Porsena’s men never did take our city, but they did surround her. After the stand at the Sublician Bridge, the bronze-clad ogres decided to surround us with siege works.
Now as you remember a siege camp is a dreadful place. Men sit around, waiting for the enemy to starve, while themselves starving in boredom. On the other side of the camp, in Rome herself, the men were also bored and not a little desperate. So one young man, Gaius Mucius, hatched a daring plan: to steal into the Clusian camp alone and murder dread Porsena. But fearing that the City Fathers would charge him with desertion were he found beyond the Roman lines, he informed them of the plan. With the City Fathers’ blessing he tucked a knife inside his robe and sneaked into the Clusian camp.
Now the day that Mucius sneaked into the camp was the soldiers’ pay day. Throngs of them surrounded a raised platform at the camp’s centre. On it stood two men, both tall and strong, dressed exactly alike in purple cloaks. Mucius dared not ask which of them was the King, so he waited. When it was his turn to come forward he quickly drew his knife, lunged, and – look! – struck Porsena’s secretary on the head, killing him.
Mucius leapt from the platform to flee, but in a heartbeat the Clusians had wrestled him to the ground and dragged him before their King. Porsena looked at the young man and said “You wretch of wretches! Tell me now what your plan is. Was this a plot to kill my secretary or me? Who are your accomplices? Tell me willingly before I send for the torturers.”
To this Mucius replied “I am Gaius Mucius, a Roman citizen, and it was my plan to kill you, not your secretary. But do what you will. The honour of the Romans makes us brave in suffering. That honour made me ready to die before I even entered this camp. And when you kill me, know that after me are many, many more who will come for you. The young men of Rome have declared war on you, King, a war involving no trumpets or battle lines, but one man facing another, day after day.”
Dread Porsena grew unnerved. “Tell me right now,” he growled “what you have in mind before I have you roasted on the campfire.” Mucius replied “Look at this, King. We care little for our bodies, who reach for a greater glory.” With those words the young man strode to the campfire and thrust his hand into the flame. The men stared aghast as the skin bubbled and its stink wafted through the air. Porsena was shocked, seeing Mucius hold fast as if he felt nothing. Finally when he could bear no more the King cried “Enough! Go, leave this place. For you are a worse enemy to yourself than to me. If you were one of my men I would have praised your courage. Now then, go in peace back to your home.” So Mucius escaped with his life, though not with his hand. From then on he was called Mucius Scaevola – Mucius the Lefty.
They say that Mucius’ attempt finally compelled dread Porsena to withdraw. The stand of Horatius, and Mucius’ bravery, not to mention his promise of many more assassins, convinced the King that the Romans would never yield to Tarquin. And so Porsena called for peace, and his gleaming host marched back to Clusium.
So proud Tarquin never retook the seven hills. He died a bitter, old man in Cumae, Porsena having asked him to leave his city. The struggle to drive the old tyrant from Rome and defend her from his greed had been a long one, claiming chastity, happiness, children, life. The laws we followed to defend our home, the oaths we took to drive away proud Tarquin, drove us to such great glory. But laws and oaths are hungry. They demanded so much, ate so much.