Lars Porsena: The Famous Etruscan Ruler Who Threatened Rome
Lars Porsena was an Etruscan ruler mentioned in the earliest accounts of Roman history. His story is associated with Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the seventh and last semi-legendary king of Rome. Lars Porsena is also connected to the ancient city of Clusium, located in Tuscany, Italy. In the ancient sources, this Etruscan ruler is said to have been buried in this city. An elaborate description of Lars Porsena’s tomb is provided, though its exact location, assuming the tomb exists, has yet to be identified. The Etruscan ruler’s final resting place, therefore, is one of the mysteries surrounding this enigmatic ancient figure.
Lars Porsena as depicted in the Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum list of notable people published in France in 1553 AD. (Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) / Public domain )
What We Know About Lars Porsena
According to ancient Roman authors, Lars Porsena lived towards the end of the 6 th century BC, around the time the Roman monarchy was overthrown. As a matter of fact, Lars Porsena’s tale is closely associated with Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (more commonly known as Tarquin the Proud), who ruled Rome from 534 to 509 BC.
Tarquin was the seventh and last king of Rome and is regarded today as a semi-legendary figure. According to the ancient Romans, Tarquin was either the son or grandson of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, and the son-in-law of Servius Tullius. The former was Rome’s fifth king, whilst the latter, its sixth.
Ancient sources allege that Tarquin murdered his predecessor to obtain the Roman throne. He then ruled the city state as an absolute despot, hence his epithet “Superbus” or “the Proud.” During Tarquin’s reign of terror, many senators were put to death. The final straw, however, was the rape of Lucretia by Tarquin’s son, Sextus Tarquinius.
Lucretia was a noblewoman, and the wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. Lucretia killed herself shortly after telling her father and husband of Sextus’ deed. The enraged Collatinus, with the support of Lucius Junius Brutus, the king’s nephew, launched a revolution when the king was away on a military campaign. Thus, Tarquin was overthrown, the Roman monarchy abolished, and the Roman Republic established. According to Roman tradition, this occurred in 509 BC.
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The rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius, son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. (Titian / Public domain )
Tarquin Is Deposed But Continues To Attack Rome
Although Tarquin had been deposed, he was not entirely powerless. In fact, he attempted to regain his throne on several occasions. He did so by launching attacks on Rome. To bolster his forces, Tarquin forged alliances with Etruscan towns and provoked his new allies into attacking Rome. In 509 BC, the Battle of Silvia Arsia was fought between the Roman Republic and the combined forces of Tarquin, and his allies, the Veii. Although the Romans emerged victorious, they suffered heavy losses. Lucius Junius Brutus was one of the leaders who fell in the battle.
Following his defeat at the Battle of Silvia Arsia, Tarquin sought the aid of Lars Porsena, the ruler of Clusium. This ancient Etruscan town is situated on the site of modern Chiusi, in the north-central Italian region of Tuscany. By the time of Lars Porsena, the city already had at least 200 years of history behind it.
Sunset in small Etruscan town of Chiusi, Tuscany, Italy where Lars Porsena ruled and is said to be buried. ( Andriy Blokhin / Adobe Stock)
Clusium was established in the 8 th century BC, on the site of Camrs, an older Umbrian settlement. During the early 6 th century BC, Clusium entered into an alliance with several other Etruscan towns, and went to war with Rome, whose ruler at the time was Lucius Tarquinius Priscus.
When Tarquin came to Lars Porsena for his aid, Clusium was a powerful and culturally advanced state. For instance, the Clusians had established a colony, called Padania, and a well-known statue from 6 th century BC Clusium, the so-called “Pluto,” is an example of the artistic achievements of the Clusians. Therefore, the deposed Roman king was appealing to a powerful Etruscan ruler for his aid in regaining his throne.
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Stories About Lars Porsena From Ancient Roman Sources
Although Lars Porsena is commonly referred to as a king, it is quite unlikely that he was one. This is because Porsena is supposed to be derived from the Etruscan word “purthne,” which translates as “supreme magistrate.” Apart from that, we are completely reliant on the writings of later Roman writers for our information about this ancient figure.
In addition to the temporal distance separating these writers from the events at the end of the 6 th century BC, these writers do not provide any details whatsoever regarding Lar Porsena’s life before the arrival of Tarquin. Moreover, the ancient authors do not exactly agree with each other regarding the events that occur after Tarquin’s arrival in Clusium.
In Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita , which translates as From the Founding of the City (more commonly known as the History of Rome ), Lars Porsena is portrayed as a king, and Tarquin tries to influence him by “entreaty mixed with warnings.” For example, on one occasion, Tarquin “entreated him not to allow men of Etruscan race, of the same blood as himself, to wander as penniless exiles,” whilst on another, he warned him “not to let the new fashion of expelling kings go unpunished.” Livy states that eventually, Lars Porsena marched his army against Rome as he “considered that the presence of an Etruscan upon the Roman throne would be an honor to his nation.”
When news of Lars Porsena’s imminent attack arrived in Rome, the Senate was extremely alarmed, due to the power of Clusium, and Lars Porsena’s reputation. Moreover, they were worried that the plebs “overcome by their fears, should admit the Tarquins into the City, and accept peace even though it meant slavery.”
To keep the plebs on their side, the Senate made many concessions to them. Once the internal threat was taken care of, the Romans prepared to face the external one. Livy recounts that Rome might have fallen on Lars Porsena’s first assault had it not been for a man called Horatius Cocles .
Lars Porsena watches as Gaius Mucius Scaevola puts his hand into fire, which fooled Porsena into striking a peace deal with Rome. (Peter Paul Rubens / Public domain )
The Clusians had attempted to force their way into the city via the Sublician Bridge. They had taken the Janiculum in a sudden attack and were rushing down from it to the river. The Romans who were guarding the bridge fled in terror, except for Horatius Cocles. Although he was unable to convince his compatriots to stand and fight, he managed to persuade them to destroy the bridge, so that the Clusians would not be able to access the city so easily.
Horatius Cocles himself, along with two other warriors, advanced to the head of the bridge to block the enemy’s path. This was meant to buy the other soldiers enough time to destroy the bridge. As a consequence of Horatius Cocles’ bravery, Lars Porsena’s first assault on Rome was foiled.
Lars Porsena then changed his strategy and ordered his men to prepare for a siege. As they tried to starve the Romans into submission, the Clusians raided the countryside. According to Livy, the Romans allowed their enemies to plunder with impunity not out of fear, but as part of their strategy. By separating the Clusians into smaller raiding parties, the Romans were able to ambush and destroy some of them. Consequently, Lars Porsena stopped the raids, but the siege was maintained.
As the siege continued, a young noble by the name of Gaius Mucius Scaevola went before the Senate, and volunteered to infiltrate the Clusian camp, with the aim of assassinating Lars Porsena. The Senate gave its approval, and Gaius Mucius went to the Clusian camp, with a sword hidden under his robe. It so happened that on that day, the Clusian soldiers were being paid, so a secretary, who was dressed almost exactly like Lars Porsena, was seated next to the Etruscan ruler.
Gaius Mucius was afraid to ask the Clusians which of the two men was Lars Porsena, as his ignorance would expose his identity. Therefore, he made a wild guess, and ended up killing the secretary, rather than Lars Porsena.
Although Gaius Mucius tried to escape, he was seized by the Clusians, and brought before Lars Porsena in the royal tribunal. Livy praises Gaius Mucius’ courage and ingenuity, writing “Here, alone and helpless, and in the utmost peril, he was still able to inspire more fear than he felt.”
Gaius Mucius claimed that there were many other Roman youths who swore to kill Lars Porsena. Therefore, his death would mean nothing, as others will continue to make attempts on the Etruscan ruler’s life. Lars Porsena, both furious and terrified at the same time, demanded Gaius Mucius reveal the Romans’ plot, and threatened to roast him alive if he refused. In response, the youth “plunged his right hand into a fire burning on the altar,” and left it there to roast to show that he was not afraid of the threat.
Box with scene depicting Roman hero Gaius Mucius Scaevola before the Etruscan king Lars Porsena (Metropolitan Museum of Art/ CC0)
Lars Porsena was astonished by Gaius Mucius’ action and ordered his guards to release the youth. Gaius Mucius then “revealed” that that there were 300 Roman youths who were prepared to try their luck in assassinating Lars Porsena, and it so happened that he was the first of the 300. This ruse worked, as Lars Porsena was so unnerved that he decided to make peace with the Romans.
Thus, Gaius Mucius saved Rome, and was subsequently rewarded accordingly. Although Lars Porsena tried to have Tarquin restored to the Roman throne through negotiation, this did not succeed, and the former Roman king left Clusium for Tusculum, where his son-in-law, Mamilius Octavius was.
A slightly different version of the story is mentioned briefly by another Roman author, Tacitus, in his Histories. In recounting the destruction of Rome by Vespsian’s troops in 69 AD, Tacitus lamented as follows:
“This was the saddest and most shameful crime that the Roman state had ever suffered since its foundation. Rome had no foreign foe; the gods were ready to be propitious if our characters had allowed; and yet the home of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, founded after due auspices by our ancestors as a pledge of empire, which neither Porsenna, when the city gave itself up to him, nor the Gauls when they captured it, could violate — this was the shrine that the mad fury of emperors destroyed!”
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This brief reference to Lars Porsena implies that the Etruscan ruler did manage to occupy Rome, as opposed to the account by Livy. This reference, however, does not mention anything else, so we do not know, for instance, whether Tarquin contributed to Lars Porsena’s decision to attack Rome, or if the Etruscan ruler had promised to restore him to his throne.
This Etruscan-Roman reservoir in Chiusi ( Clusium), Tuscany, Italy is supposedly the location of the legendary Tomb of Lars Porsena. (Mathiasrex, Maciej Szczepańczyk / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Legendary Tomb Of Lars Porsena
Apart from his famous attack on Rome, Lars Porsena is also “famous” for his legendary tomb. This is mentioned in Pliny the Elder ’s Natural History , in the chapter dealing with labyrinths. Pliny states that the Etruscan ruler’s tomb was in the form of a labyrinth, and he describes this tomb using the words of another Roman writer, Marcus Terentius Varro, which is as follows:
“I shall employ the words given by M. Varro himself in his account of it: — “Porsena was buried,” says he, “beneath the city of Clusium; in the spot where he had had constructed a square monument, built of squared stone. Each side of this monument was three hundred feet in length and fifty in height, and beneath the base, which was also square, there was an inextricable labyrinth, into which if anyone entered without a clew of thread, he could never find his way out. Above this square building there stand five pyramids, one at each corner, and one in the middle, seventy-five feet broad at the base, and one hundred and fifty feet in height. These pyramids are so tapering in their form, that upon the summit of all of them united there rests a brazen globe, and upon that a petasus; from which there hang, suspended by chains, bells, which make a tinkling when agitated by the wind, like what was done at Dodona in former times. Upon this globe there are four other pyramids, each one hundred feet in height; and above them is a single platform, on which there are five more pyramids,” — the height of which Varro has evidently felt ashamed to add; but, according to the Etruscan fables, it was equal to that of the rest of the building.”
Although Pliny does not mention if he believes Varro’s story, he does express his disapproval of the monument, on the basis that it is useless and a waste of resources. In more recent times, there has been some interest in the alleged “Tomb of Porsena.”
Whilst most regard Varro’s description as an exaggeration, others are convinced of its veracity, and have even attempted to produce reconstructions of the tomb. During the 18 th century some claimed that the monument was a kind of lightning conductor. Nevertheless, no traces of this tomb have been found, and Varro’s account of it may be a mere fabrication.
In conclusion, Lars Porsena was a significant figure in the history of Rome. Nevertheless, apart from his siege of the city, which is recounted by several Roman authors, we have very little additional information about this Etruscan ruler .
It is unknown if Lars Porsena actually existed, was based on a real historical figure, or a purely fictional character invented by the ancient Romans for their “national history.”
Top image: Lars Porsena watches as Gaius Mucius Scaevola puts his hand into fire, which fooled Porsena into striking a peace deal with Rome. Source: Peter Paul Rubens / Public domain
By Wu Mingren
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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. Gaius Mucius Scaevola. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gaius-Mucius-Scaevola
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. Clusium. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Clusium