Ancient Roman Legend: Horatius at the Bridge Illustration

at the Bridge

Tarquin the Proud was the last king in ancient Rome. He was not a good king. He was a tyrant and the people hated him. There is not a set tale of how the Romans actually got rid of him, but there is an important story that tells about their war with him. That story is "Horatius at the Bridge".

Whether the story is true or not, it is important because it enhanced the reputation of Rome and the Roman Legions. It told other people that Rome was loved and protected by the gods.

As the story goes ...

A very long time ago the city of Rome was ruled by kings. Sometimes these kings were Roman, sometimes these kings were Etruscan. At the time of this legend, the Romans were ruled by an Etruscan king called Tarquin the Proud. Tarquin was a terrible king. He was cruel and unjust. The Roman people revolted against Tarquin and defeated him. They then exiled him back to the Etruscan league. Tarquin went to the Etruscan league and asked for help. Seeing how rich Rome was, the Etruscans decided to help so that they could get hold of the Roman riches. They sent their army with Tarquin to conquer Rome.

Rome was surprised that the Etruscans had decided to help Tarquin. They hadn't gotten their army back together yet. The farmers and villagers living outside of Rome saw the advancing army and fled into the city of Rome for protection. One of Rome's best natural defenses was the Tiber River. If the Romans could get their people across the bridges over the Tiber, then knock down the bridges, they would be safe from Tarquin.

The Roman commanding general had forgotten about the bridges while he was getting his army ready to fight the Etruscans. On their own, Romans knocked down most of the bridges over the Tiber. But one bridge still stood. Tarquin saw the bridge and sent his army rushing towards it. Guarding the bridge were several Roman soldiers. They were too few to stop the Etruscan army, yet all knew if they didn't stop the Etruscans and knock down the bridge, the city of Rome was doomed.

This story tells what happened over 2,500 years ago, the story of Horatius.

The Story of Horatius

A long time ago, around 510 BCE, the ancient Romans said, “Enough. We’ve had it with you, King Tarquin the Proud, the Mean, the Nasty and the Unfair. Go away. Leave our city.” They threw him out.

Tarquin the Proud didn’t like that much. He went to the Etruscans and said, “I need some help. Rome threw me out. They must pay.” The Etruscans said, “Sure, we’ll give you some help. We’ll give you an army.” Back Tarquin came.

Rome was taken by surprise. The people who lived in the surrounding countryside fled towards Rome as fast as they could. They poured across the narrow wooden bridge over the Tiber that connected Rome with its farm fields on the other side, seeking refuge in the walled city of Rome. The Etruscan army was on their heels.

Inside the city, the Romans were in such a panic and so disorganized that, once their people were safely inside, they forgot to destroy the bridge, or perhaps it never occurred to them to do so. Led by Tarquin the Proud, who knew his way around Rome pretty well, the Etruscan army headed for narrowest piece of the Tiber, where of course the Romans had built their bridge. Imagine their delight when they discovered that the Romans had left the bridge for them to cross. They would not have to swim the Tiber to reach Rome.

It was disaster. If the Etruscans crossed the bridge, they would take Rome. Horatius, a young Roman soldier, called to his friends, “Come on! We’ll hold the bridge while the others chop it down.” His friends froze. They were terrified at the thought of facing an entire army. “Then at least chop the bridge down while I hold them off alone,” Horatius pleaded.

He stood on the bridge and faced the Etruscan army alone. “Who among you is brave enough to face a Roman soldier,” he shouted. The Etruscans threw spears at him. But they were some distance away, and the bridge itself gave Horatius protection. Horatius stood firm, fighting like a hero. When the Etruscans tried to cross the narrow bridge, Horatius cut them down. Two of his friends rushed out to help him. Behind them, other young soldiers were frantically sawing at the heavy cords that held the bridge.

Horatius felt the bridge give way. “Go back,” he shouted at his friends. His friends raced for the protection of the walled city. It was hopeless, they thought. One man cannot stop an entire army. Only the gods could save them now. But Horatius was right. The bridge was giving way. As the bridge began to fall, Horatius turned and dived into the Tiber. The gods were with him. He swam back to Rome safely, and received a hero’s welcome.

The Etruscan army fell back. How could one man face an army and live? It was an omen. They did not wish to anger the gods. It was true what they said about Rome. It was a divine city. Tarquin the Proud screamed and shouted and carried on something awful. But nothing he said could convince the Etruscan army to swim the Tiber and fight Rome. The Etruscan army went home. And they never came back again.

The Roman people vowed NEVER TO BE RULED BY A KING AGAIN. Nor were they. Rome went on to establish, for the first time in history, a government by the people and for the people of Rome, the Roman Republic.

The Roman Republic