Publius Horatius Cocles was an officer in the army of the ancient
Roman Republic who famously defended the
Pons Sublicius from the
invading army of Lars Porsena, king of
Clusium in the late 6th century
BC, during the war between Rome and Clusium.
2 Horatius at the bridge
4 Skeptical points of view
5 Later uses of the theme
6 See also
9 External links
Siege of Rome by the Etruscans under Lars Porsena. This animated
depiction shows the phases of the battle, including the defense of the
bridge by Horatius.
In 509 BC, the army of
Clusium marched on Rome and attacked the city.
Concentrating his forces on the Etruscan side of the Tiber, Porsena
Janiculum and took it from the terrified Roman recruits
with all its stores. An Etruscan garrison was detailed to hold it.
Porsena's army made for the Pons Sublicius, but found there a Roman
line of battle across the bend of the river. Porsena drew up a line of
battle opposite it, apparently without hindrance, relying on numerical
superiority to cow the Romans. The Tarquins commanded the Etruscan
left wing facing the troops of
Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius.
Octavius Mamilius took the Etruscan right commanding rebel Latins,
Marcus Valerius Volusus and Titus Lucretius Tricipitinus.
Porsena commanded the Etruscan center, facing the two consuls.
The two lines closed. After a "considerable time", Valerius and
Lucretius having been carried wounded off the field in full view of
the troops, the army was struck by a panic and ran for the bridge. The
enemy effected a slaughter at first among the troops milling around at
the entrance to the bridge but then began to mingle with them in hope
Horatius at the bridge
Horatius at the Bridge, Charles Le Brun, 1642-43
Ancient Rome, with dark lines marking the walls. The wall that applies
is the innermost one, the Servian Wall. Just outside it to the north
on the left bank of the
Tiber was the Campus Martius, later crowded
with buildings. The
Janiculum is at the far left. The Pons Sublicius
is clearly marked. The plain in the bend of the river between the
Janiculum and the bridge was the Naevian Meadow. The gate through the
Servian Wall at the bridge was the Naevian Gate.
Perceiving the danger, three officers (of noble rank) stood
shoulder-to-shoulder to allow their own troops to pass and block the
passage of the enemy:
Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius Aquilinus,
commanders of the right wing (equivalent to colonels or lieutenant
generals), and Publius Horatius, a more junior officer of unspecified
rank. He was a patrician, and the nephew of consul Marcus Horatius
Pulvillus and had lost an eye in a previous battle (hence his agnomen
"Cocles"). He was also said to have been a descendant of one of the
Horatii who had fought the Curiatii of Alba Longa.
Livy defines his
station in the defense as "on guard at the bridge when he saw the
Janiculum taken by a sudden assault and the enemy rushing down from it
to the river ...." The three defenders of the bridge withstood
sword and missile attacks until the troops had all crossed.
In the abbreviated (one section) and skeptical version of Livy, no
battle took place, but "his own men, a panic-struck mob, were
deserting their posts and throwing away their arms". Apparently
Rome had placed its defense in the hands of an entire army of cowards,
which not only could not hold one hill but after drawing up a line of
battle could not stand even the first charge of the enemy. Cocles, in
this view, was the only man in the entire army with the courage to
stand up, motivating two veteran generals only through a sense of
shame to assist him momentarily.
Livy gives no clue as to what such
men were doing on the field in the first place and, though finding
Cocles' feats incredible, apparently sees no contradiction between the
rank, experience and character of the generals and their supposed
behavior on the field.
Dionysius goes on to say, "Herminius and Lartius, their defensive arms
being now rendered useless by the continual blows they received, began
to retreat gradually." They called on Horatius to retreat but
perceiving the tactical difficulty of allowing the enemy to cross he
stood his ground, directing them to tell the consuls to tear up the
bridge. The enemy view of him as a madman determined to commit suicide
taking them with him protected him to some extent, as did his taking
refuge behind the pile of slain. He returned enemy missiles. Finally
wounded all over and having received a spear in the buttocks he heard
a shout from the other bank that the bridge was torn up. He "leaped
with his arms into the river and swimming across ... he emerged upon
the shore without having lost any of his arms." Livy's version has
him uttering this prayer: "Tiberinus, holy father, I pray thee to
receive into thy propitious stream these arms and this thy warrior,"
which is not inconsistent with Roman beliefs in the genius of a place.
Horatius at the bridge, Renaissance plaquette, Wallace Collection
Wounded as he was Horatius was honorably crowned and conducted into
the city by a singing crowd while the populace streamed into the
streets to see him. A bronze statue was later erected to him in the
comitium because of his heroic act; he was given "as much of the
public land as he himself could plow around in one day with a yoke of
oxen." Every citizen of Rome gave him one day's ration of food,
Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Dionysius of Halicarnassus does not explain what logistically
such a contribution should mean and how and when it was delivered.
Horatius was now disabled and could not by law remain in the army or
hold public office.
Polybius' brief notice of the story uses Horatius as an example of
the men who have "devoted themselves to inevitable death ... to save
the lives of other citizens. ... he threw himself into the river with
his armor, and there lost his life as he had designed." Though
Horatius did not perish in the river, the disability he suffered (and
subsequent honorable discharge from the army) ended the life he had
Horatius' action at the bridge halted the Etruscan attack and forced
Lars Porsena to engage in a protracted siege of Rome rather than
sacking it outright, which was later concluded by peace treaty with
the city intact.
Skeptical points of view
Although the story appears in many different credible ancient sources,
such as Plutarch, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Livy, with
variations, many historians have been skeptical of the story.
Tacitus mentions in passing that Porsena, "when the city was
surrendered, did not violate the seat of Jupiter" (the Capitol).
This could mean that perhaps Rome surrendered during or after the
Detail from the Ghisi Shield in the Waddesdon Bequest; a grotesque
head in the larger scale above Horatius at the bridge in the smaller
Livy viewed the story as legendary; that is, he repeated accounts that
he had read unable to vouch for their authority.
Livy found the
swimming event hard to believe, quipping "though many missiles fell
over him he swam across in safety to his friends, an act of daring
more famous than credible with posterity."
Florus has something
similar to say: "It was on this occasion that those three
prodigies and marvels of Rome made their appearance, Horatius, Mucius
and Cloelia, who, were they not recorded in our annals, would seem
fabulous characters at the present day."
To account for his presence in numerous histories T. J. Cornell
further presumes that they relied on "unscrupulous annalists" who "did
not hesitate to invent a series of face-saving victories in the
immediate aftermath of these defeats" such as the presumed defeat
of Rome at the Naevian Meadow. Furthermore, "The annalists of the
first century BC are thus seen principally as entertainers...."
Later uses of the theme
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The story of Horatius at the bridge began to be depicted in art in the
Renaissance, but was never popular. It tended to be shown by artists
who favoured recondite classical stories, and appear in the minor
arts, such as plaquettes and maiolica.
The French general
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was given the title 'The
Horatius Cocles of Tyrol' by
Napoleon after the battle of Klausen,
where he defended a bridge over the River
Eisack alone for several
The story is retold in Horatius from the
Lays of Ancient Rome
Lays of Ancient Rome by Lord
Macaulay, a poem of great popularity in the late nineteenth and the
beginning of the twentieth century. Being still well-known today it
appears at least in part in the curricula of some secondary schools.
The details of the poem often vary from the traditional tale by poetic
license. A reference from the book appears also in the 2013 film
Oblivion with the quote: "And how can a man die better, than facing
fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his
The poem of Sven Dufva in
The Tales of Ensign Stål
The Tales of Ensign Stål tells the story of
a simple-minded but honest and dutiful soldier in the
Finnish War who
by himself heroically holds back an attack by Russian forces at a
bridge but dies in the effort.
"A Nation Once Again" is an Irish rebel song, written in the early to
mid-1840s by Thomas Osborne Davis (1814–1845) to further the cause
of Irish nationalism. First published in The Nation on 13 July 1844
(two years after Macaulay's "Horatius"), it quickly became a rallying
call for the growing Irish nationalist movement at that time. The
first verse refers to the heroism of "ancient freemen,/ For Greece and
Rome who bravely stood,/ three hundred men and three men", which are
apparent references to the last stand of the 300 Spartans at
Thermopylae and the heroic stand of Horatius and his two companions at
Winston Churchill recorded that while he "stagnated in the lowest
form" at Harrow, he gained a prize open to the whole school by
reciting the whole twelve hundred lines of Macaulay's poem. A
biographical film about Churchill, Into the Storm (2009), begins with
the much older Churchill reciting from Horatius. Later in the film,
the same verses feature prominently in a nostalgic and morose address
Churchill delivers to his war cabinet. Churchill also recites a brief
section to himself in a scene in the biographical film Darkest Hour
In the 1983 action film
Blue Thunder the reference is made after a
television executive sees an incriminating video of, "(cops and feds)
stirring up the barrio to prove what (Blue Thunder) can do." Blue
Thunder's pilot, Frank Murphy, accused of being a rogue officer by the
media is likened to
Horatius Cocles by the television executive, "That
cop up there may be the hottest ticket since Horatius at the bridge,"
alluding to Frank Murphy's sacrifice of himself and the
ultra-assault/surveillance helicopter for the public's right to know
of government spying tactics on the people of Los Angeles.
Vulcanal, a statue in honor of
Horatius Cocles was said to have been
set up here.
^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romaike Archaiologia, v. 24, 25.
^ D.H. V.22.
^ a b c d T.L. II,10.
^ D.H. V.23.
^ D.H. V.24.
^ Pliny the Elder. "Book XXXIV.11". Natural History. It was for a very
different, and more important reason, that the statue of Horatius
Cocles was erected, he having singly prevented the enemy from passing
the important Sublician bridge.
^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.10
^ D.H. V.25
^ Polybius. "Book VI.55". History.
^ Tacitus. "Book III.72.". Histories.
^ Florus, Lucius Annaeus. "Book I.10.". Epitome of Roman
^ Cornell, I. S.; Moxon, T. J.; Woodman, Anthony John, eds. (1986).
The Formation of the Historical Tradition of Early Rome. Past
Perspectives: Studies in Greek and Roman Historical Writing.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 74.
^ Winston Churchill, My Early Life, chapter 2. Horatius is not quite
600 lines; perhaps Churchill was referring to another of the Lays as
well; if so probably The Armada.
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
From the Founding of the City/Book 2
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, V:1–39
Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.10
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Horatius Cocles.
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
Lendering, Jona. "Horatius Cocles". Livius Articles on Ancient
History. Retrieved 5 August