Horatius at the Bridge
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,
From Horatius at the Bridge by Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800–1859)
In around 506 BC a large Etruscan army lead by Lars Poresna, King of Clusium, marched on Rome. Among their number was Rome’s recently deposed King, Tarquinius Superbus, who hoped that following a successful campaign, he would be returned to the city’s throne.
Having recently engaged an army of Tarquin’s in an indecisive battle at Aricia, the Romans were expecting an invasion and hastily attempted to construct a fort on the Janiculum, a hill on the western side of the Tiber. However, owing to inadequate scouting, the troops stationed at the fort were surprised and overcome by the Eutruscan force, which proceeded to occupy the hill.
From the Janiculum, Porsena’s army launched an attack and advanced on Pons Sublicius. The Roman forces were now in disarray and the future of the newly formed republic looked bleak. However, just as all seemed lost a soldier named Horatius Cocles, accompanied by two others, namely Titus Herminius Aquilinus and Spurius Lartius (which, intriguingly, are Etruscan names) stepped forward to defend the bridge, using its narrow width to reduce the effectiveness of the large enemy force that bore down upon them. There they fought while to their rear the citizens of Rome gathered and, using but hand axes, began to chop down the bridge. Herminius and Spurius retreated as the bridge was almost destroyed, but Horatius fought on until the bridge had fallen, leaping into the river in full armour and swimming its width while coming under enemy fire. The attack was thus repulsed and Porsena forced into an unsuccessful siege of the city.
You may notice that we’ve avoided using the familiar LEGO Roman Minifigure helmets and armour. This is because during this period the Roman Army was still fighting in the Greco-Etruscan style, where the phalanx was the master of the battlefield. This is over a hundred years before Rome comes into conflict with the Samnites and subsequently adopts the maniple system and around 400 years before Marius implements his reforms. The army was therefore vastly different in appearance and style to the one most people are familiar with. This is why we’ve gone for the Corinthian helmets, Hoplon shields and bronze and Linothorax type armour.
That, at least, is how the story goes according to Rome’s poets and historians. There have however always been questions about the story’s veracity and even Livy, whose history was as much about promoting Augustus Caesar’s legitimacy as it was about recording past events, casts doubt over some of its claims. It’s likely that Porsena succeeded in capturing Rome, for a short period at least (though there is no evidence to suggest that Tarquin’s throne was ever restored), and that Horatius’ exploits were later invented as a means of masking past defeats and promoting the idea of Rome’s inherent superiority. The Romans were, after all, skilled in the art of propaganda, a modern Latin word with ancient roots.
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