This post is a little bit long, so at the end I added a “Tl;dr.” I decided on the second post of the H series to be about two lesser-known heroes of ancient Rome and their myths.
What? You might be asking right now. Silly Iulla, the Romans had no myths of their own!
No. The Romans did have myths of their own. And I’m not talking about the myths which were originally Greek but given a Roman flair by changing the names of the persons and deities involved. What I am talking about are the native myths of the Italic peoples, myths of their own gods and goddesses and of legendary heroes.
And it is the myths of the heroes that I am concerned about for today’s post.
I’m sure that you’ve heard of the most famous heroes: Aeneas, the legendary warrior who came all the way from the fallen Troy to Italy; Hercules, the Greek hero and demi-god who came to Italy to rid it of a great monster (yes, I am cheating a bit here: Hercules – or Herakles – is originally a Greek deity); and Romulus, perhaps the only native Italian of the bunch, the man who would found the city of Rome.
Unfortunately, that’s all that you’ll see about the aforementioned heroes in this post.
There are two figures from the early Republic that I want to spend some time on instead – and both of them curiously embody the virtues that a Roman citizen prided him/herself with. There is no actual historical evidence that they existed, being written about only by one or two prominent historians, but there is no doubt that their actions served as examples to ancient Romans on virtues and justice.
One year after the death of Lucretia and subsequent expulsion of the last King of Rome in 509 BCE, the Roman-Etruscan Wars were raging across the countryside. One of these was waged between Rome and Clusium, an Etruscan city, in 508 BCE. The King of Clusium, a man by the name of Lars Porsena, was asked by the disgraced King Tarquinius Superbus of Lucretian fame to become his ally against Rome. Porsena accepted, and he and his army marched on Rome.
Enter a young Roman named Gaius Mucius Scaevola. Yes, I know what his middle name looks like, and no, it does not mean what you think it means (sorry Inigo). He, with the approval of the Roman Senate, snuck into the camp of the Etruscans with the intent of assassinating Lars Porsena.
Instead, Mucius Scaevola was captured, and when questioned by Porsena gave this famous reply: “I am Gaius Mucius, a citizen of Rome. I came here as an enemy to kill my enemy, and I am as ready to die as I am to kill. We Romans act bravely and, when adversity strikes, we suffer bravely.” He then stuck his hand into a blazing fire in order to prove his loyalty to the Romans.
Needless to say, this was the reason for his cognomen ‘Scaevola’, which means ‘Left-Handed.’
A second hero might bear a more familiar name: Cincinnatus. While Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was not exactly a hero to the plebeians – the average citizen of Rome – due to his staunch opposition of the establishments of their rights, the more well-off patrician families looked up to him as a man whom they should aspire to be like.
A citizen with much power himself, he was forced to sell his lands and pay a fine as a result of his son’s troublemaking in the forum (his son, Caeso Quinctius, had driven the representatives of the plebeians away from the forum in an effort to prevent them from reaching formal decisions) and retired to a small farm.
The next year Cincinnatus became a consul of Rome. A year or two later in 458 BCE the Romans were warring with Aequian and Sabine tribes and one of the Roman consuls attempted to lead his army against them. Unfortunately, he and his men became trapped in the Alban Hills and were fighting to escape.
A few cavalrymen escaped the battle and rode to Rome where they told the Senate what had happened. They ordered another consul to nominate a dictator, a man who would serve the people for six months. Cincinnatus was chosen.
Some senators travelled to his farm to tell him the news, and the newly-appointed dictator famously put down his plow and immediately donned the toga of his new office. Sixteen days later he ended the war and returned to his farming, shedding the title of dictator with a resignation.
That was not the only time in his life that he would hold such an office: once more, in 439 BCE, he was appointed to put down a conspiracy. This time, too, he resigned as soon as he had finished the job, and for the rest of his life was held in extremely high esteem by his fellow Romans.
Tl;dr version: The Romans had myths and heroes of their own. One was Mucius Scaevola, a man who attempted to assassinate a king who was an enemy of Rome, failed, and stuck his hand in a bonfire to prove his loyalty to Rome; and the other was Cincinnatus, a farmer-turned dictator who ended a war in 16 days and then returned back to his farm.