1902 Encyclopedia > Sabines


SABINES. The Sabines (Sabini) were a people of Central Italy, who played an important part in the early history of Rome. According to all old writers they were one of the most ancient nations of Italy, and the parent stock from which many of the other tribes that occupied the central and southern regions of the peninsula derived their origin.. Of their own origin and affinities we know very little. Strabo calls them a very ancient race and " autochthonous," which may be taken as signifying that there was no authen-tic tradition of their immigration, or of the quarter from whence they came. The story of their Laconian descent may be safely rejected as one of those fictions by which a certain class of the later Greek writers sought to derive every people in Italy from a Greek origin. But the evi-dence concerning their language, scanty as it is, is sufficient to prove that they were a cognate race with the neighbour-ing Umbrians and Oscans, as well as, more remotely, with the Latins. Cato, the best authority among the Roman writers with respect to the different races of Italy, affirmed that the Sabines originally occupied the country about Amiternum, in the upper valley of the Aternus, at the foot of the loftiest group of the Apennines. From thence they gradually extended themselves into the fertile valleys about Reate, where we find them established in historical times, and occupied the tract from thence to the Tiber and the Anio. But even in its widest extension the region held by the Sabines was of small dimensions, and for the most part of a rugged and mountainous character. Hence it was natural that they should seek a place for their super-fluous population by repeated emigrations into the neigh-bouring districts, and the general tradition among Roman writers ascribed the origin of several of the more powerful and populous nations of the peninsula to such emigrations. This result was especially promoted by a custom which, though not unknown to the other nations of Italy, appears to have been peculiarly characteristic of the Sabines—that of a Ver Sacrum, or "sacred spring," when everything born in that year was consecrated to some local divinity, most frequently to Mamers or Mars. All the cattle were duly sacrificed, while the young men were allowed to grow up to manhood, and then sent forth in a body to seek for themselves new abodes beyond the limits of their native land. To such colonies is ascribed the foundation of the Picentes or people of Picenum, the Samnites, and the Hirpini. Of these the last-mentioned derived their name from hirpus, the Sabine name for a wolf, an animal of that description being supposed to have been divinely sent as the leader of the colony, as a woodpecker (picus), also sacred to Mars, became that of the Piceni. The Peligni also, as we learn from Ovid, himself a native of the dis-trict, claimed a Sabine origin, and the same was probably the case with the smaller kindred tribes of the Marsi, Marrucini, and Vestini. The Samnites, again, in their turn sent forth the Frentani and the Lucanians, who extended their dominion throughout the mountainous regions of Southern Italy and carried their arms from the Adriatic to the Sicilian Straits.

Meanwhile the Sabines themselves were confined within comparatively narrow limits, and their extension towards the south was checked by the growing power of the Latins. Here their power appears to have attained its highest point about the time of the foundation of Rome, and the legend-ary history, familiar to every schoolboy, of the contests between Romulus and Tatius, the divided sovereignty at one time established between them, and the peaceful reign and legislation of the Sabine king Numa may be taken as representing the historical fact that the population of Rome really contained an important Sabine element, and that Sabine influences were largely intermixed with those of Latin origin, both in the civil institutions and still more in the religious rites and ceremonies of the rising republic. Beyond this it is impossible to pronounce with certainty as to the real value and significance of the tradi-tions preserved to us in the poetical legends transmitted in the garb of history; and it is impossible in an article like the present to give even an outline of the various theories that have been devised by modem writers to put an historical interpretation upon the records thus preserved to us. It is clear, however, that the power of the Sabines was by no means broken, even by the establishment of the more powerful monarchy at Rome under the Tarquins, and for a period of more than fifty years after the fall of the monarchy we find the Romans engaged in almost perpetual hostilities against the Sabines on the one side and the ^Equians and Volscians on the other. At length in the year 449 B.C. the Sabines were defeated by the consul M. Horatius, in an action which appears to have been of so decisive a character that we do not find them again appearing in arms against the Romans for a period of more than 160 years. Their quiescence is the more singular as during this interval the republic was engaged in the long series of the Samnite Wars, in which their adversaries were the direct descendants of the Sabines, and had therefore every claim on their support. Still more unaccountable is it that, after looking on with apparent neutrality for so long, we find the Sabines in the year 290 B.C. once more in arms against Rome, and that at a period when the Third Samnite War had for a time crushed all the hopes of their natural allies. The result was, as might have been expected, that they found themselves wholly unequal to contend single-handed against the power of Rome, and the consul M'. Curius Dentatus reduced them to submission in a single campaign. They were severely punished for this defection; and henceforth their national existence was at an end. Those who survived the slaughter of the war were admitted to the position of Roman citizens, though at first without the right of suffrage, but twenty years after this also was granted them, and they were to all intents and purposes incorporated in the Roman state. Thus separated from all the tribes of kindred origin, they never again appear in history, and, like the Campanians and Latins, were content to swell the ranks of the Roman legions even in the fierce struggle of the Social War (91-88 B.C.). Under the arrangements of the Roman empire their very name was lost as a territorial designation, but it always continued in popular use, and was revived in the Middle Ages as that of an ecclesiastical province. Even at the present day every peasant in the neighbourhood of Rome will point to La Sabina as the familiar appellation of the lofty mountain tract to the north of the city.

The limits of the territory occupied by the Sabines do not appear to have varied much from a very early period till the days of Strabo. That geographer describes them as extending as far south as Eretum near the Tiber, on the road to Rome, and a few miles only from Cures, the reputed birthplace of Tatius and Numa, but which in his time had become a mere village. The principal town of the Sabines was Reate (still called Rieti), in the midst of the beautiful and fertile valley of the Velino, and from thence they occupied the upper valley of that river to its sources in the Monte della Sibilla and the rugged mountain valleys which connected it with that of the Aternus. Here was found Amitemum, the original capital of the tribe, near the modern Aquila, and between that and Reate lay Interocrea (Antrodoco), in a pass that has always formed one of the leading lines of communication through the central Apennines. In the extreme north was Nursia (Norcia), noted for the coldness of its climate, and cele-brated in ecclesiastical history as the birthplace of St Bene-dict. These were the only towns of any importance in the territory of the Sabines; but they lived for the most part scattered in villages about the mountains, a circum-stance absurdly alleged by some Roman writers as a proof of their Laconian origin. It was doubtless owing to this habit, as well as to the rugged mountainous character of the country in which they dwelt, that the Sabines owed the primitive simplicity of their manners and the frugal and severe character which distinguished them even in the days of Augustus. All readers of Horace must be familiar with his frequent allusions to the moral purity and frugal manners of the people that surrounded his Sabine villa, which was situated on the reverse of Mount Lucretilis, only about 15 miles from the rich and luxurious Tibur (Tivoli). The small town of Varia (Vicovaro), in its immediate neighbourhood, seems to have marked the frontier on this side.

No remains of the Sabine language are extant in the form of inscriptions, but coins struck during the Social War with the inscription "Safinim" show that the native appellation was the same as that in use among the Latins. The form "Sabellus" is frequently found in Latin writers as an ethnic adjective equivalent to Sabine; but the practice adopted by modern writers, of employing the term " Sabel-lian " to designate all the tribes of Sabine origin, including Samnites, Lucanians, &c, was first introduced by Niebuhr, and is not supported by any ancient authority, (E. H. B.)

The above article was written by: E. H. Bunbury, M.A., author of History of Ancient Geography.

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