This artwork, created by the French artist Jean-François Janinet (c. 1752 – 1814) after Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier I (1738 – 1826), re-creates a story from the early folkloric history of the ancient kingdom of Rome and its interactions with the nearby community of Alba Longa. Historically, Alba Longa is thought to have been a significant settlement well before 1,000 BCE and remained a powerful city in Italy until the 7th century BCE, when it was presumably challenged by Rome and ultimately destroyed around 600 BCE. While we will never know specific details of the conflict between Rome and Alba Longa, writers such as Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE) preserved the conflict, albeit in a dramatic and embellished fashion, within their works on the folklore of early Rome.
In his History of Rome, Livy alleged that the war between Rome and Alba Longa began because of a cattle dispute—both cities were reportedly stealing the livestock of the other and neither side wanted to return the stolen property. War was eventually declared because of the issue, but before battle commenced, the leaders of the cities agreed to an odd solution—the war would be settled with a duel between chosen champions of each city. Oddly enough, both Rome and Alba Longa chose as their champions sets of triplet brothers—the Horatiii and the Curiatii. According to Livy, there was some debate about which group of brother belonged to which city, but most accounts of the tale placed the Horatii in the Roman camp.
Both the Horatii and the Curiatii agreed to fight to the death on behalf of their homelands, and the showdown was facilitated by the construction of a special arena that was put together by the two armies. The duel, narrated dramatically by Livy, allegedly began to the sounds of trumpets and cheers—it was quite the raucous event as the fight ensued. To the horror of the Romans, their Horatii triplets began the fight terribly. The Roman brothers fell in quick succession until only one, Publius Horatius, was left alone to face all three Curiatii siblings. Nevertheless, by using expert footwork, patience, and well-placed blows, the lone Roman was able to evade his enemies until an opportune moment arrived, allowing him to counter-attack and slice through his three pursuers, dropping one after the other as they carelessly raced toward his readied blade. With the duel over, the Albans were said to have made momentary peace with Rome.
This ancient tale of the duel between the Horatii and the Curiatii is the story that is re-created in Jean-François Janinet’s artwork. It should be said, however, that although the artwork focuses on the combat of the tale, there is much more to the story of the Horatii and the Curiatii than just the duel, itself. As added drama, legend claimed that the rival triplets were all about to be brothers-in-laws before the duel occurred, for a sister of the Roman Horatii had been recently engaged to marry one of the Curiatii brothers. Despite the close relationship between their two clans, the rival sets of triplets agreed to fight, for the theme to Livy’s tale was that the city is more important than love and family. Emphasizing the tragic nature of the duel, the would-be groom from the Curiatii brothers was said to have shown up to the fight proudly wearing a cloak that had been lovingly made for him by his betrothed. The token, however, did not help him, as the Curiatii brothers, including the one that was engaged to be married, were all killed in the duel.
In a disturbing epilogue to the tale, the lone victor of the duel, Publius Horatius, was said to have gone on to murder his sister who had been formerly engaged to marry the slain Curiatii brother. Horatius was reportedly acquitted with almost no punishment after the murder. Adding insult to injury, it soon turned out that the Curiatii triplets, the two Horatii brothers and their tragically slain sister all ironically died for nothing, because the Albans eventually resumed their hostilities against Rome after the duel. In response to the end of the truce, Rome once again went to war and this time destroyed the city of Alba Longa.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.