The scene above, painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), depicts a story from the folkloric history of the ancient kingdom of Rome. Before Rome was an empire, and before it was a republic, the Romans were ruled by kings. The figures depicted in the painting would have lived during the reign of King Tullus Hostilius (c. 7th century BCE). On the left side of the canvas, the men with their hands outstretched toward the upraised swords are Jacques-Louis David’s representation of the Horatii—triplets who would play a major role in the Roman king’s army. Not long after the conclusion of this scene captured in paint, the Horatii would go off to act as champions for the Roman military, facing off against a rival set of Alban triplets in a duel to the death that would decide which city would rule the other. The Roman historian Livy (59 BCE-17 CE) told of their folkloric tale in his History of Rome:
“In each army there were three brothers—triplets—all equally young and active, belonging to the families of the Horatii and Curiatii…To these young men the two rival commanders made their proposal, that they should fight, three against three, as the champions of their countries, the victorious to have dominion over the vanquished: the proposal was accepted” (History of Rome, I.24)
Of the three Roman triplets that would enter the duel, only one would survive to celebrate Rome’s bittersweet victory. In Livy’s History of Rome, the tale of the surviving Horatii continued after the duel, whereupon the narrative would descend into a dark and sad story. Read about the full story in our article, HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.