In the year 507 B.C., Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, was expelled, and the Republic of Rome began. This new entity, however, did not have long to wait before it endured its first real test. The idea of people ruling themselves was greatly disturbing to the surrounding monarchs, among the Porsena, king of the Estrucans, who vowed to nip this republic in the bud and replace Tarquinius as king of Rome. Some of the greatest examples of heroism ever seen can be found in this war, as the Romans were determined not to give up their freedom.
As the Estrucan army approached, the Romans set up several garrisons. At many places they relied on the city wall, or the Tiber River as a sufficient barrier. The only place this river was crossable was at one point where a wooden bridge was built across it. It was at this point that the Etruscans attacked, taking the garrison station there completely by surprise. The Roman soldiers quickly lost order, throwing down their weapons and fleeing. One man alone stood his ground. His name was Horatius Cocles. With all the power he had, he urged his comrades to destroy the bridge by any means necessary. He offered to hold up the Etruscan army by himself while the task was being completed. Two other soldiers, Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius offered to help him, but he forced them to save themselves instead.
As the Etruscan army approached, Horatius faced them with sword and shield held ready for battle: one man against an army. He called out to them, mocking them, and challenging one after another to single combat. For a while the Etruscans just stood there, each waiting for his neighbor to make the first move. Then, finally they gave a fierce cry and the first line all hurled their spears at Horatius. Horatius blocked the missiles with his shield, and held his ground. The army then advanced, intending to thrust him away with their numbers, but they were stopped by the sudden sound of the collapsing bridge. Before the Etruscans could react, Horatius plunged fully armed into the river, and swam to the other side, narrowly avoiding all the missiles the Etruscans threw at him.
The attempt to take the city by assault had failed, so Porsena lay siege to it. As the siege dragged on, food became scarce. It looked like Porsena might actually starve the city into submission. One Roman, Gaius Mucius, devised a plan. He presented himself to the Roman Senate, and asked permission to cross the river and enter the enemy’s camp, where he would assassinate Porsena. The Senate granted their permission.
Concealing a dagger in his clothing, Mucius arrived at the Etruscans camp and stood among the soldiers. There was a large crowd, since it was pay day. Porsena and his secretary sat side by side, dispensing the money to the soldiers. Since they were dressed identically, it was impossible to tell which one was which. Mucius had a fifty-fifty chance, and he took it, pushing his way through the crowd and stabbing one of the men. He then tried to make his escape, but was quickly apprehended. King Porsena now had one less secretary.
Mucius was brought before Porsena. Mucius defiantly told Porsena that he had come into the camp to kill him, and even added that there was a long list of other young men who demanded to know more about this plot, but Mucius would tell him nothing. In rage, Porsena ordered Mucius to be burned alive. Mucius responded, “See how cheap men hold their bodies when they care only for honor.” With that he thrust his hand into a nearby fire, kindled for sacrifice, and let it burn there as if he felt no pain. He didn’t even change his expression.
Porsena was so astonished that he leapt to his feet and ordered a guard to drag Mucius away from the fire. “Go free,” he said. “You have dared to be a worse enemy to yourself than to me. I should bless your courage, if it lay with my country to dispose of it. But as that cannot be, I, as an honorable enemy, grant you pardon, life, and liberty.”
As if he were thanking Porsena for his generosity, Mucius finished off the lie about the plot, saying that there were 300 men determined to kill Porsena, and one would come to the camp each night until they had fulfilled their mission.
Porsena was hardly pleased with this news. He hastened to make peace with the Romans. His demand that Tarquinius be returned to the throne was denied, bu t he did get the Romans to agree to give hostages over to him. Gaius Mucius was welcomed home a hero, and given the new name Gaius Mucius Scaevola, or “Gaius Mucius, the left handed man”.
One of the hostages given over to Porsena was a young maiden named Cloelia. One day, when the army was camped by the Tiber, she and some other girls who agreed to follow her eluded the guards, dove into the Tiber, swam through a rain of missles to safety, and then journeyed back to Rome. Porsena was furious, and demanded their return. Later, as his anger subsided, he admitted he had been impressed by their bravery, and agreed to let the girls stay free. In addition, he also released several other hostages. To honor Cloelia’s courage, the Romans erected a statue of her on horseback, the first time in history a woman was honored in this way.
Through the work of these brave individuals, the republic was saved. Had they not stepped forward, the world we know today would be entirely different. But because of their courage, the idea of a republic was preserved for future generations.