Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Bridge (07/31/08)
TITLE: Horatius at the gate
By Gregory Kane
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Horatius unsheathed his sword, ready to lay down his life for the sake of his beloved Rome. Behind him, men laboured desperately, sawing and slashing, hammering and prising. Frantic to save their wives and children, they struggled to dismantle the Pons Sublicius and send it crashing into the mighty Tiber. But even the most optimistic among them knew that the time was too short. Thanks to the treachery of the exiled Tarquin the Proud, the Etruscans were certain to fall upon them while the wooden bridge still remained standing. Only Horatius stood between their loved ones and certain death, but how long would one man last against a thousand?
The Etruscan force gained the hill, their loud cry of triumph abruptly muted by the sight below them. Then with a howl of derision they charged the bridge. Horatius easily deflected the blows of the first two fighters to reach him. The narrow breadth of the bridge meant that the Roman could not be overwhelmed by a greater force of men. One fighter was run through the abdomen; the second slipped on his companion's body and fell to a blow to the neck. Little by little Horatius gave way, ensuring that his opponents were constantly slipping on the blood and guts of their fallen. Rage consumed the Etruscans but the more furiously they threw themselves across the bridge, the more easily Horatius rent them asunder.
A shrill horn announced the change in tactics. Reluctant warriors bade a hasty retreat as Astur, their lord’s champion, pushed his way forward. The Etruscan nobleman drew first blood and the Roman understood that his life hung by a thread. Horatius had no interest in all the modern talk of an afterlife. The Greeks might speak of a Hades ruled by somnolent Pluto, but Horatius had no time for their myths of divine philandering and condoned incest. The Etruscans were just as bad, erecting grandiose temples filled with domineering priests. But Horatius held firm to the old ways: to Jupiter, king of the gods; to Mars and Quirinus, gods of warfare, fit for a solder’s adoration; to Janus and Vesta, gods of hearth and home, apt for a father’s devotion. But Horatius’ own fealty had always been to Father Tiber, the river god, protector and sustainer of Rome. Death came to every man but, should his departure be at hand, it was fitting that he meet his end above these same raging waters.
The blood was flowing fast and free as the two warriors slugged it out. The Etruscan played towards Horatius' left, aware that his sight was impaired on that side. A cut above his right eye threatened to render him completely blind, but Horatius fought on regardless. Love of Rome stoked the fires of his anger, cries of encouragement from the workmen kept his muscles straining. Suddenly the bridge lurched and Horatius saw his opening. Feinting an overhand blow, he plunged the length of his blade through the chest wall of his opponent.
“You've got to come right now! The bridge is about to go.”
Horatius heard the invitation but he didn’t hesitate. A frenzied horde of Etruscans was racing across the bridge, determined to avenge the loss of their champion. Horatius ran to meet them, slipping on the wet planks as he charged. Somehow, incredibly, he broke the force of their onslaught in a mighty clash of steel. Then, imperceptibly at first, the bridge began to slide. Panic seized the Etruscans and they turned to flee, but the bridge was swiftly carried downstream by the violence of the waters. Horatius stood motionless, his head bowed in reverent submission to lord Tiber.
Some say that the old man of the river rose up from the depths and transported the hero to his banqueting hall. Others surmise that he was too weakened by his many wounds to struggle against the powerful current and so he drowned. But the story of Horatius lives on to this day, a testament to love, loyalty and sacrifice.
“Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13 NIV)
For further information on Horatius Cocles and the Roman Republic, see Wikipedia. Lord Macauley’s epic ballad has Horatius survive his ordeal but the earliest version by Polybius indicates that the hero perished in the Tiber
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