Text #9620"Publius Horatius Cocles", in .
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.
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 assaulted the 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, facing 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 of crossing.
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.
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, although 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 previously pursued.
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.
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 battle.
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….”
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romaike Archaiologia, v. 24, 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.
Tacitus. “Book III.72.”. Histories.
Florus, Lucius Annaeus. “Book I.10.”. Epitome of Roman History.
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.