‘Horatius’ by Thomas Babington Macaulay, also known as ‘Horatius at the Bridge,’ is an 1842 poem from the poet’s collection Lays of Ancient Rome. The most famous poem from this book, ‘Horatius’ is best known as Winston Churchill’s favorite poem, which he had memorized in its entirety.
While this poem is not complex, it is a long narrative tale meant to be read aloud to friends and family. In many ways, it revives epic poetry but uses the English ballad form to do so, creating a new, distinctly English narrative of Roman history.
Horatius Thomas MacaulayILARS Porsena of Clusium By the Nine Gods he sworeThat 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.IIEast and west and south and north The messengers ride fast,And tower and town and cottage Have heard the trumpet’s blast.Shame on the false Etruscan Who lingers in his home,When Porsena of Clusium Is on the march for Rome.IIIThe horsemen and the footmen Are pouring in amainFrom many a stately market-place; From many a fruitful plain;From many a lonely hamlet, Which, hid by beech and pine,Like an eagle’s nest, hangs on the crest Of purple Apennine;IVFrom lordly Volaterræ, Where scowls the far-famed holdPiled by the hands of giants For godlike kings of old;From seagirt Populonia, Whose sentinels descrySardinia’s snowy mountain-tops Fringing the southern sky;VFrom the proud mart of Pisæ, Queen of the western waves,Where ride Massilia’s triremes Heavy with fair-haired slaves;From where sweet Clanis wanders Through corn and vines and flowers;From where Cortona lifts to heaven Her diadem of towers.VITall are the oaks whose acorns Drop in dark Auser’s rill;Fat are the stags that champ the boughs Of the Ciminian hill;Beyond all streams Clitumnus Is to the herdsman dear;Best of all pools the fowler loves The great Volsinian mere.VIIBut now no stroke of woodman Is heard by Auser’s rill;No hunter tracks the stag’s green path Up the Ciminian hill;Unwatched along Clitumnus Grazes the milk-white steer;Unharmed the water fowl may dip In the Volsinian mere.VIIIThe harvests of Arretium, This year, old men shall reap;This year, young boys in Umbro Shall plunge the struggling sheep;And in the vats of Luna, This year, the must shall foamRound the white feet of laughing girls Whose sires have marched to Rome.IXThere be thirty chosen prophets, The wisest of the land,Who always by Lars Porsena Both morn and evening stand:Evening and morn the Thirty Have turned the verse o’er,Traced from the right on linen white By mighty seers of yore.XAnd with one voice the Thirty Have their glad answer given:‘Go forth, go forth, Lars Porsena; Go forth, beloved of Heaven;Go, and return in glory To Clusium’s royal dome;And hang round Nurscia’s altars The golden shields of Rome.’XIAnd 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.XIIFor all the Etruscan armies Were ranged beneath his eye,And many a banished Roman, And many a stout ally;And with a mighty following To join the muster cameThe Tusculan Mamilius, Prince of the Latian name.XIIIBut 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.XIVFor 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 sun-burned husbandmen With reaping-hooks and staves,XVAnd droves of mules and asses Laden with skins of wine,And endless flocks of goats and sheep, And endless herds of kine,And endless trains of waggons That creaked beneath the weightOf corn-sacks and of household goods, Choked every roaring gate.XVINow, from the rock Tarpeian, Could the wan burghers spyThe line of blazing villages Red in the midnight sky.The Fathers of the City, They sat all night and day,For every hour some horseman came With tidings of dismay.XVIITo eastward and to westward Have spread the Tuscan bands;Nor house, nor fence, nor dovecote In Crustumerium stands.Verbenna down to Ostia Hath wasted all the plain;Astur hath stormed Janiculum, And the stout guards are slain.XVIIII wis, in all the Senate, There was no heart so bold,But sore it ached, and fast it beat, When that ill news was told.Forthwith up rose the Consul, Up rose the Fathers all;In haste they girded up their gowns, And hied them to the wall.XIXThey 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;For, since Janiculum is lost, Nought else can save the town.’XXJust then a scout came flying, All wild with haste and fear:‘To arms! to arms! Sir Consul: Lars Porsena is here.’On the lows hills to westward The Consul fixed his eye,And saw the swarthy storm of dust Rise fast along the sky.XXIAnd nearer fast and nearer Doth the red whirlwind come;And louder still and still more loud,From underneath that rolling cloud,Is heard the trumpet’s war-note proud, The trampling, and the hum.And plainly and more plainly Now through the gloom appears,Far to left and far to right,In broken gleams of dark-blue light,The long array of helmets bright, The long array of spears.XXIIAnd plainly and more plainly, Above that glimmering line,Now might ye see the banners Of twelve fair cities shine;But the banner of proud Clusium Was highest of them all,The terror of the Umbrian, The terror of the Gaul.XXIIIAnd plainly and more plainly Now might the burghers know,By port and vest, by horse and crest, Each warlike Lucumo.There Cilnius of Arretium On his fleet roan was seen;And Astur of the four-fold shield,Girt with the brand none else may wield,Tolumnius with the belt of gold,And dark Verbenna from the hold By reedy Thrasymene.XXIVFast by the royal standard, O’erlooking all the war,Lars Porsena of Clusium Sat in his ivory car.By the right wheel rode Mamilius, Prince of the Latian name;And by the left false Sextus, That wrought the deed of shame.XXVBut when the face of Sextus Was seen among the foes,A yell that rent the firmament From all the town arose.On the house-tops was no woman But spat towards him and hissed,No child but screamed out curses, And shook its little fist.XXVIBut the Consul’s brow was sad, And the Consul’s speech was low,And darkly looked he at the wall, And darkly at the foe.‘Their van will be upon us Before the bridge goes down;And if they once may win the bridge, What hope to save the town?’XXVIIThen 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,XXVIII‘And for the tender mother Who dandled him to rest,And for the wife who nurses His baby at her breast,And for the holy maidens Who feed the eternal flame,To save them from false Sextus That wrought the deed of shame?XXIX‘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 strait path a thousand May well be stopped by three.Now who will stand on either hand, And keep the bridge with me?’XXXThen 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 Titian blood was he:‘I will abide on thy left side, And keep the bridge with thee.’XXXI‘Horatius,’ quoth the Consul, ‘As thou sayest, so let it be.’And straight against that great array Forth went the dauntless Three.For Romans in Rome’s quarrel Spared neither land nor gold,Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life, In the brave days of old.XXXIIThen none was for a party; Then all were for the state;Then the great man helped the poor, And the poor man loved the great:Then lands were fairly portioned; Then spoils were fairly sold:The Romans were like brothers In the brave days of old.XXXIIINow Roman is to Roman More hateful than a foe,And the Tribunes beard the high, And the Fathers grind the low.As we wax hot in faction, In battle we wax cold:Wherefore men fight not as they fought In the brave days of old.XXXIVNow while the Three were tightening Their harnesses on their backs,The Consul was the foremost man To take in hand an axe:And Fathers mixed with Commons Seized hatchet, bar, and crow,And smote upon the planks above, And loosed the props below.XXXVMeanwhile the Tuscan army, Right glorious to behold,Come 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.XXXVIThe 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;XXXVIIAunus from green Tifernum, Lord of the Hill of Vines;And Seius, whose eight hundred slaves Sicken in Ilva’s mines;And Picus, long to Clusium Vassal in peace and war,Who led to fight his Umbrian powers From that grey crag where, girt with towers,The fortress of Nequinum lowers O’er the pale waves of Nar.XXXVIIIStout Lartius hurled down Aunus Into the stream beneath;Herminius struck at Seius, And clove him to the teeth;At Picus brave Horatius Darted one fiery thrust;And the proud Umbrian’s gilded arms Clashed in the bloody dust.XXXIXThen Ocnus of Falerii Rushed on the Roman Three;And Lausulus of Urgo, The rover of the sea;And Aruns of Volsinium, Who slew the great wild boar,The great wild boar that had his denAmidst the reeds of Cosa’s fen,And wasted fields, and slaughtered men, Along Albinia’s shore.XLHerminius smote down Aruns: Lartius laid Ocnus low:Right to the heart of Lausulus Horatius sent a blow.‘Lie there,’ he cried, ‘fell pirate! No more, aghast and pale,From Ostia’s walls the crowd shall markThe track of thy destroying bark.No more Campania’s hinds shall flyTo woods and caverns when they spy Thy thrice accursed sail.’XLIBut now no sound of laughter Was heard among the foes.A wild and wrathful clamour 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.XLIIBut 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.XLIIIHe 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 ye dare to follow, If Astur clears the way?’XLIVThen, whirling up his broadsword With both hands to the heightsHe rushed against Horatius, And smote with all his might,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.XLVHe 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.XLVIAnd 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’s arms lie spread;And the pale augurs, muttering low, Gaze on the blasted head.XLVIIOn Astur’s throat Horatius Right firmly pressed his heel,And thrice and four times tugged amain, Ere he wrenched out the steel.‘And see,’ he cried, ‘the welcome, Fair guests, that waits you here!What noble Lucumo comes next To taste our Roman cheer?’XLVIIIBut at his haughty challenge A sullen murmur ran,Mingled of wrath, and shame, and dread, Along that glittering van.There lacked not men of prowess, Nor men of lordly race;For all Etruria’s noblest Were round the fatal place.XLIXBut all Etruria’s noblest Felt their hearts sink to seeOn the earth the bloody corpses, In the path the dauntless Three:And, from the ghastly entrance Where those bold Romans stood,All shrank, like boys who unaware,Ranging the woods to start a hare,Come to the mouth of the dark lairWhere, growling low, a fierce old bear Lies amidst bones and blood.LWas 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.LIYet one man for one moment Strode out before the croud;Well known was he to all the Three, And they gave gim greeting loud.‘Now welcome, welcome, Sextus! Now welcome to thy home!Why dost thou stay, and turn away? Here lies the road to Rome.’LIIThrice looked he at the city; Thrice looked he at the dead;And thrice came on in fury, And thrice turned back in dread:And, white with fear and hatred, Scowled at the narrow wayWhere, wallowing in a pool of blood, The bravest Tuscans lay.LIIIBut meanwhile axe and lever Have manfully been plied;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!’LIVBack 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 shoreSaw brave Horatius stand alone, They would have crossed once more.LVBut with a crash like thunder Fell every loosened 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.LVIAnd, 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.LVIIAlone 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!’LVIIIRound turned he, as not deigning Those craven ranks to see;Nought spake he to Lars Porsena, To Sextus nought spake he;But he saw on Palatins The white porch of his home;And he spake to the noble river That rolls by the towers of Rome.LIX‘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.LXNo 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.LXIBut 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 armour, And spent with changing blows:And oft they thought him sinking, But still again he rose.LXIINever, 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.LXIII‘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.’LXIVAnd 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.LXVThey 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.LXVIIt 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.LXVIIAnd still his name sounds stirring Unto the men of Rome,As the trumpet-blast that cries to them To charge the Volscian home;And wives still pray to Juno For boys with hearts as boldAs his who kept the bridge so well In the brave days of old.LXVIIIAnd in the nights of winter, When the cold north winds blow,And the long howling of the wolves Is heard amidst the snow;When round the lonely cottage Roars loud the tempest’s din,And the good logs of Algidus Roar louder yet within;LXIXWhen the oldest cask is opened, And the largest lamp is lit;When the chestnuts glow in the embers, And the kid turns on the spit;When young and old in circle Around the firebrands close;When the girls are weaving baskets, And the lads are shaping bows;LXXWhen the goodman mends his armour, And trims his helmet’s plume;When the goodwife’s shuttle merrily Goes flashing through the loom;With weeping and with laughter Still is the story told,How well Horatius kept the bridge In the brave days of old.
In ‘Horatius,’ Macaulay tells the story of Horatius Cocles, one of the legendary early heroes of Rome, as he defends the Roman city from the deposed monarch and his Etruscan army.
‘Horatius’ begins as Lars Porsena, an Etruscan King, swears to the gods to avenge himself by launching an attack on Rome. This attack is the result of Rome’s recent rebellion, during which they deposed their king Tarquinius Superbus and installed a consular republic.
A catalog of the allied city-states in the Etruscan region ensues before Porsena launches his attack, razing every Latin city to the ground before he finally reaches Rome.
The Romans hear of the attack too late, and they are unprepared. The consuls and senate plan to deconstruct the Sublician bridge to cut off the army from the city, but they are too late. The army has arrived.
The consul devises a plan to send a man out on the bridge to hold off the approaching Etruscans as the rest of the Roman soldiers deconstruct the bridge behind him. Horatius Cocles volunteers for the task, and two other men, Spurius Lartius and Herminius, volunteer to stand by his side.
Though Horatius has a wound, the three men defend the bridge heroically until the Romans remove all of the nails from the structure.
Spurius Lartius and Herminius rush back to Rome, but as they do so, the bridge falls to pieces, leaving Horatius alone on the enemy’s side. Like a good Roman, Horatius prays to the gods before jumping into the river and triumphantly swimming to shore.
Cocles is honored with land and a statue dedicated to him. People from Rome to England still tell his story, emphasizing the impact of piety and heroism on people from all time periods and walks of life.
‘Horatius’ by Thomas Babington Macaulay is a ballad about Horatius Cocles, one of the legendary heroes of Rome. The tale of Horatius Cocles was retold many times, and it is likely that all Romans knew of him.
The poem takes place in 509 BCE, following the dethroning of Tarquinius Superbus, the final king of Rome. The Romans forced this king out of Rome in a great rebellion, and ever after, Romans questioned and despised all kings, favoring a republic.
After his expulsion and exile, Tarquinius Superbus went to Clusium, a powerful Etruscan settlement near Rome. There, he begged the king of Clusium, Lars Porsena, for help. Porsena agreed to help Superbus reclaim Rome and launched armies in the city.
The Roman people, who had just founded a consular republic, were not interested in being ruled by a king.
Porsena’s armies came from the Northeast, and to get into the Roman city, they had to cross the Tiber river, which, at the time, only had one bridge — the Pons Sublicium. The Romans chose to defend the city by destroying the bridge.
However, by the time the Romans were ready to destroy the bridge, Porsena’s armies were already at the Tiber, and there was no time to destroy the bridge. That’s precisely when Horatius Cocles stood up and volunteered himself as tribute.
Cocles walked to the center of the bridge, killing any of Porsena’s men who attempted to cross. Behind Cocles, the army took the bridge apart, leaving Cocles standing in the middle of the Tiber with no place left to go.
Cocles then jumped in the river and swam back to the city — a marvelous feat, considering the many pounds of armor and weapons that he had strapped to his body.
Form and Structure
‘Horatius’ by Thomas Babington Macaulay is a narrative ballad with seventy stanzas. Each stanza has nine lines.
Macaulay’s ballad is a part of the Romantic era movement away from some of the more stodgy and constraining meters of the previous years, such as sonnets. Using this ballad, Macaulay employs the more casual, folklore-like tone and rhythm of poetry to tell a story fit for people of all classes and education levels.
As an enthusiast of the Classics, however, Macaulay attempted to reconcile the English ballad meter with the almost lost Roman Saturnian meter.
The Saturnian meter was the meter of the Roman common people, but it fell out of fashion over time, as Romans saw it as an old folk style that had little merit by the Classical period.
Thus, by combining the ballad with Saturnian meter, Macaulay fully embraced the Romantic idea that narrative poetry had merit and was worthy of respect.
Additionally, this ballad is a mock epic poem, emulating the epics of ancient Greece and Rome.
Still, this revival of ballad and re-targeting of poetry from the upper classes to the general public could only have happened at a time when the people of the lower classes were revolting — which is why this poem is so celebrated.
Macaulay was part of the British efforts to “civilize” India, and he was an active politician. Additionally, Macaulay wrote this poem in the aftermath of the French revolution.
So, by choosing to speak of the bold Horatius Cocles, who fought against the arrogant king Lars Porsena, the poet reminds the listener that rebellion, revolt, and honor are nothing new. Thus, this poem can be seen as a nationalist tale that touches on contemporary politics in Macaulay’s time.
The most notable theme in ‘Horatius’ is honor. Horatius Cocles is a memorable figure because he was willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. In addition, he is generally an exemplary citizen of Rome. He honors the gods, wants to protect his fatherland, and cares about the welfare of his family.
These traits are what the Romans valued most, and they are still highly esteemed in the modern day.
Bravery and perseverance also feature heavily in ‘Horatius,’ illustrating the ideal for any Roman man.
Another dominant theme in this poem is history, as Macaulay seems to have a strong command of Roman history. He mentions names of Etruscan kings from the Aeneid, obscure geographical locations, and features of culture that one would only find in an ancient history book such as Pliny’s Natural History.
These features work to create a markedly Roman atmosphere and make the poem seem a bit more like a passage out of the Aeneid than a 19th-century ballad.
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.
‘Horatius’ opens with an exposition, explaining how Lars Porsena, king of the Etruscans sometime around the 6th century BCE, swore to regain power by beginning a war.
Porsena swears that the nine gods of the Etruscans, who were Juno, Minerva, Tinia, Vulcan, Mars, Saturn, Hercules, Summanus, and Vedius. These gods predated the twelve major Roman gods. However, throughout Roman history, any pact made with the gods was binding, and if one did not follow through on their oath, they were subject to the gods’ wrath.
Thus, there is no turning back for Porsena.
The king immediately decides on a day on which he will lead his armies to the city of Rome. Then, he sends out messengers to all of the neighboring settlements with a call to arms.
East and west and south and north
The messengers ride fast,
Round the white feet of laughing girls
Whose sires have marched to Rome.
Stanzas two through eight serve as a catalog, mimicking the way in which most epic poetry contains a catalog of cities or ships.
These catalogs often contain regional information about certain people and things within a region. Still, ultimately, they are often a part of nationalistic poetry, as they highlight the bravest people and the most unique things about specific territories within a nation.
Thus, as the messengers ride out in all directions, the speaker illustrates what is most important in Etruscan culture and displays the vast span of the Etruscan territories and their allies. In addition, the poet elevates the ballad, using its songlike qualities to mimic the structure of the better-respected genre of Epic poetry.
The twelve city-states mentioned in these stanzas make up the Etruscan League. This league was a group of allied states just north of Rome. In contrast, Rome was part of the Latin league.
There be thirty chosen prophets,
The wisest of the land,
And hang round Nurscia’s altars
The golden shields of Rome.’
In stanzas nine and ten of ‘Horatius,’ the speaker explains that Lars Porsena is surrounded by thirty priests at all times. These priests refer to their oracles and books of prophecy to determine whether Porsena should go to war.
The Etruscans were known to have written from right to left on papers made of linen. Thus, in stanza nine, the priests all refer to a book written by seers long ago. This form of divination, called bibliomancy, was a common practice among the Etruscan and Romans, and it was customary to refer to such prophetic texts before making state decisions, such as waging war.
Thus, in stanza ten, the priests come to a conclusion about what the prophecies indicate and tell Porsena “with one voice” that he should launch his attack on Rome and return home victorious. Note here, however, that the prophecy does not indicate that Porsena’s attack will work, just that he should fight against the Romans and keep fighting until he wins.
And now hath every city
Sent up her tale of men;
The Tusculan Mamilius,
Prince of the Latian name.
By stanza eleven, all of the armies from all of the Etruscan cities have gathered together. In addition, those people who have been banished from Rome join Lars Porsena’s army. Even Octavius Mamillius, King of Tusculum and son-in-law of Tarquinius Superbus came to join the armies.
In total, there are 80,000 men and 10,000 horses on Lars Porsena’s side. Numbering these horses and men gives the listener an idea of how huge Porsena’s forces were. When juxtaposed with Horatius Cocles, who single-handedly fended Rome from this massive army, Cocles’ feat becomes even more impressive.
But by the yellow Tiber
Was tumult and affright:
For every hour some horseman came
With tidings of dismay.
Stanzas thirteen through sixteen of ‘Horatius’ describe the Romans as they watch the armies of Lars Porsena approach. The Romans who are not suited to fight, such as the women, children, the sick, and the elderly, march along the Tiber river to escape before the battle.
In the speaker’s description of the people of Latium, the items they carried, and the animals that they drove along with them, the listener can see that they lived predominantly agrarian lives. They drive “endless flocks of goats and sheep, / And endless herds of kine,” along the road.
However, the male “wan burghers,” or pale city folk, watch the armies approach from the Tarpeian rock. This rock is a large cliff in the Roman forum where Tarpeia, a legendary Roman woman, once attempted to trick the invading Sabine armies, but was thrown off the rock as punishment for her betrayal.
In line 126, the poet intentionally capitalizes “The Fathers of the City,” elevating the roman nobles and Rome itself to almost a god-like status. This intentional stylistic choice stresses how formidable these men and the city are.
To eastward and to westward
Have spread the Tuscan bands;
And saw the swarthy storm of dust
Rise fast along the sky.
Stanza seventeen opens with the line “To eastward and to westward,” recalling the directions in which Lars Porsena sent out his messengers in the first stanza. All of the cities, from Verbenna to the port of Ostia, are up in flames. All of the dovecotes, or messenger pigeon shelters, in the Crustularium, just 15 km north of Rome, are up in flames.
Astur, one of the lords fighting under Lars Porsena, has even stormed the Janiculum hill, just on the other side of the river from the city center of Rome.
“I wis” (indeed), all of the Senators and the Consul in the senate house panic upon the news that the Janiculum hill has fallen, and they all lift their tunics and togas to go look over the city walls.
There, on the walls, the Consul, one of the two principal political officers in the Roman government, states that they must destroy the bridge that connects the Roman city with the Janiculum hill.
And nearer fast and nearer
Doth the red whirlwind come;
The long array of helmets bright,
The long array of spears.
Unlike all of the preceding stanzas, stanza twenty-one has twelve lines. Macaulay extends this stanza to create verbal imagery, emphasizing how huge Porsena’s army is.
Macaulay builds up suspense, here, as the speaker describes the “swarthy storm of dust” that hides the army from plain sight. As the fires blaze and dusty smoke rises into the air, the sound of men “trampling” and the “trumpet’s war-note” rise from the murky haze.
However, suddenly, the soldiers become visible “In broken gleams of dark-blue light.” The dark-blue color of light glimmering off of the soldiers’ iron helmets, armor, and swords contrast with the “red whirlwind,” creating the vivid image of a wall of spear-holding soldiers marching out from the burning Janiculum hill.
And plainly and more plainly,
Above that glimmering line,
And dark Verbenna from the hold
By reedy Thrasymene.
Stanza twenty-one further describes how the twelve allied city-states of the Etruscan league approached. The Romans watch from the city walls above, recognizing all twelve of these city-states’ armies by their comportment (appearance), their vestments (clothing), their horses, and the crests of their helmets.
Likewise, the Romans recognize a few of the Lucumos, or kings of the Etruscan people, including Astur, leader of the Caere, Tolumnius of Veii, and Verbenna from the area around Lake Trasimene.
In stanza twenty-two, Macaulay repeats the line “And plainly and more plainly,” which draws out the suspense as the Romans realize how huge the army is.
Fast by the royal standard,
O’erlooking all the war,
No child but screamed out curses,
And shook its little fist.
Stanzas twenty-three and twenty-four focus on the royalty of Clusium, as Lars Porsena sits in a chariot made of ivory between Mamillus and Sextus.
Sextus is “false” and “wrought the deed of shame,” a reference to the Rape of Lucretia, another legend. According to the tale, Sextus Tarquinius was the son of king Tarquinius Superbus.
He was by all accounts a troublemaker, but one day, he sexually assaulted one of the most beloved, virtuous matrons in all of Rome — Lucretia. This rape resulted in Lucretia committing suicide, and all of the people of Rome were furious with the king for not controlling his son.
The people rebelled, overthrowing Tarquinius Superbus and forcing him out of the city, which is where this poem began.
Thus, as people see Sextus arise from the cloud of smoke, they let out “a yell that rent the firmament,” or shake the entire city. All the women, peering over the wall from their house-tops, spit and hiss at him, and children curse him.
But the Consul’s brow was sad,
And the Consul’s speech was low,
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,
‘And for the tender mother
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?’
While the people of Rome hiss and boo at Sextus, the Consul sorrowfully looks down in thought. He asks the senators and statesmen around him who will go to defend the bridge, as the army is already too close to the city to take down the bridge before they get there.
Horatius Cocles, the captain of the gate, steps up to the task with no hesitation. He explains that there is no better way to die than in defending his forefathers, the temples of the gods, his family, and the Vestal Virgins — the priestesses charged with keeping the eternal flame of Rome alight.
Cocles’ speech in stanza 27 is incredibly famous. The phrase “And how can man die better / Than facing fearful odds” is a kind of chivalric code, meaning that honor and bravery in the face of death is admirable. It also implies that death for the greater good is the highest form of honor.
Cocles also states that he is defending Rome from “false Sextus / That wrought the deed of shame,” indicating that he, like the rest of the Romans, is still upset about the Rape of Lucretia.
The hero then says that he will need two more men to help him, explaining that if the three of them stand side by side, they will fit snugly on the bridge, forming a barrier to block the enemy.
The fact that Cocles needs two more men makes them a foil for Lars Porsena, Mamillius, and Sextus. While Cocles will stand in the center of the bridge, the two men by his side will be like Mamillus and Sextus. However, Cocles’ companions will be, like Cocles, honorable and brave, while Porsena and his comrades are cowardly and corrupt.
Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
A Ramnian proud was he:
Wherefore men fight not as they fought
In the brave days of old.
In stanzas thirty through thirty-four of ‘Horatius,’ Spurious Lartius and Herminius volunteer to stand by Horatius Cocles’ side on the Sublician Bridge. The speaker describes the three men, walking together towards the bridge, as “dauntless,” beginning an excursus into the glory of Rome.
The speaker seems fixated on glorifying the past, speaking on ‘the good old days,’ a theme commonly known in ancient Rome as the mos maiorum, or the custom of those who came before.
This theme is particularly prevalent in tales on the foundation of Rome, especially when there was a political disturbance in the Roman Republic. By admiring and longingly looking back at the simpler, more honorable lives of the Romans from the foundation myths, many Romans fought against kingship and imperialism, favoring their ancestors who, according to legend, fought for honor over power.
This concept is critical to understanding Macaulay’s motivations for writing ‘Horatius.’ As a politician and participant in the Great British Empire, he was an agent of political change. However, he was also a Whig politician and the English Secretary at War, who favored the parliamentary political model.
Thus, like Horatius Cocles, Macaulay believed in honor and a more republican political model. As such, one can see this poem as a reflection of English politics during the poet’s life.
Now while the Three were tightening
Their harnesses on their backs,
The Tuscans raised a joyful cry
To see the red blood flow.
In stanzas 33 through 34, Herminius, Spurius Lartius, and Horatius defend the bridge, slaying all of the mighty Etruscan chiefs that come their way. However, after slaying so many of them, the rest of the army realizes that these three men are powerful and skilled, and they all stop laughing and running up to them.
However, Astur, chief of the Caere, boldly attacks Horatius Cocles in a long, climactic stanza, wounding the Roman hero in the thigh.
All of the Etruscans cheer, rejoicing that Horatius is finally wounded.
He reeled, and on Herminius
He leaned one breathing-space;
And the victorious trumpet-peal
Dies fitfully away.
Despite his fresh wound, Horatius does not cower in fear or faint in pain. Instead, he thrusts his sword straight into Astur’s face, the speaker using a simile to describe his attack, which was like a “wild cat mad with wounds.”
Astur’s death frightens the Etruscan armies as they hesitantly charge forward but immediately retreat once they reach the bridge and see Horatius standing in its center. The speaker uses a metaphor here to describe how the armies moved, comparing them to a “tossing sea of steel.”
No longer do the war horns resound, nor does anyone come to approach Horatius, for he is far too terrifying.
Yet one man for one moment
Strode out before the croud;
‘Back, Lartius! back, Herminius!
Back, ere the ruin fall!’
Finally, Seatus, the former prince of Rome, advances towards the bridge. Despite Horatius’ provocations, Sextus advances towards the Roman heroes, then retreats again three times until finally, he walks away in fear.
As Sextus wavers in his bravery, the Romans back on the river bank called to the heroes, indicating that they are ready to topple the bridge.
Back darted Spurius Lartius;
Herminius darted back:
And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer.
Spurious Lartius and Herminius immediately start running back to the river bank, but the bridge is weak, and as they run with all their might, the bridge begins to fall apart. The “boiling” river waters gush forth. The speaker uses metaphor to compare the ferocity of the muddy river water to a lion who “tossed his tawny mane” as the waters splash so fiercely that they dampen the “highest turret-tops” in the city.
Meanwhile, Horatius Cocles is still on the only section of the bridge left standing — the section right in front of the Etruscans. Lars Porsena and Sextus tell Horatius to surrender, but Horatius turns away back toward Rome.
He sees his home from the bridge, then, in an act of honorable piety, prays to Tiberinus, the god of the Tiber River, to take charge and send him home.
Despite his heavy armor and wounded thigh, he next jumps straight into the river as the Romans watch in suspense and awe. He sinks for just a moment, then the “crest” of his helmet pops forth from the river surface, and the Romans cheer in glee.
But fiercely ran the current,
Swollen high by months of rain:
He enters through the River-Gate,
Borne by the joyous crowd.
Many forces are at work against Horatius Cocles. The river is rushing fiercely, his thigh wound is deep and bleeding, his armor is incredibly heavy, and he is tired from fighting. However, despite all of this, Cocles still stays afloat.
On the other side of the river, Sextus curses Cocles, but Lars Porsena does something radical. Porsena, seeing how strong and honorable Horatius is, prays to his nine gods that the soldier makes it back to Rome. Here, while Sextus is motivated by foolish rage, Porsena is wise enough to recognize a hero when he sees one.
Finally, Horatius finds ground beneath his feet, and the Romans help pull him ashore, then lift him up in admiration. All cheer for Horatius as the soldiers and senators carry him back into the city.
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.
When the goodman mends his armor,
And trims his helmet’s plume;
When the goodwife’s shuttle merrily
Goes flashing through the loom;
With weeping and with laughter
Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.
Stanzas 65-70 of ‘Horatius’ are a sort of epilogue. After Horatius’ feat, the city-state gives him a farm and two plow oxen, the customary payment to soldiers who served their sentence in the army. To honor him, the Romans erected a statue of him and placed it in the Comitia, the place where the people of Rome gathered to vote.
The speaker next explains that Horatius Cocles lives on as soldiers tell his tale and mothers pray to Juno, the goddess of the family unit, to receive a son as honorable as Horatius.
However, the speaker also makes it clear that this myth has never died out. He describes how, on cold winter nights, people still break open a bottle of wine and sit around, doing various tasks such as mending armor and weaving, all while telling the tale of the brave hero Horatius Cocles.
Thus, Macaulay emphasizes that a hero’s name will live on throughout all time as long as people still tell their story.
Famously, Horatius says “‘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.” This quote inspires many people, as it emphasizes how honorable it is to die while fighting for what one believes in.
The English poet and Whig politician Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote ‘Horatius at the Bridge.’ This poem was part of his book, “Lays of Ancient Rome,” a collection of ballads inspired by Roman legends, history, and mythology. It was an immensely successful publication and has been beloved since it was released in 1842.
‘Horatius at the Bridge’ is based on a real story from Ancient Rome, but many people doubt that the events in real life were as dramatic as they are in the story. The story of Horatius Cocles was part of the foundation myths of Rome, which all center around the foundation of the Roman city and the Roman republic.
The meaning of ‘Horatius at the Bridge’ is that one should fight honorably for what they believe in. Horatius Cocles is famous for his reverence for the gods, love for his fellow countrymen, and bravery. He was willing to sacrifice his life for his country, but due to this bravery, Cocles survives the fight and is still alive in his story today.
Ballads are some of the lightest, most enjoyable poems since they tell a story and rarely require the listener to look for obscure details and symbolic meanings. Instead, they are meant to be enjoyed with friends and family as easy-going folktales to read around the fire.
If you enjoyed this lighthearted ballad, then you may also like:
- ‘Michael’ by William Wordsworth – a Romantic ballad about a poor farmer’s struggle to stay morally strong in trying times
- ‘Lochinvar‘ by Sir Walter Scott – a Romantic literary ballad about a brave and noble Scottish knight who saved the woman he loves from marrying another man
- ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes – a romantic, gothic ballad about the legendary highwayman who is always on the run from the redcoats.