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.
Horatius was a member of the ancient patrician house of the Horatii, celebrated in legend since the combat between the Horatii and the Curiatii in the time of Tullus Hostilius, the third Roman king. He was a nephew of the consul, Marcus Horatius Pulvillus, and is said to have obtained his agnomen, Cocles, meaning "one-eyed",[i] because he lost an eye in the Battle of the Sublician Bridge. However, this may be a later elaboration, as the famous statue of Horatius, lame and one-eyed, which was still visible, though heavily weathered, in the time of Pliny the Elder, was probably intended as a depiction of the god Vulcan, and only became identified with Horatius when its original subject was no longer recognizable.
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, 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.
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 ...."
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 to Father Tiber: "Tiberinus, holy father, I pray thee to receive into thy propitious stream these arms and this thy warrior."
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 no longer 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.[ii]
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.
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...."
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.
The story of "Horatius at the Bridge" is retold in verse in the poem "Horatius" in Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Babington Macaulay, which enjoyed great popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The details of the poem often vary from the traditional tale by poetic license. 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 "twelve hundred lines" of "Horatius".[iii] A biographical film about Churchill, Into the Storm (2009), begins with the much older Churchill reciting from "Horatius": "And how can a man die better, than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods." Later in the film, the same verses feature prominently in a nostalgic and morose address Churchill delivers to his war cabinet. Churchill also recites from "Horatius" in a scene from the biographical film Darkest Hour, and these lines occur in numerous works of fiction.
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 three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae, and the three defenders at the Pons Sublicius.
Horatius 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 both the Spartans and the Roman defenders.
The story of Horatius 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 2013 film Oblivion, the protagonist reads "Horatius", and subsequently quotes the poem before confronting an overwhelming enemy.
Lendering, Jona. "Horatius Cocles". Livius Articles on Ancient History. Retrieved 2009.