City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The Stories of Mucius and Cloelia

After Lars Porsena had failed in his attempt to seize the bridge over the Tiber, his army lay for a long time about Rome, and within the city food became very scarce and high in price. Lars Porsena thought that he could starve the city into surrendering, and at last it began to look as though he might succeed. But a young noble named Mucius thought it a disgrace for the Romans to be obliged to lie within the walls, surrounded by the army of the enemy, and to do nothing to help themselves. So he went before the Senate and said:

"O Fathers! permit me to cross the Tiber and attempt to enter the enemy's camp. For it is in my mind to do a great deed, if the gods assist me."

Though they did not know what he planned, the Senate gave him leave to go; and, with a sword concealed under his garment, Mucius set out. When he reached the camp of Lars Porsena, he found a great crowd of soldiers receiving their pay from a man in a purple robe who sat upon a throne. Mucius thought that surely this man must be King Porsena; so he entered the crowd, and, when he had come near enough, he fell upon him and slew him. But this man was only the king's clerk, and the soldiers nearby seized Mucius and brought him before the real king for judgment. When Lars Porsena demanded of the youth who he was and what was the meaning of his deed, Mucius answered:

"Know, O King, that I am a Roman citizen. Mucius is my name. You are the enemy of my country, and I sought to kill you. I know that I shall suffer death, and I have the firmness to meet it. But do you prepare yourself to battle for your life every hour; to have the sword of the enemy at the very entrance of your tent. That is the war which we, the Roman youth, declare against you."

At these words the king was much disturbed, and demanded to know more, and ordered fires to be kindled around the prisoner, if he did not explain the plot which seemed to be formed against him. But Mucius only replied

"Behold! and see of how little account the body is to those who have great ends in view."

As he said this, he thrust his hand into the fire which was burning upon an altar nearby, and held it there without a sign of pain or flinching.

The king, astonished at this act, arose from his throne and commanded that the young man be taken away from the altar. Then the king said to him:

"You have acted more like an enemy to yourself than to me. I should encourage you to be always so brave, if that bravery were only shown upon the side of my country. At all events, I shall now send you back to Rome, untouched and unharmed by me."

Then Mucius replied, as though making a return for the kindness shown him:

"Since bravery is so honored by you, O King, I will tell you that three hundred of the best of the Roman youth have plotted to attack you in this manner. It was my lot to come first. The rest will follow, each in his turn, until we shall make an end of you."

When Lars Porsena heard this, he saw how hard it would be for him to take Rome, if, its people were willing to give up their lives in this way for the city. He sent Mucius back to Rome in safety, where he was honored ever afterwards by the name of the "left-handed," because his right hand had been destroyed in the altar fire.

Then Porsena agreed to make peace with the Romans, and to take his army away from around the walls of the city. But first he demanded pledges from the Romans that they would keep the peace; and they gave him the sons and daughters of the noblest Roman families, and Lars Porsena took them away with him as hostages, so that he might punish them if the Romans broke the peace.

Among the hostages who were obliged to go with Lars Porsena was a high-spirited girl named Cloelia. She did not like to live as a captive in a strange camp, and she made a plan to escape. Porsena's army then lay not very far from Rome, on the banks of the Tiber; and one day Cloelia, taking a number of other girls with her, managed to swim across the river, and reached Rome in safety.

When the king was told of the escape of the hostages, he was very angry, and sent messengers to Rome to demand that Cloelia and her companions should be sent back to him. The Romans kept their faith, and returned the girls to Porsena; for they thought that they had no right to keep the children simply because they escaped so bravely. When Porsena saw that the Romans were acting fairly in the matter, his anger faded, and he became as generous as they had been just. He led all the Roman prisoners before Cloelia, and bade her choose half of them to return with her to their homes. She chose the youngest among them, and they were then sent back to Rome with great honor, for Lars Porsena said:

"The girl Cloelia is as brave as Mucius and Horatius."

Even after Lars Porsena had made peace with the Romans, Tarquin was not yet satisfied that he would never again be allowed to rule at Rome. When he found that Porsena would no longer help him, he did not rest till he had found another king to fight for him. Then he marched again against Rome, with the armies of thirty cities at his back. The Romans heard with terror of the approach of this great force, for they feared that they would not be able to beat back so many enemies; and to meet their danger, they made a change in their government.

They had found that sometimes the two consuls could not agree, and that the state was weakened by their quarrels. So, in order to prevent this from happening now, while their freedom was to be fought for again, they determined to try another plan. They elected one man to fill the place of a king while the danger lasted, and they called him a Dictator. Everyone was to obey him, as though he were a king in truth; and when he led the army out to fight against King Tarquin and his friends once more, the people hoped that they would win the victory,

For a time, however, it seemed that they would be defeated. The soldiers fought bravely, and the Dictator made every effort to win the battle, but at last the men began to give way. Then the Dictator prayed to the twin gods, Castor and Pollux, and vowed to build a temple to them in Rome if they would give their help. Even as he prayed, two youths, on horses as white as snow, rode to the front of the Roman army, and began to press the enemy back, and at last drove them to their camp. But when the Romans had gained their victory, and turned to look for the youths who had saved the day for them, they could find no sign of them except a hoof-print in the rock, such as no earthly horse could have made.

When the army returned to Rome, however, the old men and women, who had been left in the city, told them a wonderful tale. While they had waited in the Forum, for news of the army, two strangers on white horses covered with the foam of battle, had suddenly appeared and ridden to the pool of water by the temple of Vesta. There they had dismounted and bathed their weary horses in the cool water, while they told the people of the victory of Rome. When one of the men who had gathered about them doubted the report which they brought for it seemed too good to be true,—the youths had smiled and gently touched his beard with their hands; and the hair, which before lead been as black as coal, became yellow, like bronze. Then all had believed the good news; and after that the youths mounted again and had ridden away, to be seen no more.

When the Dictator heard this story, he could no longer doubt that his prayer had been heard. The two youths who had aided the army, and who had brought the news of the victory to Rome, he now knew to be Castor and Pollux. So a temple was built to the twin gods on the spot where they had washed their horses; and some of its columns stand in Rome to this day.

After this battle, Tarquin the Proud was unable to get anyone to help him make war on Rome. Two years later he died, and after that there were no more attempts to restore the rule of the Tarquins in the City of the Seven Hills.