Horatii and Curiatii: Fight or Flight?

Titus Livius Patavinus

I don’t often write about ancient Greek or Roman history, but I found an interesting story that I thought was awesome, and I had to pass it on. Titus Livius Patavinus, a Roman historian that lived from 59 BC – AD 17, tells in his book Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Foundation of the City) of a battle that took place in 670 BC. As I gathered resources to write a post, I ran across this version of the story on the Dallas Area Network for Teaching and Education’s (DANTE) website. This organization is part of the University of Dallas. I don’t think I could tell the story any better than it is told here, so  enjoy DANTE’s The Horatii and Curiatii!

The Horatii and Curiatii

During the reign of Tullus Hostilius (c. 670 BC), the Romans found themselves at war with the Albans, their close kinsman. Because of these close ties, when their two armies met in the field Hostilius and the king of Alba Longa decided [to] avoid unneeded bloodshed. Each army happened to contain a set of triplets. It was decided that these brothers should fight as champions for each side. The Horatii Brothers fought for the Roman side, and against them stood the Curiatii brothers. The home city of the losing side would be destroyed.

In the initial battle, all three of the Curiatii were wounded. Two of the Horatii were killed. The sole remaining Roman champion was left to fight the three Curiatii. He however, was the only one not wounded. Not able to fight three men at once, the remaining Horatius turned and ran. The three Curiatii pursued him. One, who was only slightly wounded, managed to keep up. Another, who was wounded more seriously, lagged behind. The third, seriously wounded, fell far behind.

Now that the brothers were separated, Horatius turned around and dispatched of the fastest brother. Then, he met the second brother and killed him as well. The third brother, seriously wounded, was no match for the healthy Horatius. Declaring that he had killed the first two to avenge the loss of his own brothers, and that he would now kill the third for Rome. Horatius then plunged his sword into the neck of the helpless man.

Upon returning to Rome, Horatius met his younger sister, who happened to have been betrothed to one of the Curiatii. When she realized her fiancé was dead, she began to grieve for him. Enraged, Horatius took out his sword and stabbed his sister in the heart.

Horatius was arrested and put on trial for his crime. As per the law, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. At that moment, however, Horatius’ father stepped forward and pleaded for his son. He said that his daughter deserved what she got. If it were not the case, he would have killed Horatius himself, as was the right of the father. On top of that, he said that he had already lost two sons, and it would be unjust to deprive him of the third.

Remembering Horatius’ heroic actions in the battle and his father’s moving words, Horatius was set free. The only punishment declared for so grievous a crime was that the Horatian family must hold a festival for the people, something which the family continued to do yearly afterwards.

Oath of the Horatii (1784) Jacques-Louis David


The above article can be found at http://dante.udallas.edu/hutchison/Seven_kings/Hostilius/horatii_and_curiatii.htm.