One of the very popular tropes in action films is the lone fighter making a courageous last stand in order to buy time for others to get to safety. “Go! Save yourselves!” is the command through gritted teeth. “I’ll stay and hold them off as long as I can!” Typically the odds are wildly against this hero: an entire army, a savage monster, a powerful wizard. “He’s never gonna make it,” someone in the retreating party will mourn. “I’ll never meet anyone braver than him!”
It’s a popular tradition in stories of physical courage. One of the most enduring versions that has been told again and again since Roman times is the legend of Horatio at the Bridge.
The mighty army of the Etruscans was marching toward Rome, which was still a young and small city. Farmers and villagers from the surrounding countryside had fled in advance of the enemy, streaming across the bridge that spanned the river Tiber, seeking shelter within Rome’s walls. “But what happens if the Etruscans cross the bridge?” the people wailed. “They will tear down our walls and destroy us!”
A troop of Roman soldiers stood guard on the bridge, hearts pounding with suspense. At last, over the crest of a hill showed a line of spears that grew taller and taller as the advancing soldiers marched forward. The army came on inexorably, massive and terrible, the tramp of their feet booming like thunder. Rome’s walls could not withstand an assault by such a force.
Among the soldiers stood young Horatio, tall and proud. “We must tear down the bridge,” he said to his companions.
“There’s no time, Horatio!”
“Tear it down, I’ll hold them off,” he replied, gripping his shield straps tight in his fist. While the other soldiers raced to the safe side of the river and began hacking at the wooden bridge, the vanguard of the Etruscan army came within shouting distance.
“Who among you will fight in single combat!” Horatio cried, evoking the epic battle between Achilles and Hector before the gates of Troy. “One soldier of Rome stands to fight your whole army! Who among you will do the honor?! Or are you an army of slaves, ordered to die by a tyrant?”
The Etruscans hung back, unsure how to proceed. Horatio could hear the frantic chopping behind him, and the groaning creak as weakened bridge timbers began to sag. From among the ranks of the Etruscans, someone threw a dart, hitting Horatio in the eye. Emboldened, the enemy surged forward, and several spears flew toward the lone hero. Horatio warded them off with his shield. Then, as he heard the bridge collapse with a great splash into the Tiber behind him, he dove into the river.
The Romans who watched this show of bravery turned their faces away in grief. Their city was saved, but how could Horatio survive falling blinded into the flooded Tiber in full armor? “Wait! Look there!” came a triumphant shout. And there, swimming powerfully across the churning river, was Horatio. Cheers of victory greeted him when he reached the Roman shore, and forever afterward he was hailed as one of the greatest heroes of the Republic.