Sunday, April 6, 2014

Not Zen 105: In Evil Circumstance

Rome overthrew Emperor Tarquinius. The senate ruled.

In the summer after his overthrow, Tarquinius endured the heat to ride across the lands of Italy. He gathered allies to retake the empire. The strongest of his collaborators was the Etruscan king, Lars Porsena of Clusium. He was a burly man, tough, well-spoken, and his own general. It was Porsena, not Tarquinius, who led the combined forces. In thick bronze armor, he rode at the front of his own three legions with supporting forces behind.

Porsena captured town after town. He annexed Roman territories and made them his own. He took Roman hostages. Soon, he besieged the city of Rome. But at the end of the fighting season, the war had fallen into a stalemate. Porsena retreated to friendly lands. He negotiated with the Roman senate.

Meanwhile, the Roman hostages labored in camps. They had a doctor to care for them. He was young and healthy. Yet one day he lay down in the grass next to his tent and would not get up.

One of the hostage women, Cloelia, came with her sisters and chaperone to persuade the doctor to rise.

"I can't give aid to evil any longer," he told them. "I save men but then Porsena kills them. I heal women but he forces them into slavery or marriage. There's no longer any point to what I do."

"Rebellion, I could understand," said Cloelia, who had been raised on the stoic virtues. "But not despair. Don't give up."

"You will be forced to marry, too," he said. "You're young and noble. You'll be forced or you'll be killed."

"Perhaps. In the meantime, I'll do what I can. You're our doctor. I understand that the Etruscans hate you and call you names. They throw stones. But if our enemies kill you for your kindness to others, then at least you will have died honorably. I'll fight to protect you if the moment allows it. That's the only honorable thing I can do for you and my sisters. But until then, someone else's evil is no excuse for yours."

"Will you fight and die for others? You, a girl?"

"Keep us alive for another week. Then we'll see."

Within an hour, the doctor rose and returned to work.

Cloelia was aware that most of the Roman hostages were to be ignored by the treaty between Porsena and Rome. Some men would be ransomed but no women. Cloelia and her friends had been separated from their local sweethearts, many of whom had been murdered. So the women would be raped or forced to marry Clusium men or both. 

The young woman gathered spies and allies in camp. She kept her plans close and kept an eye on the guards.

A week later, she grabbed the young doctor as she escaped with troops of women in tow. She commanded her force like an army. She deployed scouts. She eluded her Etruscan pursuers by crossing rivers and hiding in woods. She packed food on donkeys and dragged tents behind along so that her women would not be betrayed by the need to visit Etruscan towns.

In a few weeks, she was in Rome. Her band of hostages rejoiced.  But they arrived to find that a treaty had been signed. Cloelia and her friends had been given to Lars Porsena. Their lives had been decided.

Porsena demanded the return of his hostages. The Roman senate agreed. They threw Cloelia in jail along with her fellow maidens and the men who had helped them escape. The senators knew they needed to send Cloelia back or face another seige by the Etruscans. It was the Roman army that marched her band of noblewomen to the enemy camp.

"To be betrayed by our own countrymen is an evil that I can't stand," complained the doctor.

"Their evil is still no excuse," Cloelia replied.

"Are you clinging to your honor?"

"This betrayal is no excuse for me, either."

The prisoners marched, hands bound behind their backs, into the Etruscan war camp. The great general Porsena stood at the head of a column of soldiers. He saluted them.

"Who is the girl he led this mob?" he demanded.

No one had their hands free but they all looked to young Cloelia.

"Well done," announced Porsena. "This prison was guarded like any other. Only you escaped and with many of your fellow maidens as well. Therefore, I will grant you, Cloelia, the right to free half of the male hostages. Many will not receive a ransom, so they will have to be killed. Save who you will."

The choice was a great burden but Cloelia decided to free the younger half of the prisoners. That way, she included the poorest and also her friend, the doctor.

But the doctor refused to leave.

"I will work here," he announced to Porsena and Cloelia, "and care for the sick and the wounded. I will heal all who have been grieved by the war. The evils of battle do not excuse me from my duties. Cloelia had made me understand that this is so."

"If you're determined to heal, I can feed you," Porsena grudged. "But you must know that we will kill some of those you save."

"Nevertheless," said the doctor with his hands still bound behind his back.


  1. When writing about stoics, I often take cues from real events. Cloelia's story is a real one.

  2. There seems to be disagreement about the details of her achievements but no real debate about the honors paid to Cloelia. and more.