This is the second in a series of blogs that will tell the stories of women who were notable in the history of the Roman Republic. In our first blog we saw that the expulsion of the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Supurbus, or Tarquin the Proud, was precipitated by the violation of the virtuous Lucretia by Tarquin’s son. Lucretia’s husband Collatinus, and his cousin Junius Brutus organized the Romans to drive out the Tarquins and set up a republican government. Collatinus and Brutus were the new republic’s first two elected consuls.
Tarquin the Proud, however, was not one to give up power easily. He appealed to the powerful king Lars Porsena of Clusium in Etruria to help him retake Rome by military force and restore him to the throne. Lars Porsena may have been persuaded by the argument that if republican ideas were to spread, he might eventually be deposed by his own people.
The conflict with Lars Porsena left history with two very famous male heroes and one noteworthy female heroine. The first of the male heroes was Horatius Cocles who, with two other men held off the entire army of the Etruscans at a bridge over the Tiber until the Romans could destroy the bridge. This feat is immortalized by the poem of Lord Thomas Babington Mc Caulay-Horatius at the Bridge:
Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the nine gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more
By the nine gods he swore it
And named a trysting day
And bade his messenger ride forth
East and West and South and North
To summon his array.
Lars Porsena was not immediately deterred by the setback at the bridge, but, what finally convinced him that his efforts were not worth the cost was the remarkable bravery of a young Roman named Caius Mucius. This young man swam across the Tiber and boldly entered Lars Porcena’s camp intending to kill the king. He mistook another man for Lars Porsena and killed him with a dagger. He was then seized by the kings guard and brought before Lars Porsena who ordered fires lit in a sacrificial altar to frighten the young man into revealing who was behind the plots to kill him. Mucius said “Behold me, that you might be sensible of how little account the body is to those who have great glory in view.” and he thrust his hand into the fire and held it there while it burned. Lars Porsena had the man removed from the alter and said “Be gone, having acted more like an enemy towards thyself than me. I would encourage thee to persevere in thy valour, if that valour stood on the side of my country. I now desmiss you untouched and unhurt, exempted from the right of war.”
Mucius replied “Since bravery is honoured by you, so that you have obtained by kindness that which you could not by threats, three hundred of us, the chief of the Roman youth, have conspired to attack you in this manner. It was my lot first. The rest will follow, each in his turn, according as the lot shall set him forward, unless fortune shall afford an opportunity for you.”
It must have occurred to Lars Porsena that sooner or later one of these three hundred young Romans would succeed in his mission, especially if Mucius was just one example of the kind of men he was dealing with. He decided to offer peace terms to the Romans. Caius Mucius returned to Rome and took on the agnomen Scaevola, which means “left handed.” as he had destroyed his right hand in the fire. He was rewarded with lands on the other side of the Tiber, which later came to be called the Mucian meadows.
The peace treaty with the Romans required that hostages from Rome be sent to the Etruscan camp. These were young boys and girls of prominent families. One of the young girls was named Cloelia. One evening Cloelia lead a troop of young virgin girls in an escape across the Tiber, and delivered them safe to their families in Rome. Lars Porsena was incensed and demanded the return of Cloelia, and she was taken back to his camp, but afterward, admiring her courage, Lars Porsena praised her, saying that “This action surpassed those of Cocles and Mucius.” He then allowed her to go back to Rome and take half of the hostages with her. She chose to take the young boys who were not past puberty, saying that they were the most vulnerable of the hostages. The Romans honored Cloelia with an equestrian statue which was placed at the top of the Via Sacra, a most unusual monument to a Roman woman.