Horatius Cocles: Bravery and Self-Sacrifice

Author: Ariana Louder

Many great men throughout Roman history exhibit Roman morals and ideals through political leadership, imperial expansion, and militaristic conquests.  While competitiveness and ruthlessness on the battlefield and in the Senate were emphasized in Roman society, neither was as important nor as honorable as the virtues of loyalty and bravery to protect the liberty of the Roman Republic and the welfare of its citizens. During the Battle at the Pons Sublicus, one man single-handedly defended the Roman state and ideology against Etruscan invaders.  Whether the bravery of Horatius Cocles was legend or truth, his story exhibited the values of militaristic courage, heroism, and loyalty to the republican ideals and the protection of Rome from the tyranny of the invading Etruscan monarchs.  This paper will examine how Horatius Cocles modeled these virtues through the historical accounts of his life in Livy’s The Early History of Rome, Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities, and Polybius’ The Histories.

Two years after Rome expelled Tarquinius Superbus and established their Republic, powerful Etruscan neighbors from Clusium raised an army intending to invade Rome.  Lars Porsenna, the Clusine king, promised the Tarquins that he would return the power over Rome.  According to Livy, Lars Porsenna may have feared the spread of republicanism and equality among the common people in Clusium and thought that these ideals would destroy the social structure and power of the monarchs across the Italian Peninsula (Livy, The Early History of Rome 2:9).

When Lars Porsenna captured the Janiculum, only a small Roman army and the Tiber River impeded the Etruscans from invading the city itself.  The Pons Sublicus was the weakest area of defense because it was the only bridge that crossed the Tiber and it led straight into the city.  According to Livy, after suffering the loss of the Janiculum, the Roman soldiers became cowardly and retreated across the bridge to the walls of the city (Livy, The Early History of Rome 2:10).

Publius Horatius Cocles, a young military officer called Cocles because he lost an eye in a previous battle, and two other veteran soldiers, Spurius Larcius and Titus Herminius, repelled the Etruscans from the bridge while their troops crossed to safety (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 5.23). Cocles then ordered his veteran comrades and the Roman soldiers to tear up the wooden bridge to prevent the Etruscans from crossing and invading Rome.  After the soldiers destroyed the bridge, Cocles, suffering many wounds including a spear in the hip, jumped into the Tiber and swam across to safety while wearing his full armor.  Because of Cocles’ bravery and military strength, the Lars Porsenna and the Etruscans did not breech the walls of Rome.

The Roman people celebrated Cocles’ bravery and his protection of Rome’s citizens at all costs.  The Senate displayed their gratitude by rewarding him vast amounts of land and a days’ worth of food from every citizen, a hefty prize from citizens having endured a lengthy siege.  The Senate later erected a bronze statue of him in the Forum for all Romans to view.  The monument immortalized and commemorated his image and his heroism for all future generations to recall.  Cocles’ wounds rendered him lame and he could no longer pursue his military or his political career.  Although Horatius Cocles never held a consulship, nor conquered vast amounts of land, Romans still admired and imitated him though the existence of the empire.

Romans valued the traits of bravery and endurance in battle, Horatius Cocles became a role model for young soldiers because he maintained persistence and courage while combating the Etruscans, even though he fought alone and against all odds.  The enemy who perceived him as crazy even acknowledges his excellence in warfare.  Dionysius described the Etruscans “looking upon him as a madman who was courting death, dared no longer come to grips with him” (Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 5.24).  Livy also had a similar account of the Etruscans who “paused in sheer astonishment at such reckless courage” (Livy, The Early History of Rome 2.10).   This showed the importance of being so brave in battle that even the enemy was impressed at the undeniable courage and strength.  Dionysius also attested to his bravery in battle saying “for the wonderful deed he performed for the Romans in that engagement deserves as great praise as any of those who have ever won renown for valor” (Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 5.25).  Dionysius’ account showed that this was a grand accomplishment of a great soldier and that brave actions are praised in Roman society.

The different writings about Horatius Cocles from antiquity highlighted how the Roman public praised his heroism and how he served as an example for young Romans to follow in order to gain similar glory.  Polybius described how funeral orations recalled events of brave men from the past, and were a way to immortalize their noble deeds.  “But the most important result is that young men are thus inspired to endure every suffering for public welfare in the hope of winning the glory that attends on brave men” (Polybius, The Histories 6:54).  Polybius’ writings about funeral orations showed the Roman cultural ideology of passing down stories of noble men to extend their personal glory and to inspire other men to follow the acts of these great men.  Polybius used Horatius Cocles as an example of a brave man whose legend was passed down through history.  Horatius Cocles “deliberately sacrificed his life, regarding the safety of his country and the glory which in future would attach to his name as of more importance than his present existence and the years of life which remained to him”  (Polybius, The Histories 6:55).  In Polybius’ account, Horatius Cocles lost his life, unlike the accounts of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, regardless of his survival or death, his deeds were glorified among all Roman citizens and his traits were meant to be mimicked.

Not only did Horatius Cocles protect the Roman people and glory, he preserved the Republic from the tyranny of the Tarquin monarchs.  In Livy’s account of Horatius Cocles, Livy explained the political situation of the new born republic in Rome and the neighboring monarchs in Etruria who feared that Rome’s influence would destroy their power.  Lars Porsenna decided that his power would be secure if he restored the Tarquin monarchy in Rome (Livy, The Early History of Rome 2:9).  While Cocles engaged the Etruscans in single combat, he “mocked them all as tyrants’ slaves who, careless of their own liberty, were coming to destroy the liberty of others” (Livy, The Early History of Rome 2.10).  Not only was Cocles fighting for his own glory, but for the glory of the republicanism over tyranny.  Livy may have used the themes of liberty and loyalty to the republican model to express their importance in Roman society.

The story of Horatius Cocles defending the Pons Sublicius may only be a propagandistic legend for the government and military to dismiss monarchy and promote republicanism and to inspire young soldiers to fight bravely for the highest glory and for duty of Rome.  It may even only stand as a cover up story of an embarrassing invasion that undermined Roman power and tradition.  Even if this was the case, the historical accounts of Cocles’ story present the values and virtues that were most important to all Romans.

Works Cited


Primary Sources:


Dionysius of Halicarnassus.  Roman Antiquities.  Translated by Ernest Cary. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962.


Florus.  Epitome of Roman History.  Translated by Ernest Cary.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984.


Livy.  The Early History of Rome.  Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt.  New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2002.


Polybius.  The Histories.  Translated by W. R. Paton.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980.


Secondary Sources:


Cornell, T. J.  1995.  The Beginnings of Rome.  New York: Routledge.


Forsyth, G.  2005.  A Critical History of Early Rome.  Berkeley: University of California Press.


Ogilvie, R. M.  1965.  Commentary on Livy, Books 1-5.


Scullard, H. H.  1980.  A History of the Roman World (753-146 BC).  Fourth Edition.  New York:  Routledge.


Roller, Matthew Benedict.  “Exemplarity in Roman Culture: the cases of Horatius Cocles and Cloelia.”  Classical Philology 2044, no. 99(1) (2004): 1-56.


Walbank, F. W.  1957-79.  A History Commentary on Polybius, 3 vols.