Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 3b Publicola

Matthias Stom (fl 1615–1649), Mucius Scaevola in the Presence of Lars Porsenna (c 1642), oil on canvas, 167.5 x 220 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

From its foundation, the city of Rome was ruled by monarchs with absolute authority, leaders in its all too frequent times of war. Plutarch chooses to compare against the Greek leader Solon one of the Roman statesmen who oversaw the city’s transition from that monarchy to a more democratic state: Publius Valerius, who was dubbed Publicola (or Poplicola), one of the founders of the Roman Republic. Unlike the earlier Roman figures who remain at least partially legendary, Publicola is well-attested historically, and died in 503 BCE.

The last King of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, had been tyrannical. Matters came to a head when his son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped a noblewoman, Lucretia. Although Plutarch does not tell this story, he refers to it leading into Publicola’s involvement in the subsequent revolution.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Story of Lucretia (1500-01), tempera on panel, 83.5 x 180 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Sandro Botticelli’s comprehensive account of The Story of Lucretia, painted in 1500-01, is not one of his well-known works, but tells the story very effectively using multiplex narrative. At the left, Lucretia is raped at knifepoint by Sextus Tarquinius. She then commits suicide in shame, and anger erupts through Rome. Her body is carried from her house (right) and placed in the Forum. There, her husband and his friends swear to overthrow the king (centre), and this brings about the new constitution.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), Lucretia (1666), oil on canvas, 110.2 x 92.3 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

Many masters painted Lucretia’s suicide, most notably Rembrandt, whose later painting of 1666 is one of the most moving images in the canon of Western art. Lucretia has already pierced her chest with her blade. Her fine clothing has been pulled back to reveal her simple white shift, which has a broad streak of fresh, bright red blood running down from the point at which the dagger was inserted.

Her arms are outstretched: her right hand still clutches the dagger, which has dropped to waist level already. Her left hand is dragging a beaded bell-pull, presumably to summon her family to witness her final moments on earth. It is her face, though, which makes this painting. Her eyes, moistened by welling tears, are looking away to the right of the painting, in an absent-minded stare. Her brow is tensed with subtle anxiety. She knows that she is about to die, and is preparing herself for that moment.

Lucius Brutus and Publicola were among the leaders who drove out and overthrew the king, and with popular support instituted a republic under two consuls. However, Publicola’s hopes of being elected to the office were dashed when Lucretia’s husband, Tarquinius Collatinus, was chosen instead.

Publicola then briefly withdrew from public life, while remaining loyal to the new republic. Tarquin sent envoys to announce his abdication from the throne, but demanding return of his riches, and to be allowed to live in exile. This sowed dissension between the consuls and among the senators, and some, the Vitelli and Aquilli families who were relatives of the consuls, conspired to kill the consuls and support the monarchy.

The plot was discovered, and the conspirators beaten and beheaded. Tarquinius Collatinus was implicated too, and forced to flee the city, leaving his post as consul to Publicola.

The former king had been welcomed by the Tuscans, and they marched on Rome with their army in an attempt to restore him to the throne. This led to slaughter, and the soldiers of both sides became disheartened by their heavy losses. After hearing a god pronounce that the Romans had lost one man fewer than the Tuscans, the Romans rallied and finally defeated and captured the remaining enemy.

After this, Publicola celebrated the triumph, and became the first consul to drive into the city of Rome on a four-horse chariot.

However, Publicola was thought by many to be living as if he were a king. When he heard of this, he razed his house to the ground overnight, making himself homeless in the process. He was then provided with a more modest house than before. In a wave of reforms, he restored the senate, provided defendants with a means of appealing to the people from the judgement of the consuls, and lifted taxes from the citizens of Rome.

Meanwhile, Tarquin had become a supporter of Lars Porsena, the most powerful leader in Italy at the time. Porsena sent a message to Rome, telling it to restore Tarquin to his throne; the city inevitably refused, so Porsena declared war against it. When the Etruscan forces attacked Rome, Publicola went out to engage Porsena’s army in battle, but was wounded and carried back into the city. Porsena’s men then reached a wooden bridge which, had they taken it, would have let them into Rome.

Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), Horatius Cocles Defending the Bridge (c 1642-43), oil on canvas, 121.9 x 171.8 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

It was then that Rome relied on a single fearless citizen to defend it, as shown in Charles Le Brun’s Horatius Cocles Defending the Bridge (c 1642-43).

Horatius is putting up his spirited fight on a stone pier on the side of the bridge opposite the city, as Romans are hastily removing the wooden bridge behind him. Above and behind Horatius, Minerva, goddess of battle, grasping her characteristic staff, holds a laurel wreath over Horatius’ head. In the foreground, the god of the River Tiber lounges on the bank, pouring water from his large flagon (which never becomes empty). It can only be a matter of minutes before the bridge is adequately broken, and Horatius can abandon his defence.

Once the bridge behind him had been demolished, with several significant wounds and still wearing his armour, Horatius Cocles knew it was time to get out. He jumped into the River Tiber and swam to the Roman shore, where he was welcomed as a great hero, and rewarded with the land that he was able to plough around in a day, which became the estate of the Horatius family. The Etruscans still laid siege to Rome, but on this occasion did not occupy and sack it.

Unknown follower of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Horatius Cocles Defending Rome Against the Etruscans (date not known), oil on canvas, 137.2 x 208.3 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This undated painting by an unknown follower of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo also shows Horatius Cocles Defending Rome Against the Etruscans.

During the siege, Rome was struck by famine. Publicola, who was by then in his third term as consul, kept order in the city throughout.

One attempt was made to kill Lars Porsena, by a Roman named Mucius, who posed as a Tuscan/Etruscan and gained entrance to his camp. When he had killed someone who he thought might be Porsena, Mucius was arrested and taken to the king, who had just had burning coals brought to him for a sacrifice. Mucius held his right hand over the flames, unflinching while his flesh burned. This so impressed Porsena that he released Mucius, who then warned the king that there were three hundred other Romans inside his camp waiting to kill him.

For his bravery, Mucius gained the name of Scaevola, meaning left-handed.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Mucius Scaevola Before Lars Porsenna (before 1628), media and dimensions not known, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens and Anthony van Dyck worked together to paint Mucius Scaevola Before Lars Porsena before 1628. The Roman is seen holding his right hand in the flames, with the body of the dead Tuscan at his feet. Porsena, sat on his throne, is considering how to respond.

Matthias Stom (fl 1615–1649), Mucius Scaevola in the Presence of Lars Porsenna (c 1642), oil on canvas, 167.5 x 220 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Matthias Stom’s painting of Mucius Scaevola in the Presence of Lars Porsena from about 1642 is more dramatic with its skilful use of light, with a similar composition.

Publicola realised that Porsena would be more valuable as an ally, and invited him to arbitrate in the dispute over Tarquin. This forced the former king to refuse, which displeased Porsena, who promptly ended his war against Rome.

In time, Publicola became consul for a fourth term, when war was looming again, this time between the Sabines and Romans. Publicola cunningly won over one of the Sabine leaders, gave him land, and a seat in the senate. Some remaining Sabines launched an attack against Rome, but Publicola counter-attacked and put them to flight. He died shortly after celebrating his triumph and handing over to his successor as consul.

Comparing Solon with Publicola

Plutarch draws together Solon’s meeting with Croesus, and the honourable life of Publicola, to establish that Solon could equally have declared Publicola a truly happy man, for his virtuous life.

However, it is also true that Publicola enhanced the fame of Solon in following his example and making Rome more of a democracy. There were differences in approach: one of Publicola’s more controversial laws allowed a murderer to be killed before trial, whereas Solon established that no-one, not even a murderer caught red-handed, could be punished without trial.

Solon’s early success in reforms didn’t prove enduring, though, and later in his life he was to see its collapse. In contrast, Publicola’s changes lasted until the civil wars much later. One of Publicola’s great skills was in using an adversary, such as Lars Porsena, to put an end to conflict, and to make them an ally.


Whole text in English translation at Penelope.