Ancient Roman History: Gaius Mucius Scaevola

Mucius Scaevola, by Louis-Pierre Deseine (French, 1749-1822).
Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Gaius Mucius Scaevola is a legendary Roman hero and assassin, who is said to have saved Rome from conquest by the Etruscan king Lars Porsena.

Gaius Mucius earned the name ‘Scaevola’ when he lost his right hand to Lars Porsena's fire in a show of intimidating will power. He is said to have burned his own hand off in the fire to demonstrate his bravery. Since Gaius Mucius effectively lost his right hand to the fire, he became known as Scaevola, which means left-handed.

Attempted Assassination of Lars Porsena

Gaius Mucius Scaevola is said to have saved Rome from Lars Porsena, who was the Etruscan King. In about the 6th century B.C., the Etruscans, who were led by King Lars Porsena, were on conquest and were trying to take Rome.

Gaius Mucius supposedly volunteered to assassinate Porsena. However, before he was able to successfully complete his task he was captured and brought before the King. Gaius Mucius informed the king that although he might be executed, there were plenty of other Romans behind him who would try, and eventually succeed, in the assassination attempt. This angered Lars Porsena as he feared another attempt on his life, and thus he threatened to burn Gaius Mucius alive. In response to Porsena’s threat, Gaius Mucius stuck his hand directly in the burning fire to demonstrate that he did not fear it. This showing of bravery so impressed the King Porsena that he did not kill Gaius Mucius. Instead, he sent him back and made peace with Rome.

When Gaius Mucius returned to Rome he was viewed as a hero and was given the name Scaevola, as a result of his lost hand. He then became commonly known as Gaius Mucius Scaevola.

Gaius Mucius Scaevola’s tale is described in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Gaius Mucius Scaevola is a legendary Roman hero who is said to have saved Rome (c. 509 bc) from conquest by the Etruscan king Lars Porsena. According to the legend, Mucius volunteered to assassinate Porsena, who was besieging Rome, but killed his victim’s attendant by mistake. Brought before the Etruscan royal tribunal, he declared that he was one of 300 noble youths who had sworn to take the king’s life. He demonstrated his courage to his captors by thrusting his right hand into a blazing altar fire and holding it there until it was consumed. Deeply impressed and fearing another attempt on his life, Porsena ordered Mucius to be freed; he made peace with the Romans and withdrew his forces.
According to the story, Mucius was rewarded with a grant of land beyond the Tiber and given the name Scaevola, meaning “left-handed.” The tale is presumably an attempt to explain the origin of Rome’s famed Scaevola family.”