Classical writers such as Ovid and Plutarch told of the Romans’ lack of women during the period immediately following the founding of the city. As a result, they abducted the daughters of the Sabines, their neighbouring allies, during a feast. It was only some time later that the Sabines tried to recapture the young women. By that time, however, many were pregnant or already had children and put themselves between the two adversaries to protect their offspring.
The painting was largely executed by the artist’s workshop; only the prominent group with the three women was reworked by Rubens himself.