Cloelia (c. 508 BCE)

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Cloelia (c. 508 bce)

Semi-historical hero celebrated by ancient Roman writers for leading an escape from an Etruscan camp and swimming across the Tiber River. Name variations: Clelia. Pronunciation: KLOY-lee-ah. No sources identify her date of birth or death, her family connections or any other accomplishment beside the circumstances of her escape from the Etruscans in the early years of the Roman Republic.

According to most versions of the story, the fledgling Roman state surrendered Cloelia and other young women as hostages in a treaty with the Etruscan king Porsena. Cloelia soon led an escape of these women from the Etruscan camp. In all surviving accounts, she swam across the Tiber to the safety of Rome, usually with the rest of the hostages. Though the Romans, respecting their treaty with the Etruscans, returned Cloelia and the others, Porsena was so impressed with Cloelia's courage that he freed her. Even more graciously, he allowed Cloelia to take with her any of the hostages whom she might choose. She picked the younger children (there are boys among the hostages in some versions of the story) since they were the most exposed to harm, that is, to sexual abuse. In some versions of the story, Cloelia made her escape partly on horse, and a statue of a woman on horseback in the Via Sacra in Rome was said to portray her.

Cloelia reappears in Roman historical writing (including historical episodes in poetry) as a figure willing to die for the city republic of Rome. The story seems to exemplify the acquisition of virtus (manly courage, virtue; in Greek arete) and fortitudo (bravery) by women in the minds of Roman writers. Florus, in discussing the heroes of the early republic, says that women as well as men deserved praise for their virtus (Epitoma 1. 4. 7). In Livy's treatment of Cloelia's story, he tells us that the public respect paid to male heroes in the wars against the Etruscans inspired Roman women to emulate these heroes (2. 16. 6). Livy paints Cloelia as a military leader leading a breakout from a prisonerof-war camp under a stream of arrows.

After her chains were burst Cloelia sailed over the river.


It is noteworthy that two ancient works of military history, Florus' Epitoma and Polyaenus' Strategika (31), mention Cloelia. The 1st century Greco-Roman writer Plutarch in his Bravery of Women (14) has Cloelia lead a group of women who swim closely together through the deep eddies and rapid currents of the Tiber. Their escape was one of "enormous toil." (Plutarch also relates the story that Cloelia led the group slowly across the river on horseback.) When she is returned to Porsena, not only do her comrades keep silent on her account, but Cloelia voluntarily takes responsibility for the escape.

Women could render selfless service to the state. In what was regarded as a high social and moral stance by the Romans, the Cloelia story is a milestone in the development of women's political personality in the ancient world. Livy remarks that a new type of virtue for women was marked by a new genre of statue: that of horse and rider. The statue that is said to portray Cloelia provides an important epilogue to her story: the durable monument—inscription, statue, grave—was an advertisement of status and public personality in the Roman world. The Cloelia story is certainly older than the time of Livy (59 BC–17 ce). According to Florus, it was recorded in the annales, the official documents of the acts of the Roman Senate. It is noteworthy, however, that the surviving ancient writers of the Cloelia story lived during the empire, that is, during an age when a few rich and powerful women, especially in the imperial family, were publicly celebrated and even granted public authority by the Senate.

The story does not appear to have been active in the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance, the Tuscan painter Domenico Beccafumi revived the equestrian motif in his La Fuga di Clelia (1523) now in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. In the painting, several young women with Cloelia in the lead are shown on horseback riding away from the Etruscan tents. None rides sidesaddle. Though La Fuga di Clelia turns the legend into a love story, it is relatively faithful to Cloelia's story. In the 18th century, the same libretto was sung in two operas based on the legend of Cloelia: Johann Adolph Haase's version of Il Trionfo di Clelia was performed in Vienna in 1762 and Christoph Willibald Gluck's version in Bologna the next year.


Haase, Johann Adolph. Il Trionfo di Clelia. NY: Garland, 1981.

Livy. History of Rome 2. 13. 6

Pliny the Elder. Natural History 34. 28

Plutarch. Bravery of Women 14 Valerius Maximus Memorable Words and Deeds 3. 2. 2.

Alexander Ingle , Department of Classical Studies, Boston University