Lays of Ancient Rome/Horatius

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Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Babington Macaulay
Horatius
Horatius Cocles, "Horatius the one-eyed", was a Roman hero who defended the Pons Sublicius, the bridge that led across the Tiber to Rome, against the Etruscans in the second battle of the Naevian Meadow. Horatius was rewarded with as much land as he could plough around in a single day and a statue of him was erected in the temple of Vulcan. It is not known to what extent the story is based on real events.
Horatius from a woodcut by JR Weguelin (1879) for the Lays of Ancient Rome.
Horatius


A Lay Made About the Year Of The City CCCLX

               I

     Lars Porsena of Clusium
          By the Nine Gods he swore
     That the great house of Tarquin
          Should suffer wrong no more.
     By the Nine Gods he swore it,
          And named a trysting day,
     And bade his messengers ride forth,
     East and west and south and north,
          To summon his array.

               II

     East and west and south and north
          The messengers ride fast,
     And tower and town and cottage
          Have heard the trumpet's blast.
     Shame on the false Etruscan
          Who lingers in his home,
     When Porsena of Clusium
          Is on the march for Rome.

               III

     The horsemen and the footmen
          Are pouring in amain
     From many a stately market-place,
          From many a fruitful plain,
     From many a lonely hamlet,
          Which, hid by beech and pine,
     Like an eagle's nest, hangs on the crest
          Of purple Apennine;

               IV

     From lordly Volaterræ,
          Where scowls the far-famed hold
     Piled by the hands of giants
          For godlike kings of old;
     From seagirt Populonia,
          Whose sentinels descry
     Sardinia's snowy mountain-tops
          Fringing the southern sky;

               V

     From the proud mart of Pisæ,
          Queen of the western waves,
     Where ride Massilia's triremes
          Heavy with fair-haired slaves;
     From where sweet Clanis wanders
          Through corn and vines and flowers;
     From where Cortona lifts to heaven
          Her diadem of towers.

               VI

     Tall are the oaks whose acorns
          Drop in dark Auser's rill;
     Fat are the stags that champ the boughs
          Of the Ciminian hill;
     Beyond all streams Clitumnus
          Is to the herdsman dear;
     Best of all pools the fowler loves
          The great Volsinian mere.

               VII

     But now no stroke of woodman
          Is heard by Auser's rill;
     No hunter tracks the stag's green path
          Up the Ciminian hill;
     Unwatched along Clitumnus
          Grazes the milk-white steer;
     Unharmed the water fowl may dip
          In the Volsinian mere.

               VIII

     The harvests of Arretium,
          This year, old men shall reap;
     This year, young boys in Umbro
          Shall plunge the struggling sheep;
     And in the vats of Luna,
          This year, the must shall foam
     Round the white feet of laughing girls
          Whose sires have marched to Rome.

               IX

     There be thirty chosen prophets,
          The wisest of the land,
     Who alway by Lars Porsena
          Both morn and evening stand:
     Evening and morn the Thirty
          Have turned the verses o'er,
     Traced from the right on linen white
          By mighty seers of yore.

               X

     And with one voice the Thirty
          Have their glad answer given:
     "Go forth, go forth, Lars Porsena;
          Go forth, beloved of Heaven;
     Go, and return in glory
          To Clusium's royal dome;
     And hang round Nurscia's altars
          The golden shields of Rome."

               XI

     And now hath every city
          Sent up her tale of men;
     The foot are fourscore thousand,
          The horse are thousands ten.
     Before the gates of Sutrium
          Is met the great array.
     A proud man was Lars Porsena
          Upon the trysting day.

               XII

     For all the Etruscan armies
          Were ranged beneath his eye,
     And many a banished Roman,
          And many a stout ally;
     And with a mighty following
          To join the muster came
     The Tusculan Mamilius,
          Prince of the Latian name.

               XIII

     But by the yellow Tiber
          Was tumult and affright:
     From all the spacious champaign
          To Rome men took their flight.
     A mile around the city,
          The throng stopped up the ways;
     A fearful sight it was to see
          Through two long nights and days.

               XIV

     For aged folks on crutches,
          And women great with child,
     And mothers sobbing over babes
          That clung to them and smiled,
     And sick men borne in litters
          High on the necks of slaves,
     And troops of sun-burned husbandmen
          With reaping-hooks and staves,

               XV

     And droves of mules and asses
          Laden with skins of wine,
     And endless flocks of goats and sheep,
          And endless herds of kine,
     And endless trains of wagons
          That creaked beneath the weight
     Of corn-sacks and of household goods,
          Choked every roaring gate.

               XVI

     Now, from the rock Tarpeian,
          Could the wan burghers spy
     The line of blazing villages
          Red in the midnight sky.
     The Fathers of the City,
          They sat all night and day,
     For every hour some horseman come
          With tidings of dismay.

               XVII

     To eastward and to westward
          Have spread the Tuscan bands;
     Nor house, nor fence, nor dovecote
          In Crustumerium stands.
     Verbenna down to Ostia
          Hath wasted all the plain;
     Astur hath stormed Janiculum,
          And the stout guards are slain.

               XVIII

     I wis, in all the Senate,
          There was no heart so bold,
     But sore it ached, and fast it beat,
          When that ill news was told.
     Forthwith up rose the Consul,
          Up rose the Fathers all;
     In haste they girded up their gowns,
          And hied them to the wall.

               XIX

     They held a council standing,
          Before the River-Gate;
     Short time was there, ye well may guess,
          For musing or debate.
     Out spake the Consul roundly:
          "The bridge must straight go down;
     For, since Janiculum is lost,
          Nought else can save the town."

               XX

     Just then a scout came flying,
          All wild with haste and fear:
     "To arms! to arms! Sir Consul:
          Lars Porsena is here."
     On the low hills to westward
          The Consul fixed his eye,
     And saw the swarthy storm of dust
          Rise fast along the sky.

               XXI

     And nearer fast and nearer
          Doth the red whirlwind come;
     And louder still and still more loud,
     From underneath that rolling cloud,
     Is heard the trumpet's war-note proud,
          The trampling, and the hum.
     And plainly and more plainly
          Now through the gloom appears,
     Far to left and far to right,
     In broken gleams of dark-blue light,
     The long array of helmets bright,
          The long array of spears.

               XXII

     And plainly and more plainly,
          Above that glimmering line,
     Now might ye see the banners
          Of twelve fair cities shine;
     But the banner of proud Clusium
          Was highest of them all,
     The terror of the Umbrian,
          The terror of the Gaul.

               XXIII

     And plainly and more plainly
          Now might the burghers know,
     By port and vest, by horse and crest,
          Each warlike Lucumo.
     There Cilnius of Arretium
          On his fleet roan was seen;
     And Astur of the four-fold shield,
     Girt with the brand none else may wield,
     Tolumnius with the belt of gold,
     And dark Verbenna from the hold
          By reedy Thrasymene.

               XXIV

     Fast by the royal standard,
          O'erlooking all the war,
     Lars Porsena of Clusium
          Sat in his ivory car.
     By the right wheel rode Mamilius,
          Prince of the Latian name;
     And by the left false Sextus,
          That wrought the deed of shame.

               XXV

     But when the face of Sextus
          Was seen among the foes,
     A yell that rent the firmament
          From all the town arose.
     On the house-tops was no woman
          But spat towards him and hissed,
     No child but screamed out curses,
          And shook its little fist.

               XXVI

     But the Consul's brow was sad,
          And the Consul's speech was low,
     And darkly looked he at the wall,
          And darkly at the foe.
     "Their van will be upon us
          Before the bridge goes down;
     And if they once may win the bridge,
          What hope to save the town?"

               XXVII

     Then out spake brave Horatius,
          The Captain of the Gate:
     "To every man upon this earth
          Death cometh soon or late.
     And how can man die better
          Than facing fearful odds,
     For the ashes of his fathers,
          And the temples of his gods,

               XXVIII

     "And for the tender mother
          Who dandled him to rest,
     And for the wife who nurses
          His baby at her breast,
     And for the holy maidens
          Who feed the eternal flame,
     To save them from false Sextus
          That wrought the deed of shame?

               XXIX

     "Haul 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?"

               XXX

     Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
          A Ramnian proud was he:
     "Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
          And keep the bridge with thee."
     And out spake strong Herminius;
          Of Titian blood was he:
     "I will abide on thy left side,
          And keep the bridge with thee."

               XXXI

     "Horatius," quoth the Consul,
          "As thou sayest, so let it be."
     And straight against that great array
          Forth went the dauntless Three.
     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.

               XXXII

     Then none was for a party;
          Then all were for the state;
     Then the great man helped the poor,
          And the poor man loved the great:
     Then lands were fairly portioned;
          Then spoils were fairly sold:
     The Romans were like brothers
          In the brave days of old.

               XXXIII

     Now Roman is to Roman
          More hateful than a foe,
     And the Tribunes beard the high,
          And the Fathers grind the low.
     As we wax hot in faction,
          In battle we wax cold:
     Wherefore men fight not as they fought
          In the brave days of old.

               XXXIV

     Now while the Three were tightening
          Their harness on their backs,
     The Consul was the foremost man
          To take in hand an axe:
     And Fathers mixed with Commons
          Seized hatchet, bar, and crow,
     And smote upon the planks above,
          And loosed the props below.

               XXXV

     Meanwhile the Tuscan army,
          Right glorious to behold,
     Come flashing back the noonday light,
     Rank behind rank, like surges bright
          Of a broad sea of gold.
     Four hundred trumpets sounded
          A peal of warlike glee,
     As that great host, with measured tread,
     And spears advanced, and ensigns spread,
     Rolled slowly towards the bridge's head,
          Where stood the dauntless Three.

               XXXVI

     The Three stood calm and silent,
          And looked upon the foes,
     And a great shout of laughter
          From all the vanguard rose:
     And forth three chiefs came spurring
          Before that deep array;
     To earth they sprang, their swords they drew,
     And lifted high their shields, and flew
          To win the narrrow way;

               XXXVII

     Aunus from green Tifernum,
          Lord of the Hill of Vines;
     And Seius, whose eight hundred slaves
          Sicken in Ilva's mines;
     And Picus, long to Clusium
          Vassal in peace and war,
     Who led to fight his Umbrian powers
     From that gray crag where, girt with towers,
     The fortress of Nequinum lowers
          O'er the pale waves of Nar.

               XXXVIII

     Stout Lartius hurled down Aunus
          Into the stream beneath;
     Herminius struck at Seius,
          And clove him to the teeth;
     At Picus brave Horatius
          Darted one fiery thrust;
     And the proud Umbrian's gilded arms
          Clashed in the bloody dust.

               XXXIX

     Then Ocnus of Falerii
          Rushed on the Roman Three;
     And Lausulus of Urgo,
          The rover of the sea;
     And Aruns of Volsinium,
          Who slew the great wild boar,
     The great wild boar that had his den
     Amidst the reeds of Cosa's fen,
     And wasted fields, and slaughtered men,
          Along Albinia's shore.

               XL

     Herminius smote down Aruns:
          Lartius laid Ocnus low:
     Right to the heart of Lausulus
          Horatius sent a blow.
     "Lie there," he cried, "fell pirate!
          No more, aghast and pale,
     From Ostia's walls the crowd shall mark
     The track of thy destroying bark.
     No more Campania's hinds shall fly
     To woods and caverns when they spy
          Thy thrice accursed sail."

               XLI

     But now no sound of laughter
          Was heard among the foes.
     A wild and wrathful clamor
          From all the vanguard rose.
     Six spears' lengths from the entrance
          Halted that deep array,
     And for a space no man came forth
          To win the narrow way.

               XLII

     But hark! the cry is Astur:
          And lo! the ranks divide;
     And the great Lord of Luna
          Comes with his stately stride.
     Upon his ample shoulders
          Clangs loud the four-fold shield,
     And in his hand he shakes the brand
          Which none but he can wield.

               XLIII

     He smiled on those bold Romans
          A smile serene and high;
     He eyed the flinching Tuscans,
          And scorn was in his eye.
     Quoth he, "The she-wolf's litter
          Stand savagely at bay:
     But will ye dare to follow,
          If Astur clears the way?"

               XLIV

     Then, whirling up his broadsword
          With both hands to the height,
     He rushed against Horatius,
          And smote with all his might.
     With shield and blade Horatius
          Right deftly turned the blow.
     The blow, though turned, came yet too nigh;
     It missed his helm, but gashed his thigh:
     The Tuscans raised a joyful cry
          To see the red blood flow.

               XLV

     He reeled, and on Herminius
          He leaned one breathing-space;
     Then, like a wild cat mad with wounds,
          Sprang right at Astur's face.
     Through teeth, and skull, and helmet
          So fierce a thrust he sped,
     The good sword stood a hand-breadth out
          Behind the Tuscan's head.

               XLVI

     And the great Lord of Luna
          Fell at that deadly stroke,
     As falls on Mount Alvernus
          A thunder smitten oak:
     Far o'er the crashing forest
          The giant arms lie spread;
     And the pale augurs, muttering low,
          Gaze on the blasted head.

               XLVII

     On Astur's throat Horatius
          Right firmly pressed his heel,
     And thrice and four times tugged amain,
          Ere he wrenched out the steel.
     "And see," he cried, "the welcome,
          Fair guests, that waits you here!
     What noble Lucomo comes next
          To taste our Roman cheer?"

               XLVIII

     But at his haughty challenge
          A sullen murmur ran,
     Mingled of wrath, and shame, and dread,
          Along that glittering van.
     There lacked not men of prowess,
          Nor men of lordly race;
     For all Etruria's noblest
          Were round the fatal place.

               XLIX

     But all Etruria's noblest
          Felt their hearts sink to see
     On the earth the bloody corpses,
          In the path the dauntless Three:
     And, from the ghastly entrance
          Where those bold Romans stood,
     All shrank, like boys who unaware,
     Ranging the woods to start a hare,
     Come to the mouth of the dark lair
     Where, growling low, a fierce old bear
          Lies amidst bones and blood.

               L

     Was none who would be foremost
          To lead such dire attack;
     But those behind cried, "Forward!"
          And those before cried, "Back!"
     And backward now and forward
          Wavers the deep array;
     And on the tossing sea of steel
     To and frow the standards reel;
     And the victorious trumpet-peal
          Dies fitfully away.

               LI

     Yet one man for one moment
          Strode out before the crowd;
     Well known was he to all the Three,
          And they gave him greeting loud.
     "Now welcome, welcome, Sextus!
          Now welcome to thy home!
     Why dost thou stay, and turn away?
          Here lies the road to Rome."

               LII

     Thrice looked he at the city;
          Thrice looked he at the dead;
     And thrice came on in fury,
          And thrice turned back in dread:
     And, white with fear and hatred,
          Scowled at the narrow way
     Where, wallowing in a pool of blood,
          The bravest Tuscans lay.

               LIII

     But meanwhile axe and lever
          Have manfully been plied;
     And now the bridge hangs tottering
          Above the boiling tide.
     "Come back, come back, Horatius!"
          Loud cried the Fathers all.
     "Back, Lartius! back, Herminius!
          Back, ere the ruin fall!"

               LIV

     Back darted Spurius Lartius;
          Herminius darted back:
     And, as they passed, beneath their feet
          They felt the timbers crack.
     But when they turned their faces,
          And on the farther shore
     Saw brave Horatius stand alone,
          They would have crossed once more.

               LV

     But with a crash like thunder
          Fell every loosened beam,
     And, like a dam, the mighty wreck
          Lay right athwart the stream:
     And a long shout of triumph
          Rose from the walls of Rome,
     As to the highest turret-tops
          Was splashed the yellow foam.

               LVI

     And, like a horse unbroken
          When first he feels the rein,
     The furious river struggled hard,
          And tossed his tawny mane,
     And burst the curb and bounded,
          Rejoicing to be free,
     And whirling down, in fierce career,
     Battlement, and plank, and pier,
          Rushed headlong to the sea.

               LVII

     Alone stood brave Horatius,
          But constant still in mind;
     Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
          And the broad flood behind.
     "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."

               LVIII

     Round turned he, as not deigning
          Those craven ranks to see;
     Nought spake he to Lars Porsena,
          To Sextus nought 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.

               LVIX

     "Oh, 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.

               LX

     No sound of joy or sorrow
          Was heard from either bank;
     But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
     With parted lips and straining eyes,
          Stood gazing where he sank;
     And when above the surges,
          They saw his crest appear,
     All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
     And even the ranks of Tuscany
          Could scarce forbear to cheer.

               LXI

     But fiercely ran the current,
          Swollen high by months of rain:
     And fast his blood was flowing;
          And he was sore in pain,
     And heavy with his armor,
          And spent with changing blows:
     And oft they thought him sinking,
          But still again he rose.

               LXII

     Never, I ween, did swimmer,
          In such an evil case,
     Struggle through such a raging flood
          Safe to the landing place:
     But his limbs were borne up bravely
          By the brave heart within,
     And our good father Tiber
          Bare bravely up his chin.

               LXIII

     "Curse on him!" quoth false Sextus;
          "Will not the villain drown?
     But for this stay, ere close of day
          We should have sacked the town!"
     "Heaven help him!" quoth Lars Porsena
          "And bring him safe to shore;
     For such a gallant feat of arms
          Was never seen before."

               LXIV

     And now he feels the bottom;
          Now on dry earth he stands;
     Now round him throng the Fathers;
          To press his gory hands;
     And now, with shouts and clapping,
          And noise of weeping loud,
     He enters through the River-Gate
          Borne by the joyous crowd.

               LXV

     They gave him of the corn-land,
          That was of public right,
     As much as two strong oxen
          Could plough from morn till night;
     And they made a molten image,
          And set it up on high,
     And there is stands unto this day
          To witness if I lie.

               LXVI

     It stands in the Comitium
          Plain for all folk to see;
     Horatius in his harness,
          Halting upon one knee:
     And underneath is written,
          In letters all of gold,
     How valiantly he kept the bridge
          In the brave days of old.

               LXVII

     And still his name sounds stirring
          Unto the men of Rome,
     As the trumpet-blast that cries to them
          To charge the Volscian home;
     And wives still pray to Juno
          For boys with hearts as bold
     As his who kept the bridge so well
          In the brave days of old.

               LXVIII

     And in the nights of winter,
          When the cold north winds blow,
     And the long howling of the wolves
          Is heard amidst the snow;
     When round the lonely cottage
          Roars loud the tempest's din,
     And the good logs of Algidus
          Roar louder yet within;

               LXIX

     When the oldest cask is opened,
          And the largest lamp is lit;
     When the chestnuts glow in the embers,
          And the kid turns on the spit;
     When young and old in circle
          Around the firebrands close;
     When the girls are weaving baskets,
          And the lads are shaping bows;

               LXX

     When the goodman mends his armor,
          And trims his helmet's plume;
     When the goodwife's shuttle merrily
          Goes flashing through the loom;
     With weeping and with laughter
          Still is the story told,
     How well Horatius kept the bridge
          In the brave days of old.


This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.