City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The War with Lars Porsena

Tarquin the proud was not content, however, to see his kingdom slip from him so easily; and the Roman people were soon obliged to fight for the right of governing themselves. Their first trouble came from within the city itself; and this, perhaps, no one had expected.

There were some of the people of Rome who were not pleased at the driving away of the king, and who would have been glad to have him back with them again. These persons were young men of high family and much wealth, who had been the companions of the young princes, and who had enjoyed rights and privileges under the rule of Tarquin, which were now taken away from them. They complained bitterly of this, and said that, though the rest of the people had gained by having Tarquin go, they had lost by it. So, when the chance offered itself, they selfishly began to work to bring Tarquin back.

The chance came when Tarquin sent men back to Rome to claim the property which he and his sons had left behind them in the city, when they had been driven away. While these men were in Rome, they secretly made a plot with the dissatisfied young nobles to place King Tarquin on his throne once more. This was treason on the part of the young nobles; but they cared more for their own pleasures than they did for their city. However, the plot was discovered by a slave. From him the consuls learned of it; and they ordered that the plotters should all be seized. Then it was found that among these young men were the two sons of the consul Brutus himself.

This made it very hard for Brutus, for it was part of his duty as consul to act as judge in the trial of prisoners. But he was a true Roman, and loved his country even more than he did his own sons. He took his seat with the other consul, and, when the young men were led before the judges, Brutus did not hesitate to condemn them all to death. Then the prisoners were given into charge of attendants of the consuls, called lictors. The lictors each carried a battle-ax, bound into a bundle of rods, as a sign that the consuls had the right to punish both with the rods and with the ax. They took the young nobles, and first whipped them with the rods, and then put them to death. And the Romans saw, with admiration and pity, that the stern virtue of Brutus did not fail him even when his own sons were put to death before his eyes.

Tarquin was only made more angry and determined by the failure of this plot. He now decided that if he could not get back his throne by a trick, he would try to do so by war. He went about from city to city, begging help from the enemies of Rome to bring that city back under his rule once more. And no matter how often he was refused, or how often when he got help he was defeated in battle, he was always ready to begin again.

At last, Tarquin got the help of a powerful king who ruled over a part of Tuscany, as the district is called which lies north and west of the Tiber. A fine poem (Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome)  has been written about this war by an English writer, and in it you may read how

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.

When the Romans heard this news, they were filled with dismay; and from all sides the country people flocked into the city. Never before had so great a danger threatened that place. But the Senate and consuls prepared as well as they could to meet the attack, and tried to hope that they might still be able to defeat their enemies.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


Just across the river from Rome was a long, high hill. Here the Romans had built a fort as a protection to the city; and to connect this with Rome, a wooden bridge had long ago been placed across the rapid stream of the Tiber.

If the Romans could hold this height and the bridge, the city would be safe. But by a quick march, and a fierce attack, the enemies of Rome seized the height. Then they rushed on to gain the bridge also; and many of the Romans who were guarding it were struck with fear, and turned to flee into the city.

At this moment a Roman named Horatius rushed in among those who were fleeing, and sought to stay their flight.

"What good will it do you to flee?" he cried. "If you give up the bridge it will not be long before there are more of the enemy in Rome itself than there are here. Break down the bridge before you go! Meanwhile, I will guard the entrance, so far as one man may."

At these words, the soldiers were seized with shame. While two of their number stepped up to Horatius's side, to defend with him the narrow entrance, the others fell to work with swords and axes and levers to tear down the bridge behind them. When the last timbers were just ready to fall, the soldiers called to Horatius and his brave companions to come back, while there was yet time to cross. His two companions darted back across the swaying timbers; but Horatius lingered to the last. Then, just as he turned to cross, with a mighty crash the bridge fell, and he was left alone with his enemies.

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."

Round turned he, as not deigning

Those craven ranks to see;

Naught 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.

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.

But Horatius was weary and wounded from the fight, and his armor weighed heavily upon him. Many times he seemed sinking in midstream, but each time he rose again. At last, he felt the bottom under his feet, and safely climbed the other shore.

The city was saved, and it was mainly Horatius who had saved it. The state was grateful to him for his brave deed. The Senate ordered that he should have as much of the public land as he could plough around in one day; and his statue was set up in the Forum, or market-place, of Rome. But best of all was the gratitude which the citizens, of their own accord, showed him. When food became scarce because of the war with Lars Porsena, the citizens each brought to the house of Horatius little gifts of grain and wine, so that whatever suffering might come upon themselves, there would still be plenty in the house of the man who had saved Rome. And long afterwards we can imagine Roman fathers telling the story to their children:

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.