King of the Etruscan town of Clusium, plays a distinguished part in the legends of the Tarquins. According to the common tale, as related by Livy, Tarquinius Superbus, on his expulsion from Rome, applied first to Veii and Tarquinii for assistance; and when the people of these towns failed in restoring him to his kingdom, he next repaired to Lars Porsena, who willingly espoused his cause, and forthwith marched against Rome at the head of a vast array. The Romans could not meet him in the field; he took possession of the hill Janiculum, and would have entered the city by the bridge which connected Rome with the Janiculum, had it not been for the superhuman prowess of Horatius Cocles, who kept the whole Etruscan army at bay, while his comrades broke down the bridge behind him. The Etruscans proceeded to lay siege to the city, which soon began to suffer from famine.
Thereupon a young Roman, named C. Mucius, resolved to deliver his country by murdering the invading king. He accordingly went over to the Etruscan camp, but ignorant of the person of Porsena, killed the royal secretary instead. Seized, and threatened with torture, he thrust his right hand into the fire on the altar, and there let it burn, to show how little he heeded pain. Astonished at his courage, the king bade him depart in peace; and Scaevola, as he was henceforward called, told him, out of gratitude, to make peace with Rome, since three hundred noble youths, he said, had sworn to take the life of the king, and he was the first upon whom the lot had fallen. The story then went on to relate that Porsena forthwith offered peace to the Romans on condition of their restoring to the Veientines the land which they had taken from them: that these terms were accepted, and that Porsena withdrew his troops from the Janiculum after receiving twenty hostages from the Romans. It is further stated that he subsequently restored these hostages [cp. Cloelia], and also the land which had been given up to the Veientines.
Such was the tale by which Roman vanity concealed one of the earliest and greatest disasters of the city. The real fact is, that Rome was completely conquered by Porsena. This is expressly stated by Tacitus,1 and is confirmed by other writers. Thus, Dionysius relates2 that the senate sent Porsena an ivory throne, a scepter, a golden crown and a triumphal robe, which implies that they did homage to him as their sovereign lord: for we find that the Etruscan cities are represented to have sent the same honors to the Roman king Tarquinius Priscus as an acknowledgment of his supremacy.3 So thorough was the subjection of the Romans that they were expressly prohibited from using iron for any other purpose but agriculture.4 Even the common story related, that they were deprived of the land which they had taken from the Veientines; and Niebuhr shows that they lost all the territory which the kings had gained on the right bank of the Tiber, and that they did not recover it till a long time afterwards. He remarks that we find the thirty tribes, which were established by Servius Tullius, reduced to twenty after the war with Porsena, and that it appears clear from the history of the subsequent war with the Veientines that the Roman territory did not then extend much beyond the Janiculum.
The Romans, however, did not long remain subject to the Etruscans. After the conquest of Rome, Aruns, the son of Porsena, proceeded to attack Aricia, but was defeated before the city by the united forces of the Latin cities, assisted by the Greeks of Cumae.5 The Etruscans appear, in consequence, to have been confined to their own territory on the right bank of the Tiber, and the Romans to have availed themselves of the opportunity to recover their independence.
The Romans of a later age were constantly reminded of Porsena's expedition against their city by the custom at all auctions of offering for sale first the goods of king Porsena.6 Niebuhr conjectures, with much probability, that this custom may have arisen from the circumstance that, when the Romans recovered their independence, they must have obtained possession of property within the city belonging to Porsena, which they probably sold by auction.
The object of Porsena's expedition against Rome is said to have been the restoration of the Tarquins, and it is natural that such should have been the belief in later times, happening, as the war did, within a year or two of the establishment of the republic. But if such had been its real object, the Tarquins must have been restored to Rome on the conquest of the city. It is, therefore, more natural to believe that this war was in reality a great outbreak of the Etruscan nations, who meditated the conquest of Latium, and attacked Rome first, because it was the first city that lay in their way.
The sepulcher of Porsena at Clusium is described at length by Pliny, who borrowed his account from Varro7 It was said to have been an enormous quadrilateral building, each side being three hundred feet long, and fifty feet high. Within was an extraordinary labyrinth, and over the labyrinth were five pyramids, one at each corner and one in the middle, each pyramid being seventy-five wide at the base, and a hundred and fifty feet high. There are other details given, which are still more wonderful, and it is evident that the building, as described by Varro, is a work of the imagination. It is not impossible that he may have seen some remains of a building, which was said to be the tomb of Porsena, and that he found in Etruscan books the description which he has given.
- Histories iii, 72.
- v, 34.
- Dionysius, iii, 62.
- Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia xxxiv, 14. s. 39.
- Livy. The History of Rome ii, 15; Dionysius, v, 36, vii, 2-11.
- Livy. The History of Rome ii, 14; Plutarch. Publicola, 19.
- Naturalis Historia xxxvi, 19.4.
- Livy. The History of Rome ii, 9 - 15; comp. Dionysius, v, 21 - 34.
- Plutarch. Publicola, 16 - 19.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.