by Andrew Rattray
Where does history end and myth begin? It’s a question that often doesn’t have a clear answer. Even in ancient times, the answer could prove elusive. Such is the case of Horatius and his heroic stand against the Etruscans. It’s a story that has endured through the centuries, recurring in all sorts of cultural works, perhaps most notably in Victorian Britain.
In 1842 a young Thomas Babington Macaulay produced a collection of narrative poems while he was serving as a member of the Governor-General of India’s Supreme Council during the period of British rule in the region. The poems are written in the style of ancient ballads and four (from a total of six) recount several heroic and legendary episodes from Rome’s early history. The work captures the essence of ancient ballads, such as the Iliad, in a way few others have. The collection became immensely popular in Victorian Britain and the poems and the themes within have continued to feature in popular culture ever since.
The first of these poems, Horatius, is a retelling of the story of how Publius Horatius Cocles, an officer in the Roman army in the 6th century BC, held the only bridge across the Tiber during an attack from an Etruscan army under Lars Porsena. It’s a beautiful story of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds and Macaulay’s poem brings it to life in a visceral way. However, there is some contention around the events, and even the existence of the titular hero. I’ve included an exert from the poem below, with the second passage now seen as the most iconic of the poems seventy verses.
But the Consul’s brow was sad,
And the Consul’s speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
And darkly at the foe.
‘Their van will be upon us
Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
What hope to save the town?
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.”
It’s impossible not to be roused by such a powerful ideal, but is it just fanciful? An imagined legend? Well, the story itself was not created by Macaulay and in fact is recounted by many ancient historians including; Plutarch, Polybius, Livy, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. However, each telling is slightly different, and each author is several hundred years distant from the stated dates of the events themselves.
Accounts do agree that, after a battle in the field, the Roman army was forced to retreat across the Sublican Bridge (or Pons Sublicus in Latin) while the Etruscan army pursued. Horatius was a junior officer charged with guarding the bridge and when he realised the Roman army was in full retreat moved to block the Etruscans and defend the span. He didn’t initially fight alone and was joined by two more senior officers, Spurius Larcius and Titus Herminius Aquilinus, though accounts differ on why they joined him, with Livy claiming Horatius shamed the pair into assisting in the defence, with others such as Dionysius indicating they joined him wilfully.
In either case, all accounts attest that ultimately Larcius and Herminius retreated as the Etruscan army bore down upon the crossing, leaving Horatius alone. Horatius, piling the dead into a wall to help him hold back the Etruscans, demanded that his men destroy the bridge to stop the enemy from crossing. The legend says that all Rome watched on as Horatius defended the span, quilled with arrows and stabbed by spears, until at last the bridge was sufficiently sabotaged that neither the Etruscans, nor Horatius, could cross. The city had been defended and the enemy army waylaid at the expense of Horatius’ life… or so it seemed. For in many accounts (and indeed the poem by Macaulay) Horatius dove into the Tiber and managed, despite his injuries, to swim against the current and arrive safely upon the banks where he went on to be celebrated and venerated by the people of Rome.
This is where the accounts begin to significantly diverge however, as some recount that Horatius did indeed give his life in sacrifice. For example, in book 6 of his Historiae, Polybius writes “The bridge once cut, the enemy were prevented from attacking; and Cocles [Horatius], plunging into the river in full armour as he was, deliberately sacrificed his life, regarding the safety of his country and the glory which in future would attach to his name as of more importance than his present existence and the years of life which remained to him.”
In the accounts where he did survive Horatius was heavily injured in the defence of the city, being hobbled, and losing an eye (which is where he gets his second name, Cocles, meaning one-eye) and was no longer able to serve in the military though he was rightly honoured for his bravery as described in chapter 10 of book 2 of Livy’s ‘History of Rome’. “The state was grateful for so brave a deed: a statue of Cocles was set up in the comitium, and he was given as much land as he could plough around in one day. Private citizens showed their gratitude in a striking fashion, in the midst of his official honours, for notwithstanding their great distress everybody made him some gift proportionate to his means.”
Whether you accept Horatius’ heroic death, or prefer to believe he swam to safety, it is a fantastic story of sacrifice and heroism to be sure, but perhaps a little too fantastic. In fact, there are several historians, ancient and more contemporary, who doubt it’s veracity. Indeed, in chapter 10 of book 1 of Florus’ ‘Epitome of Livy’ he writes “Then appeared those Roman prodigies and wonders, Horatius, Mucius, and Cloelia, who, if they were not recorded in our annals, would now appear fabulous characters”. Even Livy, one of the sources most recounted when discussing the story of Horatius, is ultimately doubtful of the veracity of the legend writing in chapter 10 of book 2 of his ‘History of Rome’ “though many missiles fell over him he swam across in safety to his friends, an act of daring more famous than credible with posterity.”
More interesting still, the 19th century German historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr considers that not only are the characters of Horatius, Larcius, and Herminius a dramatisation, that they are in fact allegorical. In volume one of his book ‘Historical Lectures: Rome’ Niebuhr writes that “We may safely deny the historical character of all that is told in this war: it has a thoroughly poetical appearance.” before going on to state “Here three Roman heroes stand against them; Horatius Cocles, Sp. Lartius, and T. Herminius, – in all likelihood a personification of the three tribes.”
Niebuhr is referencing the three Romulean Tribes of ancient Rome, the Ramnes, the Tities, and the Luceres. These three tribes represent the three ethnic groups of ancient Rome and were established by Romulus not long after the founding of the city. The Ramnes were the native group to the region, named for Romulus. The Tities were originally the Sabines who entered the city in arms after the abduction of many Sabine women by the Romans. They were led by their King, Titus Tacitus, who, after the interjection of the abducted women, reached a peace with Romulus with the pair jointly ruling Rome for a time where the tribe took on its new name, the Tities, named for Titus Tacitus. The final group, the Luceres, possibly represent the Etruscans though historians are unclear on exactly where the name originates.
Niebuhr, in a passing comment, expresses that the three heroes in the story of Horatius represent each of these tribes, with Horatius, the first and ultimately bravest and most daring of the three, representing the Ramnes, the native Romans. In this way, the whole story could be taken to be allegorical, a retelling of the foundational mythology of Rome, rather than an accounting of true events. This is certainly an interesting take, indeed many of the accounts of early Roman history were written when Rome was ascendant and there is some belief among scholars that these stories are used to justify the later Roman conquests as it could be seen that the Romans were simply righting past wrongs as they expanded their empire.
What do you think? Is the story of Horatius Cocles one that exceeds credibility, or do you believe the legend start to finish? Is it a recounting of true events, or simply allegory, propaganda, written well after the supposed fact to justify Roman interests? Like so much of history, we may never know for certain.