Cloelia and Her Companions Escaping from the Etruscans by Frans Wouters (1612-1659)
Cloelia was one of the first Roman heroes, and among those most highly regarded.
During Rome’s wars with the Etruscans (around 508 BCE) a King named Lars Porsenna demanded a number of Roman teenagers be given to him as hostages under the terms of a peace treaty. One of the girls, Cloelia, managed to elude the guards through stealth or trickery. She freed several of the other girls held hostage, and led them to freedom by swimming her horse across the Tiber under a barrage of javelins.
Porsenna was furious, and threatened to renew hostilities at the violation of the truce. When she heard of this, Cloelia valiantly agreed to return to him as a hostage. Porsenna so admired her courage that he rewarded her with a promise of safe return to Rome – along with her choice of additional hostages to be freed.
This time, Cloelia chose a group of young men, realizing that they were old enough to become soldiers, and that their lives would be at significant risk from Porsenna if the treaty should be further compromised.
Cloelia’s actions were praised as virtus, embodying the manly qualities of courage, endurance, strength, and skill. Livy called her dux agminis virginum, commander of a military unit of girls of marriageable age.
Her deeds were commemorated with a singular honor: an equestrian statue, purchased with funds from the state, with contributions from her fellow hostages, and their parents. She was the first woman to be so recognized. The ancient commentators implied that the figure of Cloelia sat astride the horse, like an Amazon. The statue stood on the Sacra Via, near the temple of Jupiter Stator. Since Seneca saw the statue in the first century CE, and Servius stated that it was still standing in the fourth centuries, scholars have concluded that the old statue had either been restored, or replaced with a new one.
The narratives about Cloelia’s noteworthy deeds, and the equestrian statue placed in a prominent and sacred part of the city, ensured that her renown would continue to inspire future generations.