This week’s Women’s Wednesday tells the story of one of the greatest Roman heroines: Cloelia, a legendary woman that brought peace between the Etruscans and the Romans.

Back around 509 BC the Roman citizens, tired of being ruled by the Etruscan Tarquinius Superbus (also known as Tarquin the Proud), led an uprising in favor of the establishment of the Roman Republic. The revolt came to a halt when Lars Porsena, the Etruscan king, threatened the safety of the Roman citizens. In order to avoid the outbreak of a war, twenty roman maidens were offered to the Etruscan ruler in exchange for peacekeeping. Amongst these women was Cloelia, a girl of noble origins. Not accepting hers and the other women’s fate, she soon started to excogitate an escape plan from the Etruscan camp where they were being held against their will. Overnight, Cloelia eluded the guards, took a horse and crossed the Tiber with all the other hostages - then making sure they safely reunited with their families. Upon finding out what had happened, Lars Porsena demanded that the hostages be brought back to the camp. After her return, Cloelia met with the king; in a surprising turn of events, Lars Porsena was so impressed with her virtues and her courage, that he decided to let her free. The Romans too praised Cloelia for her deeds, celebrating her actions with the statue of a horse positioned in the Via Sacra in Rome.

Cloelia’s story is revolutionary. For the first time ever, a woman was being praised for her commitment to protecting her people and not for her loyalty to a man. Furthermore, Cloelia’s courage played a crucial role in bringing peace between the Etruscans and the Romans, with her actions ultimately paving the way for the creation of the Roman Republic.

“Cloelia”, illumination from the manuscript “Des cleres et nobles femmes”, ms. Spencer Collection 033, f. 29v, ca. 1450, The New York Public Library.

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