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The Story of Horatius
|by Pesi J. Padshah|
When I recall certain passages, it leaves me misty eyed and with a lump in my throat. It’s the story of how a brave Roman soldier, helped by two others, holds off the entire Tuscan army and saves the city of Rome. I’ve come across the same tale, recounted in prose. But none can approach Macaulay’s epic poem, crafted so that it rolls off the tongue with the beat of a drum, magically bringing to life the scene of battle: the ninety thousand strong Tuscan army in glittering armor; the strident trumpets ; the reactions of either side to savage encounters pitting the might and the pride of Tuscany against the skill and raw courage of the Roman three.
The Story of Horatius
Here is a tale of great courage and resourcefulness, which has come down to us from ancient times. How brave Horatius, with the help of two other men, holds off an entire army and saves the city of Rome.
Rome is being threatened by the Tuscan army, led by Lars Porsena of Clusium. The river Tiber, spanned by a wooden bridge, is all that stands between Rome and the conquering army. Defeat seems certain. The city fathers decide to tear down the bridge to stop the army from advancing, but there is little time.
Then Horatius steps forward and explains that the bridge is wide enough for only three people. If two more soldiers are prepared to risk their lives with him, the three of them might just be able to delay the invaders long enough for the bridge to be demolished. Two brave Roman soldiers volunteer, and the action begins.
What follows are a few chosen verses, by the great historian and poet Lord Macaulay, from his poem “Horatius”. They bring to life, the legend of how Horatius and his companions defend the bridge. Before each verse, or group of verses, is an explanation, in case the language is difficult to understand. But don’t read the explanation if you don’t need to. It is there only to help those who might otherwise fail to appreciate the rhythm, richness and beauty of Macaulay’s lines, as they magically conjure up the scene of battle, with its glittering armor, strident trumpets and, defying all odds, the sheer courage of the ‘dauntless three’.
The warlord, Lars Porsena, sends forth his messengers to bring together fighting men for a large army, and names a day on which they are all to meet.
Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the Nine Gods he swore
Every city sends soldiers, and Lars Porsena watches proudly, as eighty thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand horsemen assemble on the appointed day.
And now hath every city
On the banks of the river Tiber, people are in a state of panic as their turn comes, to face the conquering army. For two days and two nights, from the surrounding countryside, come huge crowds which include old people, sobbing mothers with their babies, and the sick and crippled. They all try to push their way into the city of Rome, to take shelter from the advancing army.
But by the yellow Tiber
For aged folks on crutches,
Without wasting time on thought or discussion, the Consul or head man of the city, decides that the bridge leading to Rome, must be pulled down if the city is to be saved. But pulling down the bridge is easier said than done, reflects the Consul gloomily. The front ranks of the enemy could well be upon them before the bridge goes down, and once the bridge was in enemy hands, it would be impossible to save Rome.
They held a council standing
At that moment, Horatius, a soldier in charge of the gate leading to the bridge, speaks up. He declares that sooner or later, every man has to face death, and asks: can there be a better way to die, than to stand up against all odds, in order to preserve what is precious, and uphold the truth one believes in?
Then out spake brave Horatius,
“To every man upon this earth
Horatius urges the Consul to pull down the bridge as quickly as possible. He says that he, with only two men to help him, can prevent the enemy from capturing it before it is demolished. Three men, he claims, could stand firm in the path of a thousand of the enemy (because the bridge is so narrow). So who, he asks, is willing to stand, one on either side of him, to defend the bridge until it is brought down?
“Hew down the bridge Sir Consul,
The response is immediate. Spurius Lartius offers to stand on the right of Horatius, and Herminius on his left. The Consul agrees to the plan, and the three fearless men prepare to take on the might of the Tuscan army, which advances slowly and steadily towards them.
Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
In the meantime, the splendid Tuscan army, glinting in the noonday sun, resembled a vast golden sea. And four hundred trumpets sounded in shrill delight, as the army, slowly and deliberately, strode toward the bridge, proudly displaying its national flag, and with spears held in attacking mode, as it bore down upon the fearless three.
Meanwhile the Tuscan army,
The three stand calmly waiting, amidst scornful laughter from the enemy. Three horsemen gallop up to them, leap from their steeds, and draw their swords, to start dueling with Horatius and his companions.
The three stood calm and silent,
In the savage encounter that follows, three men lie dead. None among them is Horatius or his two companions, who live on to face more assaults. After two such bloody fights (not described here), the front ranks of the great Tuscan army, suddenly lose confidence. No more do they have anything to laugh at, and nobody dares to come close to the three bold Romans, defending the all-important bridge.
Was heard among the foes.
Then one among the Tuscans, the mighty Astur, steps forth, brandishing the huge sword that only he has the strength to wield.
But hark! The cry is Astur:
He smiles serenely at his Roman adversaries and then speaks contemptuously to his fellow men, and asks if they will follow him once he clears the way.
He smiled on those bold Romans
Then Astur whirls his sword around his head with both hands and rushes at Horatius, aiming a tremendous blow.
Then whirling up his broadsword
Horatius deflects the blow downwards but, despite his skill, cannot prevent it from badly injuring him in the thigh. The Tuscans shout with joy to see blood flowing freely from the injury.
With shield and blade Horatius
The valiant Roman leans for a moment, on his companion Herminius, then springs like a wildcat at Astur, and finishes him off with a sword-thrust that pierces both skull and helmet. Thus, the mighty Astur falls with his arms spread wide, like a great oak tree brought down in a thunder storm. His collapse starts the Tuscan soothsayers muttering among themselves about what went wrong with their optimistic predictions, as they stare at the shattered head of their champion:
And the great lord of Luna
Now none among the Tuscans, is in the mood to fight. While those behind, pretend to be eager, those in front want to retreat, and the shrill notes of their trumpets, break up and die away uncertainly.
Was none who would be foremost
All through the excitement of battle, Roman workers have been busy, loosening the structure of the bridge. Their efforts succeed and the bridge is brought to the point of collapse. The three warriors are told to hasten back, and two of them manage to do so in the nick of time, but Horatius is left stranded on the enemy’s side of the river. As the bridge crashes, a loud cheer goes up among the Romans.
And now the bridge hangs tottering
Back darted Spurius Lartius;
But with a crash like thunder
And like a horse unbroken
Alone, facing almost a hundred thousand Tuscan soldiers, and with a huge expanse of water behind, Horatius realizes that his life is still in peril. The Tuscan chief, Lars Porsena, and his companion, triumphantly order the brave Roman to surrender.
Image (c) Gettyimages.com
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