The Story of Cloelia
(Livy 2.13. 5-11)

During the early years of the Republic, the Etruscan king Porsinna had the city of Rome under siege when a young Roman named Mucius was captured during an assassination attempt. Mucius taunted Porsinna by saying that he was the first of many Romans who had sworn to kill the king. Porsinna threatened Mucius with torture if he did not divulge all the details of the plot, but Mucius thrust his own right hand into the fire to prove that he was impervious to pain, whereupon Porsinna set him free in recognition of his courage. In fear of further assassination attempts, Porsinna made a treaty with Rome—the Etruscans would withdraw the siege but Rome would have to hand over young Roman men and women as hostages.

terracotta statue of woman Because of the courage of Mucius, the senators gave him a grant of land across the Tiber, which was afterwards called the “Mucian Fields.” Therefore, because courage was honored in this way, the women were also inspired to seek public honor. The maiden Cloelia, one of the hostages, deceived the guards and, leading a band of female hostages, swam across the Tiber amid a hail of enemy spears, since the Etruscan camp was located not far from from the bank of the Tiber. She restored all the girls, unhurt, to their families in Rome. When this news was brought to the king, he was at first consumed with anger; he sent spokesmen to Rome to demand the hostage Cloelia—the other girls were of no significance to him. Later, having changed to admiration of her courage, he said that her deed was greater than those of Horatius and Mucius. He declared that, if this hostage were not surrendered to him, he would regard the treaty as broken, but once she was surrendered, he would return her to her family safe and sound. Honor prevailed on both sides: the Romans sent her back as a pledge of peace according to the terms of the treaty, and in the house of the Etruscan king, Cloelia's virtue was not only safe but also honored. The king praised the maiden and said that he would grant her part of the hostages; she herself should choose whichever hostages she wanted. From all the hostages brought out, she is said to have chosen the young boys. This choice was becoming to her maiden modesty, and according to the agreement of the hostages themselves it was laudable to free especially that age group who had the greatest chance of injury from the enemy. After peace had been restored, the Romans rewarded this new valor in a woman with a new form of honor, an equestrian statue—a maiden sitting on a horse was placed at the top of the Sacred Way.

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