Horatius at the Bridge

History Lesson Part 2

As mentioned in my previous post Future History Lesson, a  passing quote in the science-fiction novel “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein piqued my interest on two events in real history: ‘Horatius at the Bridge‘ and ‘The Death of the Bon Homme Richard‘. What I discovered in both cases I found so rich in story, that I had to explore them further. Below is what I discovered about Haratius. The surprising story of Bonhomme Richard can be found in Part 3 (coming soon).

Horatius at the Bridge

Publius Horatius Cocles and Two Companions Defend Tiber Bridge by Augustyn Mirys (mid 1700’s Polish painter)

When first digging I could not find a specific work with this title, but there was a lot of information to be found on the person and the event. I eventually discovered that “Horatius at the Bridge” was the title of some editions of the narrative poem Horatius by the Victorian Era historian Baron Thomas Abington Macaulay which was published in his book Lays of Ancient Rome in 1842. It was very popular in England at the time, memorized and recited avidly, and taught in schools. Even close to a hundred years later Winston Churchill recalled memorizing it. You can download a free public domain digital ebook of the entire Lays of Ancient Rome” via Project Gutenberg, available in multiple file formats.

The story of “Haratius at the Bridge” has been told and retold by historians, poets, story tellers and artists for centuries, probably since it occurred in 509 BC when the army of Clusium (an ancient Italian city near the current municipality of Chiusi in Tuscany,) attacked the city of Rome. Some historians (even the ancient Roman historian Livy who finished his “History of Rome” sometime after 9 BC,) consider it legend. But I suspect, like much that has been told and re-told throughout history, that there is more truth than not to the story. Truth is often stranger than fiction, it seems, and history is full of examples where people and places out of legend are found to have more truth than at first believed. For example, the discovery of the ancient city of Troy matching detailed descriptions given in the “legendary” account of Homer of the ancient Greek attack on that city.

The details of this heroic story, legend or no, are that the army of Clusium had just routed the defending army of Rome in the plain west of the city. The fleeing Romans ran for the Pons Sublicius bridge which spanned the Tiber River and led directly into the inner walls of Rome through the bridge gate on the east side. At first the enemy began to slaughter the fleeing troops bottled up as they desperately tired to get into the west entrance of the bridge. Then another plan dawned on many of the invading Etruscans who began to try and mingle with the panicked Roman soldiers so that in the confusion they could cross with them and then easily sack the city.

It is at this point that three officers appear. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, they allow their own troops to pass while blocking an entire army of invaders.

Two of these heroes are said to be Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius Aquilinus who were noble commanders of the right wing of the just defeated Roman army. While the center and left wings of the army had fled shortly after the battle had begun, the right column led by the brave Herminius and Lartius had run off their attackers, then fell back themselves, defending the rear of the fleeing troops.

The other hero of the story is said to be Publius Horatius Cocles, “Captain of the Bridge”. A grizzled veteran, he had earned his nickname “Cocles” or “One Eye” after losing an eye in a prior battle. It is he who stepped out to defend the bridge, calling out for others to aid him in its defense, and it is Lartius and Herminius who answer and stand to Horatius’ left and right to hold off an entire army in the close confines of the bridge’s entrance.

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods,

“Haul down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?”
“Horatius”, stanzas XXVII & XXIX by Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay

Here is one extended section from this point in the story that Baron Macaulay tells particularly well in his lay. I have hidden it in a spoiler box due to its length and the fact that it is not necessary to tell the overall story. But it is very engaging. If you want to read it just click the show button.

Spoiler: A bit of well-told battle Show

Publius Horatius Cocles Leads the Romans in Battle against the Etruscans by Tommaso Minardi (early to mid 1800’s Italian painter)

Eventually Herminius and Lartius who had defended Horatius’ flanks begin to pull back as their shields and armor were completely destroyed. Calling on Horatius to retreat with them to the Roman side of the bridge, Horatius instead chooses to hold his ground and orders them to destroy the bridge behind him.

The growing wall of bodies before him and the sheer “suicidal madman” fear he instilled in the attacking horde helps him delay the invaders long enough for the bridge’s destruction. As the bridge finally falls, Horatius, gravely wounded, shouts a prayer to the Roman God of the Tiber, and jumps into the river in full armor where he is sure to be pulled under to his death.

“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”, stanza LVIX by Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay

Yet despite injury, exhaustion and being weighted down with arms and armor, he miraculously manages to surface and pull himself to the eastern shore where he is greeted by the cheers of the Romans. After peace is finally brokered a statue of Horatius is erected in Rome, and through his willingness to fight on to the absolute last, he becomes a legend to last to this day (and through Heinlein and other sci-fi authors into fictional futures as well).

Continue to: Part 3: The Story of Bonhommme Richard (coming soon)

3 thoughts on “Horatius at the Bridge”

  1. The poem states that there is a statue of Horatius to commemorate this event: was there ever one ? Or has it been lost ?

    1. The statue does not appear to have survived. I am certainly no expert and have gotten my info mostly from online sites like wikipedia, which of course can sometimes be unreliable. The articles in question however seem to be well monitored and sourced. Anyway, the statue of Horatius Cocles was erected in the Vulcanal, a sacred precinct of the ancient Forum in Rome. The location of the Forum has been excavated and some portions reconstructed. Many ancient sources describe the Vulcanal, but the exact location of the Vulcanal in the ruins is not precisely known, though there are apparently two very educated guesses.

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