Horatius – A Hero or a Criminal?

Once upon a time, when Rome was just a small town with a territory of only a couple of square miles a war broke out against their neighbours from Alba Longa.

This was a very special war, because:

  1. The two cities were closely connected and shared a common history. Alba Longa had been founded by Ascanius, son of Aeneas who led the Trojans to Italy after the fall of their city. The founders of Rome (Romulus&Remus – the twins suckled by a she-wolf) and its first citizens came from Alba Longa. The two cities helped each other out in many ways for decades prior to the conflict.
  2. Neither of the cities could afford a pyrrhic victory, let alone a defeat. Etruscans, the local superpower of the time, were ready to attack the survivors and expand at their cost. A victory with vast casualties would still be short-lived.

Nonetheless, the conflict between the Romans and the Albans was real and needed to be solved. Romans had plundered some Alban property and vice versa. It was difficult to say who started the trouble and both sites felt offended. The Roman king Tullus Hostilius couldn’t wait to wage war and did everything in his power to avoid a peaceful solution. However, even he was aware of the Etruscan threat. When he was approached by the Alban king with a request to end the war in a semi-peaceful way, he listened and agreed.

You may ask what a “semi-peaceful way” means. The two kings agreed on a fight that would not put at risk the lives of all their soldiers, but only a handful of them. On each side, there were triplets – all young men their best physical shape. They were related to each other and said to have been born on the same days. The Romans were called Horatii, Alban ones were Curiatii. The kings asked them to fight instead of the whole armies. The motherland of the winning group would then be proclaimed the winner of the whole war and would be entitled to rule over the losers. The six youngsters didn’t hesitate for long and agreed to fight.


Imagine the scene – two armies standing in lines facing each other, shouting to demonstrate their support, but nervous that they could be officially enslaved in just a couple of minutes. Each with a king who entrusted the fate of his city to the hands of those guys. Everyone’s hope was directed at just two groups of three brothers facing each other and waiting until they are told to attack.

A signal was finally given, and their weapons crossed in the first clash. Very soon, the fight seemed to be decided. All three Albans were injured, but very much alive. On the other side, two of the three Horatii laid there dead and things started to look grim for the Romans.

The situation of the last surviving Horatius (his name was either Publius or Marcus) was indeed unenviable. With the future of his nation on his arms, he now stood there, before a crowd of his nervous countrymen, outnumbered and with very little hope to turn the fate around. At that moment he decided to do the most un-Roman thing imaginable – he decided to flee. The Roman lines must have been surprised and terrified at the same time. Not only was a defeat pretty much unavoidable, but it would now come with great shame too. But before they could curse the young Horatius for his cowardice, they realized the man might just have a plan.

They noticed that when Horatius run, the Curiatii didn’t follow him as a group, but each on their own. All three of them suffered different wounds and not all were able to keep up the same pace. After a while, the running Horatius just stopped and turned around. He attacked the enemy closest to him and killed the first of the Curiatii before others were able to get there. He then waited for the second one and killed him too. Finishing the last one was an easy task – he was injured so severely and tired so much after the running that he wasn’t capable of defending himself properly anymore. Thus, all the Curiatii were dead and Rome officially won the war.


Horatius was deservedly celebrated as a hero. He headed home right from the battlefield with the armour of three defeated enemies in his hands. One could expect the “happily ever after” at this point, but it was not the case. Horatii had a younger sister and this girl was engaged to one of the Curiatii. The moment she saw her brother with the bloody cape that used to belong to her fiancé, she burst into tears. This, in turn, infuriated Horatius. He was very proud of himself for winning the fight and saving the freedom of his countrymen and all that, he certainly couldn’t tolerate a display of sadness instead of joy. In his anger, he killed his sister.

While saving one’s country is an honourable deed, killing one’s sister is not – so the Romans suddenly developed a divided opinion on their hero. As murder is a crime punishable by death, they turned to their king to judge the criminal. Tullus Hostilius did not enjoy that role. A crime had obviously been committed, but he didn’t want to be the one responsible for executing Rome’s greatest hero.  He found a solution worthy of a skilled politician – he employed two judges, delegated the responsibility to them and cleaned his hands. The two judges found the defendant guilty and sentenced him to death, but Horatius (taking the king’s advice) instantly appealed to the assembly of the people. His case was heard there and a testimony of his father proved very helpful. The dad publicly stated that found no guilt on his son and it was indeed his daughter’s fault to display such a despicable behaviour for which she deserved death. The old man also knew how to play on emotions and he begged the people not to kill his last living child after he just lost all three others. The speech worked, and young Horatius was acquitted.


Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri

Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities

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