Mucius Scaevola

Gaius Mucius Scaevola was a Roman youth, who was famed for his bravery in the face of certain death.

Mucius Scaevola by Louis-Pierre Deseine, 1791, Louvre Museum.

In 508 BC, during the war between Rome and Clusium, the Clusian king Lars Porsena laid siege to Rome. Gaius Mucius, with the approval of the Roman Senate, swam over the River Tiber and snuck into the Etruscan camp with the intent of murdering Lars Porsena. Since it was the soldiers’ pay day, there were two similarly dressed people, one of whom was the king, on a raised platform speaking to the troops. This caused Mucius to misidentify his target, and he killed Porsena’s scribe by mistake.

Mucius Scaevola in the Presence of Lars Porsenna by Matthias Stom, c. 1640s.

After being captured, he famously declared to Porsena: “I am Gaius Mucius, a citizen of Rome. I came here as an enemy to kill my enemy, and I am as ready to die as I am to kill. We Romans act bravely and, when adversity strikes, we suffer bravely.” He also declared that he was the first of three hundred Roman youths to volunteer for the task of assassinating Porsena at the risk of losing their own lives.

“Watch”, he is said to have declared, “so that you know how cheap the body is to men who have their eye on great glory”. Mucius thrust his right hand into a fire which was lit for sacrifice and held it there without giving any indication of pain, thereby earning for himself and his descendants the cognomen Scaevola, meaning “left-handed”.

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Porsena was shocked at the youth’s bravery, and dismissed him from the Etruscan camp, free to return to Rome, saying “Go back, since you do more harm to yourself than me”. At the same time, the king also sent ambassadors to Rome to offer peace.

Mucius was granted farming land on the right-hand bank of the Tiber.