Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland


T HIS poem gives such a true picture of the patriotic spirit of a citizen of early Rome, and follows the metre of many Latin poets so closely that it might well have been what Macaulay pretended it was, a lay actually written about three hundred and sixty years after the founding of Rome, or in 393 B.C.

At that time the most powerful chief in Italy was Lars Porsena, of Etruria, whose capital city was Clusium, which was some ninety miles to the northwest of Rome. Etruria was the home of the twelve Etruscan tribes, and lay to the north and west of Rome, separated from that city by the river Tiber. Among the Etruscans the word Lars meant lord or chief. Like the Romans the Etruscans had a number of gods, to each of whom they ascribed different attributes, as the Romans did to Jupiter, Minerva, Mars, and their other deities.

Rome had been a kingdom at one time, and its kings had come from the house of Tarquin. But Tarquin the Proud had ruled so tyrannously, and his son, "false Sextus," had committed so vile a crime, that the people had overthrown his power and driven Tarquin from the city in 505 B.C. He had sought aid from Lars Porsena, and that chief, already jealous of Rome's prosperity, determined to raise a great army and replace Tarquin on his throne.

The Etruscan chieftain sent out his messengers, and soon had gathered allies from the twelve tribes. They came from all central Italy, from the fastnesses of the Apennine Mountains, from the city of Volaterræ whose citadel was made of huge uncemented boulders, from Populonia, opposite the island of Sardinia, from the busy city of Pisa, in whose harbor were triremes, or ships with triple-banks of oars, belonging to the colony of Massilia in Gaul, from the country watered by the river Clanis, and from the many-towered city of Cortona. The woodmen left the forests that lay along the river Auser, the hunters deserted the stags of the Ciminian hill in Etruria, the herdsmen forsook the milk-white cattle that browsed on the banks of the stream Clitumnus. The Volsinian lake was left in peace to its water fowl, old men reaped the harvests in Arretium, young boys cared for the sheep-shearing along the Umbro, and in the city of Luna girls pressed the grapes in the wine-vats while their fathers joined the march to Rome.

Meantime Lars Porsena took counsel with his soothsayers, and they consulted the books, in which was supposed to be written, from right to left, according to the Etruscan fashion, the future of that nation. The thirty wise men assured him that he would conquer and bring back to his own capital the shields of Rome.

The great army of Etruscans, 80,000 footmen and 10,000 horsemen, gathered before the gates of Sutrium. Enemies of Rome, men who had been banished from that city, and Mamilius, Prince of Latium, a country south of Rome, came to join the soldiers of Etruria.

In Rome there was great dismay. The farmers who lived in the open country drove their cattle, and carried their household goods, inside the city walls. From the high Tarpeian Rock the people could see the blazing towns fired by Lars Porsena on his march. The Senate of the city sat night and day, and every hour new messengers arrived with word of the enemy's advance. As they advanced the Etruscans destroyed all hostile settlements, they leveled Crustumerium, a town in the Sabine country that belonged to Rome; Verbenna, one of their generals, swept across to the port of Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber; and Astur, another leader, captured the fortified hill of Janiculum that lay across the Tiber to the west of Rome. That hill commanded the only bridge that spanned the river, and if the Etruscans should seize it they would probably soon break a way into the city.

The Consul, who was one of the chief officers of Rome, ordered the bridge destroyed, but at the same moment a messenger brought word that Lars Porsena was in sight. The Consul looked and saw the glittering line of spears and helmets, the banners of the twelve chief cities of Etruria, and the leaders themselves.

The Consul saw that the enemy were so close that their vanguard would prevent the Romans destroying the bridge in time. But even as he said this Horatius, the Captain of the Gate, stepped forward, and volunteered to hold the enemy in check, if two others would fight beside him. Instantly two brave men offered to go forth, the one Spurius Lartius, and the other Herminius.

The three Romans armed and stepped forward to the other bank of the Tiber, while the Consul, the City Fathers, and citizens seized hatchets and crowbars, and began to loosen the supports of the bridge.

The Etruscan army saw the three Romans standing at the head of the bridge, and thought it would be a simple matter to overcome them. Three chiefs rushed forward, only to fall before the swords of Horatius and his allies. More tried it, and more, but each in turn met the same fate before the Romans. At last the great Etruscan army stood at bay.

Time had been gained for the people to destroy the props of the bridge. As it began to fall, the Romans called to their three defenders. Spurius Lartius and Herminius dashed back, but Horatius was left on the other shore when the bridge crashed into the river.

Horatius would not yield, but with a prayer to Father Tiber plunged into the stream. While all eyes watched him he swam to the Roman bank. There the people raised him on their shoulders and carried him in triumph through the city gates.

Rome gave its hero a section of the public lands, and built a statue of him in the Forum. The story of how Horatius held the bridge became one of the great chronicles of Rome.

Macaulay's greatest work was his "History of England." His poems were written as recreation from heavier work, but in "Horatius" he composed one of the most vivid and stirring historical poems in the English language. It is a remarkable example of the power of direct narrative, and gains much of its force from the short, simple words and plain recital of events as if seen by the narrator.


by Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay
(A Lay made about the Year of the City CCCLX.)


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.


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.


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;


From lordly Volaterræ,

Where scowls the far-famed hold

Piled by the hands of giants

For godlike kings of old;

From sea-girt Populonia,

Whose sentinels descry

Sardinia's snowy mountain-tops

Fringing the southern sky;


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Nursia's altars

The golden shields of Rome."


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.


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.


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.


For aged folk 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.


For 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.


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 came

With tidings of dismay.


To eastward and to westward

Have spread the Tuscan bands;

Nor house, nor fence, nor dovecot

In Crustumerium stands.

Verbenna down to Ostia

Hath wasted all the plain;

Astur hath stormed Janiculum,

And the stout guards are slain.


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.


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,

Naught else can save the town."


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.


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.


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.


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 fourfold shield,

Girt with the brand none else may wield,

Tolumnius with the belt of gold,

And dark Verbenna from the hold

By reedy Thrasymene.


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.


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.


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?"


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,


"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?


"Hew 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?"


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."


"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.


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.


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.


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.


Meanwhile the Tuscan army,

Right glorious to behold,

Came 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.


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 narrow way;


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 grey crag where, girt with towers,

The fortress of Nequinum lowers

O'er the pale waves of Nar.


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.


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.


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."


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.


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.


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?"


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.


He reeled, and on Herminius

He leaned one breathing-space;

Then, like a wildcat 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.


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.


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 Lucumo comes next

To taste our Roman cheer?"


But at this 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.


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.


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 fro the standards reel;

And the victorious trumpet-peal

Dies fitfully away.


Yet one man for one moment

Stood 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."


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.


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!"


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.


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.


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.


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;

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.


"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.


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 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.


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

Bore bravely up his chin.


"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."


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.


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 it stands unto this day

To witness if I lie.


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.


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.


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;


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;


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.

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