Publius Horatius Cocles was an officer in the army of the early Roman Republic who famously defended the Pons Sublicius from the invading army of Etruscan King Lars Porsena of Clusium in the late 6th century BC, during the war between Rome and Clusium. By defending the narrow end of the bridge, he—along with two others—was able to hold off the attacking army long enough to allow other Romans to destroy the bridge behind him, blocking the Etruscans' advance and saving the city.
In 509 BC, King Lars Porsena was at the head of an army that marched on Rome. Concentrating his forces on the Etruscan (west) side of the Tiber, Porsena assaulted Janiculum hill and seized it and all its materiel from the terrified Roman guard. Porsena left an Etruscan garrison to hold it, then proceeded towards the Pons Sublicius bridge, the only regional bridge across the Tiber. The Romans awaited in the Naevian Meadow between Porsena and the bridge. The Tarquins commanded the Etruscan left wing facing the Roman troops of Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius. Octavius Mamilius commanded the Etruscan right right wing consisting of rebel Latins; they faced Romans under Marcus Valerius Volusus and Titus Lucretius Tricipitinus. Porsena commanded the center, facing the two Roman consuls. Porsena had the Romans outnumbered and intended to intimidate them into retreat.
Battle ensued. The Etruscan right wing was successful in wounding Valerius and Lucretius, the commanders of the Roman left wing. After both were carried off the field, the Romans began to panic and ran for the bridge. The enemy pursued.
Horatius at the bridge
Three Romans now defended the Pons Sublicius; the right wing's commanders Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius Aquilinus, plus Publius Horatius Cocles, a junior officer "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 ...."
Publius Horatius Cocles was a patrician aristocrat, nephew to Consul Marcus Horatius Pulvillus, and also claimed descent from one of the Horatii who'd fought the Curiatii of Alba Longa. His agnomen "Cocles" arose from the fact he'd previously lost an eye.
The three defenders withstood sword and missile attacks until the Roman troops had all crossed.
Livy's briefer and more skeptical account tells of no battle, only that Horatius' "own men, a panic-struck mob, were deserting their posts and throwing away their arms"; however, Horatius' courage manages to shame the two veteran commanders, Herminius and Lartius, to assist him momentarily with his defense of the bridge.
Dionysius' account explains, "Herminius and Lartius, their defensive arms being now rendered useless by the continual blows they received, began to retreat gradually." They order Horatius to retreat with them, but he stood his ground. Understanding the threat to Rome if the enemy were to cross the river, he ordered his men to destroy the bridge. The enemy was shocked not only by Horatius' suicidal last stand, but also by his decision to use a pile of bodies as a shield wall. Horatius was struck by enemy missiles many times including a spear in the buttocks. Hearing word from his men they'd torn up the bridge, he "leaped fully armed into the river and swimming across ... he emerged upon the shore without having lost any of his weapons."
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 was awarded a crown for his valor (akin to a modern military decoration) and conducted into the city by a singing crowd joined by a grateful city. Horatius was now disabled and so could not longer law serve in the army or hold public office, but he was provided "as much of the public land as he himself could plow around in one day with a yoke of oxen," and each citizen of Rome was obligated to gave him one day's ration of food. He would also be honored with a bronze statue in the comitium;
Polybius' account uses Horatius as an example of the men who have "devoted themselves to inevitable death...to save the lives of other citizens....[H]e threw himself into the river with his armor, and there lost his life as he had designed."
Horatius' defense stymied Lars Porsena's direct assault on the city walls, forcing him into a siege. The siege would conclude with a peace treaty, leaving Rome intact.
Skeptical points of view
The story of Horatius at the Bridge appears in many ancient sources, including Plutarch, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Livy. Florus  tacitly acknowledges the extraordinary nature of the story, "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." Tacitus notes in passing that "when [Rome] was surrendered, [Lars Porsena] did not violate the seat of Jupiter" (Rome's most important temple). This could be understood to mean that Rome surrendered during or after this battle.
Livy viewed the story as legendary, dubious of Horatius' fully armed swim, noting "though many missiles fell over him he swam across in safety to his friends, an act of daring more famous than credible with posterity."
T.J. Cornell deems these various accounts invented by "unscrupulous annalists" as "face-saving victories in the immediate aftermath of these defeats" insisting "The annalists of the first century BC are thus seen principally as entertainers...."
Later uses of the theme
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The story of the redoubtable Horatius at the Bridge began to be depicted in art during the Renaissance, but was never an especially popular theme. It tended to be shown by artists who favored recondite classical stories, and appear in the minor arts, such as plaquettes and maiolica.
Horatius at the Bridge is retold in verse in the poem Horatius from the Lays of Ancient Rome by Lord Macaulay, which enjoyed great popularity in the late nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. 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 gods." Winston Churchill wrote that while he "stagnated in the lowest form" at Harrow, he gained a prize open to the whole school by reciting the whole 1,200 lines of Macaulay's Horatius. 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 (2017).
"A Nation Once Again" was a popular Irish rebel song, written in the early to mid-1840s by Thomas Osborne Davis (1814–1845) in furtherance of Irish nationalism. First published in The Nation on 13 July 1844 (two years after Macaulay's Horatius), the first verse refers to the heroism of "ancient freemen, For Greece and Rome who bravely stood, three hundred men and three men", references the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae and the three defenders at the Pons Sublicius.
Horatius at the Bridge figures prominently in Jessie Pope's 1915 poem The Longest Odds about the exploits of a highlander who single-handedly clears an entire German trench before being killed. His actions are likewise compared to the Spartans and the Roman defenders.
Horatius at the Bridge is echoed in a poem by Sven Dufva The Tales of Ensign Stål recounting 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.
In the 1983 action film Blue Thunder the titular aircraft's pilot Frank Murphy is accused of being a rogue officer by the media, but likened to Horatius Cocles by a television executive; "That cop up there may be the hottest ticket since Horatius at the Bridge."
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romaike Archaiologia, v. 24, 25.
- D.H. V.22.
- T.L. II,10.
- D.H. V.23.
- D.H. V.24.
- D.H. V.25
- 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
- Polybius. "Book VI.55". History.
- Florus, Lucius Annaeus. "Book I.10.". Epitome of Roman History.
- Tacitus. "Book III.72.". Histories.
- 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.
- Thomas Babington Macaulay, "Horatius at the Bridge" (N.S. Gill, ed.); accessed 2019.04.09.
- 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.
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|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Horatius Cocles.|
- Lendering, Jona. "Horatius Cocles". Livius Articles on Ancient History. Retrieved 5 August 2009.