The Sabines: A Glimpse into an Ancient Italic Tribe

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The Sabine Influence on Early Rome: A Lasting Impact.

The Sabines, who lived in central Italy during the archaic period, were an ancient Italic people. They inhabited the Apennine mountain range, including parts of the present-day province of Rieti and the neighboring region of the upper Aterno in the province of L’Aquila. The Sabines migrated directly from the ancient Umbrians and were part of the same ethnic group as the Samnites and Sabellians, which is evident from the common ethnonym of safineis (in ancient Greek σαφινείς) and the toponyms safinim and safina (which gave rise to the terms Sannio and Sabina). The name “Sabines” has been attributed to their religiosity and piety, according to Pliny, while others trace it back to the Indo-European root *s(w)e-bh(o)-, which also gave rise to the Germanic term sibja (blood kinship) and the ancient Indian term sabh (assembly, congregation, society).

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Some scholars suggest that their absence of defensive walls in cities could be attributed to their descent from the Spartans. Dionysius, however, mentions the Sabines to the Aborigines, a possibly Neolithic population, from whom the Sabines took their capital Lista in a surprise military action, forcing the Aborigines to seek refuge in Rieti. In addition, it is believed that the Sabines, along with other Italic populations such as the Umbrians, Volscians, Samnites, Marsi, and Sabines, all belonging to the Osco-Umbrian group of Indo-European languages, settled in Italy following migrations by land along the Apennine ridge, following a north-to-south route, though at a later time than the Latin migration to Italy.

Map of Latium in the 5th century BC
Map of Latium in the 5th century BC

According to the historian Strabo, the Sabines engaged in a long war against the Umbrians, dedicating all their children born during that period to Ares, the god of war. Once they reached adulthood, they sent their offspring away to find new lands, guided by a bull. Upon reaching the land of the Opici, the Sabines drove them out and camped in the region, sacrificing the bull to Ares in gratitude for his guidance. 

Another theory proposes that the origin of the Sabines can be traced back to the ancient Italic custom of ver sacrum, in which children born in the same year were dedicated to the god Mars and eventually left their homeland to establish new cities when they reached the age of twenty. According to some scholars, the Sabine language, which is related to the Osco group, also has similarities to the Umbrian language, suggesting a possible descent of the Sabines from the Umbrians. From Sabellian populations in the archaic period, the Samnites, Sabines, Piceni, Marsi, Bovani, and possibly even the Italics originated following the ver sacrum ceremony. Additionally, the Sabines played a crucial role in the construction of the Salaria road, a significant artery built during the Roman Empire that connected the saltworks to the mouth of the Tiber with the Adriatic Sea.

The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799, Jacques-Louis David

Archaic period: 8th to 6th century BC

According to Roman legend, the first contact between the Sabines and the ancestors of the future Romans occurred with the landing of the Trojans on the shores of Lazio. Clausus, the young prince and leader of the Sabines (and the founder of the future gens Claudia), supported Turnus, the king of the Rutuli, in the struggle against Aeneas and his Trojan forces.

Historical sources recount an episode immediately after the founding of Rome, the Rape of the Sabine Women, which occurred probably in Crustumerium and resulted in the subsequent Battle of the Lacus Curtius. This battle was concluded with peace ratified by the respective kings, Romulus and Titus Tatius (who ruled jointly for five years over the city), and the settlement of the Sabines on Quirinal Hill.

The fusion of Sabine and Latin elements in the early history of Rome is attested by the Sabine origin of two of Rome’s first four kings, Numa Pompilius and Ancus Marcius, as well as by the name of the Tities, attributed to one of the original tribes, upon which Romulus based the first political division of the city.

The names of some of the oldest Roman gentes, such as the gens Curtia, the gens Pompilia, the gens Marcia, and the gens Claudia, also attest to this historical commonality. The association of the Sabines with Rome had several consequences, including the doubling of the size of the Roman army, which, with the contribution of the Sabines, reached 6,000-foot soldiers and 600 horsemen. The patres, the original Roman senators, were also doubled when 100 Sabine patres were added to the original 100 Romans. Additionally, Romulus decided to adopt the Sabine-type shield, abandoning the previous Argive type and modifying the previous Roman armor.

Even though the Sabine Cures of Titus Tatius and the Romans lived within the same walls, conflicts between Romans and Sabines remained strong over the centuries. Only the military skill of King Tarquin the Elder allowed the Romans to repel the Sabine attack, after bloody fighting in the streets of the city, and reverse the course of the war, adding many territories of the defeated Sabines to the possessions of Rome. However, Roman expansionist policies against neighboring peoples continued under the reign of Servius Tullius, resulting in many other conflicts between the Romans and the Sabines.

In 504 BC, at the beginning of the Republican era, Attius Clausus decided to leave Sabina and enter Rome with all his more than 5,000 clients. For this action, Attius Clausus (whose Latinized name was Appius Claudius Sabinus Inregillensis) and his clients obtained Roman citizenship and the ownership of land on the opposite bank of the Anio River. The entire group of Attius, together with other Sabines who joined them separately, became known as the “Old Claudia Tribe.” Moreover, Attius Clausus obtained the rank of senator, which he used to exert considerable influence in his new homeland. In the same year, the famous Publius Valerius Publicola, a friend of the people and a Sabine by birth, won the triumph for defeating the Sabines.

From the 5th to the 3rd century BC

From the 5th to the 3rd century BC, the Sabines, who remained in their original territories, continued to exert pressure on the Lazio region, infiltrating the area between the Tiber and the Aniene rivers, taking advantage of Rome’s moments of difficulty, or allying with other Italic populations in their struggle against Rome. According to the Fasti triumphales, in 503 BC, the Roman consul Publius Postumius Tubertus was given an ovation to celebrate his victory over the Sabines.

In 494 BC, the Sabines were defeated by the Romans led by the dictator Manius Valerius Maximus, who was awarded a triumph by the Roman Senate for this victory. In 475 BC, the Sabines allied themselves with the Veientes, who a few years earlier had defeated the Fabii in the Battle of the Cremera. However, the Battle of Veii that ensued saw the Romans, led by the consul Publius Valerius Publicola, emerge victorious. In 468 BC, the Sabines heavily plundered the territories of Crustumerium, even reaching the Collina Gate of Rome. In response to the Sabines’ attack, the Romans, led by the consul Quintus Servilius Priscus, launched an expedition that devastated the Sabine territory and brought back an even greater booty than that conquered by the Sabines. In 449 BC, the consul Marcus Horatius Barbatus was awarded a triumph (the first in ancient Rome) for finally managing to defeat the Sabine army. In 290 BC, after defeating the last resistance of the Samnites, the Roman army, led by the consul Manius Curius Dentatus, turned its attention to the Sabines, to complete the expansion plan of the Roman state towards the Adriatic coast, to prevent future connections between the peoples to the north and south of the peninsula, which had created many problems for Rome due to the formation of the Gallo-Etruscan-Italic league. Curius Dentatus pushed deep into Sabine territory between the Nera, Aniene, and Velino rivers, reaching the Adriatic Sea. Large territories in the plains of Reate and Amiternum were confiscated and distributed to Romans, while local populations were offered Roman citizenship without civil rights, the civitas sine suffragio. At this point, the assimilation of the Sabines was very rapid, so much so that in 268 BC, the Sabines were granted Roman citizenship, including two new tribes, the Quirina and Velina.


According to the historian Titus Livius, several gentes among the original ones had Sabine origins. The gens Valeria (nomen: Valerius) had a Volusus or Valesus as its founder, who came from Sabine to Rome along with Tito Tazio. The gens Claudia, with the legendary Clauso as its founder, allied with Turnus in the conflict with the Trojans of Aeneas. The gens Hostilia, founded by Osto Ostilio, a companion of Romulus and grandfather of Tullio Ostilio, was also of Sabine origin. Other ancient gentes of Sabine origin include:

  • Pompilia, to which Numa Pompilio, the second king of Rome, belonged.
  • Marcia, to which Anco Marzio, the fourth king of Rome, belonged.

Sabine women were considered models of honesty and prudence, as mentioned by Horace in his Epodes.

The Amphitheater of Amiternum, a City of Sabine Origin
The Amphitheater of Amiternum, a City of Sabine Origin (source)


According to Catone Testrina, the most ancient origin of the Sabines was Testrina near Amiternum, from where they moved westward and occupied Cutiliae and Reate.

Pliny the Elder provides us with a sort of list of municipalities assigned to Sabine tribes in Roman times: 

“Among the Sabines were the Amiternini, the inhabitants of Cures Sabini, Forum Decii, Forum Novum, the Fidenati, the Interamnati, the Nursini, the Nomentani, the Reatini, the Trebulani, both those called Mutuesci and Suffenati, the Tiburtini, and the Tarinati.”

While Pliny cites Nomentum as a Sabine city, for Dionysius of Halicarnassus, it was a colony of Albalonga and therefore Latin.

Among these centers, the most important is Cures, where Tito Tazio resided, and it was the birthplace of Numa Pompilio, the second king of Rome. Amiternum was also Sabine, its foundation predating that of Rome, and it remained autonomous until the end of the Samnite Wars. Antemnae was also Sabine, taken by the Romans led by Romulus following the episode of the Sabine women’s abduction, which likely occurred at Crustumerium. Lista also became Sabine after its conquest by the Aborigines, who attempted to recapture their capital multiple times without success. As for Caenina, one of the first cities conquered by Romulus following the wars caused by the Sabine women’s abduction, classical authors are not in agreement as to whether it was a city of the Sabines, the Latins, or a colony of Alba Longa.

The Religion of the Sabines

Vacuna, the primary deity of the Sabines, was considered the goddess of fields and nature, and was also regarded as the personification of Victory. It is said that King Tito Tatius, a Sabine from Cures Sabini, was associated with a range of religious cults and festivals, particularly when the Quirinal Hill was inhabited by the Sabines. These cults and festivals were later adopted by the Romans, who referred to themselves as Quirites.

These included:

  • the Sodales Titii, created to preserve Sabine rites or, according to another version, established by Romulus to preserve the cult of Tito Tatius after he was deified;
  • the cult of Quirinus, of Sabine origin, and later adopted by the Romans, to whom the first temple was built on the Quirinal Hill;
  • the cult of Flora, the Roman goddess of the flowering of cereals and other plants used for food, as well as Opi, the goddess of the Earth and Abundance, which was introduced to Rome by Tito Tatius. A temple was dedicated to Flora on the Quirinal Hill, providing further evidence of the historic presence of the Sabines in Rome;
  • the establishment of the Sanctuary of Semo Sancus Dius Fidius, dedicated to the Sabine god Sanco, protector of oaths;
  • the cult of Luna, one of the 12 vital deities for agriculture;
  • the sanctuary dedicated to Feronia of Lucus Feroniae, on the border between the territories of the Latins, Capenati, and Sabines, was frequented by the Sabines until the time of Tullus Hostilius.

The Ludi Saeculares, which were a religious festival characterized by sacrifices and theatrical performances, originated from the Sabines. This celebration was held in ancient Rome for three days and three nights, marking the end of a saeculum (century) and the beginning of the next. According to Roman mythology, the celebration rituals were first performed by the Gens Valeria, a Sabine gens, whose ancestor Valesius performed them for the miraculous healing of his children. Strenia, a symbol of the new year, prosperity, and good luck, and Vitula, the goddess of joy, were also of Sabine origin. The Sabines also worshipped the god Poemonio, who is mentioned in the Scoppito Stone and is similar to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits (Patrona pomorum, “lady of fruits”).

Adriatic Sabines Grave Goods from Female Tomb 119 in Campovalano (Campli), Circa 7th-6th Century BC
Adriatic Sabines Grave Goods from Female Tomb 119 in Campovalano (Campli), Circa 7th-6th Century BC (source)


The Sabine language was a dialectal variety of the Osco language in the 1st millennium BC. It was classified among the Sabellic dialects and written in the archaic Greek alphabet. There are very few epigraphic documents available for this language, and the ones that have survived to this day are extremely scarce. The Sabine language was one of the first Italic languages to be absorbed by Latin, following the assimilation of the Sabine people into the Roman state during the early period of the Roman Republic. By the time of Varro, in the first half of the 1st century BC, the Sabine language had already become significantly Latinized.

Featured image: The Rape of the Sabine Women, Nicolas Poussin, between 1633 and 1634
Source: Wikipedia, Plutarch (Parallel Lives), Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Antiquitates Romanae)


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