Gateway to the Classics: Stories from the History of Rome by Emily Beesly
Stories from the History of Rome by  Emily Beesly

How Lars Porsenna Besieged Rome

W HEN King Tarquin was driven out of Rome he went to Clusium in Etruria, where reigned a great and powerful king called Lars Porsenna. Tarquin hoped that by the help of Porsenna and his Etruscan allies he might be able to conquer the people of Rome and so make himself king again. So he came before Porsenna and begged for his help.

"Do not," he said, "allow these Romans to banish us from their city. Remember that kings should be always ready to help each other; for if the peoples of Italy see that the Romans can drive out their king without being punished for it, they too will try to get rid of their kings, for all men love freedom."

Porsenna listened to all that Tarquin said. He was sorry for the old man, who had been obliged to fly from his kingdom, and he promised to help him. He collected a great army, and accompanied by Tarquin and his sons, marched towards Rome, hoping to be able to take it at once. This he could not do, because the brave Horatius Cocles defended the bridge over the Tiber, and so gave the Romans time to cut it down.

When Porsenna found that he could not take Rome at once as he had hoped, he determined to besiege the city, that is, to encamp his army round it, and watch it well so that no one could either go in or out, and so that no food could be brought in. He also got ships and boats to guard the River Tiber, so that no one should get into the town that way.

Porsenna sent his soldiers all round the city, and they plundered the country close to the walls, so that the people were obliged to drive their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle inside Rome.

One day the Consul Valerius ordered that a large flock of sheep should be driven out of the town, and the Etruscan soldiers, hearing of this, came eagerly to drive them off to their camp. But Valerius laid his plans well, for he sent the brave Herminius and Spurius Lartius who had helped Horatius to defend the bridge, each with a party of Romans, to hide themselves some little way outside the walls. The Etruscans came up and were beginning to drive off the sheep, when Valerius had the gates of Rome opened and marched out to attack them with a strong party of soldiers. As soon as Herminius heard the trumpets, which were the signal that Valerius had begun the fight, he led his men out of their hiding place and charged the Etruscans on the other side. The Etruscans would now gladly have fled away, but as they tried to go towards their camp Spurius Lartius and his troop met them, and so, surrounded and overpowered, they were all killed.

But still the siege went on; and as there was not much food left in the city, Porsenna began to hope that the Romans would soon be obliged to yield.

There lived in Rome a young man called Caius Mucius, who thought it was shameful that the Roman people should be besieged now that they were free.

"For," said he, "such a thing never happened to the city before, even when the kings governed it. And now, are we to be kept prisoners within our walls by these Etruscans, whom we have so often beaten in fight?"

So he resolved that he would try to force his way into Porsenna's camp, and do some great deed there. He went to the Senate to ask for leave to go on his expedition.

"Fathers," said he, "I have a great wish to cross the Tiber, and get into the enemy's camp if I can; not as a robber, but because I wish to do some great deed if the gods will allow me."

The Senators granted what he asked; and Mucius set off, carrying his sword with him hidden under his clothes.

When he arrived in the camp of the Etruscans he found a great crowd near the tent of King Porsenna, for the soldiers were going to receive their pay. Mucius saw a man in splendid garments sitting and giving orders; and thinking this must be the king, he rushed up to him and stabbed him. But this man was not the king, but one of his nobles. Then the Etruscan soldiers seized Mucius and dragged him before Porsenna.

The king asked the young man who he was, and why he had killed the Etruscan?

"I am a Roman," answered Mucius boldly. "My name is Caius Mucius. I wished to kill you, King Porsenna, because you are the enemy of Rome; and I am not afraid to die since I have not done what I meant to do. A Roman ought to be able to do and to bear great things. But I warn you, I am not alone; for I have many followers who are resolved to kill you. You must be ready at all times to fight for your life; and see that you have armed men always watching to guard you. For we, the young men of Rome, declare war against you. Look here, and see how little Romans fear pain."

As he spoke he stretched out his right hand and thrust it into the fire that was burning near the king.

Porsenna was greatly astonished at the bravery of Mucius; he sprang up from his throne, and bade his soldiers set the young man free.

"You have been more cruel to yourself, Mucius, than to me," he said. "I set you free. Go home untouched and unharmed by any Etruscan."

"Since you value courage so much," said Mucius, "I will tell you what your threats should never have made me say. Three hundred young Romans have vowed to kill you. The first turn was mine; but the rest will come, one after another, until one shall succeed in killing you."

When Porsenna heard this he began to think, though he was a brave man, that he certainly would never get back to Clusium, as some one of these fierce Romans would be sure to kill him.

But Mucius went safely back to Rome, and after this time he was always called Scævola, which means the left-handed, because his right hand was burnt.

And Porsenna sent ambassadors, or messengers, to Rome to offer to make peace with the Romans. He tried to make them promise to let the Tarquins come back to Rome; but they would not consent to that. At last Porsenna gave up all thoughts of making Tarquin King of Rome again, and he promised to lead his army away, if the Romans would give him hostages, that is, would give him some of their own people as prisoners; so that he might be quite sure they would keep the peace for fear of what he might do to these prisoners. So the Romans gave him a number of young boys and girls. Porsenna marched away, but pitched his camp again on the banks of the Tiber, not far from Rome.

One day, when the Roman maidens, who were Porsenna's hostages, were walking beside the Tiber, one of them whose name was Clœlia thought how easy it would be to get across the river away from their enemies, as Horatius Cocles had done. She spoke to the other girls and bade them do as she did. She then plunged into the water, and swam across. She was soon on the other side, followed by her companions, and it was not long before they were all once more with their friends in Rome.

Porsenna was very angry when he heard that the Roman maidens had escaped. He sent at once to the consuls, bidding them give him back his hostages, or he would not keep the peace. The Romans sent the girls back to him, for they wished honourably to keep the promises they had made. Porsenna was so much pleased with their honesty, and with the courage of Clœlia, that he set her free, and allowed her to choose any of her companions whom she wished to take back with her to Rome.

So peace was made again between the Romans and the Etruscans; and the Romans so honoured the brave Clœlia that they had a statue made of her, and placed it in one of the chief streets of Rome, called the Via Sacra, which means the Holy Street.

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