The blockade, however, continued, and with it a growing scarcity of corn at famine prices. Porsena still cherished hopes of capturing the City by keeping up the investment.
There was a young noble, C. Mucius, who regarded it as a disgrace that whilst Rome
in the days of servitude under her kings had never been blockaded in any war or by any foe, she should now, in the day of her freedom, be besieged by those very Etruscans whose armies she had often routed.
Thinking that this disgrace ought to be avenged by some great deed of daring, he determined in the first instance to penetrate into the enemy's camp on his own responsibility.
On second thoughts, however, he became apprehensive that if he went without orders from the consuls, or unknown to any one, and happened to be arrested by the Roman outposts, he might be brought back as a deserter, a charge which the condition of the City at the time would make only too probable.
So he went to the senate. ‘I wish,’ he said, ‘Fathers, to swim the Tiber
, and, if I can, enter the enemy's camp, not as a pillager nor to inflict retaliation for their pillagings. I am purposing, with heaven's help, a greater deed.’
The senate gave their approval. Concealing a sword in his robe, he started.
When he reached the camp he took his stand in the densest part of the crowd near the royal tribunal. It happened to be the soldiers' pay-day, and a secretary, sitting by the king and dressed almost exactly like him, was busily engaged, as the soldiers kept coming to him incessantly. Afraid to ask which of the two was the king, lest his ignorance should betray him, Mucius struck as fortune directed the blow and killed the secretary instead of the king.
He tried to force his way back with his blood-stained dagger through the dismayed crowd, but the shouting caused a rush to be made to the spot; he was seized and dragged back by the king's bodyguard to the royal tribunal. Here, alone and helpless, and in the utmost peril, he was still able to inspire more fear than he felt.
‘I am a citizen of Rome
,’ he said, ‘men call me C. Mucius. As an enemy I wished to kill an enemy, and I have as much courage to meet death as I had to inflict it.
It is the Roman nature to act bravely and to suffer bravely. I am not alone in having made this resolve against you, behind me there is a long list of those who aspire to the same distinction. If then it is your pleasure, make up your mind for a struggle in which you will every hour have to fight for your life and find an armed foe on the threshold of your royal tent.
This is the war which we, the youth of Rome
, declare against you.
You have no serried ranks, no pitched battle to fear, the matter will be settled between you alone and each one of us singly.’
The king, furious with anger, and at the same time terrified at the unknown danger, threatened that if he did not promptly explain the nature of the plot which he was darkly hinting at he should be roasted alive. ‘Look,’ Mucius cried, ‘and learn how lightly those regard their bodies who have some great glory in view.’ Then he plunged his right hand into a fire burning on the altar.
Whilst he kept it roasting there as if he were devoid of all sensation, the king, astounded at his preternatural conduct, sprang from his seat and ordered the youth to be removed from the altar. ‘Go,’ he said, ‘you have been a worse enemy to yourself than to me. I would invoke blessings on your courage if it were displayed on behalf of my country; as it is, I send you away exempt from all rights of war, unhurt, and safe.’
Then Mucius, reciprocating, as it were, this generous treatment. said, ‘Since you honour courage, know that what you could not gain by threats you have obtained by kindness. Three hundred of us, the foremost amongst the Roman youth, have sworn to attack you in this way.
The lot fell to me first, the rest, in the order of their lot will come each in his turn till fortune shall give us a favourable chance against you.’