The Horatii Entering Rome, By Adrian van Stalbemt (c. 1580-1662)

This painting, by the Flemish artist Adrian van Stalbemt (c. 1580-1662), re-creates the tragic ending of the ancient Roman myth or legend of the Horatii. This curious folktale was set in the late 7th century BCE, when the ancient kingdom of Rome was embroiled in a conflict with a rival city called Alba Longa. While we will never know specific details of the conflict between Rome and Alba Longa, ancient writers such as Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE) preserved a vague memory of the war, albeit in a dramatic and embellished fashion—namely, with the legend of the Horatii.

As told by the ancient Roman storytellers, the Horatii were a set of triplet brothers who served as champions for the Roman kingdom during the city-state’s war against Alba Longa. In the course of the war, both belligerent factions allegedly agreed to settle their conflict through the means of a duel. The Romans, so the story goes, chose the Horatii trio to represent them in the fight. Alba Longa, for its part, also chose a set of triplet brothers as their champions—in their case, the brothers were collectively called the Curiatii. Now, these rival triplets were not strangers. Quite the opposite, the ancient legends linked the families of the Horatii and Curiatii in such dramatic and romantic ways that it would impress even Shakespeare.

In brief, the Horatii and the Curiatii would all have been brothers-in-law if not for the war and duel. According to legend, a sister of the Roman Horatii had been recently engaged to marry one of the Curiatii brothers. Unfortunately, the wedding preparations went too slowly, causing the families to ultimately call off the union as war broke out and the rival triplets were chosen as champions for their respective cities. Nevertheless, the Horatii sister and her lover among the Curiatii were still very much in love. The would-be Curiatii groom, like a chivalric knight, brought a token from his beloved into battle. It was a cloak that had been lovingly made for him by the woman he had hoped to marry. Yet, as the brothers arrived for the fight, there was no longer any option for peace. Either all or the Horatii or all of the Curiatii would die in the dueling grounds.

Livy, the aforementioned ancient Roman writer, painted the scene of the duel with great attention to drama. To the horror of the Romans, their Horatii triplets fought terribly. The Roman brothers fell in quick succession until only one, Publius Horatius, was left alone to face all three Curiatii siblings. Staring down the three warriors, Horatius could think of only one strategy—to run. The Romans looked on with dismay as the three Alban warriors chased the lone champion from Rome around the arena. Yet, Horatius was sprinting around the battlefield for a reason. As the Alban champions were chasing their prey, they fell into a single-file line. Seeing an opportunity, Horatius suddenly stopped and began his attack. Using good footwork and well-placed blows, the lone Roman sliced through his three pursuers, dropping one after the other as they raced toward him individually. The Romans cheered as Horatius killed the first Curiatii and then the second. For his final opponent, Publius Horatius faced the man who would have been his brother-in-law if war had been avoided. Showing no mercy, the Roman killed his foe and even looted from his body the cloak that was handmade by Horatius’ sister.

With the duel over, the Albans were said to have made momentary peace with Rome. Noncombatants waiting with anticipation in Rome for news of the duel could see the Roman army celebrating on the road as it returned home. At the forefront of the Roman troops was Publius Horatius, proudly wearing the plundered bloodstained cloak that had been made by his sister. While the population of Rome cheered for the army’s valiant return, one woman at the Capena gate could only cry. This sobbing woman was Horatius’ sister, who was shocked into tears of anguish and grief when she saw her brother wearing the bloodied cloak that she had given to her beloved. She did not stifle her crying at all, but bawled for the entire populace of Rome to hear. Publius Horatius, who had previously only heard cheers and praise, now heard someone killing the triumphal mood with wails and sobs. The sound of a Roman not appreciating his victory annoyed Publius Horatius, and his anger did not abate even after discovering it was his own sister who was crying.

At this point, the tale takes an incredibly dark turn. Instead of consoling his distraught sister, Horatius did the unthinkable. He grabbed a sword, angrily marched over to his sobbing sibling and plunged the blade deep into her chest, piercing her heart. As she bled to death, Horatius growled abuse over his sister’s body: “’Take your girl’s love,’ he shouted, ‘and give it to your lover in hell. What is Rome to such as you, or your brothers, living or dead? So perish all Roman women who mourn for an enemy!’” (Livy, History of Rome, Book I, section 26). It is this horrible portion of the legend that seems to be re-created in Adrian van Stalbemt’s painting. In the artwork, a woman (presumably the sister of the Horatii) can be seen lying motionless on the ground as the rest of the city of Rome celebrates the victory of Publius Horatius.

To Rome’s credit, the legend went on to tell that the Romans later arrested Horatius and put him on trial for murder. Yet, the murdered sister was not given justice by the court. The Roman populace cried out for Horatius to be spared, and even the father of the Horatii (who had lost two sons and one daughter that day) spoke in defense of his son. The only way for the father to save his last living child was to besmear the memory of his own daughter. Livy wrote, “In the course of the hearing the decisive factor was the statement of Horatius’ father, to the effect that his daughter deserved her death” (History of Rome, Book I, section 26). With such pleas on his behalf, Horatius was said to have been acquitted with almost no punishment. Ironically, the Curiatii triplets, the two Horatii brothers and their tragically slain sister all died for nothing. According to the tale, the Albans resumed their hostilities against Rome after the duel. In response, Rome once again went to war and this time destroyed the city of Alba Longa around the year 600 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


Leave a Reply