Gaius Mucius Scaevola

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For other people named Mucius Scaevola, see Mucius Scaevola (disambiguation).
Mucius Scævola by Louis-Pierre Deseine, 1791, Louvre Museum

Gaius Mucius Scaevola was a Roman youth, famous for his bravery.

In 508 BC, during the war between Rome and Clusium, the Clusian king Lars Porsena laid siege to Rome. Mucius, with the approval of the Roman Senate, sneaked into the Etruscan camp with the intent of murdering Porsena. Since it was the soldiers' pay day, there were two similarly dressed people, one of whom was the king, on a raised platform speaking to the troops. This caused Mucius to misidentify his target, and he killed Porsena's scribe by mistake. After being captured, he famously declared to Porsena: "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 also declared that he was the first of three hundred Roman youths to volunteer for the task of assassinating Porsena at the risk of losing their own lives.[1]

"Watch," he is said to have declared, "so that you know how cheap the body is to men who have their eye on great glory." Mucius thrust his right hand into a fire which was lit for sacrifice and held it there without giving any indication of pain, thereby earning for himself and his descendants the cognomen Scaevola, meaning 'left-handed'. Porsena was shocked at the youth's bravery, and dismissed him from the Etruscan camp, free to return to Rome, saying "Go back, since you do more harm to yourself than me". At the same time, the king also sent ambassadors to Rome to offer peace.[2]

Mucius was granted farming land on the right-hand bank of the Tiber, which later became known as the Mucia Prata (Mucian Meadows).[3]

It is not clear whether the story of Mucius is historical or mythical.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Dante Alighieri refers to Mucius and the sacrifice of his hand within the Divine Comedy. In Paradiso Canto 4: 82-87, along with St. Lawrence, Mucius is depicted as a person possessing the rarest and firmest of wills.
  • Gordon Scott portrayed Mucius in the sword-and-sandal film Hero of Rome (1964), a film loosely based on this story.
  • The same "trick" was also attributed to T. E. Lawrence in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole) extinguishes a match with his thumb and forefinger. Seeing this, the character Potter tries it. Potter: "Ow! It damn well hurts!" Lawrence: "Certainly it hurts." Potter: "Well what's the trick then?" Lawrence: "The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts." This scene is played in the 2012 film Prometheus.
  • A similar hand-burning feat of endurance was famously performed by G. Gordon Liddy. It involved holding his hand over a lighter flame until the flesh burned. According to the Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward book All the President's Men (1974), Liddy did this once at a dinner party. When someone asked "What's the trick?" He replied, "The trick is not minding." When Liddy entered prison for his Watergate crimes he allegedly used this trick to intimidate other inmates.
  • In Martin Scorsese's classic Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) holds his arm over a flame in preparation for his vigilante attack against Sport's brothel.
  • Lethal Weapon depicts a similar scene featuring Gary Busey - playing henchman Mr Joshua - intimidating a business partner by allowing a lighter to burn under his forearm. While he does show pain by tensing up his face, he holds his arm steady over the flame, demonstrating his high threshold for pain.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Livy,Ab Urbe Condita, 2.12
  2. ^ Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 2.12-3
  3. ^ Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 2.12-13