Gaius Mucius Scaevola, fearless defender of Rome

Introduction

Gaius Mucius Scaevola was a semi-legendary Roman hero of the Early Roman Republic era.
According to the Roman historian, Titus Livius, he saved Rome from total conquest by the armies led by the Etruscan King Lars Porsenna.
Along with Horatius Cocles‘s heroic defense of the bridge; the heroic act of Gaius Mucius Scaevola decisively contributed to the survival of the newly born Roman Republic.
By proving that he was not only brave but also cunning, Gaius Mucius Scaevola earned a well-deserved and unique place in Roman History.

Gaius Mucius Scaevola – Story

Gaius Mucius Scaevola in front of Lars Porsenna, painting done by Matthias Storm(17th century)
Gaius Mucius Scaevola in front of Lars Porsenna, painting done by Matthias Storm(17th century)

After the victory of the republican forces at the Battle of Silva Arsia(509 BC), the deposed and defeated king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, sought to replenish his forces.
In another effort to reclaim his throne, Tarquinius asked for the support of his most important ally, the Etruscan King of Clusium, Lars Poersenna.
After assembling a large army, Lars Porsenna initially attempted to storm the city of Rome.


His initial attack was repulsed by the brave standing of Horatius Cocles, Spurius Lartius, and Titus Herminius Aquilinus near the strategic bridge of Pons Sublicius.
After failing to take Rome by direct assault, Porsenna set up his camp on the banks of the Tiber river and lay siege to the city.


Porsenna hoped that he could starve the Romans into submission, but a young Patrician by the name of Gaius Mucius, had come up with a bold plan to stop him.
Gaius Mucius’s plan was simple, but at the same time very ambitious/daring. He intended to infiltrate the Etruscan army camp, and then assassinate Lars Porsenna, the commander of the enemy army.


According to Livy, he initially wanted to infiltrate the enemy camp without the approval of the Roman Leaders.
Fearing that he might be caught by the Roman sentries and then tried for desertion, Gaius Mucius decided to ask for authorization from the Roman Senate. In front of the Senators he said:


“I wish, to cross the river, senators, and enter, if I can, the enemy’s camp not to plunder or exact reprisals for their devastations: I have in mind to do a greater deed if the gods grant me their help.”– Gaius Mucius Scaevola


According to Livy, the Senators approved his plan.
Disguised as an Etruscan soldier and with his sword hidden under his clothes, Gaius Mucius successfully infiltrated the enemy army camp.
His arrival coincided with the payday of the Etruscan soldiers, on this day the Etruscan King and his personal secretary wore the same clothes.
Unfortunately for Rome, Gaius Mucius, fearing that he could expose his true identity, didn’t ask who was the King and decided to strike randomly.
Instead of assassinating Lars Porsenna, the attack ended with the elimination of his personal secretary.
After this failure, Gaius Mucius attempted to escape, but he was quickly caught by the King’s guards who dragged him back in front of Porsenna.
What comes next is one of the most epic scenes in the History of the Early Roman Republic.


In front of the Etruscan King, our Roman hero is defiant until the end and boldly admits his plan:


“I am a Roman citizen; men call me Gaius Mucius. I am your enemy, and as an enemy, I would have slain you; I can die as resolutely as I could kill: both to do and to endure valiantly is the Roman way. Nor am I the only one to carry this resolution against you: behind me is a long line of men who are seeking the same honour. Gird yourself, therefore, if you think it worth your while, for a struggle in which you must fight for your life from hour to hour with an armed foe always at your door. Such is the war we, the Roman youths, declare on you. Fear no serried ranks, no battle; it will be between yourself alone and a single enemy at a time.” -Gaius Mucius Scaevola


The threat that there were more Roman people ready to assassinate Porsenna, was a pure invention of Gaius Mucius.
It is still debatable if this threat was something very well planned before in case of failure, or if it was a sudden flash of genius.
The Etruscan King, filled with anger after being threatened, ordered his guards to torture the prisoner by putting him into flames.
Defiant till the end and far from losing his heart, Gaius Mucius puts his right hand into a nearby sacrificial fire, and let the fire burn it completely, while at the same time giving no signs of pain or fear.
A shocked Lars Porsenna suddenly changes his mind and orders the release of the brave Roman warrior.


“Do you go free, who have dared to harm yourself more than me. I would invoke success upon your valour, were that valour exerted for my country; since that may not be, I release you from the penalties of war and dismiss you scathless and uninjured.” – Lars Porsenna


The reasons for the sudden change of mind of the Etruscan King, besides the psychological impact of Gaius Mucius’s deed, can be linked to the fear that the complex plot presented by the Roman warrior is quite real.
After being released, Gaius Mucius, repeats his threat to the Etruscan King and even presents an exact number of Roman warriors ready to attack Porsenna:


“Since you hold bravery in honour, my gratitude shall afford you the information your threats could not extort: we are three hundred, the foremost youths of Rome, who have conspired to assail you in this fashion. I drew the first lot; the others, in whatever order it falls to them, will attack you, each at his own time until Fortune shall have delivered you into our hands.” – Gaius Mucius Scaevola


Mucius sacrifice, who from this point is also known as Scaevola(left-handed) didn’t remain without major consequences.
In fact, Gaius Mucius Scaevola manage to transform a failed assassination attempt into a strategic victory. Proof that our hero was not only brave but also cunning.
Porsenna, now fearing for his life, decided to open peace negotiations with Rome and abandoned the siege.
During the negotiations, Porsenna insisted on the restoration of the Tarquinii, but with no success.
After abandoning the siege of Rome, Porsenna and his army retreated from all Roman territories.
A grateful Roman Senate rewards Gaius Mucius Scaevola for his bravery with a plot of fertile lands on the banks of the Tiber, a place which will later be known as Mucian Meadows.


Additional mentions about the story of Gaius Mucius Scaevola


1. The story of Gaius Mucius Scaevola is most probably a legend, the entire version of this story is only presented by Titus Livius.
2. From other ancient historians, we know for sure that Rome was actually occupied for 2 years by Lars Porsenna.
3. Like many events presented by Titus Livius in Ad Urbe Condita, it is hard to distinguish the reality and legend.
4. Nevertheless, the story of Gaius Mucius Scaevola would serve as a rare example of bravery for many Roman citizens.

SOURCES:

Titus Livius, History of Rome, Volume I, Books 1-2, translation by B.O.Foster, Ph.D. of Standford University, pages 255-261.

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