Friday, 12 February 2010

Horatius at the Bridge 505bc

In 509bc Rome became a republic, a move that would have profound impact on the army and on Rome’s methods of waging war. The most immediate result of the overthrow of the seventh King of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was to plunge Rome into a war for which she was not prepared.

Tarquin had always been a high-handed monarch who paid little attention to either law or custom in Rome. He becalm king by marrying the daughter of King Servius Tullius, then murdering his father-in-law and seizing power with the aid of a gang of tough henchmen. Unlike earlier kings who had listened with respect to the debates in the Senate, a body composed of the senior men of the richest and noblest families in Rome, Tarquin rarely bothered turning up to meetings. When the results of votes or debates were reported to him, Tarquin ignored them and ran the government as he pleased.

Tarquin’s eventual downfall came when his son, Sextus, raped Lucretia, wife of a distinguished nobleman named Tarquinius Collatinus. Lucretia gathered together the men of her own family and that of her husband and made a speech calling for revenge on Sextus and on Tarquin. She then pulled out a dagger she had hidden in her dress, declared that she could not live with the dishonour done to her and stabbed herself in the heart. Unable to obtain justice through the king’s courts, Collatinus conspired with a fellow nobleman, Lucius Junius Brutus, to drive Tarquin into exile. Their chance came when Tarquin led a small force to scout a route to attack the nearby city of Ardea. As soon as Tarquin was outside the city, his henchmen were overpowered and the city gates shut against him.

Later Roman historians liked to portray this as a mass popular uprising against tyranny, but in fact Tarquin was not as unpopular as the later writers made out. Rome stood on the borders of the lands of the Latins and the Etruscans. Although the mass of Roman citizens were Latins, many of the richest men were, like Tarquin, Etruscans. After Tarquin’s fall, several Etruscan families fled Rome, depriving the army of a large proportion of its heavy infantry. Other Etruscans remained in Rome, but still supported the monarchy. One conspiracy of such men was serious enough to have been sealed by a solemn oath made over a human sacrifice. The plotters were betrayed by a slave appaled by the killing, and the incipient coup was crushed.

The exiled Tarquin and Sextus then turned to the Etruscan cities north of Rome and found King Lars Porsenna of Clusium a willing ally. The position of Rome was of great strategic importance as it controlled the best crossing of the Tiber, the boundary between the lands of the Latins to the south and the Etruscans to the north. The Kings of Rome had traditionally been friendly to the Etruscans, Tarquin himself being an Etruscan, but the new Republic seemed intent on forming alliances with the Latins. It would clearly be advantageous to the Etruscan cities if Rome was friendly to them, and Lars Porsenna would benefit personally from having a man on the throne of Rome who owed his position to the army of Clusium.

Gathering a large army of Etruscans from various cities, Porsenna marched on Rome. His army reached the city unnoticed by the Romans who were, as so often, lacking in scouts and good intelligence. Porsenna overran a partially completed fortress on the Janiculum Hill, on the north bank of the Tiber, and led his men in a charge towards the gates of Rome. Acting as guard on the wooden Sublician Bridge over the Tiber was Publius Horatius Cocles, equipped in the full panoply of a hoplite.

As the labourers from the Janiculum fled towards him, Horatius blocked the bridge with his spear and ordered them to cut away at the bridge supports while he “received the enemy as best as one man might”. While the workmen hacked at the timbers, Horatius held the narrow entrance to the bridge, cutting down each Etruscan that came against him. After several tense minutes the bridge collapsed. Horatius flung aside his armour and swam the Tiber to reach the Roman bank. Although the city of Rome was saved by Horatius, the Etruscan army was too strong to be defeated and swiftly occupied the surrounding lands. Rome agreed to a peace which recognised Etruscan dominance, but managed to retain her own status as a republic.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful summary of the background of the Poem! Were the two other soldiers on either side of Horatius a figment of Macauley's imagination? Did Horatius alone hold off L. Parsenna?