Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

How Brave Horatius Kept the Bridge

The banished King Tarquin did not lightly yield his realm. He roused the neighboring cities against Rome and fought fiercely for his throne. Soon after he was exiled from Rome he sent messengers there for his goods. These the senate decreed should be given him. But his messengers had more secret work to do. They formed a plot with many of the young nobles to bring back the king, and among these traitors were Titus and Tiberius, the sons of Brutus.

A slave overheard the conspirators and betrayed them to the consuls, and they were seized and brought to the judgment-seat in the Forum. Here Brutus, sitting in judgment, beheld his two sons among the culprits. He loved them, but he loved justice more, and though he grieved deeply inwardly, his face was grave and stern as he gave judgment that the law must take its course. So the sons of this stern old Roman were scourged with rods before his eyes, and then, with the other conspirators, were beheaded by the lictors, while he looked steadily on, never turning his eyes from the dreadful sight. But men could see that his heart bled for his sons.

Soon afterwards Tarquin led an army of Etruscans against Rome, and the two consuls marched against them at the head of the Roman army. In the battle that followed Brutus met Aruns, the king's son, in advance of the lines of battle. Aruns, seeing Brutus dressed in royal robes and attended by the lictors of a king, was filled with anger, and levelled his spear and spurred his horse against him. Brutus met him in mid-career with levelled spear. Both were run through, and together fell dead upon the field.

The day ended with neither party victors. But during the night a woodland deity was heard speaking from a forest near by. "One man more has fallen of the Etruscans than of the Romans," it said; "the Romans are to conquer." This strange oracle ended the war. It was a reason, surely, for which war was never ended before or since. The Etruscans, affrighted, marched hastily home; while the Romans carried home their slain patriot, for whom their women mourned a whole year, in honor of his noble service in avenging Lucretia.

The banished king still craved his lost kingdom, and made other efforts to regain it. Having failed in his first attempt, he went to another city, named Clusium, in the distant part of Etruria, and here besought Lars Porsenna, the king of that city, to aid him recover his throne. Lars Porsenna, with a fellow-feeling for his dethroned brother king, raised a large army and marched with Tarquin and his fellow-exiles against defiant Rome.

The Romans now awaited him at home, and the two armies met on the hill called Janiculum, beyond the river from the city. Here came the crash of battle, but the men of Clusium proved the stronger, and after a sharp struggle the Romans gave way and were driven pell-mell down the hill and across the bridge which spanned the Tiber at this point. This was a wooden bridge on which the Romans set great store, as it was their only means of crossing the stream. But it now was likely to serve as a means of the loss of their city. Their flying army was pouring in panic across it, with the Etruscans in hot pursuit, seeking strenuously to win the bridge.

The bridge must be speedily destroyed or the city would be lost, but it seemed too late for this; unless the enemy could in some way be kept back till the bridge was cut down, Tarquin and his allies would be in the streets of Rome.

At this juncture a brave and stalwart son of Rome, Horatius Codes by name, stepped forward and offered his life in his city's defence. "Cut away with all haste," he said; "I will keep the bridge until it falls." Two others, Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius, sprang to his side, and the three, fully armed and stout of heart, ranged themselves across the narrow causeway, while behind them the axes of the Romans played ringingly upon the supports of the bridge.

On came the Etruscans in force. But the bridge was so narrow that only a few could advance at once, and these found in the way the sharp spears and keen-edged blades of the patriot three. Down went the leading Etruscans, and others pressed on, only to fall, till the defenders of the bridge had a bulwark of the slain in their front.

And now the bridge creaked and groaned as the axes kept up their lively play, the ring of steel finding its chorus in the cheering shouts of the Romans on the bank.

"Back! back!" cried the axemen. "It will be down in a minute more; back for your lives!"

"Back!" cried Horatius to his comrades, and they hastily retreated; but he stood unmoving, still boldly facing the foe.

"Fly! It is about to fall!" was the shout.

"Let it," cried Horatius, without yielding a step.

And there he stood alone, defying the whole army of the Etruscans. From a distance they showered their javelins on him, but be caught them on his shield and stood unhurt. Furious that they should be kept from their prey by a single man, they gathered to rush upon him and drive him from his post by main force; but just then the creaking beams gave way, and the half of the bridge behind him fell with a mighty crash into the stream below.



The Etruscans paused in their course at this crashing fall, and gazed, not without admiration, at the stalwart champion who had stayed an army in its victorious career. He was theirs now; he could not escape; his life should pay the penalty for their failure.

But Horatius had no such thought. He looked down on the stream, and prayed to the god of the river, "O Father Tiber, I pray thee to receive these arms and me who bear them, and to let thy waters befriend and save me."

Then, with a quick spring, he plunged, heavy with armor, into the swift flowing stream, and struck out boldly for the shore. The foemen rushed upon the bridge and poured their darts thick about him; yet none struck him, and he swam safely to the shore, where his waiting friends drew him in triumph from the stream.

For this grand deed of heroism the Romans set up a statue to Horatius in the comitium, and gave him in reward as much land as he could drive his plough round in the space of a whole day. Such deeds cannot be fitly told in halting prose, and Lord Macaulay, in his "Days of Ancient Rome," has most ably and picturesquely told

"How well Horatius kept the bridge

In the brave days of old."

But though Rome was saved from capture by assault, the war was not ended, and other deeds of Roman heroism were to be done. Porsenna pressed the siege of the city so closely that hunger became his ally, and the Romans suffered greatly. Then another patriot devoted his life to his city's good. This man, a young noble named Caius Mucius, went to the senate and offered to go to the Etruscan camp and slay Lars Porsenna in the midst of his men.

His proposal acceded to, he crossed the stream by stealth and slipped covertly into the camp, through which he made his way, seeking the king. At length he saw a man dressed in a scarlet robe and seated on a lofty seat, while many were about him, coming and going. "This must be King Porsenna," he said to himself, and he glided stealthily through the crowd until he came near by, when, drawing a concealed dagger from beneath his cloak, he sprang upon the man and stabbed him to the heart.

But the bold assassin had made a sad mistake. The man he had slain was not the king, but his scribe, the king's chief officer. Being instantly seized, he was brought before Porsenna, where the guards threatened him with sharp torments unless he would truly answer all their questions.

"Torments!" he said. "You shall see how little I care for them."

And he thrust his right hand into the fire that was burning on the altar, and held it there till it was completely consumed.

King Porsenna looked at him with an admiration that subdued all anger. Never had he seen a man of such fortitude.

"Go your way," he cried, "for you have harmed yourself more than me. You are a brave man, and I send you back to Rome free and unhurt."

"And you are a generous king," said Caius, "and shall learn more from me for your kindness than tortures could have wrung from my lips. Know, then, that three hundred noble youths of Rome have bound themselves by oath to take your life. I am but the first; the others will in turn lie in wait for you. I warn you to look well to yourself."

He was then set free, and went back to the city, where he was afterwards known as Scævola, the left-handed.

The warning of Caius moved King Porsenna to offer the Romans terms of peace, which they gladly accepted. They were forced to give up all the land they had conquered on the west bank of the Tiber, and to agree not to use iron except to cultivate the earth. They were also to give as hostages ten noble youths and as many maidens. These were sent; but one of the maidens, Cloelia by name, escaped from the Etruscan camp, and, bidding the other maidens to follow, fled to the river, into which they all plunged and swam safely across to Rome.

They were sent back by the Romans, whose way it was to keep their pledges; but King Porsenna, admiring the courage of Cloelia, set her free, and bade her choose such of the youths as she wished to go with her. She chose those of tenderest age, and the king set them free.

The Romans rewarded Caius by a gift of land, and had a statue made of Cloelia, which was set up in the highest part of the Sacred Way. And King Porsenna led his army home, with Tarquin still dethroned.