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Denarius 89 BC depicting the torture of Tarpeia
Denarius (19-18 BC) depicting the head of Augustus and Tarpeia crushed by the soldiers' shields

In Roman mythology, Tarpeia (/tɑːrˈpə/), daughter of the Roman commander Spurius Tarpeius, was a Vestal virgin who betrayed the city of Rome to the Sabines at the time of their women's abduction for what she thought would be a reward of jewellery. She was instead crushed to death and her body cast from the southern cliff of Rome's Capitoline Hill, thereafter called after her the Tarpeian Rock (Rupes Tarpeia).[1]


Soldiers attacking Tarpeia, on a fragmentary relief from the frieze of the Basilica Aemilia (1st century AD)

The legend tells that while Rome was besieged by the Sabine king Titus Tatius, Tarpeia, daughter of the commander of the citadel, Spurius Tarpeius, approached the Sabine camp and offered them entry to the city in exchange for "what they bore on their left arms". Greedy for gold, she had meant their bracelets, but instead the Sabines threw their shields—carried on the left arm—upon her, crushing her to death. Her body was then hurled from (or, according to some accounts, buried at) a steep cliff of the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill. The Sabines were however unable to conquer the Forum, its gates miraculously protected by boiling jets of water created by Janus.[2]

The legend was depicted in 89 BC by Sabinus following the Civil Wars as well as on a silver denarius of the Emperor Augustus in approximately 20 BC. Tarpeia would later become a symbol of betrayal and greed in Rome.[3] The cliff from which she was thrown was named the Tarpeian Rock,[2] and would become the place of execution for Rome's most notorious traitors.



Livy’s account uses information from Fabius, Dionysius, and Piso. All of which had existing accounts of Tarpeia prior to Livy. The previous writers form the base story of the myth which is told in the Legend. A unique detail that Livy adds is the suggestion that Tarpeia was not greedy looking for gold, but was trying to trick the Sabines into giving up their weapons once she let them in. Livy writes:

There are some who say that,

from the agreement of handing over what was on their left hands, what

she really sought was their weapons and that, having appeared to act in

fraud, she was undone by her own “wage”.[4]

Livy does not explicitly call Tarpeia a Vestal, but he does call her a “virgo”. Roman historians typically say that this translate to her being a Vestal.[5]


Varro’s account of Tarpeia is nearly the same as Livy’s, however, Varro includes that Tarpeia was a Vestal. Varro added this detail when Plutarch wrote that one of the first four Vestals was named Tarpeia.[6] This added detail is significant since it is now accepted in the myth that Tarpeia was a Vestal. It also paved the way for writers such as Propertius to expand on this detail and add themes of Tarpeia being unchaste, hence why she was greedy.


Propertius’ account is considered to be a production of art. The poem most notably introduced the love affair between Tatius and Tarpeia. This was used because of Varro’s addition of Tarpeia being a Vestal Virgin. Since Tarpeia was a Vestal Virgin, love (and therefore sexual desire) could be used as foreshadowing Tarpeia’s greed and betrayal to the city of Rome.[7] This artistic approach to the myth makes the story more relatable to Romans and served as a greater symbol of what happens when greed overtakes someone.


A common metaphor used in ancient times was the association of water vessels and female sexuality. The female body is the container while the water inside represents her fertility.[8] Since Tarpeia was a Vestal Virgin, it is very significant that she dropped her water vessel when first seeing Tatius in Propertius' account. Vestal Virgins were the embodiment of a perfect citizen of Rome. Their "unpenetrated skin" was a metaphor for Rome's walls remaining standing.[9] The dropped water is interpreted as Tarpeia not being chaste, connecting her greed with "erotic transgression".[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sanders, H. (1904). Roman historical sources and institutions. Macmillan. pp. 1–47.
  2. ^ a b Morford, M.; Lenardon, R. (1999). Classical mythology. Oxford University Press. p. 536. ISBN 978-0-19-514338-6.
  3. ^ "Denier d'argent, Rome, vers 20/18 avant J.C." (in French). Retrieved 2009-06-28.
  4. ^ Welch, T. (2012). Perspectives On and Of Livy’s Tarpeia’. EuGeStA, 2, 173. Chicago
  5. ^ Morford, M.; Lenardon, R. (1999). Classical mythology. Oxford University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-19-514338-6.
  6. ^ Morford, M.; Lenardon, R. (1999). Classical mythology. Oxford University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-19-514338-6.
  7. ^ Morford, M.; Lenardon, R. (1999). Classical mythology. Oxford University Press. p. 17-18. ISBN 978-0-19-514338-6.
  8. ^ Micaela, Janan (1999). ""Beyond Good and Evil": Tarpeia and Philosophy in the Feminine". The Classical World. 92: 435.
  9. ^ Parker, Holt (2004). "Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State". American Journal of Philology. 125 (4): 568.
  10. ^ Runsdorf, J. H. (2008). "Weaker Vessels: Spenser's Abessa and Propertius's Tarpeia". Notes and Queries. 55 (2): 162.


  • Livy. "Ab urbe condita". 1:11. Translated from the Original with Notes and Illustrations by George Baker, A.M.. First American ed., from the Last London Edition, in Six Volumes. (New York: Peter A. Mesier et al., 1823). Retrieved 1 May 2016.CS1 maint: location (link)
  • Propertius, IV.4