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Public Life

165. Cloelia the hostage. Traditionally Rome, 506 B.C. (Livy, History of Rome 2.13.6-11. Late 1st cent. B.C.-early 1st cent. A.D. L)

The Romans made a treaty with the Etruscan Lars Porsenna, king of Clusium, and sent ten boys and ten girls as hostage. In his account of the legendary events of the period, Livy places the episode of Cloelia, a story of the physical prowess and daring of an adolescent, near the spectacular acts of bravery and self-sacrifice of Mucius Scaevola and Horatius at the bridge. In later accounts of women's physical and moral courage, such as those told by Appian (no. 167), the heroines are almost invariably married women defending their husbands.

Seeing that the Romans so respected courage, women too were inspired to carry out acts of heroism, and Cloelia, one of the girls given as hostages, since the Etruscan camp was situated not far from the bank of the Tiber, eluded the guards, and swam the Tiber amidst a rain of enemy spears at the head of a group of other girls. They all reached Rome safely and she restored them to their families. When the king found out, he was furious at first and sent emissaries to Rome to ask that Cloelia be given back; he did not care about the other girls. But his anger turned to admiration and he said that her undertaking had been greater than that of a Cocles or a Mucius, and gave it to understand that, although he would consider the non-restoration of the hostage equivalent to breaking the treaty, he would nonetheless return her unharmed. Each side trusted the other: the Romans, according to the treaty, returned the pledge of peace, and the Etruscan king not merely respected her courage but honoured it; he praised the girl and said that he would give her half the hostages: she should herself choose the ones she wanted. They were brought before her and it is said she picked the boys, the appropriate choice for her young age, and by agreement of the hostages themselves is was the right thing, as they preferred to have released the persons at the greatest risk of harm by the enemy. Peace was re-established, and the Romans rewarded this act of courage-new in a woman-with a new kind of honour, an equestrian statue. At the top of the Via Sacra a statue of the girl on horseback was set up.[1]


Notes:

1. For the sources that mention the statue, see Pollitt 1983.