Cloelia, Roman Heroine (C6th BCE)

The Great Escape

The story we are going to tell today is an interesting one but, like most stories from the ancient world, problematic. It concerns a period of history known as Early Roman which is a difficult time to study given the host of source issues we encounter. The majority of our sources from the Roman world date from the 2nd century BCE onwards and the information we have about previous centuries is gleaned from histories written or allusions made long after the events of early Rome had unfolded. This should give us pause because we simply do not know how the likes of Livy acquired their information.

With this in mind, let’s begin…

It is the year 508 BCE and Rome’s last king had been overthrown. We’ve dealt with the downfall of Tarquinius Superbus in our post on Lucretia but, suffice to say, Superbus was not happy about being forced from office. So much so that he went to seek assistance from the neighbouring Etruscan nations, eventually gaining the support of Lars Porsena, the powerful king of Clusium.

Cloelia on horseback. Illustration by Maria Haley.

Porsena soon marched on Rome, ostensibly in support of Tarquinius. There’s a couple of strange stories about Porsena’s siege of Rome, including one tale about a man, Horatius Cocles, who fought off the Clusian army whilst his fellow Romans dismantled the bridge he was standing on, and another about chap named Gaius Mucius who tried to assassinate Porsena but got the wrong man and so stuck his own hand in a fire. You’ll be pleased to hear that they both survived their ordeals…

Anyway, after a brief conflict just outside Rome, a peace treaty was drawn up between Porsena and the Romans. The Romans refused to allow Tarquinius to return to the throne but did agree to give Porsena back land they had taken from another neighbouring tribe. Most importantly for this story, the Romans agreed to give 200 hostages in exchange for Porsena withdrawing his troops from the city.

Amongst the hostages was a number of young women, including a woman named Cloelia. One day, Cloelia decided her time in Clusian custody was over and planned an escape. Leading a group of her fellow hostages, Cloelia slipped past the guards and made for the river. Cloelia and the group of women entered the water and immediately felt the pull of the current on their robes. However, the river was not the only danger they faced.

With the far bank in sight, they heard the swoosh of arrows overhead and the splash of water as the Clusians fired round after round at them. Miraculously, they made it to the far bank and soon reached Rome.

Whilst the Romans were impressed with her escape, Cloelia’s actions had essentially broken the treaty between Clusium and Rome and could potentially have led to further conflict.

However, Porsena seemed to enjoy audacity – which might explain why his would-be assassin Mucius survived after shoving his hand in the fire… Declaring that Cloelia’s actions were ever more impressive that those of Cocles or Mucius, Porsena sent a message to the Romans reminding them that the treaty would remain intact if Cloelia and the other hostages were returned.

The comparison of Cloelia to the two male figures, Cocles and Mucius is important. So, let’s delve a little deeper into the representation of Cloelia as a ‘male figure’. Like Lucretia, Cloelia is presented as possessing what the Romans understood to be ‘male qualities’, i.e. physical prowess, cunning, cold logic (we’ll get on to that in a minute). As Hemelrijk (2004: 89) argues, Cloelia is presented as possessing ‘a male brain within a female body’. In addition, throughout Roman history and literature, Cloelia’s actions are linked to and compared with those of Cocles or Mucius, despite her actions being independent of theirs. This has resulted in later allusions to Cloelia being cast masculine, particularly in the writings of those who wished to make a contrast between early Roman heroics and the actions of their (usually male) contemporaries (Roller, 2004: 28-50). Therefore, whilst Cloelia’s actions were admired centuries after they supposedly took place, they were always compared to the actions of men, or cast as being masculine in nature (Hemelrijk, 2004: 89).

Rubens’ version of Cloelia’s escape Cloelia Crossing the Tiber (1630/1640).
Source: Wiki.

Anyway, to get back to the story: Porsena also promised that once Cloelia and the other women were returned, he would send Cloelia back to Rome.

The Romans kept their word and returned the hostages. Cloelia was allowed to go back to Rome, and Porsena also permitted her to choose a number of hostages to take with her.

For after praising [Cloelia’s] heroism [Porsena] said that he would present her with half the hostages, and that she herself should choose the ones she wished. When they had all been brought out it is said that she selected the young boys, because it was not only more seemly in a maiden, but was unanimously approved by the hostages themselves, that in delivering them from the enemy she should give the preference to those who were of an age which particularly exposed them to injury.

Livy 2.13.10-11

Clearly, Cloelia made her decision by considering the best worst option – if she was unable to save all the hostages (including the women she had escaped with) then the most vulnerable should be protected. The boys were young and, without the protection of their families, would have been the most helpless. It probably also helped that they were male and were therefore deemed to be more valuable by Roman society in that they could take part in politics and warfare.

We don’t know what happened to Cloelia after she returned to Rome. However, she did become a folk hero who was honoured with a statue in the heart of Rome; the first Roman woman to be presented on horseback in statue form.

When peace had been established the Romans rewarded this new valour in a woman with a new kind of honour, an equestrian statue, which was set up on the summit of the Sacred Way, and represented the maiden seated on a horse.

Livy 2.13.11

To conclude, we need to return to the issue of sources. We simply do not know whether Cloelia was a real person and we probably never will. However, the tale speaks to the position of women in the Roman world; women could be defiant and strong-willed leaders (essentially exhibiting so-called ‘masculine qualities’) but only when it was for the benefit of Rome. In Livy’s version, after she returned to Porsena, it is not the women Cloelia initially escaped with whom she chose to save, but rather the young boys. This may have been a logical decision based on the age of the male children, but it essentially indicates that they were of more value than the women.

A few things to note:

  1. Later sources, including Florus and Plutarch, suggest that Cloelia swam across the Tiber on horseback, leading the women behind her. However, there is nothing in Livy’s account (the earliest surviving extant source we have on Cloelia – from the 1st century BCE) to suggest this was the case. It is possible that the depiction of Cloelia on horseback in the statue caused an assumption to be made in later texts.

Sources

Florus, Epitome of Roman History 3.1.10

Livy 2.13

Plutarch, On the Bravery of Women 14

Roller, M.B. 2004. Exemplarity in Roman Culture: The Cases of Horatius Cocles and Cloelia. Classical Philology. Vol. 99/1, pp. 1-56.

Hemelrijk, E.A. 2002. Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Élite from Cornelia to Julia Domna. London: Routledge.

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