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From Readings in Ancient History, Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, Volume II. Rome and the West, by William Stearns Davis; Allyn and Bacon; Boston; 1913; pp. 16-18, 399-400.


508 B.C.


Livy,* “History,” book II, chaps. 9, 10

The story of “Horatius at the Bridge“ and how he saved Rome, when she was in deadly peril from attack by Lars Porsena, lord of the Etruscans, would not be worth reproducing, so familiar is it, were it not for the natural interest in the original narrative s rehearsed by Livy. It is to be feared the historicity of the incident will not bear too close inspection. Its alleged date was 508 B.C.

Porsena, thinking it would be glorious for the Tuscans, if there were a king in Rome and a king too of their own nation, marched on Rome with a hostile army. Never before did so great terror seize the Senate; — so powerful was Clusium then, and so great the renown of [its King] Porsena.

Not only did they dread the foreign enemies, but even their own citizens; fearing lest the common people, cowed by fear, should receive the Tarquins [supported by Porsena] back into the city, and thus gain peace even at the price of slavery.

Many conciliatory concessions were therefore granted to the Plebeians by the Senate during these times. [The taxes were abated, an effort was made to provide salt at a fair price, and, as a result, it came to pass that good feeling prevailed in Rome, so that] from the highest to the lowest all equally detested the name of “King”; nor did any demagogue in later times gain greater popularity by his intrigues, than did the whole Senate then by its excellent government.

Some parts of Rome were secured [against the foe] by walls; other parts by the barrier of the Tiber; but the Sublician Bridge nearly afforded a passage to the enemy had there not been one man, Horatius Cocles — whom the Fortune of Rome gave for a bulwark that day — who chanced to be posted as a guard on the bridge. When he saw the Janiculum [the hill across the Tiber] carried by a sudden 17 assault, and the enemy charging thence with full onset, while his friends in terror and confusion were actually casting away their arms, he laid hold on them one by one; and standing out in the way [of the fugitives] he appealed to them in the name of gods and men, and cried out: “Their flight would profit nothing, if they fled their posts. If they once left the bridge behind them, there would soon be more foes on the Palatine hill and the Capitol than on the Janiculum!” He therefore urged and enjoined them “to hew down the bridge, by sword, fire, or any means; and he would stand the brunt of the foe, so far as one man might.”

Thereat he advanced to the first entrance of the bridge, and faced about, to engage the foe hand to hand, with so surprising a front that he terrified the enemy. But two other Romans, impelled by conscious shame, stood with him, Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius, men of high birth and of brave renown. With them, Horatius for a little stood back the first onset, and the fiercest brunt of the battle. But now the men hewing down the bridge called on them to retire; and Horatius compelled the others to fly to safety across the scanty part of the bridge still left. then casting his eyes sternly with threatening mien upon all the Tuscan chiefs, he now challenged them singly, now taunted them all, as “slaves of proud tyrants, and men who cared not for their own freedom, and so were come to crush out the freedom of others.”

For some little time they hesitated, looking one to the other, ere commencing the fight; then mere shame put their host in motion; they raised their war shout, and from every side hurled in their darts on their lone adversary. But all these darts stuck fast in his shield, and with a firm stand he held the bridge. Then they strove by a single push to thrust him down, but hereupon the crashing noise of the falling bridge, and the cheers of the Romans, checked their fury with a sudden panic.


Thereupon Cocles spoke: ‘Holy Father Tiber, I pray that thou do receive these my arms, and this thy soldier in thy benignant stream.”

All in his armor he sprang down into the river, and while darts showed around him he swam across quite safely to his friends, — the hero of a deed which generations to come will more easily glorify than believe. The state was not ungrateful for his valor. A statue was erected to him in the assembly place [in the Forum] and as much land was given him as he was able to plow around in a single day.


Biographical Note

*  Livy (59 B.C. to 17 A.D.). Titus Livius a native of Patavium (Padua) is by all odds the leading historian for the Roman Republican period. His entire history in 142 books extended from the foundation of Rome down to 9 B.C. Most unfortunately we possess only 35 of these intact, although Epitomes have been preserved of most of the others. A critical and scrupulously impartial historian Livy was not. He often gives us myths that have obviously no factual value, and again he suppresses or colors such evidence as reflects upon the glory of Rome. On the other hand, his style is “clear, animated, and eloquent,” and often under the legends a little sifting will bring out valuable data; while no Roman who had read through his long narrative could fail to gain a clear 400 grasp upon the long slow process of war and patriotic sacrifice by which the little city by the Tiber rose to world-wide dominion.

Elf Note-- Horatius has been an inspiration to people classically educated for centuries. He is less known since we know longer teach Latin routinely or study the classics. However, his heroic actions were still an inspiration up to the last century in Europe and in the United States. See this poem recounting the episode in verse: Horatius at the Bridge, by Lord Macaulay. As you can see, this poem became a prime choice for recitation in schools and other public performances, as I took the poem from Choice Readings for Public and Private Entertainments and for the Use of Schools, Colleges, and Public Readers, with Elocutionary Advice, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Edited by Robert McLean Cumnock, Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1898; pp. 379-386.

Macauley wrote this in the 19th century, but the fame of Horatius lasted longer, and was even the subject of this joke, in 1924, also on this site: Horatio Wore a Helmet.


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