Roman Conquest of Italy


Horatius Cocles

Horatius Cocles at the Pons Sublicius

Bronze medallion (140-3 AD) issued by Antoninus Pius

Reverse design: Horatius Cocles’ defence of Rome at the pons Sublicius

From Matthew Roller (referenced below, 2004, p. 17, figure 1)

According to Florus, who was probably writing at the time of the Emperor Hadrian (117-38 BC):

  1. “ The first time that the Roman people took up arms after the expulsion of the kings [traditionally in 509 BC], it was for the defence of their liberty.  For, Porsenna, king of the Etruscans, [approached Rome at the head of] a huge army and was eager to restore [the deposed Tarquinius Superbus] by force. ... [Although he] seized the Janiculum, [thereby controlling the only] approach to the city [from Etruria, the Romans stood firm, thereby inspiring] him with such admiration that ... he actually concluded a treaty of friendship with an all but conquered enemy.  It was on this occasion that Horatius, Mucius and Cloelia, the three prodigies and marvels of Rome, made their appearance: if they were they not recorded in our annals, they would seem fabulous characters at the present day:

  2. Horatius Cocles, finding that he could not single-handedly drive back the enemies who threatened him on every side, after the [pons Sublicius] had been broken down, swam across the Tiber without abandoning his arms.

  3. Mucius Scaevola ... [then] attempted an attack upon [Porsenna] in his own camp.  When he was seized after aiming a blow by mistake at Porsenna’s purple-clad attendants, he placed his hand in a blazing fire and ... doubled the king's alarm by saying:

  4. ‘Behold [this act] and know the character of the man from whom you have escaped: 300 more like me have sworn to attempt the same deed.’

  5. Meanwhile, incredible to relate, Mucius was unafraid, but the king was startled as though his own hand were burning. ...

  6. Cloelia, one of the hostages that had been handed over to the king, escaped from her guards and swam on horseback through the river of her native city.

  7. Porsenna, alarmed at all these prodigies of valour, bade the Romans farewell and told them to keep their liberty”, (‘Epitome of Roman History’, 1: 4: 10).

Shortly after Florus’ work was published, Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, issued a series of medallions, the reverses of which commemorated events from the early ‘history’ of Rome (summarised by Clare Rowan, referenced below, at p. 112, table 1).  One of these (illustrated above) depicted the fully-armed Horatius Cocles swimming the Tiber after his men had destroyed the pons Sublicius, under fire from  the stranded Etruscans.

It is possible that we can trace this legend back to a verse in the ‘Aetia’ (Causes) of the Greek poet Callimachus (ca. 250 BC).  The relevant fragment is enigmatic:

  1. “As you were ...the whole of Greece ... so accomplish...”, (‘Aetia’, 4: fragment 106, translated by Susan Stephens, tab ‘Translation’) .

However, the so-called Milan papyrus of the ‘Diegeseis’ (Expositions) on the ‘Aetia’, which was written in the early Empire, included a prose summary of many of its verses, including this one, in which:

  1. “[Callimachus] says that, while the Peucetians [a partly Hellenised tribe of Apulia] were conducting a siege, Gaius of the Romans leapt from the walls and killed their leader but was wounded in the thigh.  And that, after these events, he complained that he was limping.  But, once he was upbraided, by his mother, he put a stop to his worrying”, (‘Diegeseis’, 5: 25–32, translated by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, referenced below, at p. 152; see also Susan Stephens, tab ‘Scholia’)”.

I discuss this passage in more detail below: for the moment, we should simply note that some (but by no means all) modern scholars identify ‘Gaius the Roman’ as Horatius Cocles: for example, Dan-el Padilla Peralta (referenced below, at p. 155)  pointed out that:

  1. “The identification of [‘Gaius Romanus’] with Horatius Cocles was first proposed in the scholarship in part because of the immortalisation of Horatius Cocles's jump in Ennius: ‘Horatius inclutus saltu’.”

This is a reference to a fragment of Ennius’ ‘Annales’ (ca. 170 BC), that was cited by the Augustan grammarian M. Verrius Flaccus: according to Festus’ epitome (2nd century AD) of Flaccus’ dictionary:

  1. Occasus [means] removal, as of the sun when it drops from the heavens below the earth.  Ennius, [however], used this word in place of occasio [opportunity] in Book 2:

  2. ‘Here, occasus datus est (an opportunity was given), but renowned Horatius, saltu (with a leap), ... ’”, (‘De verborum significatione’, 188 and 190 L, translated as fragment 123 by Sander Goldberg, referenced below, at p. 171).

Padilla Peralta (at p. 170 and note 99) agreed that the leaping ‘Gaius Romanus’ of Callimachus’ ‘Aetia’ and the renowned leaping Horatius of Ennius’ ‘Annales’ were both Horatius Cocles. 

I would like to concentrate here on the second part of this equation: the identity of Ennius’ renowned Horatius.  In his first edition of the‘Annales’ (1853), Johannes Vahlen did indeed identify him as Horatius Cocles, and therefore placed the fragment in Book IV.  However, in his second edition (1903), he privileged Festus’ assertion that the fragment came from Book II, where it would have related to the earlier battle between two sets of triplets, the Roman Horatii and the Alban Curiatii, which decided the fate of Alba.  While some scholars accepted this change, others did not: for example, in his review of Vahlen’s second edition, Cyril Bailey (referenced below, at p. 170) argued that Vahlen’s new location of the fragment:

  1. “... seems more than doubtful: its appropriateness [in relation to the battle of the Horatii and the Curiatii] is, to say the least of it, questionable, whereas it would form an admirable part of a description of [the heroics of] Horatius Cocles [on the pons Sublicius].”

The matter is still debated:

  1. Sander Goldberg (in his note to the translation used above) argued that Ennius’ ‘renowned Horatius’ was:

  2. “... probably the last of the [three] Horatii, [in their combat with the Curiatii, rather than Horatius Cocles], the opportunity [mentioned by Ennius] being the momentary advantage of the [Curiatii before Horatius’ leap].”

  3. The relevant passage from Livy recorded that:

  4. “So that [the last surviving Horatius] might encounter each [of the Curiatii] individually, he took to flight, assuming that they would follow as fast as their [respective] wounds would allow, [and he duly killed each of them in succession]”, (‘History of Rome’, 1: 25: 9-12).

  5. Goldberg’s argument apparently followed Vahlen’s second edition in privileging Festus’ assertion that the fragment came from Book II.  However, it is easy to see how ‘Book IV’ could have become ‘Book II’ at some point in the centuries between Ennius’ original and the date of the surviving transcriptions of Festus. 

  6. On the other hand, there are also problems with the assertion of Dan-el Padilla Peralta ( above) that Ennius had immortalised Horatius Cocles's jump in his phrase: ‘Horatius inclutus saltu’.  The problem here is that Verrius Flaccus chose this particular passage from Ennius, not because it recorded a particularly iconic Horatian leap, but because it happened to use used a particular word (‘occasus’) in a particular way.  It is true (as discussed below) that both Ennius’ ‘renowned Horatius’ and Callimachus’ ‘Gaius the Roman’ leapt, but the former leapt from the walls of Rome and neither of them can be securely identified with Horatius Cocles, who leapt from the pons Sublicius.

In other words, after more that a century, there is still no consensus as to whether the fragment from Ennius that was quoted by Verrius Flaccus recorded that:

  1. an opportunity was given to the Curiatii when it seemed that the Horatii had all been killed, but their hopes were dashed when the ‘renowned Horatius’ leapt up and took flight in order to split them up and then kill them one by one; or

  2. an opportunity was given to Porsenna and his men to kill the renowned Horatius Cocles, but their hopes were dashed when he leapt from the bridge, fully armed, and swam to safety on the Roman side of the river.

It seems to me that all we can say is that it is possible that the legend of Horatius Cocles can be traced back to Ennius and even to Callimachus, but neither contention can be proved beyond doubt.

Variant 1: Cocles Sacrifices his Life at the Pons Sublicius

The Greek historian Polybius, who was detained in Rome in 167-46 BC as a prisoner of war (albeit a well-treated one), used this period to research and record the means by which the Romans came to dominate the Mediterranean world in the five decades that culminated in the destruction of Carthage.  In his view, one factor in this astonishing success was the Roman practice of fostering a spirit of bravery among their  fighting men by perpetuating of the collective memory of the heroism  of their forebears.  He singled out the customs of recalling their heroic deeds at family funerals and of re-enacting them, with actors wearing death masks, on these and other public occasions:

  1. “By ... this constant renewal of the good report of brave men, the celebrity of those who performed noble deeds is rendered immortal ... [and becomes] a heritage for future generations, ... [so] that young men are ... inspired to endure every suffering in the interests of the state, in the hope of winning the glory that attends on brave men”, (‘Histories’, 6: 54: 2-3).

Polybius observed that a single example would be enough to prove his point:

  1. “It is said that, when Horatius Cocles was engaged in combat with two of the enemy at the far end of the bridge over the Tiber [i.e., the pons Sublicius], which lies in the front of [Rome], he saw heavy enemy reinforcements approaching ... [He] called to those behind him to retreat and cut the bridge ... [While his men were obeying] his order, he stood his ground ... and stopped the enemy advance ... Once the  bridge had been cut, ... [he] plunged into the river in full armour, ... deliberately sacrificing his life [for the good of his country, and] regarding the glory of his memory as of more importance than his [life]. ... Such, if I am not wrong, is the eager emulation of achieving noble deeds engendered in the Roman youth by their ethismoi (shared cultural practices)”, (‘Histories’, 6: 54: 6 - 6: 55: 4).

As we have seen, Polybius recorded that, when Cocles leapt from the pons Sublicius in full armour, he gave his life for his country.  However, all of our other surviving sources record that he survived.  Matthew Roller (referenced below, at p. 65, note 43) observed that the fact that Polybius’ account is the oldest to survive, this does not necessarily imply that it represented an accepted version of the legend: since Polybius had just described how Roman funeral practices provided moral inspiration for future generations:

  1. “Horatius’ death at the end of [his] narrative [closed] the loop: having received his own inspiration in this way, Horatius’ imminent funeral [would] yield a narrative of his heroic deed [that would, in turn] inspire other, young Romans ...”

It seems to me that Polybius had probably ‘witnessed’ the recital and/or re-enactment of the legend of Cocles on one or more of the public occasions that he later described in the preamble, which is why he used it to exemplify his central hypothesis.  However, I doubt that he believed that Cocles had actually existed, and that he had been inspired by tales of earlier heroes.  As a close observer of warfare, I think that he (and possibly others whose work no longer survive) simply refused to record that even a hero such as Cocles had survived a leap from the pons Sublicius into the Tiber while fully armed and under a hail of enemy fire.  In short, I think that Polybius, account probably does indicate that, in one strand of Roman tradition, Cocles was remembered simply as the man who had single-handedly defeated an invading army at the cost of his own life.  

Varian 2: Cocles Escapes Unscathed from the Pons Sublicius

Livy (ca. 27 BC) was our earliest surviving source for the historical context in which Cocles earned his place in roman ‘history’.  He recorded that, in the aftermath of the expulsion of Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, in 509 BC, the Etruscan Lars Porsenna marched on the city in an attempt to restore Tarquinius to power:

  1. “Horatius Cocles ... [happened] to be on guard at the pons Sublicius when Porsenna captured the Janiculum, [the hill just beyond the bridge], by a sudden assault.  [Cocles] ... commanded [his terrified colleagues] to break down the bridge ... and promised that he would [single-handedly] hold the enemy [while they did so] ... He held his ground ... [until the enemy advance was checked by] the crash of the falling bridge”, (‘History of Rome’, 2: 10: 2-10) . 

This part of Livy’s narrative is found (explicitly or implicitly) in all of our surviving sources.  As we have seen, Polybius (who provided no historical context for his account of Cocles’ heroics), recorded that, at this point, the fully-armed Cocels leapt to his death.  However, according to Livy, as the noise of the falling bridge filled the air:

  1. “... Cocles cried:

  2. ‘O Father Tiberinus, I solemnly invoke thee; receive these arms and this soldier into your propitious stream’. 

  3. He then leaped, fully armed, into the Tiber and, with many spears raining over him, he swam across to his men incolumis (unscathed), a daring act that posterity considered plus famae habituram ... quam fidei (more famous than credible)”, (‘History of Rome’, 2: 10: 2-11). 

Livy suggested here that there was relatively widespread scepticism surrounding the claim that Cocles had escaped unscathed (or perhaps that he had escaped alive) after his leap into the Tiber.  However, for whatever reason, he made no reference to the account by Polybius (and possibly others) in which Cocles sacrificed his life.

Valerius Maximus (ca. 30 AD), who might well have relied on Livy for this passage (albeit that he expressed no doubts about the efficacy of Cocles’ prayer), recorded that Cocles :

  1. “... threw himself in full armour into the Tiber.  In admiration of his bravery, the immortal gods kept him completely safe.   Unshaken by the height of the fall, uncrushed by the weight of his arms, unimpeded by the whirling current, unharmed by the missiles flung at him from every side, he swam safely to land.  ... In short, the defence that he afforded to our city with his shield was as effective as the defence that [Father] Tiber afforded with his channel”, (‘Memorable Deeds and Sayings’, 3: 2: 1, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, at p. 237).

The younger Seneca, in a letter written in ca. 65 AD, gave a much shorter account in which he observed that Cocles:

  1. “... plunged headlong, taking as great care to come out armed from the midst of the rushing river as he did to come out unhurt; he returned [to Rome] while preserving the glory of his conquering weapons as safely as if he had [walked] back over the bridge”, (Epistle 120, translated by Richard Gummere, referenced below, at p. 381).

Neither Valerius Maximus nor Seneca professed any scepticism. 

Variant 3: Cocles Loses an Eye at the Pons Sublicius

The cyclops Polyphemos (2nd century BC ?) 

Unknown provenance: now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

According to Varro, the unusual cognomen ‘Cocles’ meant one-eyed:

  1. “In [Ennius’ ‘Satires’ (ca. 200 BC)], we find [the following line]:

  2. ‘Treasures which ten of the Coclites buried, high on the tops of Rhiphaean mountains.’

  3. Cocles (one-eyed) was derived from [co-oculus (with an eye)] and denoted a person who had only one eye; therefore. there is [the following line] in the ‘Curculio’ [see below]:

  4. ‘I think that you are de Coclitum (one of the Coclites), for they are unoculi (one-eyed)’”, (‘On the Latin Language’, 7: 71, translated by Sander Goldberg, referenced below, at p. 329).

Ennius’ ‘Coclites’ were almost certainly the ‘mythical Arimaspi’ or ‘Arimapsian’, whom Pliny the Elder (‘Natural History, 4: 26) located at the foot of the Rhiphaean mountains, on the northern edge of the known world.  In a later book, Pliny recorded that they were:

  1. “...a nation remarkable for having but one eye, which was placed in the middle of the forehead.  This race is said to carry on a perpetual warfare with the griffins, a kind of monster, ... for [access to] the gold that they dig out of the mines, ... Many authors have written to this effect, among the most illustrious of whom are Herodotus and Aristeas of Proconnesus (a semi-legendary Greek poet whom Hesiod cited)”, (‘Natural History’, 7: 2).

The passage by Herodotus (ca. 440 BC) to which he referred is as follows:

  1. “... to the north of Europe, there is more gold by far than any where else.  ... [S]ome claim that one-eyed men called Arimaspians steal it from griffins.  But [I do not believe] that there can be men who are like other men, except that they have only one eye”, (‘Histories’, 3: 116).

Thus, Ennius knew of the ancient tribe of one-eyed Coclites, possibly following Hesiod, who believed that they had once lived at the northern edge of Europe, where they had habitually fought with griffins over the gold that was mined there in great quantities.   As Varro pointed out, he playwright Plautus was also aware of this tradition: in Act 3 of his ‘Curculio’ (ca. 193 BC), which was set in Epidaurus and was probably based on a Greek original, the eponymous anti-hero Curculio wears a false eyepatch, and claims that he lost his eye in the defence of his country, when it had been hit by a missile fired from a catapult at Sicyon, in the northern Peloponnese.   A disreputable banker called Lyco meets him with the words quoted by Varro (above):

  1. Unocule, salve (Hello one-eyed), I suppose that you are de Coclitum (one of the Coclites), for they are unoculi (one-eyed).”

Plautus obviously expected his largely illiterate audiences to appreciate the joke, presumably because they had already seen and/or heard of fights between the griffins and the Coclites/ Arimaspi over the gold from the mines ‘high on the tops of Rhiphaean mountains’.

Varro’s aetiology for the adjective ‘cocles’ (one-eyed) reached back, via Plautus and Ennius to much older Greek sources.   Servius (4th century AD) applied this received wisdom to the cognomen Cocles in his commentary on a passage from Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ (discussed below) on the presence of an image of ‘Cocles’ on Aeneas shield:

  1. “The ancients referred to a one-eyed person as ‘cocles’, and thus we read of the Cyclops called Coclites, because they were thought to have been one-eyed”, (‘ad Aen’, 8: 649).

Pliny the Elder implied that this cognomen meant one-eyed since birth:

  1. “Man is the only living creature the eyes of which are subject to deformities, from which, in fact, arose the cognomina of  ‘Strabo’ [cross-eyed] and Paetus [cock-eyed].  The ancients used to call: men who were born with only one eye, ‘Coclites’; those whose eyes were remarkably small ‘Ocellae’; and those who had lost an eye through injury ‘Luscini’”, (‘Natural History’, 11: 55).

Patricia Watson (referenced below, at p. 76, note 21) observed that:

  1. “In every case where the origin of the condition is specified, ‘luscus’ refers to a person who has lost their sight.  According to Pliny [in the passage quoted above], the word for congenital blindness in a single eye is 'cocles', though this term occurs in classical Latin only as a proper name.”

In fact, as far as I am aware, it only appears in our surviving sources as the cognomen of Horatius Cocles.  Furthermore, only four of these sources actually record that Cocles was one-eyed, and only one of these four, Servius (above), wrote in Latin: the other three wrote in Greek.  Servius did not record how Cocles lost his eye, but the other three recorded that, pace Pliny, it was the result of a war wound.

Greek Sources for Cocles’ Eye Wound

Polybius, our earliest surviving source for the legend of Horatius Cocles, made no mention of the unusual nature of his cognomen: he simply transliterated it into Greek as Κόκλης (Coclis).  However, two other ‘mainstream’ Greek sources did address this issue:

  1. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (who arrived in Rome in ca. 30 BC and whose ‘Roman Antiquities’ was published in 7 BC) informed his readers that:

  2. “... Horatius ... was called Κύκλωψ (Cyclops) from an injury to his sight, one of his eyes having been struck out in [an earlier] battle, [albeit that ?] he was the fairest of men in philosophical appearance [whatever that means], and the bravest in spirit”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 5: 23: 2).

  3. Plutarch (who spent some time in Rome in the 70s AD) similarly introduced Cocles as follows:

  4. “Horatius had been his surname Κόκλιον (Coclion) because he had [already] lost one of his eyes in the wars”, (‘Life of Publicola’, 16: 5).

  5. However, he then added a second aetiology for this cognomen that was almost certainly his own:

  6. “Some, however, say that [Horatius’] nose was flat and sunken, so that there was nothing to separate his eyes, and his eye-brows ran together, and that, for this reason, the multitude wished to call him Κύκλωπας (Cyclopas) but, by a slip of the tongue, [this became] Κόκλιον (Coclion) ... ”, (‘Life of Publicola’, 16: 5).

As I discuss further below, I think that both men had seen an ancient  statue that was believed to depict Cocles, the facial features of which were reminiscent of the traditional Cyclops.  Dionysius thought that  it depicted the one-eyed Cocles, although Plutarch was less sure.  (The reason for this uncertainty is understandable if one imagines a more damaged version of the bust of the cyclops Polyphemos (ca. 2nd century BC illustrated above). 

The important point for the discussion in hand is that neither Dionysius not Plutarch recorded that Cocles had lost his eye in the engagement at the pons Sublicius.  However, the so-called Pseudo-Plutarch drew a direct comparison between the wounding of king Philip II on the river Sandanus and that of of Cocles on the Tiber, when each was wounded in the eye:

  1. when Philip wished to plunder Methonê and Olynthus:

  2. “... while he was attempting to force a crossing at the Sandanos river, his eye was pierced by an arrow from the bow of a certain Olynthian named Aster, who uttered these words:

  3. ‘Aster sends this deadly shaft to Philip.’

  4. But Philip swam back to his friends and was saved, although he lost his eye.  So Callisthenes [see below], in the third book of his ‘Macedonian History’; and

  5. when Porsenna attempted to march on Rome:

  6. “... Horatius Cocles, who [commanded the Roman army that opposed him], took possession of the [pons Sublicius] and checked the barbarian horde that sought to cross [the Tiber].  As the enemy [seemed likely to prevail], he ordered his men to cut down the bridge, and so prevented the barbarian horde from crossing.  When his eye was struck by an arrow, he threw himself into the river and swam across to his friends.  So Theotimos [possibly 2nd century BC], in the second book of his ‘Italian History’”, (‘Moralia: Parallel Greek and Roman Stories’, 8).

As Alice Swift Riginos (referenced below. at p. 109) pointed out, the date of the pseudo-Callisthenes cited here:

  1. “... cannot be argued certitude; Jacoby [in the ‘Fragments of Greek History’], places citations circulated under his name in the 2nd century AD.”

Thus, it seems that this pseudo-Plutarch wrote several decade after the man himself.

Eye Wound of Philip II

Alice Swift Riginos (referenced below. at p. 106) observed that the historical context in which Philip lost his eye is known from the work of Theopompus of Chios (who was a contemporary of Philip II) as cited by Didymus Chalcenterus (1st century BC): Philip was wounded while he was inspecting the Macedonian siege mechanisms at Methone in 355-4 BC, when an arrow (presumably fired from the walls of Methone) pierced his right eye.  She observed that Didymus also cited Duris of Samos (ca. 300 BC) in relation to:

  1. the first variant to this tradition, in which a man called Aster inflicted this wound using a javelin inscribed with his name (p. 107); and

  2. the second variant, in which each of the three contestants in a contest of flute players that was held just before Philip was injured happened to play a composition entitled the Cyclops (pp. 109-10).

In a third variant  (p. 111) Satyrus (late 3rd century BC), cited by Athenaeus (ca. 200 AD), recorded that:

  1. “When Philip lost his eye, [a courtier], Cleisophos followed him with the same eyed bandaged  And, later, when Philip’s leg was wounded, Cleisophos accompanied the king, limping”, (‘Deipnosophists’, 6: 248f-249a).

The passage above by [Plutarch], citing [Callisthenes], is one version of Riginos’ fourth variant of this tradition (p. 112): the same passage, with the same citation, was cited by Strobaeus (5th century AD).  The place where Philip was wounded was moved from Methone to Olynthus [which Philip famously sacked in 348 BC], the arrow that pierced his eye was fired by an Olynthian named Aster, and the wound was sustained while Philip was trying to cross either the Sandanos ([Plutarch]) or the Sardon (Strobaeus).  Riginos argued (at 112-3) that:

  1. “This variant represents a re-working of the details for heightened dramatic effect.  The inspection tour of siege machinery is replaced by a gallant charge across the bridge where the king is isolated as a target.  Philip displays heroic qualities as he saves his own life even though severely wounded.  The portrayal of Philip's heroism has here been recast to evoke the legendary stand of the early Roman hero Horatius [Cocles] against the Etruscans at the Sublician bridge.  Although the Roman was the defender, the Macedonian the aggressor, the solitary swim to safety by the wounded hero is a motif taken from the legend of Horatius at the Tiber and ascribed to Philip.  What may have prompted this variant, first seen in the relatively late source [Callisthenes], in altering the firmly established saga of Philip's eye wound at the walls of Methone?  The probable answer lies in consideration of the common disability of [Philip and] Horatius, [who], as his cognomen Cocles commemorates, is said to have had but a single eye.” 

Variant 4: Cocles Sustains a Leg Wound at the Pons Sublicius

The earliest surviving example of this variant is by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who arrived in Rome in ca. 30 BC and whose ‘Roman Antiquities’ was published in 7 BC.  In Dionysius’ account, as Cocles held the Etruscans at bay on the bridge:

  1. “... he was overwhelmed by missiles and had [sustained many injuries, including] one in particular inflicted by a spear had passed straight through one of his buttocks above the hip-joint, which caused him great pain and impeded his steps, he heard the men behind him shouting out that the greater part of the bridge was destroyed,  Thereupon he leapt with his arms into the river and, swimming across the stream with great difficulty (for the current, being divided by the piles, ran swift and formed large eddies), he emerged upon the shore without having lost any of his arms in swimming”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 5: 24: 3 ).  

Dionysius subsequently made a surprising remark:

  1. “... Cocles’ lameness rendered him useless for further services to the state; and, because of this, misfortune, he obtained neither the consulship nor any other military command”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 5: 25: 3). 

Another Greek writer, Plutarch, who spent some time in Rome in the 70s AD, included a similar account of Cocles’ heroics in his account of the life of the consul P. Valerius Publicola: when Porsenna had driven the wounded Publicola and his army back over the pons Sublcius:

  1. “... Cocles kept the enemy back until his companions had cut the  bridge and then, while still fully armed, he plunged into the river and swam across to the other side, in spite of a wound in the buttocks from an Etruscan spear.  Publicola, out of admiration for his valour, proposed  ... [a number of awards for Cocles, including] a bronze statue of him [discussed below] in the temple of Vulcan, to console him with honour for the lameness consequent upon his wound”, (‘Life of Publicola’, 16: 6-7).

The earliest surviving Roman account of this variant was by the military strategist Frontinus (ca. 90 AD), who recorded that:

  1. “When Porsenna's army was pressing hard upon him, Horatius Cocles commanded his men to retreat over the bridge to the City and then to destroy the bridge in order that the enemy might not follow them.  While this was being done, Cocles himself, as defender of the bridgehead, held up the oncoming enemy.  Then, when the crash told him that the bridge had been destroyed, he threw himself into the river and swam across it in his armour, exhausted though he was by wounds”, (‘Stratagems’, 2: 13: 5).  

The Virgilian commentator Servius, who was writing in the 4th century AD, drew on this variant of the tradition in his gloss on the following passage i in which Virgil described the images on Aeneas’ shield:

  1. “There, too, was [an image of] Porsenna, ordering [the Romans to] admit the banished Tarquin and gripping the city with mighty siege, with the sons of Aeneas rushing on the sword for freedom’s sake.  You could see that Porsenna was  angry and  threatening because Cocles had dared to tear down the bridge”, (‘Aeneid’, 8: 646. translated by Henry Rushton Fairclough, referenced below, at p. 105).

Virgil said nothing more about Cocles’ heroics, but Servius completed his account as follows:

  1. “Once the bridge was down, [Cocles] threw himself into the Tiber wearing his armour and, though wounded in the hip, he still overcame its current.  Hence the famous bon mot of his: when, during the elections, his hip injury was held against him, [he remarked that]:

  2. ‘With every step, I am reminded of my triumph’”, (‘ad Aen.’, 8: 646, based on the translation by Matthew Roller, referenced below, at p. 12).

In short, in this variant, Cocles was wounded (Dionysius, Plutarch, Frontinus and Servius) in the hip and/or buttocks, becoming permanently lame (Dionysius, Plutarch and Servius).  He was consequently debarred from further public office (Dionysius and Servius), but was consoled, either by the award of a statue (Plutarch) or by the knowledge that his lameness testified to his valour (Servius).

Greek Versions of this Variant

It is possible that we can trace this legend back to a verse in the ‘Aetia’ (Causes) of the Greek poet Callimachus (ca. 250 BC).  The relevant fragment is enigmatic:

  1. “As you were ...the whole of Greece ... so accomplish...”, (‘Aetia’, 4: fragment 106, translated by Susan Stephens, tab ‘Translation’) .

However, the so-called Milan papyrus of the ‘Diegeseis’ (Expositions) on the ‘Aetia’, which was written in the early Empire, included a prose summary of many of the verses of the poem, including this one, in which:

  1. “[Callimachus] says that, while the Peucetians [a partly Hellenised tribe of Apulia] were conducting a siege, Gaius of the Romans leapt from the walls and killed their leader but was wounded in the thigh.  And that, after these events, he complained that he was limping but that, once he was upbraided, by his mother, he put a stop to his worrying”, (‘Diegeseis’, 5: 25–32, translated by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, at p. 152; see also Susan Stephens, tab ‘Scholia’)”.

As far as we know, this was the only verse in the ‘Aetia’ that related to an event from Roman history.  Susan Stephens pointed to two potential problems here:

  1. “The exact Roman context [of this event] is much debated, and possibly did not even exist.”

Her second point relates to the possible unreliability of the ‘Diegeseis’, which might have been the source for ‘Gaius the Roman’.  However, Peter Wiseman (referenced below, at p. 233) argued that Rome was perceived as part of the Hellenic world from at least the late 6th century BC, and that:

  1. “... it is not at all paradoxical that  ... [Callimachus] used the story of ‘Gaius the Roman’ as one of a number of examples illustrating] the virtues of Panhellas.”

However, that still leaves Stephens’ first point: it is certainly true that the identification of this Roman event, and thus the identity of the generic ‘Gaius the Roman’, has long been debated.  The problem is that there is no obvious example elsewhere in our surviving sources when a Roman leapt from the city walls and killled the leader of a besieging army (Peucetian or otherwise)

For example, in his obituary of Gaetano De Sanctis (died 1957), Arnoldo Momigliano (referenced below, at p. 57) observed that, in a paper of 1935, De Santis (referenced below):

  1. “... connected the name of Horatius Cocles with [Callimachus’] war against the Peucetii, in spite of the fact that it was in none of the sources known at that time.  [De Sanctis’] suggestion was not generally accepted at that time] but, a few years later, it was observed [by Rudolf Pfeiffer, referenced below, at p. 114] that the connection already existed in a passage of the ‘Stromata’ of Clement of Alexandria.”

The evidence from Clement of Alexandria (a Christian theologian who was writing in ca. 200 AD) is indirect: in a chapter on Martyrdom, he cited (inter alia):

  1. “... Posthumus the Roman, [who] did not divulge a single secret when he was captured by Peucetion: rather, putting his hand on the fire, [he] held it as if to a piece of brass, without moving a muscle of his face”, (‘Stromateis’, 4:8, search on Peucetion).

This is actually a Greek version of the Roman tradition in which, after Cocles had broken the pons Sublicius, C. Mucius attempted to murder Porsenna in his camp on the Janiculum, but instead killed his scribe by mistake.  The Roman story can be traced back, via the grammarian Nonius Marcellus (ca. 400 AD), to L. Cassius Hemina (ca. 150 BC): according to Nonius:

  1. “Cassius Hemina, in Book II of the ‘Histories’, [recorded that an unspecified Roman] thought that he was killing King Porsenna”, (‘De compendiosa doctrina’, 408 Lindsay, translated by John Briscoe in Timothy Cornell (editor), referenced below, II, at p. 257).

Clement of Alexandria relied on a source that followed a variant of this story that is known to us only from Livy, in which Porsenna threatened to burn Mucius alive unless he identified other would-be assassins, at which point, Mucius:

  1. “... thrust his hand into the fire that was kindled for the sacrifice, [and] allowed his hand to burn, as if his spirit were unconscious of sensation ... [and was thereafter] known as Scaevola [left-handed]”, (‘History of Rome’, 2: 12: 13 - 2: 13: 1).

In short, there is some evidence for a Greek version of Variant 2 in which Porsenna was replaced by either the Peucetians (Callimachus) or Peucetion (Clement of Alexandria):

  1. in the tradition known to Callimachus, ‘Gaius the Roman’ (= Horatius Cocles ?) killed the leader of the Peucetians (= Porsenna ?) outside Rome but became lame after sustaining a thigh wound and was despondent until his mother consoled him; and

  2. in the tradition known to Clement of Alexandria, Posthumus (= Gaius Mucius Scaevola ?) impressed Peucetion (= Porsenna ?) by thrusting his right hand into a fire.

However, many scholars (see, for example, Yannick Durbec, referenced below, at p. 491 and note 56) are unconvinced by the identification of  ‘Gaius the Roman’ as Horatius Cocles. 

Jackie Elliott (referenced below, at p. 69, note 169):

To explore this further, we should pick up the strand of traditions relating to a soldier who is consoled in some way after sustaining a debilitating leg wound: as we have seen above:

  1. according to Plutarch, Cocels was consoled for his lameness by the award of a statue; and

  2. according to Servius, he consoled himself with the knowledge that his lameness testified to his valour.

As Susan Stephens pointed out, Plutarch recorded similar anecdotes on two other occasions:

  1. “A Spartan, wounded in battle and unable to walk, was crawling on all fours.  He was mortified at being so ridiculous; but his mother said to him:

  2. ‘How much better it would be if you were joyful over your bravery rather than mortified by silly laughter’”, (‘Moralia: Sayings of Spartan Women’, 15).

  3. “When the thigh of  ... Philip, [King Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, reigned 359-336 BC], had been pierced by a spear in battle with the Triballi, and Philip, although he escaped with his life, was vexed with his lameness, Alexander said:

  4. ‘Be of good cheer, father, and go on your way rejoicing, that you may recall your valour at each step’”, (‘Moralia: On the Fortunes of Alexander’, 9).

Annette Harder (referenced below, at p. 783) observed, the motif of a soldier being urged to view a debilitating wound as a token of his bravery, to be worn with pride:

  1. “... may be an originally Greek tradition that, in the course of time, became attached to various historical characters in order to illustrate their fortitude.”

At this point, we might usefully digress to look at the historical basis for wounds sustained by Philipp II and the legends that later grew up around them.  The historical basis is provided by his contemporary and enemy, the Athenian statesman, Demosthenes (384-322 BC), who recorded that Philip:

  1. “... endured the loss of his eye, the fracture of his collar-bone, and the mutilation of his hand and his leg: [indeed, he] was ready to sacrifice any and every part of his body to the fortune of war, if only the life of the shattered remnant should be a life of honour and renown”, (‘On the Crown’, 18: 67).

Alice Swift Riginos (referenced below. at p. 105) observed that an analysis of other reliable sources indicates that:

  1. “Demosthenes listed [Philips’ major] injuries in chronological order: [he lost his eye] at Methone [in] 354 BC); [broke his collar bone when fighting against] the Illyrians [in] 344 BC)  and [sustained the mutilation of his hand and his leg in the context of the fighting against] the Scythians [in] 339 BC.”

I will discuss Philip’s eye wound and the plethora of legend that grew up around it in the following section.  For the moment, we should concentrate of Philip’s led wound.  The circumstances surrounding it, which are recorded with notable consistency in the surviving sources, are best summarised from the account of Justinus (late 4th century AD), in his epitome of Pompeius Trogus' ‘Philippic Histories’ (late 1st century BC): when the victorious Philip:

  1. “... was returning from Scythia, the Triballi met him and refused to allow him to pass unless they received a share of the spoil.  [This led to] a battle in which Philippus received so severe a wound through the thigh that his horse was killed [under him], and ... the booty was lost.  Thus the Scythian spoil, as if cursed, had almost proved fatal to the Macedonians.  However, as soon as [Philip] had recovered from his wound, he made war upon the Athenians ...”, (‘Epitome of Pompeius Trogus’, 9: 9: 1-4).

Alice Swift Riginos (referenced below. at p. 117) observed that only two later embellishments to this historical record are known, and both relate to the disability that was caused by the wound rather than to the circumstances in which it was sustained:

  1. The earlier of the two, by Satyrus (late 3rd century BC), cited by Athenaeus (ca. 200 AD), recorded that:

  2. “When Philip lost his eye, [a courtier], Cleisophos followed him with the same eyed bandaged  And, later, when Philip’s leg was wounded, Cleisophos accompanied the king, limping”, (‘Deipnosophists’, 6: 248f-249a).

  3. The second, by Plutarch, was mentioned above:

  4. “When [Philip’s thigh] had been pierced by a spear in battle with the Triballi, and Philip ... was vexed with his lameness, Alexander said:

  5. ‘Be of good cheer, father, and go on your way rejoicing, that you may recall your valour at each step’”, (‘Moralia: On the Fortunes of Alexander’, 9).

Dionysius on Cocles’ Statue: Conclusions

Statue of Horatius Cocles

The earliest reference in our surviving sources to the statue of Cocles was by Cicero, in 44 BC.  He observed that:

  1. “For some reason, ... we Romans give the most fulsome praise to deeds done [by military heroes] ... Hence, [the famous battles of ancient Greece] have become battlefields for orators: hence also, our own Horatius Cocles ...  and countless others ... are [praised] for their greatness of spirit.  The very fact that the statues we look upon are usually in military dress bears witness to our devotion to military glory”, (adapted from the translation by Margaret Atkins, referenced below, at p. 25).

Thus, for Cicero (as for Polybius), Cocles came first in a long list of Rome’s great military heroes.  For our purposes, the most important thing about Cicero’s observation is that it suggests that Cocles’ statue portrayed him in armour, and that it was prominent in the monumental landscape of Rome in the late Republic.   More than a century later (in a work published in 77 AD), Pliny the Elder recorded that:

  1. “... the statue of Horatius Cocles was erected [because he had] single-handedly prevented the enemy from passing the pons Sublicius: this statue remains to this day”, (‘Natural History’, 34: 11).

In a subsequent passage, he suggested that this statue, together with a famous archaic equestrian statue of Cloelia (which other sources thought had depicted Valeria):

  1. “... were the first [Roman statues] that were erected at the public expense”, (‘Natural History’, 34: 13).

Thus, Pliny considered that this statue of Cocles was one of the oldest, publicly-funded  in the city, and that it could still be seen in 77 BC. 

At the end of his account of Cocles’ heroics, Livy recorded that:

  1. “The state was grateful for so brave a deed: a statue of Cocles was set up in the Comitium, and he was given as much land as he could plough in a day”, (‘History of Rome’, 2: 10: 12).

According to Aulus Gellius:

  1. “The statue of that bravest of men, Horatius Cocles, which stood in the Comitium at Rome, was struck by lightning.  Haruspices were summoned from Etruria to make expiatory offerings because of that thunderbolt.  They ... [intentionally] gave the misleading advice that the statue should be moved to a lower position, on which the sun never shone ... [When their bad faith was discovered and they were] brought to trial before the people, ... [they] confessed their duplicity and were put to death.  ... [The statue was then] moved to a more elevated position in area Volcani; and, after that was done, the matter turned out happily and successfully for the Romans”, (‘Attic Nights’, 4: 5: 1-4).

Gellius named his sources as the ‘Annales Maximi’ and the ‘Rerum memoria dignarum libri’ of Verrius Flaccus.  Bruce Frier (referenced below, at p. 40) argued that Gellius had in fact derived this material directly from Verrius Flaccus, who had, in turn, cited the ‘Annales Maximi’.  He also argued (at p. 63) that the statue had been moved from the Comitium to the Volcanal during the transformation of the Comitium in the late Republic (discussed further below).  If this is correct, then the statue would have actually been in area Volcani when Livy recorded its original erection in the Comitium.  Certainly, nothing in his brief account of its award suggests that he had actually seen it.  On the other hand, Pliny the Elder (above) had seen it, presumably in the Volcanal in ca. 77 AD.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus

The earliest surviving description of the statue was written by Dionysius then turned to Cocles’ reception at Rome:

  1. “[Everybody] expected that Cocles would soon succumb to his wounds: when he escaped death, [they] erected a bronze statue of him, fully armed, in the principal part of the Forum, and gave him as much public land as he could plough in a day”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 5: 25: 1-2).

This passage contains the earliest surviving description of the statue, which Dionysius recorded as rendered in bronze and depicting Cocles fully armed. Dionysius is our only source for the detail that an Etruscan spear had ‘passed straight through one of [Cocles’] buttocks above the hip-joint’. 

It seems that Dionysius might well have been the source of the ‘tradition’ that Cocles was lamed during his engagement at the pons Sublicius, and that his graphic account of the wound that had been:

  1. “ ... inflicted by a spear had passed straight through one of his buttocks above the hip-joint”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 5: 24: 3);

might well have been inspired by marks on the statue in the corresponding places. 

This would have been enough to allow him to draw on Greek traditions relating to the travails of King Philip of Macedonia.  His assertion that the resulting disability disqualified Cocles from further public office might have arisen from the need to explain why Cocles disappeared from Roman ‘history’ at this point.  However, Dionysius would have also recognised the parallel here between Cocles and Hephaestus/ Vulcan, who was banished from Olympus because he too was lame.  Thus, although Dionysius was not explicit about the location of the statue, it seems to me that that his phrase ‘in the principal part of the Forum’ indicated the Volcanal. 


Another Greek writer,

This is an extraordinarily graphic description of Cocles’ unfortunate facial features, which reminded Plutarch of the gigantic one-eyed Cyclopes of Greek mythology, is certainly redolent of the  head of a Cyclops illustrated here:

Dionysius had noted that:

  1. “... one of [Cocles’] eyes having been struck out in a battle, and he was the fairest of men in philosophical appearance and the bravest in spirit”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 5: 23: 2).

We have seen from Pliny the Elder that the statue could still be seen at his time of writing (ca. 77 AD), and that Plutarch’s stay in Rome took place at about this time.  It seems to me that, like Dionysius, Plutarch has seen this statue, and that both men had been struck by its ugly face:

  1. Dionysius seems to have contrasted Cocles’ unfortunate physical appearance, as portrayed on the statue, with his ‘fair philosophical appearance’ (whatever that means); while

  2. Plutarch recorded more bluntly that the face, as portrayed on the statue, was redolent of that of a one-eyed Cyclops.

He then described the circumstances in which this statue had been awarded: 

  1. “Publicola, out of admiration for [Cocles’] valour, proposed that every Roman should immediately contribute as much as he consumed in a day, and that he should also be given as much land as he could plough in a day.  Besides this, they set up a bronze statue of him in the temple of Vulcan, to console him with honour for the lameness consequent upon his wound”, (‘Life of Publicola’, 16: 7).

Plutarch is the first of the surviving sources to state explicitly that this statue was in the Volcanal (and the much later ‘De viris illustribus urbis Romae’ (at 11: 2) also placed it “in Vulcanali”).  The last sentence in this passage indicates that Plutarch assumed that the Volcanal had been the statue’s original location, and that it had been placed there precisely in order to console Cocles with the knowledge that he shared his lameness with the patron of the shrine. 

Plutarch recorded that Cocles had leaped into the Tiber fully armed, and we know from Dionysius was how he was depicted in the statue (although Livy, who had probably not seen the statue, also recorded this ‘fact’).

  1. Plutarch also recorded that Cocles had been rendered lame by a wound in the buttocks from an Etruscan spear: he could have taken this information from Dionysius, but it seems to me to be more likely that both men had taken it directly from the statue.

Horatius Cocles: Conclusions

The surviving sources indicate that Cocles’ statue originally stood in the Comitium (Livy), and that it was subsequently moved to the Volcanal (Gellius/ Verrius Flaccus/ ‘Annales Maximi’).  We learn from Cicero (above) that it could still be seen in one of these locations in 44 BC.  We might deduce which one from another Ciceronian passage, that was also written in 44 BC:

  1. “Lar Tolumnius, the king of Veii, killed four ambassadors of the Roman people at Fidenae, whose statues were still standing in the rostra within my recollection”, (‘Philippics’: 9:4).

Cicero would have seen the statues of the four ambassadors before they were removed from the rostra (on the southern part of the Comitium)  in the 70s BC (see below): it is therefore almost certain that he had also seen the statue of Cocles in the Comitium itself in this period, and that he had subsequently witnessed the removal of all five statues and the subsequent relocation of the statue of Cocles in the Volcanal.  Pliny the Elder recorded that, at his time of writing (ca. 77 AD):

  1. the Volcanal still existed in an apparently archaic form next to an ancient lotus tree (‘Natural History’, 16: 86); and 

  2. the statue of Cocles could also still be seen at his time of writing (‘Natural History’, 34: 11).

We might therefore reasonably assume that the statue could be still seen in the Volcanal at this time. 

The surviving sources also tell us something about how Cocles was represented in this statue.  Cicero’s remark that statues of Rome’s ancient military heroes were usually depicted them in armour suggests that this was how Cocles (the first in his list of examples) was portrayed.  I argued above that Dionysius and Plutarch (the only two of our surviving sources to describe the statue) had both seen it in the Volcanal.  They both described it as rendered in bronze, and Dionysius recorded that it depicted Cocles fully armed.  As discussed above, neither of them followed Livy in recording that Father Tiberinus had protected Cocles from all harm:

  1. Dionysius insisted that he had sustained many wounds before leaping from the bridge, including one from a spear that had pierced one of his buttocks above the hip-joint; and

  2. Plutarch recorded a wound in his buttocks from an Etruscan spear.

I argued above that it is likely that each of them had derived this information directly from the iconography of the statue.  I also argued that both had been struck by the ugliness of the statue’s face (which reminded Plutarch of a one-eyed Cyclops).  Finally, I argued that the nature of the wound that Cocles had apparently suffered and the fact of the location of his statue in the Volcanale had coloured the testimonies of each of these Greek authors:

  1. Dionysius had invented the ‘fact’ that Cocles’ lameness had precluded him from further inclusion among the Roman élite because Hephaestus’ lameness had led to his expulsion from Mont Olympus; and

  2. Plutarch had asserted (incorrectly but understandably) that Cocles’ statue had been located in the shrine of the lame Hephaestus precisely in order to console him for the lameness that he had suffered in his heroic defence of Rome.

It is clear that Livy doubted the authenticity of the source(s) from which he drew some, if not all, of his account of  Cocles’ heroism on the pons Sublicius.  It seems to me that some sort of theatrical performance would have been the most obvious (albeit possibly indirect) source for the crashing of the bridge and the wording of Cocles’ prayer (for example).  Dan-el Padilla Peralta, referenced below, at p. 170) argued that Ennius’ use of the word ‘saltu’ (leaping) in the fragment quoted above::

  1. “... is a significant buried clue and cue for performativity and performability.”

If I have understood this correctly, he meant that Ennius’ language would naturally suggest and was perhaps derived from a staged performance.

Read more:

D. Padilla Peralta, “Divine Institutions: Religions and Community in the Middle Roman Republic”, (2020) Princeton NJ and Oxford

S. Goldberg (translator), “Ennius. Fragmentary Republican Latin, Volume I: Testimonia; Epic Fragments”, (2018) Cambridge, MA

M. Roller, “Models from the Past in Roman Culture: A World of Exempla”, (2018) Cambridge and New York

C. Rowan, “Showing Rome in the Round: Reinterpreting the 'Commemorative Medallions' of Antoninus Pius”, Antichthon, 48:1 (2014) 109-25

T. J. Cornell (editor), “The Fragments of the Roman Historians”, (2013) Oxford

J. Elliott “Ennius and the Architecture of the Annales” (2013) Cambridge and New York

A. Harder, “Callimachus: Aetia”, (2o12) Oxford

Y. Durbec, “Individual Figures in Callimachus”, in

  1. B. Acosta-Hughes et al. (editors), “Brill's Companion to Callimachus”, (2011) Leiden and Boston, at pp. 474-92

M. Roller, “Exemplarity in Roman Culture: The Cases of Horatius Cocles and Cloelia”, Classical Philology , 99:1 (2004), 1-56

D. Shackleton Bailey (translator), “Valerius Maximus: Memorable Doings and Sayings, Volume I: Books 1-5.”, (2000) Harvard MA

A. S. Riginos, “The Wounding of Philip II of Macedon: Fact and Fabrication”, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 114 (1994) 103-19

E. M. Atkins, (translator), “Cicero: On Duties”, (1991) Cambridge

P. Watson, “Martial's Fascination with 'Lusci'”, Greece and Rome, 29:1 (1982) 71-6

B. Frier, “Libri Annales Pontificum Maximorum: The Origins of the Annalistic Tradition”, (1979) Rome

R. Pfeiffer, “Callimachus: Volume II: Hymni et Epigrammata”, (1953) Oxford

A. Momigliano, “Camillus and Concord”, Classical Quarterly , 36: 3/4 (1942) 111-20 

G. De Sanctis, “Callimaco e Orazio Coclite”, Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione. Classica, 14 (1935) 289-301

R. Gummere (translator), “Seneca: Epistles, Volume III: Epistles 93-124”, (1925) Harvard MA

H. Rushton Fairclough (translator), “Virgil: Aeneid, Books 7-12; Appendix Vergiliana”, (1918) Cambridge, MA

C. Bailey, “Review of Ennianae Poesis Reliquiae by Johannes Vahlen”, Classical Review, 18:3 (1904) 169-72

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