Gaius Mucius Scaevola
Gaius Mucius Scaevola was an Ancient Roman youth, possibly mythical, 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.
"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.
Mucius was granted farming land on the right-hand bank of the Tiber, which later became known as the Mucia Prata (Mucian Meadows).
It is not clear whether the story of Mucius is historical or mythical. Parallels noted by Georges Dumezil with the Germanic Týr suggest the possibility the Scaevola story is a pseudo-historical version of an older Indo-European myth involving an act of divine perjury to overcome an existential threat to the gods or the world (or in the Scaevola story, human perjury to preserve the Roman state).
In popular culture
- 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.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentions in Book One of his Confessions that as a child, he attempted to replicate Mucius' action by placing his hand over a chafing dish.
- At the age of twelve, Friedrich Nietzsche, attempting to prove the story could be true to his classmates at Schulpforte, burnt his outstretched palm over a book of burning matches without expression of pain and was only saved from serious harm by the school's prefect.
- Gordon Scott portrayed Mucius in the sword-and-sandal film Hero of Rome (1964), which was loosely based on this story.
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