This painting, by the German artist Abraham Schöpfer, was inspired by an ancient Roman legend set at the time of the birth of the Roman Republic, a date traditionally pinpointed at about 509 BCE. The army shown above is meant to be that of Lars Porsena, an Etruscan king of Clusium, who besieged Rome during that transitional and formative period in which Rome would change its government from a monarchy to a republic. Patriotic ancient Roman storytellers claimed that Porsena arrived at Rome just after the Roman people overthrew their monarchy—many modern historians are not so sure about this, and counter-propose that it might have been Lars Porsena’s army that toppled the Roman monarchy and allowed a new government to form. Obscure truth aside, Lars Porsena and the city of Rome are enemies in the painting above.
Now for the other figure named in the title—Mucius Scaevola. This person, fully named Gaius Mucius Scaevola, was a Roman aristocrat who volunteered to assassinate Lars Porsena. According to legend, he failed in his mission and was captured, but he did manage to stab Porsena’s secretary before being apprehended. The ancient Roman historian, Livy (59 BCE-17 CE), described the supposed interaction between Lars Porsena and his captured would-be assassin:
“Porsena in rage and alarm ordered the prisoner to be burnt alive unless he at once divulged the plot thus obscurely hinted at, whereupon Mucius, crying: ‘See how cheap men hold their bodies when they care only for honour!’ thrust his right hand into the fire which had been kindled for a sacrifice, and let it burn there as if he were unconscious of the pain. Porsena was so astonished by the young man’s almost superhuman endurance that he leapt to his feet and ordered his guards to drag him from the altar. ‘Go free,’ he said; ‘You have dared to be a worse enemy to yourself than to me’” (Livy, History of Rome, 2.12).
Such is the scene that is playing out in the painting. A depiction of Gaius Mucius Scaevola can be seen holding his arm above fiery coals, which burn on a stone pedestal. Porsena’s army watches the odd spectacle unfold, while Porsena, himself, prepares to have Mucius pulled away from the fire.
Written by C. Keith Hanlsley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.