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The Story of Rome by  Mary Macgregor

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HORATIUS COCLES, OR THE ONE-EYED

[55] AFTER the death of Brutus, Valerius ruled alone. But he soon displeased the people, for they thought that he behaved too much as though he were a king.

The Consul had indeed built himself a beautiful house, from the windows of which, had he wished, he could look down into the Forum.

When he walked from his house to the market-place, Valerius, it was true, was preceded by six lictors, bearing rods and axes, but this was a dignity accorded to the Consuls by the people themselves.

Valerius had in truth no wish to spy upon the people as they feared, nor did he try to use his authority unjustly.

Yet the people grumbled, and grew restless and suspicious, until at length the Consul heard that he had displeased them.

Valerius was not angry with the foolish citizens, but he resolved to make them ashamed of their groundless suspicions.

So one evening, when it was dark, he sent for workmen and ordered them to pull his beautiful house to pieces.

When morning dawned, the people, gazing upward from the Forum to the Consul's house, were startled. What could have happened? There was no longer any house to be seen.

It was not for some time that they learned that it was their foolish suspicions that had caused the Consul to destroy his house.

Then, fickle as the Roman crowd always was, it changed [56] its mind and hung its head, ashamed of the destruction it had caused.

But Valerius not only made the citizens ashamed of their suspicions, he made them love him for his humility.

When he came into the Forum, the Consul now ordered his lictors to carry the rods and axes in two separate bundles, while the axes were from this time always lowered when he entered the Senate-house, or stood before the assembly of the people.

Valerius also made a law that pleased the Romans well.

When a Roman was condemned to death by a magistrate, the Consul decreed that he should have the right to appeal to the people against the sentence. This, you remember, was what Horatius had done when he was condemned to death for slaying his sister.

So completely had the Consul endeared himself to the Romans that they now called him Poplicola, or the Lover of the People.

Meanwhile, Tarquin the Proud had enlisted the aid of a powerful king, named Lars Porsenna.

This king now sent to Rome, bidding the people open their gates to Tarquin. When they refused, he at once marched against the city with a great army.

The Romans increased the guard and strengthened the forts on the Janiculum hill. At all costs the enemy must be prevented from crossing the Tiber by the wooden bridge that joined the hill to the city itself.

Slaves, cattle, goods—all were brought from the surrounding country, either within the walls of the city, or into forts without.

But in spite of all the Romans could do, Lars Porsenna reached the Janiculum, and storming the heights, drove the Roman soldiers down the hill toward the river. His men pursued the fugitives, who seemed to think of nothing save their own safety.

If the enemy was not to enter the city, the bridge must [57] be defended until the Roman soldiers on the other side of the river had cut through the beams that supported it.

Then, as the enemy drew near and ever nearer to the bank of the river, a brave Roman, named Horatius Cocles, or Horatius the One-Eyed, whose country was dearer to him than life itself, cried to the Consul right manfully:—

" '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?'

There were not lacking Romans to answer the brave challenge:—

" 'Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,

And keep the bridge with thee,' "

cried Spurius Lartius, one of Rome's strongest warriors, while the voice of another brave soldier, named Herminius, rang out clear above the noise of arms:—

" 'I will abide on thy left side,

And keep the bridge with thee,'

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."

Fully armed, the three brave men sprang to the end of the bridge farthest from the city, and flung defiance at Lars Porsenna and his great army.

The king and his army, seeing but three stalwart warriors, laughed them to scorn, yet ere long their scorn gave way to amazement.

Before the missiles hurled upon them, before the fiercest sword-thrusts, Horatius and his comrades stood dauntless [58] and unafraid, while at their feet rose a ghastly heap of those the brave Romans slew.

And while they held the bridge thus resolutely, behind them fell the blows of mighty axes, loosening the great beams that held the bridge secure.

Soon the axes had done their work. The bridge began to totter, to sway, and the Romans shouted to the noble three to come back ere the bridge gave way.

At the call, Lartius and Herminius turned and darted swiftly across the swaying planks.

But Horatius stayed behind. Not till the bridge fell into the river would he stir from his post.

Then, with a mighty crash the bridge gave way, and fell into the rushing torrent beneath.

Horatius, separated from his friends, stood alone, facing thirty thousand of the foe. Behind him tossed the broad surging river.

" '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.'


"Round turned he, as not deigning

Those craven ranks to see,

Nought spake he to Lars Porsena,

To Sextus naught spake he;

But he saw on Palatinus

The white porch of his home;

And he spake to the noble river

That rolls by the towers of Rome.


" 'O 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."

[59] Not a sound was heard from either bank as Horatius, wounded and bleeding, disappeared in the flood.

Then the enemy, furious that it had allowed the great warrior to escape, hurled its spears after him.

But not one reached the bold swimmer, who, weighed down by his armour and weakened by his wounds, often sank, yet ever rose again and struggled onwards.

At length he reached the bank, where eager hands were waiting to draw him up into safety.

When the Romans saw that their hero was safe indeed, although exhausted with his efforts, a mighty shout of triumph rent the air.

Horatius was rewarded for his brave deed by the Senate, who gave him as much land as he could plough in a day, while in later days a monument was erected in memory of his prowess and placed in the Comitium. The Comitium was near to the Forum, and was sometimes counted as part of it.


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