The horrible fate of Tarpeia

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Jochen1, Jul 5, 2019.

  1. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    Dear Friends of ancient mythology!

    If you come to Rome you can find on the Capitoline Hill, somewhat hidden, the small Via di Monte Tarpeo. At this place in ancient times was the so-called Tarpeian Rock of which nowadays nothing is left. From this steep cliff in ancient times delinquents were hurled down to death guilty of special crimes like false oath, fleeing in a battle, deserting to the enemy, incest, crimes of Vestals, and several crimes of serfs like theft or betrayal. The executions were performed by tribunes or consuls. The last one occured in AD 33 under Claudius (Cassius Dio 60, 18, 4).

    Campitelli_rupe_Tarpea.jpg Via di Monte Tarpeo in Rome

    The Coin:
    Roman Republic, L. Titurius L. f. Sabinus, gens Tituria
    AR - denarius, 3.86g, 19.12mm, 225°
    Rome, 89 BC
    Obv.: Head of king Tatius, bearded, r.
    behind SABIN, under chin palmbranch
    Rev.: Tarpeia, stg. frontal, with dissolved hair, covered by shields until waist, both
    hands raised to repel 2 soldiers beside her being about to throw their shields
    upon her.
    in upper field crescent with star
    in ex. L.TITVRI
    Ref.: Crawford 344/2b; Sydenham 699; Tituri 4
    VF/about VF, old cabinet toning

    (1) The mintmaster family Tituria came from the Sabines and traced themselves back to the Sabine king Titius Tatius.
    (2) There is another denarius too from P. Petronius Turpilianus, struck under Augustus, depicting the same motif (RIC I, 299)

    The mythology of this scene leads us back to the origins of Rome into the time of the Sabine Wars from which the last one was the hardest and most dangerous. Referring to one version of the myth Tarpeia was the daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, the commander of the castle on the Capitoline Hill. At this time the Sabines besieged Rome. She is said to have opened a gate of the castle to the Sabines under the condition that she then obtained what the Sabines are wearing at their arms. But instead of the golden armlets which Tarpeia has meant the Sabines in an exaggerated interpretation of her condition threw their shields on her and so she was killed.

    Titius Tatius according to Roman tradition was king of the Sabines who after the rape of the Sabine women fought a war of avenge against Rome. Referring to Livius he bribed Tarpeia, concluded later a foedus with Romulus and was the originator of a joined reign. He introduced common laws and Sabine cults to Rome like the cult of Janus and Volcanus. After him were called the Titienses and the Titii sodales, a college of Roman priests. He was killed when he was old and his grave was on the Aventine Hill.

    But there is another version of the myth too: Tarpeia was the daugher of Titius Tatius and was killed by him.

    The myth of Tarpeia is found already in the first annalists and has well existed already in the 4th or 3rd century BC (Krumme).

    The problem is to explain why the Sabines have killed the one who has helped them to conquer Rome. This dilemma was seen already in ancient times.

    The most common motive of Tarpeia is her greed. The traitor has been killed as it is known from Caesar: "I love the betrayal but the betrayer I don't praise (proditionem amo, sed proditores non laudo). And she received her punishment in the underworld too. Dante in his "Divina Commedia" mentions the Gate of Tarpeia in Purgatorio, Canto IX; but here in connection with the robbery of the Roman treasury by Julius Caesar. Greed is one of the Seven Capital Sins!

    In Hellenism this motive was attenuated by changing it to a love story. Simylos reports that Tarpeia has been fallen in love to Titius Tatius, the hostile military leader. This love motive is depicted by Propertius en detail: Tarpeia, a vestal virgin - so Varro too -, met Tatius when she was going for cultic water, and fell in love to him immediately.

    Antigonos of Karystos reports that Tarpeia has been forced to marry Romulus against her will and then took revenge on the hated.

    Later the attempt of retrieval of her honour was started. The greed has been argued away and Tarpeia became a tragic heroine. Piso claimes that she has attracted the shields of the Sabines to disarm the enemy. That could explain the fact that at her grave were made sacrifices and that there was a statue of her in the temple of Jupiter Stator, not of Romulus, but of Q. Caecilius Metellus, 144 BC, at the Circus Flaninius.

    At Simylos the story happened later. He made Celts of the Sabines which does match much better the gold motive!

    In Greek mythology this motive is well known from several exemples. Aristoteles mentions the myth of Polykrite from Naxos. Another model could have been the story of Demonike, who opened Brennus (with the famous "Vae victis!") out of love the gates of Ephesos and then was suffocated by the gold of the Gauls. In this thread we have the myth of Skylla's betrayal of her hometown Megara out of love for Minos (take a look). Other names for betrayal and death of a maiden are Komaitho, Leukophryne, Pedas and Peisidike.

    What is the reason for this contradictory story? Originally Tarpeia was the tutelary goddess of the castle of Rome, the Capitoline Hill, which was named after her mons Tarpeius. Tarpeius too was an epithet of Juppiter who generally was called Capitolinus. But these epitheta in early days were identical. The statue of Tarpeia has shields at its base. So the myth could well has been originated aitiological from a tropaion, to explain the grave, the statue and the Tarpeium Saxum, which later was no more understood by the Romans. Because the resulting myth doesn't match correctly the historical relicts, the moral of the story had to be altered several times as I have described above.

    History of Art:
    The Greek literary motive was known by the Romans but there were no depictions or statues. So the Romans were compelled to go back to battle scenes. We can see that the two soldiers on the coin don't look as to be about to throw their shields on Tarpeia but more like entangled in a struggle.

    In the Basilica Aemiliana was found the fragment of a marble frieze which shows just our scene on the coin. Today in the Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. The basilica was restaurated between 54 and 34 BC so that the frieze can be dated to this time. But the motive does match much better the time of Augustus with its glorification of Rome's origins especially because the style has some resemblance to the style of the depictions of the Ara Pacis on the Campus Martius.

    In the Stanza con storie dell'antica Roma of the Palazzo Spada in Rome is located a fresco of Giulio Mazzoni (AD 1525-1618) "The Punishment of Tarpeia", AD 1550

    If we ask for the meaning of the depiction on our coin we have the following explanations:

    (1) The Roman allies in the civil war should be warned about a eventual betrayal by showing them quite plainly the consequences of a betrayal.
    (2) The depiction shows that Rome despite betrayal and great distress always will be the winner!

    I have added
    (1) a pic of the fragment from the Basilica Aemiliana

    (2) a pic of Mazzoni's fresco

    (1) Cassius Dio, fr. 4, 12
    (2) Livius, Ab urbe condita 1, 11, 5-9
    (3) Ovid, Metamorphoses, 14, 776
    (4) Propertius, Elegies, IV.4: 1-94 (online too)

    (1) Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, 1924 (online too)
    (2) Der Kleine Pauly
    (3) Michael Krumme, Römische Sagen in der antiken Münzprägung, Hitzeroth 1995
    (4) Barbara Kowalewski, Frauengestalten im Geschichtswerk des T. Livius, 2002

    (2) (Mazzoni)

    Best regards
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  3. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

  4. Sallent

    Sallent Live long and prosper

    As gruesome as being thrown from a rock to your death might sound, the Roman punishment for parricide, poena cullei, was even worse....

    You would be sewn up in a leather sack, with a bunch of live animals including a monkey, snake, dog, and a rooster, then thrown into the river to drown while the desperate animals attacked you as they died in the sack with you. :jawdrop::vomit::eek:
  5. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE

    Great write-up and coin, @Jochen1 !


    RR Titurius Sabinus 89 BCE AR Den Tarpeia buried shields Sear 251 Craw 344-2a
    Andres2, Orfew, Curtisimo and 4 others like this.
  6. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    Very interesting Jochen. Thanks for researching and posting this article.
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