Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Heroes of the Republic

Some months ago, we looked at the story of Horatius Cocles, and his incredible valour in defence of the city of Rome at the birth of the Republic (for the story, please click here). Through tremendous bravery, Rome had been saved from destruction at the hands of the Etruscans, and their mighty King Lars Porsenna of Clusium. Yet, despite this extraordinary moment, Tarquinius Superbus, the exiled seventh and final King of Rome, refused to give in. Through treachery, deceit and lies he had been forced from his rightful throne, and would not so easily be stopped in getting it back...

The City of Clusium today
Photograph taken by the author
Though impressed by Horatius' fortitude, Lars Porsenna pushed forward, and for the first time since her foundation two hundred and forty four years earlier, Rome herself endured the humiliation of a siege. Tarquin demanded Porsenna to force the surrender of Rome, and the submission of her people to him once more. Not only had the Romans expelled him from the city, the Senate had decreed that the property of Tarquin was now public land. The theft of his land drove the king into fits of rage at the very mention of his old city. Fearing the might of the Tarquins still, Porsenna dared not disobey his fellow king and ally. Through his own strategic brilliance, Porsenna cut off Rome from her supplies, and overran her lands, but could not extinguish the city itself, well defended as it was. The siege grew in its ferocity. Starvation began to stalk the streets of Rome, slowly strangling the life out of her people. The Senate, in desperation, sent envoys to the Latin cities to the South, calling for aid. Alas it was in vain, for the Latin ambassadors saw the Roman plight as hopeless, and made their peace with the Etruscans. Rome was on her own. Lars Porsenna, a shrewd yet honourable man, saw the desperation of the Romans, sent envoys to the city one last time. The war, and their famine, could all be over if they would just accept Tarquin once more. Though dire was their state, the Romans held their honour still. Never again would a Roman bow to an Etruscan King, and the envoys returned with a defiant refusal to their king. The end seemed near, for though they retained their freedom, for now, it seemed they had condemned themselves to death. It was from this hopelessness that a man emerged among the Romans.

His name was Gaius Mucius, an aristocrat of considerable position, yet little known at the time, but whose name would one day be legend. Unable to tolerate the shame that Rome now endured any longer, Mucius summoned the Senate to put forward a proposition. Careful to avoid revealing too much, lest a traitor unveil his ploy to the foe, Mucius' request was cryptic, yet brief. "'I wish', he said, 'to cross the river and to enter, if I can, the enemy's lines. My object is neither plunder nor reprisals, but, with the help of God, something more important than either'". Intrigued, and filled with desperate hope, the Senate granted his request. Concealing a dagger in his clothes, Mucius took leave of the city.

Scaevola thrusts his hand into the fire
Painting by Rubens and Van Dyck
Emerging on the far side of the Tiber, Mucius approached the Etruscan camp. Successfully deceiving the guard on account of his not carrying any weapon openly, and his knowledge of their language, which he had learned from his Etruscan nurse as a boy, Mucius made his way to the heart of their encampment. Passing the endless stretches of tents, Mucius came at last to a clearing, in which a vast crowd were gathered, all apparently queuing before a raised dais at the centre. Atop the platform there were seated two men in magnificent attire - robed in purple and bearing the symbols of power, each looked every part the king of the great city of Clusium. No one stopped Mucius as he approached, seeing no weapon, and now was his chance. But he was wracked with uncertainty. He did not know what Porsenna looked like - which was he?! One of the two was receiving a great many addresses from the crowd, and Mucius reasoned that this must be the king. With a shout of fury, Mucius revealed his concealed blade, and drove it into the man. In an instant, as blood spurted from the man's throat, a hundred pairs of hands seized Mucius and dragged him before the other man. Mucius realised to his horror that he had stabbed the wrong man, for it was the king's secretary now lifeless on the floor. It was pay day for the army, and the soldiers had simply been collecting their wages from him. There was no help at hand, the situation was desperate. But brave Mucius flinched not once as the true Lars Porsenna fixed him with a baleful glare, demanding to know who this man was before he died:

"'I am a Roman', he said to the king, 'my name is Gaius Mucius. I came here to kill you - my enemy. I have as much courage to die as to kill. It is our Roman way to do and to suffer bravely. Nor am I alone in my resolve against your life; behind me is a long line of men eager for the same honour. Gird yourself, if you will, for the struggle - a struggle for your life from hour to hour, with an armed enemy always at your door. That is the war we declare against you: you need fear no action in the field, army against army; it will be fought against you alone, by one of us at a time...'"
                   - SCAEVOLA'S THREAT

Scaevola and Porsenna
Painting by Matthias Stom
In rage mingled with alarm, Porsenna at once ordered the prisoner to be burned alive unless he immediately revealed the plot he at alluded to. Mucius, with a shout of "See how cheap men hold their bodies when they care only for honour!", thrust his right hand into the nearby fire, and left it there to burn. The flames roared and licked his arm, and his flesh charred away, yet Mucius held it still. Never once did the Roman shout in pain, never once did he flinch in agony, never once did he pass out through pain. The gathered crowd looked on, stunned into silence, unable to believe what they saw. Porsenna himself, astonished at Mucius' seemingly divine endurance, ordered his guards to set the man free, so impressed was he. The king blessed his staggering courage, and promised Mucius that "I, as an honourable enemy, grant you pardon, life and liberty". Withdrawing his hand from the conflagration without any hint of the terrible agony he had just felt, Mucius bowed, and revealed to the king that three hundred other men, young and of noble blood like himself, had all sworn to kill him in their turn, and that he drew the first lot. "The rest will follow, each in his turn and time, until fortune favour us and we have got you". So impressed was the King of Clusium at the valour of the Roman people, and so shaken was he at the thought of three hundred more assassins, he at once bade envoys to go to Rome to negotiate peace.

Mucius returned to Rome a hero. He became known ever after as Scaevola (Latin for ' the Left-Handed Man') and his fame was everlasting, his descendants holding the very highest offices of state in the Republic for centuries to come. The people of Rome shouted his name, and the Senate lavished gifts upon him, and even today, you will find Scaevola and the immolation of his hand immortalised through painting in the finest palaces across the world. Soon the ambassadors of the Clusian King came before the Senate once more. Lars Porsenna had been astounded by the resolve of the Romans, but had not yet been robbed of his sense of reality. Once again, bound by honour to his ally, he urged the Romans to accept Tarquin's rule. Once again, the Romans refused. Unfazed, the king demanded the return of territory to the Etruscans that Rome had taken in ages past. Seeing this as fair, the Senate agreed, on the condition that the Etruscans withdraw their garrison from the Janiculum Hill. This Porsenna agreed to, on the condition that he be handed over hostages as a sign of good faith. Both sides agreed, and the Clusians withdrew with their prisoners.

Cloelia and the women of Rome
Painting by Rubens
But such was the heroism of Scaevola, now all Romans were inspired to emulate him. Another hero of the Republic now rose, though this time it was no great nobleman or warrior, but a young girl. Not long after Scaevola's triumphant return, on the banks of the Tiber alongside the Etruscan camp, the hostages lay. Rising up, the maiden Cloelia rallied the women in the camp to action, for the sake of their honour. Then, for the glory of Rome, she hurled herself into the Tiber, breaking free of the guards. Under a hailstorm of arrows and javelins, the women followed her, shaking off their bonds and forcing their escape. With selfless devotion, Cloelia led them all ashore and back to the city. Tarquin was furious that the treaty had been broken, and ordered Porsenna to take them back. But the King of Clusium had never before been faced with such a conflict within. The women were received with more glory than even Horatius and Scaevola, and the morale of the Roman people soared to towering heights. The Senate, however, ridden with guilt over the breach of the oath, send ambassadors to Porsenna, declaring that the women had acted of their own accord, and not under order. The king was impressed at the valour of the women of Rome, and requested only that they return Cloelia as a hostage - the others, he declared, were free. He assured them, however, that he believed Cloelia to be greater than Scaevola or Horatius, and that if they returned her, he would set her free too.

Both Roman and Etruscan were loyal to honour, and ill feeling between Roman and Clusian was sapping away. Cloelia willingly returned of her own accord to Porsenna. The guards approached to restrain her, but Porsenna stayed their hand. Praising her and offering his protection, the king offered her to choose which other hostages she might take with her back to Rome. It is said that off all of them, she chose the young men out of her maiden modesty, and so that Rome's future could be assured. Delighted, Porsenna ordered them all released, and not for the first time, Cloelia was received in triumph back in Rome. To her the Senate accorded a special honour - they raised a magnificent statue of her on horseback on the Sacred Way, an accolade no woman had ever received before.

Cloelia and the women of Rome make their escape
Painting by Wouters
Tarquin, however, was vehement in his condemnation. When he sent forth a squadron to intercept the women on their return, Porsenna's mind was made up, and they were protected. The Roman Senate, grateful for his support, sent to the Etruscan King a rare embassy. Roman and Clusian could be enemy no more, but friend. The Roman ambassadors urged Lars Porsenna not to ask again if they would accept the yoke of the Tarquins. "There was not a man in the city who did not pray that the end of liberty, should it come, might also be the end of Rome", and they urged Porsenna that, "if he had the good of Rome at heart, to accept the fact that she would never surrender liberty". Lars Porsenna of Clusium was deeply impressed. "'Since', he said, 'it is clear that nothing can shake your determination, I will no longer weary you with requests which I know now to be useless; nor shall I deceive the Tarquins with the hope of aid which I have no power to give. They must find - by force of arms or otherwise, as they please - some other place to spend exile in: for nothing must disturb the friendly relations between myself and Rome'". The king's actions spoke even greater than his words, as he released all prisoners, and returned to Rome to territory he had taken. Severing his alliance once and for all, he renounced his cause to restore the Tarquins to the Roman throne. After a public vote, the Roman people gave to Porsenna a throne of ivory, a crown of gold and a triumphal robe. Peace was at hand. Rome and Clusium parted company as firm friends. But there was one among them all who was far from happy. For Tarquin the Proud withdrew in cold fury. The Siege of Rome was over, but Tarquin's ambition was not. For he was a Roman King, and once a Roman, always a Roman. He could never give in. Setting out one final time, Rome's old king would return in vengeance, and deliver one last blow to the city which had betrayed him...

United Kingdom

The Early History of Rome: Bks. 1-5 (Penguin Classics)
(The full story of the Rise of Rome, from its humble origins to its mastery of the world, which recounts the stories of the heroism of the Romans during the siege)

Dionysius of Halicarnassus:
Roman Antiquities: v.3: Vol 3 (Loeb Classical Library)
(The third volume of a vast history of Rome, told with more detail than Livy, and in more archaic language)

United States

Livy: The Early History of Rome, Books I-V (Penguin Classics) (Bks. 1-5)
(The full story of the Rise of Rome, from its humble origins to its mastery of the world, which recounts the stories of the heroism of the Romans during the siege)

Dionysius of Halicarnassus:
Dionysius of Halicarnassus: Roman Antiquities, Volume III, Books V-VI, 48 (Loeb Classical Library No. 357)
(The third volume of a vast history of Rome, told with more detail than Livy, and in more archaic language)

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