[This is the first of four parts in the penultimate chapter, titled Sacrifice.]
Now laws and oaths, as I have said, are hungry. Some gave their lives to uphold them, others gave slightly less. But laws and oaths are hungry.
Tarquin’s shadow came to Rome for the third and final time just one year after Brutus was slain. After his defeat at the forest of Arsia the old tyrant fled to Clusium. There he begged King Porsena to help him retake the seven hills. Now in your day King Porsena’s name is but a memory, but at that time it was a fearful name. King Porsena’s wisdom and military power were the stuff of legend. So you can imagine the fear which gripped our city! Finally Tarquin, through much effort, persuaded Porsena to march on Rome. The fearful Clusian army marched out, thousands in their gleaming armour, rumbling toward our city.
Fear marched ahead of Porsena. Everywhere the news travelled, our people fled. Tales of bronze-clad ogres speaking their strange northern tongue, marching on Rome, slowly crept into our city. The City Fathers, terrified that fear alone would compel our men to open the gates, decided to lower taxes on the commoners, whose sole duty for now would be the raising of children. But no use! Slowly the rumbling, gleaming host of Clusium closed in on us. First you saw the smoke from the camp fires, then the glimmering of the fires themselves. Slowly, slowly they came, then – look! – the gleaming bronze armour, the feathers on their helmets, swaying in the wind. Slowly, slowly they rumbled toward the seven hills.
They came at us from the west. First they took the Janiculan Hill, sweeping our men aside. We also had men in position on the Sublician Bridge, just between the Janiculan and the outskirts of Rome. Those on the bridge couldn’t yet see the Clusians but they could see the smoke as the Janiculan defences were burned down. They could see the dust raised as men struggled and churned and died, and they could hear the sound, that dreadful fog of men churning and choking.
Then – look! – a feather in a helmet, then warriors’ faces, then their shields as they crested the hill. They paused briefly, then a tall figure walked to the front, wearing a purple cloak. You could see his mouth move as he gave the command. No words came out that you could hear, but every man at the Sublician heard it. Then with a dread cry the Clusians charged. Gleaming ranks, swaying feathers, thousands of bronze-clad ogres thundering down the hill. Our men fled! First the falling clatter of a spear here, a shield there, a helmet a few steps behind. Then the clatterings turned into one wave, mixing cries and curses as our men turned and ran. First the foot soldiers, then the officers too. Finally the two commanders of the Roman army, Lartius and Herminius, stood alone. It was two men against thousands.
But Porsena did not set foot in Rome that day. One of the officers refused to run as well, and his name was Horatius. Picking his way through the fleeing mob he found Lartius and Herminius, all the while crying to the soldiers “Come now, you cowards, be men and fight! Or do you think that fleeing will help if the bridge is left to the Clusians?” But having found Lartius and Herminius the three of them joined together, showing their faces to the Clusians while around them the men showed their backs. Shields forward, they forced their way toward the bridge, face to face with Porsena’s host.
The three of them stood their ground for a time, warding off javelin, spear and sword with their shields, returning in kind, striking down many of the Clusian champions who came forward. Finally, when he saw that our men had gotten a safe distance from the bridge, Horatius cried “Our men are cleared from danger. Now Lartius and Herminius, get behind me to the bridge and destroy it, we cannot leave it open to Porsena. I will ward them off!” As the two of them retreated to destroy the bridge, Horatius pushed forward, and planting his feet firmly on the bridge he roared “Come forward, you of Porsena’s host! Who of you can kill me today? Which of you tyrant’s slaves can enslave us today?”
What a sight it was for the Clusians! To Horatius’ left, the river, and to his right, the river. Before him, dead men lying here and there. None of them dared come forward. So they raised their javelins, and hurled! But Horatius’ shield caught them all. Here and there a brave Clusian rushed at Horatius, only to be battered aside or skewered on his sword. Finally one javelin found its mark, striking Horatius on the buttock, just above the hip, making him fall to his knees. But at that moment above the babble of the northern tongue Horatius heard Lartius and Herminius calling him to flee across the river, for the bridge was ready to come down. With one final effort Horatius rose to his feet and jumped!
Across the river he swam as spears, swords and javelins rained down on him. Miraculously he reached the opposite bank of the river without further wound, as the bridge collapsed behind him. Porsena’s host did not reach the seven hills that day. Rome was saved – for one buttock!