Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Horatius at the Bridge

The rolling hills of Etruria
Photograph by the author
The birth of the Republic was a defining moment in the history of Rome, and marked a key turning point in the lives of its people. Since the founding of the City in 753 BC, Rome had seen the rule of Seven Great Kings, and had risen from a group of mud huts on the Palatine Hill to the first city in Latium. But two hundred and forty four years after the founding of the city, mobilised by the propaganda of Lucius Junius Brutus, the people of Rome had cast out their seventh King – Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, known infamously to history as Tarquin the Proud. Denounced as an arrogant tyrant, Tarquin had returned from a campaign one day to find the Gates of Rome sealed before him and the people jeering from the walls. Enraged, the King turned to his kin, the Etruscan peoples, to aid him in taking back his rightful throne. What later followed would be a conflict which would give rise to many heroes of the Republic, first among whom was the man who stood alone against the might of Etruria in defence of his city – Publius Horatius ‘Cocles’ (a name he bore in commemoration of an eye he lost in war).
Immortalised only seconds after his valiant defense, the fortitude of Horatius captured the visions of many great writers and poets of Rome and Greece. There was a time when every English schoolboy learned to memorise the words of one of my all time favourite works -Lord Macaulay’s famous poem Horatius. One man, one Roman against impossible odds, it was a golden age of older days, when heroes abounded and petty squabbles were not yet born, and legends were forged.
The King and his family were forced to flee Rome before the mob, and called on the might of the Etruscan League for aid. Many great cities answered Tarquin’s summons, including the powerful cities of Veii and Tarquinii, but greatest of all was the city of Clusium, and its widely renowned King Lars Porsenna. Seeing the danger, should Rome’s new idea of a Republic spread to other cities, Lars Porsenna raised his countrymen to war:

                                          “ Lars Porsenna of Clusium
                                                    By the Nine Gods he swore
                                            That the great House of Tarquin
                                                    Should suffer wrong no more.
                                            By the Nine Gods he swore it,
                                                    And named a trysting day,
                                            And bade his messengers ride forth,
                                                    East and West and South and North,
                                            To summon his array. ”
                                                              - LARS PORSENNA ROUSES ETRURIA TO WAR

Thus Etruria’s might marched on the young city of Rome. Within the city, panic abounded as the Republic sent forth its men to meet Porsenna, but was overrun on the Janiculum Hill. “The enemy forces came pouring down the Hill, while the Roman troops, throwing away their weapons, were behaving more like an undisciplined rabble than a fighting force”. The broken men fled across the great bridge, the Pons Sublicius, but among them one man stood firm:

Engraving by Hendrik Goltzius

               “ Then out spake brave Horatius,
                           The Captain of the Gate:
                 'To every man upon this earth
                            Death cometh soon or late.
                  And how can men die better
                            Than facing fearful odds,
                  For the ashes of his fathers,
                            And the temples of his gods, ”
                          - HORATIUS STANDS FIRM
Horatius stands alone
Painting in the Capitoline Museums
Among his fleeing countrymen, two men – Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius – turned at his words, ashamed to abandon his side. The three pledged their lives to hold the Bridge, until it be destroyed behind them. Lest the Etruscans take the Bridge and the City itself, wealth and class no longer divided Rome, as senator and plebeian alike began to tear apart the timbers of the Bridge. Amused at the three men stood before them, many times the Etruscans charged, and many times the three threw them back. Soon the Bridge began to creak and groan, and Horatius bade loyal Lartius and Herminius to flee to the city, as he alone stood as the last planks fell. Cries flew from the city calling Horatius to return before the hour grew late, but the mighty warrior stood firm and dared Etruria's finest to take arms against him:

  “ For the pursuers, looking upon him as a madman who was courting death,
    Dared no longer come to grips with him... But standing massed at a distance,
    They hurled spears, javelins, and large stones at him,
    And those who were not supplied with these threw the swords and bucklers of the slain. ”
                                                     - THE ETRUSCANS TRY TO OVERCOME HORATIUS

Horatius mocked his foes as tyrant’s slaves and careless of their own liberty, and challenged all among them to single combat. The Etruscans were struck dumb at the sight before them, for:

                                             “ Alone stood brave Horatius,
                                                         But constant still in mind;
                                               Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
                                                        And the broad flood behind.
                                              ‘Down with him!’ cried false Sextus,
                                                       With a smile on his pale face.
                                              ‘Now yield thee’, cried Lars Porsenna,
                                                      ‘Now yield thee to our grace’. ”
                                                                 - HORATIUS STANDS DEFIANT

The great man’s wounds grew grave, as lance and arrow pierced his flesh. The air was rent with a mighty crack as Pons Sublicius crashed into the Tiber. His ploy successful, Horatius raised his eyes to the Heavens with prayer:

The goddess Roma spurs on Horatius
Painting by Charles Le Brun
                                         “ ‘Oh Tiber! Father Tiber!
                                                      To whom the Romans pray,
                                             A Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms
                                                      Take thou in charge this day!’
                                             So he spake, and speaking sheathed
                                                      The good sword by his side,
                                              And with his harness on his back,
                                                       Plunged headlong in the tide. ”
                                                              - HORATIUS PRAYS TO FATHER TIBER

A shout of triumph from the city, as their saviour crossed the Tiber, a moan of despair from their foe. But the currents of the Tiber were strong, and the wounded hero fought hard to reach the Latin banks:

                                          “ ‘Curse on him!’ qouth false Sextus;
                                                     ‘Will not the villain drown?
                                              But for this stay, ere close of day
                                                      We should have sacked the town!’
                                             ‘Heaven help!’ quoth Lars Porsenna
                                                     ‘And bring him safe to shore;
                                              For such a gallant feat of arms
                                                      Was never seen before. ”
                                                               - LARS PORSENNA ADMIRES HORATIUS

People rushed from their homes to see brave Horatius, sure they were of the mortality of his wounds. But Horatius lived and was hailed a hero of the Republic. A bronze statue was raised to him in the most prominent part of the Forum, and to him was gifted as much land as he could drive a plough around in one day. Rome was saved, but the siege continued, and pestilence struck the Seven Hills. The blockade began to hit home, and starvation became the norm, yet for all their toil, each man ensured that one among them would not die for want of food.
The story of Horatius was legendary in Ancient times, it is no less so in modern times. Lord Macaulay's poem was responsible for the rise in the popularity of the legend once more, and is a personal favourite of my own. The story can be found in many sources, all of which can be acquired very easily from Amazon:
United Kingdom
A Roman Account:
The Early History of Rome: Bks. 1-5 (Penguin Classics)
(The full story of the Rise of Rome, including the defence of Horatius)
A Greek Account:
Roman Antiquities: v.3: Vol 3 (Loeb Classical Library)
(An account of the legendary rise of Rome from a Romanised Greek perspective)
Lord Macaulay's Poem:
Lays of Ancient Rome (Dodo Press)
(An iconic and expertly crafted poetic retelling) 
United States
A Roman Account:
Livy: The Early History of Rome, Books I-V (Penguin Classics) (Bks. 1-5)
(The full story of the Rise of Rome, including the defence of Horatius)
A Greek Account:
Dionysius of Halicarnassus: Roman Antiquities, Volume III, Books V-VI, 48 (Loeb Classical Library No. 357)
(An account of the legendary rise of Rome from a Romanised Greek perspective)
Lord Macaulay's Poem:
The Lays of Ancient Rome
(An iconic and expertly crafted poetic retelling) 


  1. I remember learning the poem many years ago in school - good to see you giving its profile a lift.
    2000 visitors to this site warrants congratulations!

  2. Thank you!

    It is indeed great to be able to take you back in years. This poem should indeed rejoin the anthologies of English Literature at school.

  3. Are there any modern day equivalents to this story?

    1. Actually, Churchill is actually said to have been inspired by this poem.

  4. Greetings to you!

    Slightly more modern is the story of the Norse warrior who held Stamford Bridge in 1066 (you can see the story here: But then, the true valour of the story, of one man against impossible odds, exists all around us, ever since Horatius held the Bridge, to the present day. World War Two was full of examples of such heroism!

    I shall have a think, and if anything comes to mind, I shall let you know!

    Welcome to A Classic A Day, by the way!

  5. I first read this poem for English Literature over 50 years ago in All Saints' School in then Jesselton, North Borneo.
    I still remember the words ringing in my head as I read,
    Oh Tiber! Father Tiber!
    To whom the Romans pray
    A Roman's Life , a Roman's arms,
    Take thou in charge this day!

    Thank you James for putting this beautiful work together
    And for keeping alive the flames of heroism and bringing back memories of
    How well Horatius kept the bridge
    In the brave days of old.