Daughter of the Roman commander Spurius Tarpeius, Tarpeia was a mythological Vestal Virgin of Rome, a position that called for dedication to the care and well-being of the city (a role taken from their patron goddess, Vesta, who protected homes). Due to their devotion to the preservation of Rome, Vestal Virgins were held in high regard, even after they retired from this religious order.
Soon after the city of Rome was founded, in order to procure wives and begin populating the settlement, the Romans invited the nearby tribe of the Sabines to their new city. Under the guise of a festival, the Romans kidnapped all of the unmarried Sabine women and forced them all into marriage. The enraged Sabines declared war on the city in retaliation.
Betraying her duty as a Vestal, the greed-driven Tarpeia snuck to the Sabine camp and offered to open the city gates, allowing the Sabines to attack Rome in exchange for "what was worn around their left arm". She meant for them to give her their jewelry: golden bracelets on their arms. The Sabines instead crushed her with what they traditionally carried on their left arm: their heavy shields.
Tarpeia became an infamous symbol in Rome for greed and treachery.
- According to Roman legend, Tarpeia was buried within the Tarpeian Rock, a steep cliff on the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill overlooking the forum. The cliff was used as a site where murderers, traitors, perjurers and larcenous slaves were hurled to their deaths.