When I recall certain passages, it leaves me misty eyed and with a lump in my throat. It’s the story of how a brave Roman soldier, helped by two others, holds off the entire Tuscan army and saves the city of Rome. I’ve come across the same tale, recounted in prose. But none can approach Macaulay’s epic poem, crafted so that it rolls off the tongue with the beat of a drum, magically bringing to life the scene of battle: the ninety thousand strong Tuscan army in glittering armor; the strident trumpets ; the reactions of either side to savage encounters pitting the might and the pride of Tuscany against the skill and raw courage of the Roman three.
The Story of Horatius
Here is a tale of great courage and resourcefulness, which has come down to us from ancient times. How brave Horatius, with the help of two other men, holds off an entire army and saves the city of Rome.
Rome is being threatened by the Tuscan army, led by Lars Porsena of Clusium. The river Tiber, spanned by a wooden bridge, is all that stands between Rome and the conquering army. Defeat seems certain. The city fathers decide to tear down the bridge to stop the army from advancing, but there is little time.
Then Horatius steps forward and explains that the bridge is wide enough for only three people. If two more soldiers are prepared to risk their lives with him, the three of them might just be able to delay the invaders long enough for the bridge to be demolished. Two brave Roman soldiers volunteer, and the action begins.
What follows are a few chosen verses, by the great historian and poet Lord Macaulay, from his poem “Horatius”. They bring to life, the legend of how Horatius and his companions defend the bridge. Before each verse, or group of verses, is an explanation, in case the language is difficult to understand. But don’t read the explanation if you don’t need to. It is there only to help those who might otherwise fail to appreciate the rhythm, richness and beauty of Macaulay’s lines, as they magically conjure up the scene of battle, with its glittering armor, strident trumpets and, defying all odds, the sheer courage of the ‘dauntless three’.
The warlord, Lars Porsena, sends forth his messengers to bring together fighting men for a large army, and names a day on which they are all to meet.
Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more.
By the Nine Gods he swore it,
And named a trysting day,
And bade his messengers ride forth,
East and west and south and north,
To summon his array.
Every city sends soldiers, and Lars Porsena watches proudly, as eighty thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand horsemen assemble on the appointed day.
And now hath every city
Sent up her tale of men;
The foot are fourscore thousand,
The horse are thousands ten.
Before the gates of Sutrium
Is met the great array,
A proud man was Lars Porsena
Upon the trysting day.
On the banks of the river Tiber, people are in a state of panic as their turn comes, to face the conquering army. For two days and two nights, from the surrounding countryside, come huge crowds which include old people, sobbing mothers with their babies, and the sick and crippled. They all try to push their way into the city of Rome, to take shelter from the advancing army.
But by the yellow Tiber
Was tumult and affright:
From all the spacious Champaign
To Rome men took their flight.
A mile around the city,
The throng stopped up the ways;
A fearful sight it was to see
Through two long nights and days.
For aged folks on crutches,
And women great with child,
And mothers sobbing over babes
That clung to them and smiled,
And sick men borne in litters
High on the necks of slaves,
And troops of sunburned hubandmen
With reaping-hooks and staves
Without wasting time on thought or discussion, the Consul or head man of the city, decides that the bridge leading to Rome, must be pulled down if the city is to be saved. But pulling down the bridge is easier said than done, reflects the Consul gloomily. The front ranks of the enemy could well be upon them before the bridge goes down, and once the bridge was in enemy hands, it would be impossible to save Rome.
They held a council standing
Before the River-Gate;
Short time was there, ye well may guess,
For musing or debate.
Out spake the Consul roundly:
“The bridge must straight go down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
What hope to save the town?”
At that moment, Horatius, a soldier in charge of the gate leading to the bridge, speaks up. He declares that sooner or later, every man has to face death, and asks: can there be a better way to die, than to stand up against all odds, in order to preserve what is precious, and uphold the truth one believes in?
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
Horatius urges the Consul to pull down the bridge as quickly as possible. He says that he, with only two men to help him, can prevent the enemy from capturing it before it is demolished. Three men, he claims, could stand firm in the path of a thousand of the enemy (because the bridge is so narrow). So who, he asks, is willing to stand, one on either side of him, to defend the bridge until it is brought down?
“Hew down the bridge Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon straight path a thousand
May well be stopped by three,
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?”
The response is immediate. Spurius Lartius offers to stand on the right of Horatius, and Herminius on his left. The Consul agrees to the plan, and the three fearless men prepare to take on the might of the Tuscan army, which advances slowly and steadily towards them.
Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
A Ramnian proud was he:
“Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
And keep the bridge with thee.”
And out spake strong Herminius;
Of Titan blood was he:
“I will abide on thy left side,
And keep the bridge with thee.”
In the meantime, the splendid Tuscan army, glinting in the noonday sun, resembled a vast golden sea. And four hundred trumpets sounded in shrill delight, as the army, slowly and deliberately, strode toward the bridge, proudly displaying its national flag, and with spears held in attacking mode, as it bore down upon the fearless three.
Meanwhile the Tuscan army,
Right glorious to behold,
Came flashing back the noonday light,
Rank behind rank, like surges bright
Of a broad sea of gold.
Four hundred trumpets sounded
A peal of warlike glee,
As that great host, with measured tread,
And spears advanced, and ensigns spread,
Rolled slowly towards the bridge’s head,
Where stood the dauntless three.
The three stand calmly waiting, amidst scornful laughter from the enemy. Three horsemen gallop up to them, leap from their steeds, and draw their swords, to start dueling with Horatius and his companions.
The three stood calm and silent,
And looked upon the foes,
And a great shout of laughter
From all the vanguard rose:
And forth three chiefs came spurring
Before that deep array;
To earth they sprang, their swords they drew,
And lifted high their shields, and flew
To win the narrow way.
In the savage encounter that follows, three men lie dead. None among them is Horatius or his two companions, who live on to face more assaults. After two such bloody fights (not described here), the front ranks of the great Tuscan army, suddenly lose confidence. No more do they have anything to laugh at, and nobody dares to come close to the three bold Romans, defending the all-important bridge.
But now no sound of laughter
Was heard among the foes.
A wild and wrathful clamor
From all the vanguard rose.
Six spears’ lengths from the entrance
Halted that deep array,
And for a space no man came forth
To win the narrow way.
Then one among the Tuscans, the mighty Astur, steps forth, brandishing the huge sword that only he has the strength to wield.
But hark! The cry is Astur:
And lo! The ranks divide;
And the great lord of Luna
Comes with his stately stride.
Upon his ample shoulders
Clangs loud the four-fold shield,
And in his hand he shakes the brand
Which none but he can wield.
He smiles serenely at his Roman adversaries and then speaks contemptuously to his fellow men, and asks if they will follow him once he clears the way.
He smiled on those bold Romans
A smile serene and high;
He eyed the flinching Tuscans,
And scorn was in his eye
Quoth he “The she-wolf’s litter
Stand savagely at bay:
But will you dare to follow,
If Astur clears the way?”
Then Astur whirls his sword around his head with both hands and rushes at Horatius, aiming a tremendous blow.
Then whirling up his broadsword
With both hands to the height,
He rushed against Horatius,
And smote with all his might.
Horatius deflects the blow downwards but, despite his skill, cannot prevent it from badly injuring him in the thigh. The Tuscans shout with joy to see blood flowing freely from the injury.
With shield and blade Horatius
Right deftly turned the blow.
The blow, though turned, came yet too nigh;
It missed his helm, but gashed his thigh:
The Tuscans raised a joyful cry
To see the red blood flow.
The valiant Roman leans for a moment, on his companion Herminius, then springs like a wildcat at Astur, and finishes him off with a sword-thrust that pierces both skull and helmet. Thus, the mighty Astur falls with his arms spread wide, like a great oak tree brought down in a thunder storm. His collapse starts the Tuscan soothsayers muttering among themselves about what went wrong with their optimistic predictions, as they stare at the shattered head of their champion:
He reeled, and on Herminius
He leaned one breathing-space;
Then, like a wild cat mad with wounds,
Sprang right at Astur’s face.
Through teeth, and skull, and helmet
So fierce a thrust he sped,
The good sword stood a hand-breadth out
Behind the Tuscan’s head.
And the great lord of Luna
Fell at that deadly stroke,
As falls on Mount Alvernus
A thunder-smitten oak.
Far o’er the crashing forest
The giant arms he spread;
And the pale augurs, muttering low,
Gaze on the blasted head.
Now none among the Tuscans, is in the mood to fight. While those behind, pretend to be eager, those in front want to retreat, and the shrill notes of their trumpets, break up and die away uncertainly.
Was none who would be foremost
To lead such dire attack:
But those behind cried “Forward!”
And those before cried “Back!”
And backward now and forward
Wavers the deep array;
And on the tossing sea of steel,
To and fro the standards reel;
And the victorious trumpet-peal
Dies fitfully away.
All through the excitement of battle, Roman workers have been busy, loosening the structure of the bridge. Their efforts succeed and the bridge is brought to the point of collapse. The three warriors are told to hasten back, and two of them manage to do so in the nick of time, but Horatius is left stranded on the enemy’s side of the river. As the bridge crashes, a loud cheer goes up among the Romans.
And now the bridge hangs tottering
Above the boiling tide.
“Come back, come back Horatius !”
Loud cried the fathers all.
“Back Lartius ! Back Herminius !
Back ere the ruin fall !”
Back darted Spurius Lartius;
Herminius darted back:
And, as they passed, beneath their feet
They felt the timbers crack.
But when they turned their faces,
And on the farther shore
Saw brave Horatius stand alone,
They would have crossed once more.
But with a crash like thunder
Fell every loosen’d beam,
And, like a dam, the mighty wreck
Lay right athwart the stream:
And a long shout of triumph
Rose from the walls of Rome,
As to the highest turret-tops
Was splashed the yellow foam.
And like a horse unbroken
When first he feels the rein,
The furious river struggled hard,
And tossed his tawny mane,
And burst the curb, and bounded,
Rejoicing to be free,
And whirling down in fierce career,
Battlement, and plank, and pier,
Rushed headlong to the sea.
Alone, facing almost a hundred thousand Tuscan soldiers, and with a huge expanse of water behind, Horatius realizes that his life is still in peril. The Tuscan chief, Lars Porsena, and his companion, triumphantly order the brave Roman to surrender.
Alone stood brave Horatius,
But constant still in mind;
Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
And the broad flood behind.
“Down with him !” cried false Sextus,
With a smile on his pale face.
“Now yield thee,” cried Lars Porsena,
“Now yield thee to our grace.”
Horatius does not pay any attention to his would be captors. He turns instead, and looks longingly, at his home across the river Tiber. Praying to the river, worshipped by Romans of that time, he asks for it to take charge of his life and his weapons, and then hurls himself headlong into its swirling waters.
Round turned he, as not deigning
Those craven ranks to see;
Naught spake he to Lars Porsena,
To Sextus naught spake he;
But he saw on Palatinus
The white porch of his home;
And he spake to the noble river
That rolls by the towers of Rome.
'Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber!
To whom the Romans pray,
A Roman's life, a Roman's arms,
Take thou in charge this day!'
So he spake, and speaking sheathed
The good sword by his side,
And with his harness on his back,
Plunged headlong in the tide.
Friends and foes alike, are dumbstruck. Their eyes stay riveted to the spot where he sinks. When his head appears above the rushing waters, all of Rome shouts with joy. Remarkably, the humiliated Tuscan army too, cannot help joining in the cheers.
No sound of joy or sorrow
Was heard from either bank;
But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
With parted lips and straining eyes,
Stood gazing where he sank;
And when above the surges,
They saw his crest appear,
All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer.
Now the wounded Horatius, fights for his life in the fast flowing river. Bleeding profusely, and in pain, he struggles as he swims with the weight of his armor. As everyone watches breathlessly, he sinks again and again, but manages to come up each time.
But fiercely ran the current,
Swollen high by months of rain:
And fast his blood was flowing;
And he was sore in pain,
And heavy with his armor,
And spent with changing blows:
And oft they thought him sinking,
But still again he rose.
Never, I ween, did swimmer,
In such an evil case,
Struggle through such a raging flood
Safe to the landing place:
But his limbs were borne up bravely
By the brave heart within,
And our good father Tiber
Bare bravely up his chin.
False Sextus curses Horatius and wishes him drowned. For if it was not for his interference, the Tuscan army would already have invaded Rome and sacked the town. By contrast, his companion, Lars Porsena, prays for the life and safety of Horatius, for never before has he witnessed such a gallant feat of swordsmanship against tremendous odds.
'Curse on him!' quoth false Sextus;
'Will not the villain drown?
But for this stay, ere close of day
We should have sacked the town!'
'Heaven help him!' quoth Lars Porsena
'And bring him safe to shore;
For such a gallant feat of arms
Was never seen before.'
At last Horatius reaches safety, and is given a tremendous welcome by his people.
Thus through the years, with tears and with laughter, will the stirring tale be told, of how valiantly Horatius held the bridge, in those glorious days of old.
And now he feels the bottom;
Now on dry earth he stands;
Now round him throng the Fathers;
To press his gory hands;
And now, with shouts and clapping,
And noise of weeping loud,
He enters through the River-Gate
Borne by the joyous crowd.
They gave him of the corn-land,
That was of public right,
As much as two strong oxen
Could plough from morn till night;
And they made a molten image,
And set it up on high,
And there it stands unto this day
To witness if I lie.
It stands in the Comitium
Plain for all folk to see;
Horatius in his harness,
Halting upon one knee:
And underneath is written,
In letters all of gold,
How valiantly he kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.
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