This remarkably fluid double-sided sheet was probably executed in around 1599, towards the end of de Gheyn's Leiden period and just before his departure for The Hague. At this date he had been studying horses closely for his series The Riding School, which would be engraved by one of his pupils (see lot 130). Van Regteren Altena (1983, op. cit.) saw the present drawing as a flamboyant distillation of these studies of horsemanship, used to add flair to the representation of a popular classical subject.
The story of Marcus Curtius, one of the great moral exemplars of Classical history, had been told by Livy in Book VII of his History of Rome. When a yawning chasm opened in the midst of the Forum, the soothsayers tried to divine the will of the gods, and announced that Rome could only be saved by the sacrifice of her greatest strength. The people were bewildered until the young soldier Marcus Curtius stepped forward: Rome's greatest strength, he said, was her young men. Fully armed and mounted on horseback, he plunged into the chasm, which closed up after him. He thereby became one of Rome's most celebrated heroes.
De Gheyn must have been influenced to some extent by Goltzius's engraving of Marcus Curtius (Hollstein 165), which formed part of the series The Roman Heroes and had been executed in 1586, at which date the young de Gheyn was still working in Goltzius's studio. However, his drawing takes the monumental muscularity of Goltzius's print and transforms it into a leaner, more dynamic composition, in which the sweeping lines add to the sense of visual energy. Although recto and verso are based on the same compositional concept, they in fact represent successive stages of the story. The recto preserves some of the stability of Goltzius's composition, as the horse rears up and back from the chasm, resisting to the last; while the verso, with the horse's outstretched forelegs and Marcus Curtius' commanding forward gesture, represents the dramatic, irrevocable moment of sacrifice as horse and rider leap from the brink. The verso may have served as the prototype for a less inspired engraving by Willem van Swanenburgh (Hollstein 26).