When it comes to the distant past, it’s often hard to distinguish fact from fiction. You have to rely on sources, and the further removed in time a particular person or event is, the harder it becomes to figure out what that person was actually like or what really happened.
The ancient Greeks, as well as (later) the Romans, considered the Trojan War to have been an historic event that unfolded more or less along the lines of what’s been detailed in epic poetry. Heroes like Achilles and Hector were thought to have actually existed. When Alexander the Great crossed into Asia Minor, he made a point of visiting what was purported to be Achilles’ tomb. The Romans traced their ancestry back to the Trojan hero Aeneas.
Another example is the ancient Athenians’ belief that their hero Theseus had actually existed and lived in a time before the outbreak of the Trojan War; in Classical times, what were believed to have been his bones were even retrieved and reburied in Athens. And further examples could be added almost ad infinitum.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived in the fifth century BC, is widely credited with being the first historian as we understand the term: a person who seeks to understand the past through rigorous research. However, Herodotus is also considered as the last great logographer, or writer/collector of stories (logoi). In his book, he seeks to place the Graeco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century BC in context by delving into the past of both the Greeks and the Persians, and by describing the customs and cultures of the peoples who lived within and just without the borders of the Persian Empire.
Herodotus’ text reads less like what we would consider a proper history text, and more like the writings of a good journalist, who has gone to various places described in his book and has questioned people who were eye witnesses to the events that he describes. Of course, he didn’t have much in the way of early written sources to base his work on: he relies mostly on first, second, or even third-hand accounts of others, who told him their stories (and their gossip) face to face.
The result is that Herodotus’ account is more trustworthy the closer the events are to Herodotus’ own time. The further removed in time the events are that he describes, the more skeptical we ought to be. In general, Herodotus’ text is perfectly fine for most of what happens from around 530 BC onwards, but as we move further back in time, the more fact and fiction become intertwined, until finally we arrive in the era of legendary heroes and the Trojan War.
Of course, a problem is that Herodotus is often the only source that we have available, which makes it hard to verify his account. As a general rule, we should treat whatever an ancient claims to have happened with an ever larger grain of salt the further removed in time the author is from the events that he purports to describe, especially if there are no other, older written sources or available to back up those claims.
The legend of Horatius Cocles
If early Greek history is shrouded in a fog that can only be reliably pierced thanks to the efforts of archaeologists, the same is also true for the early history of Rome. The historian Titus Livius (59 BC to AD 17), normally referred to in English as Livy, wrote a massive history of Rome called Ab Urbe Condita (“From the Foundation of the City”). Perhaps more so than the pioneering Herodotus, Livy treated his sources with circumspection, and made a point of indicating whether he was able to verify a particular story. (Of course, by Livy’s time, there was a pretty big corpus of Roman “history” from which to draw on, whereas Herodotus had to rely almost exclusively on oral traditions.)
One of the most interesting stories from early Rome concerns an attack by Lars Porsenna of the Etruscan city of Clusium (modern Chiusi in Tuscany) against Rome in order to install a new Etruscan king there. Livy makes it a point to say the events happened in the year that Publius Valerius and Titus Lucretius were consuls; with Valerius even serving for the second time (Livy 2.9), or around 510-507 BC. (The chronology for early Rome is a complex subject that I won’t go into here. Publius Valerius, at least, is attested through epigraphy.)
As Livy records the story, the Romans all fled to their city when the Etruscans arrived. The city was protected by walls and the River Tiber. Whether Rome actually had a circuit wall around 500 BC is a major question in Early Roman studies. In any event, there was only one vulnerable point, but a brave man stepped up to defend it. As Livy tells it (2.10):
The bridge of piles almost afforded an entrance to the enemy, had it not been for one man, Horatius Cocles; he was the bulwark of defence on which that day depended the fortune of the City of Rome. He chanced to be on guard at the bridge when Janiculum was captured by a sudden attack of the enemy. He saw them as they charged down on the run from Janiculum, while his own people behaved like a frightened mob, throwing away their arms and quitting their ranks. Catching hold first of one and then of another, blocking their way and conjuring them to listen, he called on gods and men to witness that if they forsook their post it was vain to flee; once they had left a passage in their rear by the bridge, there would soon be more of the enemy on the Palatine and the Capitol than on Janiculum. He therefore warned and commanded them to break down the bridge with steel, with fire, with any instrument at their disposal; and promised that he would himself receive the onset of the enemy, so far as it could be withstood by a single body.
Horatius Cocles (“One-Eyed”) strode out to the head of the bridge. Two other Romans – Spurius Larcius and Titus Herminius – joined him in his efforts to keep the Etruscans at bay. When the fighting grew too grim, Horatius told his two companions to save themselves. At this point, little was left of the bridge. In language that recalls ancient epic, Livy describes how Horatius caught the Etruscan javelins on his shield as Porsenna’s army once again descended upon him.
Finally, the bridge collapsed. At that point,
Cocles cried, “O Father Tiberinus, I solemnly invoke thee; receive these arms and this soldier with propitious stream!” So praying, all armed as he was, he leaped down into the river, and under a shower of missiles swam across unhurt to his fellows, having given a proof of valour which was destined to obtain more fame than credence with posterity.
And in that final sentence (“more fame than credence”) Livy betrays that he has his doubts as to whether or not this story is more than just a pleasant fiction. That he refers to posterity suggests that many people considered it unlikely that Horatius, with or without his two companions, would have been able to repel the whole of Porsenna’s army and still make it out alive! (As an aside, Polybius 6.55 notes that Horatius died in the river.)
Of course, stories don’t have to be true in order to be meaningful. Livy need not have believed that three men could defend a bridge against an entire army, let alone a single individual, and live to tell the tale. But the story is powerful and inspiring: in its telling, others might draw courage.