local waters.
This was the branch-covered home of Silvanus, where his sweet pan-flutes called his sheep out of the heat and back to their leafy greens.
Tatius had barricaded this spring with a maple-wood palisade, and surrounded his fortifications with stable earth-works.
What was Rome like then,
When Cures’ herald shook the nearby hills of Jupiter with foreboding noise?
Where today’s Rome had conquered this territory, there used to be Sabine spears parading through our Roman Forum.
Where the portico-covered Senate House stands today, there were only hills for protective walls.
This was where Tatius’ warhorse took its drink.
This is where Tarpeia, too, took libations for her goddess; she bore a handmade pitcher balanced upon her head.
Vesta, is only one death enough for this wicked young girl, for wanting to cheat on your flame?
Tarpeia saw Tatius training on the sandy plains. She saw him lift off his sculpted helmet, and she was blown away by the king’s face, his royal presence.
She let the vessel drop from her hands—her task forgotten.
Often, she feigned the moon as an omen and said she went to the stream to “wash her hair” [just to see him].
Often, she brought silver lilies in offering to the graceful water nymphs, praying that Roman spears might never scar Tatius’ pretty face.
While she climbed the Capitoline hill veiled in morning mist, she came back with arms covered in the scratches from its brambles.
She mourned, sitting upon the opposite citadel. She wept, a wound that Jupiter could not let go unpunished.
“Campfires, tents of Tatius’ squadrons, simply stunning Sabine armor in my eyes, if only I could be captive to your gods! As your prisoner, I might look upon my Tatius’ face.
Farewell, Roman hills!
And Farewell to you, too, Vesta, embarrassed by my sin!
Tatius’ horse, with his mane plaited by his master’s own hands, will return me to his camp and my lover’s arms.
Why is anyone surprised that Scylla hurt her father Nisus’ magical hair, when her pale loins were turned to savage dogs? Why is anyone surprised that Ariadne showed the way with a spool of thread [leading Theseus] to her monstrous brother’s horns?
Although I was chosen to serve the virgin goddess’ flame, I’ll become the shame of Ausonian girls.
If anyone questions Pallas’ extinguished flames [Minerva’s asexuality], then please forgive me! The altar is drenched in my tears.
From what I’ve heard, tomorrow the entire city will be ritually cleansed. You, Tatius, take dewy path up to that thorny hill. The whole journey will be slippery and treacherous, and hidden pools of water are on your path.
If only I knew songs of magic Muses, then I could help you, my handsome man. You are worthy of royal robes. Unlike Romulus, no harsh teat of a she-wolf nursed you; you had an actual legitimate mother.
Sir, why should I fear being queen in the royal palace? My dowry is not meager—it is Rome itself!
Or “kidnap me,” and follow the precedent of the Sabine women, taken without consequence. Let no consequence occur to me as well! I can stop the coming battle. Brides, join me in treaty as I get married; bring Hymenaeus to offer his blessing, and let the herald proclaim it, too. Trust that my wedding will cause an armistice.
Now the fourth reveille heralds the coming dawn. The stars fall into the Ocean. Let me dream, and seek dreams of you. May pleasant shade come to my eyes.”
She spoke, and allowed her body to succumb to troubled sleep, not knowing she slept among nightmares.
For Vesta, the blessed guardian of Troy’s embers, nursed the girl’s obsession and poured fires into her bones. Then the goddess rushed away the way an Amazon races along the Thermodon River, with her mutilated breast exposed.
There was a holiday in the city (our ancestors called it “Parilia”). I was the first day of the construction of the city walls, and the annual festival of pastoral festivities held in the city. Villager’s plates were dripping with rich and fatty foods, and drunken crowds dragged their dirty feet over scattered heaps of burning hay.
Romulus decreed that the night watch could have the night off, and the camps were empty; everyone was off doing their revels. Tarpeia thought this was her chance to meet the enemy. She made her bargain, she bound herself to its conditions.
The hill was difficult to climb, but unguarded because of the holiday.
Tatius’ first act was to silence the yappy guard dogs with his sword. Everything at this time was asleep, but Jupiter alone kept watch, mindful of his own justice.
Tarpeia betrayed the trust of the city’s gate; she betrayed her sleeping country, too, while seeking the wedding day that SHE wanted. But even the enemy gives no honor to a criminal: Tatius told her, “Put on the veil, and enter the bedroom of my reign.” He spoke and tossed down heaps of his companion’s weaponry.
This was your dowry, woman, appropriate for your status. The Tarpeian hill is a name given appropriately; o tourist, consider the consequences of her unjust lot.
Name: Sextus Propertius
Date: 50 – 15 BCE
Propertius was an Italian-born Roman lyric poet whose love poetry provides insight into the mores of Augustan Rome. Like Catullus and Tibullus, Propertius used a pseudonym for the object of his attention; many of his love poems were addressed to “Cynthia.”
GOLDEN AGE ROME