By Sunny Schneider
Rain poured down on the city of Rome. It ran off roofs and into drains. It pelted armored men, soaking their sandals. Worst of all, the rain churned the Tiber river. Water was beginning to overflow out of the Tiber and onto the land. Men standing on bridges were ankle deep in water.
On the far side of the river, the side opposite Rome, an army of Etruscans marched towards the flooding bridges. It was hard to guess at their numbers through the rain, but the Plebeians who had fled to Rome claimed there were thousands. They marched on the command of the exiled king, Tarquin the Proud. The people of Rome had cast Tarquin out not long ago and now the cruel king was back to reclaim his throne.
Captain Horatius Cocles of Rome stood, watching the army’s progress, in the relentless rain. He had faced many battles before, he had lost an eye in one battle, and he knew that Rome’s only chance of survival was to let the flooded Tiber protect them. Horatius had ordered all the bridge crossings to be chopped down, and they had been. All of them except one.
“The Pons Sublicius!” cried a messenger. “The Pons Sublicius, it stands abandoned!”
Horatius cursed and ran for the bridge. It was a small, wooden structure built over the narrowest part of the river. It was no wonder it had been forgotten. Horatius sloshed up to the bridge, almost losing a sandal to the thick mud along the side of the growing river. To his dismay, he saw that the bridge was, indeed, abandoned. Or at least close to abandoned. The men who had stood guard on the bridge were running away in a panic, for bearing down on the last standing bridge were the Etruscans.
Horatius drew his sword and grabbed a fleeing man by the shoulder. “We must defend the bridge,” he shouted. “Everyone! To the bridge!” To his dismay, the men continued to flee. Horatius grabbed another man, “We must keep the Etruscans at bay! Help me defend the bridge while others chop it down.” The man shook free of Horatius’s grasp and fled into the city. Horatius pled with the fleeing men, asking them each in turn to help him defend the city, but they all ran. When the Etruscan army was so close Horatius could hear the clinking of their armor across the water, he gave up and shouted to all who could hear, “I will defend the bridge!” He picked an axe up off the ground and tossed it to a cowering man. “If you will not defend the bridge,” he growled, “then chop it down. They cannot cross into our city if there is no bridge to cross.” And with that he turned and marched onto the bridge, sword and shield held high.
The water of the Tiber had risen above the level of the bridge, and it almost reached Horatius’s knees. It was lucky, he thought, that the bridge was so narrow. As it was, only two men would be able to attack him at a time.
The Etruscans laughed at Horatius. How could one man stand against so many, they thought. They threw spears at Horatius, but they were a bit too far away, and his shield was a bit too quick for any damage to be done. So, with battle cries, they charged onto the bridge. Horatius stood firm and met them with the blessed courage of Mars. Every blow he struck was a killing blow; he could not afford anything else. He dealt out death as he would a deck of cards and soon the Etruscans were fighting on top of their comrades’ bodies; the Tiber carried away some of the dead and left others.
A spear embedded itself into Horatius’s leg and an eager sword descended on him when he stumbled. He was saved by a friendlier sword that snaked out from behind him and parried the blow.
Two men, Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius, had joined Horatius in the defense of the bridge. They had been assigned to watch the Pons Sublicius that day, and they had run when the Etruscans came. Now, to regain their honor, they fought beside Horatius. And they fought well; they struck like vipers from behind him and saved Horatius from many an injury.
The bridge began to shake. Horatius glanced behind him, blinking rain water out of his eyes, and saw Patricians and Plebeians alike chopping at the bridge with axes and swords. He pushed an Etruscan into the water and shouted to Herminius and Lartius, “Run! The bridge will fall soon!” They ran without hesitation. They did not want to be swept into the fury of the flooded Tiber.
Once again, Horatius stood alone. He had a dagger in his shoulder and a spear in his leg; the wounds had not been able to close because the Tiber had been steadily carrying away all his blood, but he still stood strong. The Etruscans fought with greater ferocity than before, and more of them packed onto the bridge, pressing forward. Horatius clumsily sloshed backwards. Then, with one last chop from the axe of a young Plebeian boy, the bridge fell. Most of the bridge sank into the water, pulling soldiers down with it, but smaller pieces were ripped away and whipped around like misshapen spears. “Tiber protect me,” Horatius prayed, as the bridge disappeared from beneath his feet and he was pulled into the Tiber.
The Tiber churned and battered Horatius. He had dropped his sword and shield. Every kick towards the surface seemed to push him farther under the water. He could no longer tell up from down. All he could see was water: water, struggling bodies and pieces of the bridge.
A strong hand gripped Horatius’s arm and pulled him out of the water, onto the banks of the river. Herminius pushed Horatius onto his side. “Are you all right?” he asked. Horatius retched, bloody water coming out of his mouth and nose. He tried to push himself upright, but his hands just sank into mud. He watched the Etruscans, desperately trying to fish their comrades out of the river. They had been carried down river far away from where the Pons Sublicius had fallen. Horatius briefly wondered how Herminius had gotten far enough down river to pull him out as quickly as he did. Herminius examined the wounds on Horatius’s shoulder and leg. “Someone,” he called, “find a medic! He’s injured!”
Horatius closed his eye and took a deep breath, trying to ignore the murmuring crowd questioning if he would live. He had bought Rome a day of respite. Right then, that was all that mattered. And so Horatius passed into legend.
Note: This is inspired by the legend of Horatius at the Bridge.