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The escape of Cloelia

March 23, 2014

The escape of Cloelia from Porsena is an interesting episode that is alleged to have occurred following the downfall of the Roman monarchy and rise of the Republic. The episode is recounted by several authors including Livy (The History of Rome 2.13.6-11), Plutarch (Life of Publicola 18-19) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities  33-34). The story itself demonstrates the ingenuity, bravery and skill of Cloelia. However, this is not what I intend to focus upon but instead the inconsistency of the accounts of Livy and Plutarch.

In summary Livy tells that Cloelia escaped from King Porsena’s guards unobserved and swam across the Tiber leading the other hostages to safety. Angered by Cloelia’s behaviour Porsena demands her surrender for having led the escape. However, Porsena’s feelings of anger change to those of admiration, and he declares that the treaty agreed between his kingdom and Rome would not be considered broken if Cloelia surrenders herself. Furthermore, Porsena states that he will release Cloelia following the surrender because of the bravery she demonstrated. True to his word she is released along with half of the remaining Roman hostages as a reward. The Romans raise an equestrian statue in Cloelia’s honour.

Plutarch’s account is very different. Cloelia leads the hostages to safety across the Tiber on horseback, but upon their return to Rome the Consul Publicola is concerned that the word of the Romans has been broken. Publicola in order to keep the cities word decides to return the hostages to Porsena. On route to Porsena’s camp the convoy is attacked by the former king Tarquinius Superbus. Porsena’s son, having learned of the plan, intervenes and assists in the safe return of the hostages. Cloelia is identified to Porsena as the instigator of the escape and in full admiration of her achievement he gifts her a horse. Plutarch notes that there is an equestrian statue by the Via Sacra but observes that it could be Cloelia or Publicola’s daughter Valeria.

The accounts have some very striking differences which might be explained through the sources used, the timing of the episode or due to political reasons.

It is highly likely that Livy and Plutarch used different sources. It has been suggested by Affortunati and Scardigli (1992:119) that Valerius Antias is undoubtedly responsible for the positive representation of Publicola in Plutarch’s work. It is likely, therefore, that Plutarch relied heavily on Antias’ work when producing his Life of Publicola. Therefore, it might be suggested that the Cloelia episode was also drawn from this work. Like Plutarch Livy relied on the histories written by other authors in order to write his The History of Rome; the works of Quintus Fabius Pictor, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi were used among many others. It is clear that Livy used multiple sources throughout the work as he cross references them and notes where they disagreed with each other; one such example being the differing accounts of the battle between Aeneas and Latinus (Livy The History of Rome 1.1.5-9). Given the distinct differences between the accounts it might be suggested that either Livy was not aware of the second version of the Cloelia story, or he chose to ignore it due to the inconsistencies with the other sources. However, if Livy knew of this version it is likely he would have noted the inconsistency as he did with other events. Plutarch notes only one dispute between authors, over why Cloelia was gifted a horse. It is clear that he was aware of other versions of the story when writing his Life of Publicola, but it is not clear which ones. It could be argued that as the biography focused on a specific individual Plutarch may have referred only to sources that related to his subject. These sources may not have included the version of the Cloelia story Livy refers to.

The event that Livy and Plutarch wrote about pre-dated the start of Roman historiography. The earliest Roman to write about the history of Rome was Fabius Pictor; likely just before 200 BC. The stories of Rome’s foundation and development would have passed through centuries of the oral tradition before being written down and as such were subject to change (the link will take you to a short piece I wrote about the oral tradition). The story of Cloelia is subject to such changes which could include local variances and the differing views, biases and interpretations of the person committing it to writing.

There may have been political reasons for presenting the story in different ways. Livy’s account demonstrates Roman resourcefulness and ingenuity. Porsena is so impressed with Cloelia’s actions that he gifts half of his hostages to her to take back to Rome with her. Nothing about the story presented in Livy is negative about the Roman’s or the episode. Forsythe (2005:149) suggests that the story of Cloelia is a laudatory tale created to reinforce Roman pride and cover up the fact that Porsena conquered the city. On the one hand, I consider that evidence for this can be seen in Plutarch’s version of events. Publicola’s concerns for the Roman’s word of honour could also be viewed as a concern for the breach of the treaty. The broken treaty could have resulted in the return of Porsena’s army and further bloodshed or capitulation. On the other hand, Plutarch states that Porsena honours Cloelia and abandons his camp taking only his army’s weapons. However, it must be noted that Plutarch is likely presenting Valerius Antias’ view of his ancestors achievements. Therefore, the account is likely to be heavily biased in order to present a strong and honourable lineage. Authorial bias, such as this, likely affected what elements were included (events may have been left out if they were disliked or not believed) and aspects may have been refined in order to it fit with the narrative or theme of the work.

It is difficult to draw one conclusion as to why events can vary so much between authors as there are a series of factors that appear to effect what is recounted. Authorial bias likely affected what sources were chosen, whether other works were consulted and what was important to include. Furthermore, the transmission of stories through the oral tradition may have resulted in different local variances of events. Roman annalists may have taken it upon themselves to present an idealised view of Roman history where honour, ingenuity and skill is important and admired; even by their enemies. These factors may have individually or collectively contributed in some way to the differing representations of the Cloelia episode.


Primary Sources

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Loeb Classical Library Translated by E. Cary, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950. LacusCurtius [Accessed: 23 March 2014]

Livy, History of Rome Translated by Rev. C. Roberts, New York: E. P. Dutton and Co. 1912. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed: 23 March 2014]

Plutarch, The Parallel Lives Vol 1, The Life of Publicola, Loeb Classical Library Translated by Bernadotte Perrin Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914. LacusCurtius*.html [Accessed: 23 March 2014]

Secondary Sources

Affortunati, M. and Scardigli, B. ‘Aspects of Plutarch’s Life of Publicola’, Plutarch and the Historical Tradition Stadter, P. (Ed) London: Routledge, 1992.

Forsythe, G. A Critical History of Early RomeLos Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

From → Rome

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