Legend of Cloelia - Roman Republic - Etruscans - Cheryl Walker - 2004

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The Legend of Cloelia ·
Hostages in Republican Rome
Walker Cheryl (Autor) · Brandeis University USA / Center for Hellenic Studies 2004 ()

Herausgeber:  · Verlag:  · 1 (Ed)
Sprache: English · Version: v1.00 (Volltext)
Version of this Article on the site of the Center for Hellenic Studies.
 ·  ·  ·
Walker Cheryl: The Legend of Cloelia . In: eLib.at (Hrg.), 19. Januar 2019. URL: http://elib.at/
 · Fachbuch · Monographie ·
Geschichte · Alte Geschichte · Etrusker · Rom · Römische Republik
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We want to thank Cheryl Walker for her support.


Prof Cheryl Walker
Brandeis University USA
Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, D.C.
First publication: Center for Hellenic Studies
August, 2004

Version of this Article on the site of the Center for Hellenic Studies

See also: Hostages in Republican Rome - Cheryl Walker - 2005

The war between the infant Roman Republic and the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna became the setting for three episodes which attracted the fancy of the Roman literary establishment, and surely also that of the undocumented public at large, for generations: Horatius Cocles swimming the Tiber in full arms, Mucius Cordus thrusting his hand into the fire, and the maiden Cloelia escaping from hostageship. All three tales share the semi-historical and larger-than-life treatment typical of Roman heroes from the early centuries of the Republic, but the stories of Horatius and Mucius also partake of an Indo-Aryan mythical plot structure. [1] Although only the Cloelia legend will be discussed here, it is useful to remember the pseudo-historical nature of the other episodes associated with this war and to be accordingly cautious. Rather than analyze in detail the past and current bibliography concerning the subject, we will here concentrate upon the basic elements of the story found in the different ancient versions. Our goal will be to isolate the details which illustrate, if not the actual practices involved in hostageship, at least the literary perceptions about hostageship as portrayed in the ancient sources.

First, the matter of the treaty (or truce) regulations. [2] We are told that Porsenna received twenty noble hostages: ten males, including Horatius, son of the consul Horatius, [264] and ten females of marriageable age, including Valeria, daughter of the consul Valerius Poplicola, and Cloelia [3] (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 5.32.3; Silius Italicus Punica 10.492-3; Plutarch Poplicola 18.2 and 19.2; Moralia 250). Securing the children of the consuls and of other distinguished families is perfectly logical and predictable, whether this detail was invented or faithfully transmitted in the oral and early literary tradition until duly noted by our authors. The number, age, and sex of the hostages as reported are less easily confirmed or disproved. The number twenty seems a not unreasonable figure to demand from a prosperous oligarchic city of the late sixth century B.C., but that is scarcely corroboration; several factors affected the number of hostages demanded, and our authorities might have claimed a total of fifteen or thirty hostages with equal plausibility. [4] That the women should be marriageable and not yet married [5] is consistent with the legal position of women in Roman social structure, as no husband could have been expected to concede, even temporarily, the services of his wife. The hostages’ relative maturity would prove convenient to both Porsenna and the Romans, for, having survived the ages of high mortality (infancy and early childhood), the hostages could take care of themselves and could understand the consequences of their actions. [6] At least some of the males were also envisioned as quite young (impubes, Livy 2.13.10), and it appears that our sources saw nothing remarkable in the exaction of hostages who were in their early teens or even younger. [7]

The casual attitude toward exaction of females is, however, more difficult to explain, since female hostages were not frequent in the Greek world until several centuries after the dramatic date of this [265] legend and were never standard among the Romans. [8] (Of course, Etruscan practice, which is now represented by this sole example, may normally or frequently have exacted females; we cannot know.) Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the major sources for the full legend are Greeks of the early Principate (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch) who would have accepted female hostageship as a standard proceeding. [9] It is particularly unfortunate that the historical record of early Republican times is so scantily preserved and so very much distorted by later accretions and exaggerations; moreover, we cannot differentiate between the typical and the extraordinary. Whether the Etruscans or the Romans of the sixth century B.C. usually selected female hostages must remain unknown, although later practice certainly argues against the assumption that the Romans, at least, did so.

The heroine of the daring escape is often called Cloelia, or sometimes Valeria. As Volkmann, Münzer and Ogilvie have suggested, [10] we may reasonably suspect the annalist Valerius Antias of having appropriated some of Cloelia’s renown for a daughter of his own gens; even in versions which attest Valeria’s presence among the hostages (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 5.32; 33.1-4 [in which Valeria is not named]; Plutarch Moralia 250; Poplicola 18.2-19.5), her comrade Cloelia largely overshadows her. Indeed, the escape with which Valeria is associated is not from Porsenna, but from an ambush laid by the Tarquins subsequent to Cloelia’s escape. [11] It is perhaps best to consider these heroines and their flights separately, despite the strong probability that one is in fact a literary double of the other. [12] The most frequent version of the escape from Porsenna is, not surprisingly, that canonized by Livy (2.13) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (5.33), [266] followed by Dio (45.31.1), Juvenal (8.264-5), Virgil (Aeneid 8.646-51), Servius (Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.646-51), Silius Italicus (Punica 10.454-501; 13.828-830), and Polyaenus (8.31.1). In brief outline, the story is as follows: the female hostages go to the river to bathe, and, having persuaded their guards to withdraw so as to preserve their maidenly modesty, they swim across the river to the safety of Roman territory. Three different motives are adduced for their behavior; predictably, each motive imparts a distinctive flavor to the basic account. Livy (2.13.6) has attributed their feat to a desire to emulate Mucius’ bravery; Plutarch (Moralia 250; Poplicola 19.2), to sudden impulse; the scholiast on Juvenal (8.264), to a deliberate, premeditated plan in which the women secured the guards’ withdrawal by claiming a need to perform a religious ceremony (a plan not irreconcilable with Livy’s account). It is clear that most authors chose to omit the negative or to emphasize the positive aspects of the flight’s motive. No authority insinuates that the guards had molested the women or provoked the escape in any way, despite the implication that the young boys were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse (Livy 2.13.10; cf. Nepos de Viris Illustribus 13, in which both males and females of a particular age were depicted as vulnerable). [13] The only negative testimony concerning their treatment by Porsenna is that of Virgil’s vinclis ruptis (Aeneid 8.651); Servius had some difficulty with this line, and it is instructive to quote him in full: VINCUS INNARET CLOELIA RUPTIS: atqui obsides non ligantur; sed vincla pro custodiis accipiamus, aut certe pro foederibus; aut certe “ruptis vinclis pontis” id est ponte resoluto (Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.651). [267]

I have found no other example in which vincla must concretely signify custodiae or foedera; [14] in view of the connection between Horatius and Cloelia, it is tempting to seize upon Servius’ third possibility, that this troublesome ablative absolute explains why she swam: the bridge had been destroyed. Yet these explanations are more ingenious than satisfactory. Servius has intimated in his first clause that vincla are first understood by the reader as fetters, and for him obsides and fetters are absolutely incompatible. In the rest of his remarks he felt obliged to explain away the contradiction between the most obvious meaning of vincla and his own conception of hostage treatment, with little success. [15] In the absence of further evidence, we can only follow the tradition which ascribed great chivalry to the Etruscan king and assume, with Servius, that the women were unfettered.

A second and probably inferior variant of the Cloelian escape, attested by late sources (Florus Epitome 1.10.3; Valerius Maximus Memorabilia 3.2.2; de Viris Illustribus 13), states that Cloelia alone had eluded her guards and crossed the river on horseback (at night, according to Valerius Maximus and Nepos). How she acquired a horse is a puzzling question; her guards would appear to have been grossly negligent. Nevertheless, it is this problem of a horse which is the key to the variant, for the repeated references to a horse in three other elements of the legend’s basic plotline provide the raw material from which Cloelia’s solitary escape on horseback arose. [16]

Regardless of Cloelia’s mode of escape, both versions agree in describing Porsenna’s demand for her return and the acknowledgement of his right to do so (Livy 2.13.7-8; Plutarch Poplicola 19.2; Moralia 250; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 5.33.2; de Viris Illustribus 13; Servius Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.646; Polyaenus 8.31.1). [268] Cloelia’s failure to remain in Etruscan custody violated the truce agreement and endangered negotiations for a lasting peace (Livy 2.13.8-9; Plutarch Poplicola 19.2; Moralia 250; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 5.33.2; Servius Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.646; Polyaenus 8.31.1). Indeed, the escape probably forfeited the lives of the hostages. [17] Instead of claiming his legal right of punishment, however, Porsenna praised Cloelia’s bravery after she was returned and rewarded her with gifts, including a warhorse in full caparison (Plutarch Poplicola 19.4; Moralia 250; Zonaras 7.12; Dionysius Halicarnassus 5.34.3; Polyaenus 8.31.1): [18] a chivalrous response to a deceitful and flagrantly illegal act. [19] How, then, did Cloelia gain her reputation as a public benefactor and savior of the city? [20] I see four possible solutions: 1) the suppression of the scandalous circumstances of her flight, coupled with her unmerited reward, led later sources to mention only her manly spirit; 2) the association of Cloelia with Horatius and Mucius Cordus prompted the mistaken assumption that she too must have saved the city; [21] 3) her escape, which was later attributed to Valeria, was from an ambush laid by the Tarquins and prevented Tarquin from using her as a ransom for his property; and 4) her escape denied the enemy Porsenna use of hostages to influence Roman policy. [22]

The Tarquinian ambush occurs in only three authors (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 5.33.3-4 [but Valeria is not named]; Plutarch Poplicola 19.3; Moralia 250; Annius Fetialis in Pliny Natural History 34.13.29). The former king of Rome learned that the party of hostages was returning to Porsenna and waylaid it in order to exchange the Romans in his power for his property (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 5.33.3; cf. 7.2.3) or, according to Babbitt, to prevent their return and thus discredit the Roman government and the truce with Porsenna. [23] The Roman party avoided capture when Valeria, with three [269] attendants, [24] managed to summon an Etruscan rescue party headed by Porsenna’s son Arruns (with minor variations, Plutarch Poplicola 19.3; Moralia 250; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 5.33.4). In the summary of Annius Fetialis’ view found in Pliny (Natural History 34.13.29), only Valeria survived. Despite the inferior sources for this second escape and the “clumsy combination” [25] of this variant with the basic Cloelia legend, such a context does provide a more lucid background for the heroine’s glorious reputation; it avoids the problem of her violation of a truce and the possible allegation of fraud and deceit, [26] while emphasizing the baseness of Tarquin.

And we are not yet done with uncertainty and conflicting details. An equestrian statue stood on the height of the Sacra Via until destroyed by fire during the late Republican period, and some sources assert that it commemorated Cloelia or Valeria; [27] it was supposedly erected at state expense (Livy 2.13.11; Pliny Natural History 34.13.28-29), by the hostages themselves (Piso in Natural History 34.13.28), by the hostages’ fathers (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 5.35.2), or at Porsenna’s request (Servius Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.646). That the so-called Cloelia statue belonged to the fourth century and thus could not possibly have been a contemporary monument to Cloelia’s exploit seems unarguable; indeed, it is unlikely to have had any such initial intention. [28] Nevertheless, the early association of the statue with the legend provides a plausible source for the intrusive equine element, for the details of the legend appear to have been altered to accommodate an explanation for the horse in the statue group. [29]

What does this legend tell us of historical hostageship in the earliest centuries of the Republic? Very little. [30] Three factors, [270] all active before our versions were compiled, have entangled the skeins of the original story into a knot which cannot, at this distance of time and with this assortment of sources, be unraveled. The most significant of these factors, as already mentioned, [31] is the confusion of the praiseworthy rescue of Roman hostages with the perhaps dishonorable circumstances of the rescue. The second factor is the rehabilitation of Porsenna as a Roman sympathizer. [32] (Both factors tended to magnify and purify the early history of Rome into a suitably courageous background for the imperial city; it is more heroic than historic.) The third factor, the equestrian statue, served as both inspiration for and, later, “proof” of the legend’s equine element. Any attempt to ascertain more than generally the actual practices of the sixth century B.C. concerning hostages is essentially misguided; the accretions of later times and later attitudes have successfully eliminated all but the barest outline of the underlying story. In general, however, the Cloelia legend includes many of the essential elements of a historical exaction: 1) the specification of the number, age, sex, and social status of the hostages; 2) the freedom of movement which their escape assumes; 3) the anger at the escape which could easily have caused another outbreak of the war. In particular, the selection of women suggests the extent to which the legend’s detail is indebted to the third century storytellers and writers and their successors, for it is unlikely that women were routinely chosen as hostages, at least in the Greek world, before that time.

CHS Publication Templatepage PAGE 1 Revised 10/1/04


  1. See the hypothesis of Georges Dumézil (Gods of the Ancient Northmen 45-47), who has found evidence of parallels with Indo-European myths in the early Roman pseudo-history: the sacrifice of the right hand in swearing a false oath (Mucius and Tyr) and the one-eyed warrior (Horatius and Odin).
  2. This was not the definitive peace, as Plutarch (Moralia 250) and Porsenna’s continued presence in the vicinity of Rome clearly indicate. The rest of the legend makes it obvious that the hostages actually guaranteed a truce, during which a final peace was to be negotiated; cf. Porsenna’s claim to be the arbiter of the quarrel between Rome and the Tarquins. In Livy (2.13.4) the hostages are a substitute for an Etruscan garrison on the Janiculum.
  3. The Cloelii are a distinguished family who appear in the early years of the Republic but soon fade into obscurity.
  4. For a discussion of number as part of selection criteria, see above, 42-48.
  5. They are usually described as virgines.
  6. For a discussion of age as part of selection criteria, see above, 35-42.
  7. This is not inconsistent with my findings above, 36-37.
  8. See above, 34-35.
  9. By the time of Polybius, the exaction of female hostages had become commonplace in the Greek world; see above, 32.
  10. H. Volkmann, RE 8A: 242, s.v. “Valeria,” no. 385; Münzer, RE 4: 1110-11, s.v. “Cloelia,” no. 13; Ogilvie, Commentary, p. 267.
  11. For an analysis of the Tarquinian ambush, see below, 268-269.
  12. The political eclipse of the Cloelii, as well as the stronger tradition affirmed by the numerous literary allusions to Cloelia, tend to support Cloelia as the original heroine. The doublet, if such there is, is due, I believe, to what was a variant of Cloelia’s escape being misunderstood as a separate incident and being given a different heroine, Valeria; Antias did not create the variant.
  13. See above, pp. 109-110.
  14. In Livy (22.22.6), the hostages are themselves the vincla which bind their governments to their Punic alliance. Interestingly, chains appear only on forfeited hostages in Irish folklore.
  15. For the apparent parole of hostages in good standing which would have obviated the need for chains, see above, 128-130. Of course, Virgil’s negative expression may reflect a less pleasant version of the legend (cf. Ehlers, RE 22: 315-22, s.v. “Porsenna”) or a dramatic invention intended to intensify Cloelia’s valor or her peril, at the cost of historical authenticity.
  16. Plutarch (Moralia 250), in one of his alternate versions, states that others believed that Cloelia, on horseback, helped the other hostages swim across.
  17. Cf. the punishment meted out to the Tarentine and Thurian hostages in a similar situation, above, 169; Coleman Phillipson (International Law and Custom, 1: 406) asserts that the return of the hostages relieved the state of culpability, although it is unclear to me if that would necessarily have exonerated the individual hostages as well.
  18. Besides the caparisoned warhorse, Porsenna gave her arms (Zonaras 7.12), urged the erection of a statue to her (Servius Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.646), and - most importantly - allowed her the choice of hostages to be released (Servius Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.646; Livy 2.13.10; de Viris Illustribus 13). It is curious to see how the Livian account, in which Cloelia chose the impubes (who must be male, since all the females had escaped with Cloelia and had not returned), was reworked in Servius and 13: illa elegit virgines, quae iniuriae poterant esse obnoxiae and illa virgines pueros quidem [or puerosque, in F. Pichlmayr Sexti Aurelii Victoris Liber de Caesaribus (1961) ad loc.] elegit, quorum aetatem iniuriae obnoxiam sciebat. Other sources state that all the hostages were released (Plutarch Moralia 250; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 5.34.3; Piso in Pliny Natural History 34.13.28; Polyaenus 8.31.1 [all female hostages]).
  19. The deceitfulness of Cloelia’s conduct is expressed even in authors who praise her (Livy 9.11.6; de Viris Illustribus 13; Scholia on Juvenal 8.264). If one accepts that Cloelia was a hostage for the truce with Porsenna and fled his custody, it is difficult to explain how her exploit was anything but disgraceful.
  20. . . . non solum obsidione, sed etiam metu patriam puella soluit lumen virtutis praeferendo (Valerius Maximus 3.2.2); cf. the statue supposedly erected at state expense, below, 269.
  21. Cf. the stories that were told of the alleged tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Thucydides 1.20.2. Although this association could have aided the growth of a belief that Cloelia saved the city, I do not feel that it is sufficient cause in itself for such a belief.
  22. Solutions (3) and (4) avoid assuming that there was anything dishonorable in her escape, and for that reason they are perhaps superior to suppression as an explanation. Nevertheless, the propensity to cover up or simply not discuss embarrassing facts like the surrender of Rome must also be recognized and granted some plausibility. Solution (4) I believe less satisfactory because it presupposes that the only historical residue of the story is the rescue of hostages by a girl (Ogilvie’s “kernel,” Commentary, 267) and that the return to Porsenna and the other parts of the story in all versions arc later accumulations upon this core. The numerous references to Porsenna appear to me to reflect something which originally belonged to the Cloelia legend, although I agree that Porsenna’s role has without doubt been amplified and elaborated.
  23. F. C. Babbitt (Plutarch’s Moralia, vol. 3, 515) cites “other accounts” without further specification. The death of the hostages mentioned by Annius Fetialis (in Pliny Natural History 34.13.29) suggests that Babbitt’s view may be valid.
  24. The presence of attendants indicates Porsenna’s recognition of what was due the hostages’ rank. Unfortunately we know no more of these attendants; Plutarch has not clarified when the attendants joined the hostages or the number of attendants per hostage. Cf. the similar regard for the rank of historical persons, above, 108, 115, 121, etc.
  25. Westington, Atrocities, 33.
  26. By this I do not mean that the Valerian escape from Tarquin’s ambush was necessarily the original story, but that this variant glosses over the disturbing elements found in an escape from the legal recipient, Porsenna, and it may have contributed to the popularity of the “Cloelian” variant also. Some such simplified version might have influenced Seneca’s description (Consolation to Marcia 16.2) of her captor as hostis; he would thus have referred to Tarquin, not to the pro-Roman Porsenna, although there is certainly justice in calling one who had attacked Rome an enemy.
  27. Seneca (Consolation to Marcia 16.2) mentions that the statue was replaced at state expense; it remained at least until the fourth century A.D. (Servius Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.646).
  28. The actual identity of the female figure is here irrelevant; for a brief bibliography on the subject, see Ogilvie, Commentary 268.
  29. In view of the effect of the equestrian statue upon the plotline and of the inferiority of the sources attesting the ride across the Tiber, I find it easier to credit, with Ogilvie (Commentary 267), that in the earliest version the hostages swam - if there was a single original. Certainly swimming the Tiber is an additional connection in the rhetorical argument attributed to Cicero in Dio (45.31.1), where the wanton behavior of M. Antonius in the forum is contrasted first with Cloelia and then with Horatius; Dio has obviously perceived them both as swimmers.
  30. More optimistically, Phillipson (International Law and Custom, 1: 406) considered that the substance of the Livian account “alone suffices to indicate the practice of more ancient times.” Westington (Atrocities 32-33) felt that the legend may have demonstrated a magnanimity characteristic of earlier times and that the legend’s significance lay in showing the ethical value of the Roman people many centuries later. I confess some confusion in comprehending what he means by this.
  31. See above, 267-268.
  32. According to Ogilvie (Commentary, 268), “a late fiction,” but still predating our sources.

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