The seventh and final king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, had sent envoys to announce his abdication from the throne and make unacceptable demands on the city. From this arose the Tarquinian Conspiracy, and execution of those involved in that plot. But the former king hadn’t abandoned hope of returning to the throne: he had been welcomed by the Tuscans, and they marched on Rome with their army in an attempt to restore him. This led to slaughter, and the soldiers of both sides became disheartened by their heavy losses. After hearing a god pronounce that the Romans had lost one man fewer than the Tuscans, the Romans rallied and finally defeated and captured the remaining enemy.
After this, Publicola celebrated the triumph, and became the first consul to drive into the city of Rome on a four-horse chariot.
However, he was thought by many to be living as if he were a king. When he heard of this, he razed his house to the ground overnight, making himself homeless in the process. He was then provided with a more modest house than before. In a wave of reforms, he restored the senate, provided defendants with a means of appealing to the people from the judgement of the consuls, and lifted taxes from the citizens of Rome.
Meanwhile, Tarquin had become a supporter of Lars Porsena, the most powerful leader in Italy at the time. Porsena sent a message to Rome, telling it to restore Tarquin to his throne; the city inevitably refused, so Porsena declared war against it. When the Etruscan forces attacked Rome, Publicola went out to engage Porsena’s army in battle, but was wounded and carried back into the city. Porsena’s men then reached a wooden bridge which, had they taken it, would have let them into Rome.
This was Rome’s weak point, the Sublicius bridge over the River Tiber, which guarded the eastern edge of the city. The Romans were lined up ready for battle there, so the larger army of Etruscans drew up their line of battle ready to attack. By the time that the two Roman commanders had been carried away wounded, their forces were starting to crumble. They then panicked, and headed for the bridge, where the Etruscans quickly got the better of them. It looked as if Rome was about to be seized by its enemy after only brief and feeble resistance.
This is shown well in Coldeel’s animated GIF of the battle above.
According to the legend, three Romans turned imminent defeat into success: Spurius Lartius, Titus Herminius Aquilinus, and Publius Horatius Cocles. These three formed a human barrier on the bridge, allowing the retreating Romans to pass back into the city, but blocking any progress by the Etruscans.
Following sustained attacks, Lartius and Herminius were forced to abandon their positions on the bridge, leaving its defence to Horatius alone. He instructed his fellow Romans to demolish the bridge from the Roman bank, and so prevent the enemy from using it to enter the city. While they did that, he continued to hold attacks at bay.
Francesco Pesellino’s cassone panel showing Horatius Cocles Defending the Sublician Bridge from about 1450 is a magnificent and inventive depiction, which shows Horatius mounted on a horse. As there are at least two (possibly a third) figures of Horatius on his horse, this shows multiplex narrative.
This miniature by the Master of Boccace of Munich shows Horatius Cocles Defending Rome (1542). Unfortunately it places the site of demolition on the wrong side of Horatius, between him and the enemy, which would of course have changed the story completely.
Elia Castello’s brightly coloured stucco of Horatius Cocles Defending Rome (1602), in the New Residence in Salzburg, Austria, is one of the earliest depictions which appears consistent with the Roman accounts. Even with such a narrow bridge, though, it begs the question as to how a single man could ever have fended off an entire army for the time that it took to break the bridge.
It is Charles Le Brun’s wonderful Horatius Cocles Defending the Bridge (c 1642-43) which I think first captures the story faithfully and brings it to life.
Horatius is seen putting up his spirited fight on a stone pier on the side of the bridge opposite the city, as Romans are hastily removing a wooden bridge behind him. Above and behind Horatius, Minerva, goddess of battle, grasping her characteristic staff, holds a laurel wreath over Horatius’ head. In the foreground, the god of the River Tiber lounges on the bank, pouring water from his large flagon (which never becomes empty). It can only be a matter of minutes before the bridge is adequately broken, and Horatius jumps into the Tiber below.
Once the bridge behind him had been demolished, with several significant wounds and still wearing his armour, Horatius Cocles knew it was time to get out. He jumped into the River Tiber and swam to the Roman shore, where he was welcomed as a great hero, and rewarded with the land that he was able to plough around in a day, which became the estate of the Horatius family. The Etruscans still laid siege to Rome, but on this occasion, around 509 BCE, did not occupy and sack it.
This plate from Urbino in Italy also uses multiplex narrative to tell its story of Horatius Cocles Defending the Bridge. The hero is again mounted on horseback, and its multiple images of Horatius in the Tiber seem to recognise the problems of trying to wear armour when in the water.
I have been unable to trace the original painting or drawing made by Giulio Romano from which Diana Scultori made her engraving of Horatius Cocles in about 1590. She too uses multiplex narrative, showing Horatius both on the bridge and in the Tiber. Unfortunately she also positioned the breach in the bridge between the Roman and Etruscan forces, rather than between the Roman forces – or more specifically Horatius Cocles – and the Roman shore.
This pair of paintings by an unknown follower of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, above and below, used to be in Cleveland, OH, but were sold more recently. That above has been given the title of Horatius Cocles Defending Rome Against the Etruscans and below is The Wounded Horatius Cocles Swimming the Tiber. The Sublicius bridge is made to look quite flimsy and ad hoc, and when Horatius Cocles takes to the water in his armour, he floats even higher than if he had been wearing a lifejacket.
Ever since this legend was told in the histories of early Rome, Horatius Cocles has been used as an example of the virtues of self-sacrifice; in the words of Thomas Macaulay in his Lays of Ancient Rome:
How well Horatius kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.
Even the Romans who told the story of Horatius Cocles seem to have considered it more of a legend than accurate history. There are good arguments that it was a very successful attempt to hide the shockingly poor performance of the Roman army in a tale which held self-sacrifice ‘for the benefit of the state’ as a great moral virtue. It’s also a clever explanation for the family estates.
During the siege, Rome was struck by famine. Publicola, who was by then in his third term as consul, kept order in the city throughout.
One attempt was made to kill Lars Porsena, by a Roman named Mucius, who posed as a Tuscan/Etruscan and gained entrance to Porsena’s camp. When he had killed someone who he thought might be Porsena, Mucius was arrested and taken to the king, who had just had burning coals brought to him for a sacrifice. Mucius held his right hand over the flames, unflinching while his flesh burned. This so impressed Porsena that he released Mucius, who then warned the king that there were three hundred other Romans inside his camp waiting to kill him.
For his bravery, Mucius gained the name of Scaevola, meaning left-handed.
Rubens and Anthony van Dyck worked together to paint Mucius Scaevola Before Lars Porsena before 1628. The Roman is seen holding his right hand in the flames, with the body of the dead Tuscan at his feet. Porsena, sat on his throne, is considering how to respond.
Matthias Stom’s painting of Mucius Scaevola in the Presence of Lars Porsena from about 1642 is more dramatic with its skilful use of light, with a similar composition.
Publicola realised that Porsena would be more valuable as an ally, and invited him to arbitrate in the dispute over Tarquin. This forced the former king to refuse, which displeased Porsena, who promptly ended his war against Rome.
When Publicola became consul for a fourth term, war was looming again, this time between the Sabines and Romans. He cunningly won over one of the Sabine leaders, gave him land, and a seat in the senate. Some remaining Sabines launched an attack against Rome, but Publicola counter-attacked and put them to flight. The city had once again managed to avoid occupation and sacking.