When Numa died, the republic passed into an interregnum. Tullus Hostilius, the grandson of that Hostilius who had famously fought the Sabines in front of the citadel, was elected king by the people and confirmed by the senate. Tullus was not peace-loving like Numa; rather, he was even fiercer than Romulus. He was young and hungry for glory, and he was convinced that the city’s idleness was making it weak, so he tried to start a war; any sort of war would do.
It happened that the Romans had plundered some of the Alban fields, and the Albans had in turn plundered some of the Roman fields. Both sides simultaneously sent diplomats to the other, demanding restitution. Tullus had ordered his diplomats to make their demands immediately because he was sure that the Albans would reject them, and then he would have a legitimate excuse for war. For his part, he prevented the Alban legates from immediately making their demands by receiving them cordially and idling away the time in feasting. Meanwhile, the Romans demanded restitution from the Albans. When the Albans rejected their demands, the Romans declared that war would begin in thirty days. They sent the message to Tullus, who then allowed the Alban diplomats to speak.
The diplomats did not know that war had already been declared, so they said, “We do not intend to say anything displeasing to you, but our superiors compel us to demand the return of our goods. We are ordered to say that if they are not returned, we will declare war.”
Tullus responded, “Tell your king that I call upon the gods to bring ruin on whichever one of us is the first to reject the others’ diplomats.” This news was brought to Alba, and both sides prepared for war.
This war was almost like a civil war between parents and children since both sides were descendants of the Trojans. The Trojans had settled Lavinium. Lavinium had colonized Alba, and Alba had given birth to the Roman kings. This, however, made the war less brutal, for there were no pitched battles, and when the roofs of one side were pulled down, the two people became one.
First, the vast Alban army attacked the Roman fields. They pitched camp about five miles from the city, in a place surrounded by a ditch; for some time after, the ditch was called the Fossa Cluilia after the Alban leader, Gaius Cluilius, until time destroyed both the ditch and the name. During the war, Cluilius died in camp, and the Albans made Mettius Fufetius dictator. Meanwhile, Tullus grew even fiercer, saying the gods had killed Cluilius as a warning: soon they would punish the rest of the Albans with the same fate.
Bypassing the enemy camp at night, the Roman army entered Alban territory. This roused Mettius. He led his army as near to the enemy as possible and requested a parley, saying that Tullus could be sure that what he had to say would be no less useful to the Romans than to the Albans. Tullus accepted the proposal, but he drew his army into ranks just in case the talks came to nothing.
After both sides had instructed their men to stay in place, the leaders and a few noblemen advanced into the middle.
Then Mettius said, “I seem to have heard our king say that we are fighting this war over some stolen property. Doubtless, you claim the same thing, Tullus. But the truth of the matter is that this war is really a contest for empire. I will not second-guess my king’s decision, but now I am the leader of the Albans, and I want to give you a warning, Tullus: we are surrounded on all sides by the mighty Etruscans. Remember, when you give the sign to start the fight, the Etruscans will be watching this spectacle, and after we have weakened each other, they will attack us both. If we are not content with certain liberty, if we must roll the dice and risk slavery to win empire, by all means, let us do it. But, for god’s sake, let’s avoid ruin and bloodshed.”
Even though he was a much fiercer man and had more hope of victory, Tullus agreed, and fortune itself soon provided the method. It happened by chance that both armies contained sets of triplets who were similar in both age and strength. We know that they were called the Horatii and Curiatii, though we don’t know which brothers were Roman and which brothers were Alban, even though this is the most famous story from all antiquity. Many historians say that the Horatii were Romans, so we will go with the majority opinion.
The kings made a treaty agreeing that the triplets would battle to the death in a sword fight and the winning side would be granted imperium…
Having made this treaty, the two ferocious sets of triplets seized their weapons and entered the space between the armies, with the exhortations of their respective sides ringing in their ears. Both sides exhorted their champions to remember that their countrymen, their kinsmen, and the gods of their fathers were watching their actions. Both sides watched the battle in front of their camps, freed from present danger but not from the fear in their hearts, for the fates of their respective empires hung in the balance.
The sign was given, and the youths ran at each other like two little armies, carrying the burdens of the larger armies in their souls. Neither side paid any attention to the danger, for their only thought was to win an empire for their country and avoid delivering it into slavery: everything depended on them.
At the first clash, their arms rattled and their swords gleamed, and the spectators were overwhelmed with awe. Neither side immediately gained the upper hand, and the crowd soon quieted as their spirits sank. Bodies clashed, spears flew, and at last blood was drawn; two Romans had fallen dead, one on top of the other. All three Albans were wounded. The Albans shouted for joy; the Romans sunk in despair, dismayed by the new odds.
Fortunately, the last Roman was unharmed. He knew that he could not fight all three of his opponents simultaneously, but he thought he could beat them one at a time. Thus, he fled from the spot, thinking that each of his opponents would chase him as their various wounds would allow and arrive at him one by one. Having run some distance, he turned and saw that there was a gap between each of his pursuers, so he reentered the fray, and killed the first attacker, amidst the shouts of the Alban army exhorting the straggling Curiatii to come to their brother’s aid. Then, Horatius closed with the second. Seeing this unexpected turn of events, the Romans lifted the spirits of their champion with their war cry; and he hurried to finish the fight. The third brother was not far off, but Horatius killed his adversary before the third brother could arrive. The untouched Horatius drew strength from his two victories; the third Curiatii practically gave up in despair, for he was wounded and tired, and the sight of his brothers’ dead body took all the fight out of him. In a moment, Horatius had him on the ground.
Exalting over his defeated opponent, Horatius crowed, “I dedicated the first two for my slain brothers, this third I consecrate to the cause of this fight: that Romans might rule over Albans.”
He then struck his sword into the throat of his opponent, who could barely lift his own shield to defend himself. Then Horatius stripped his enemy’s weapons and armor.
All the Romans’ fear turned to joy, as they cheered and congratulated the surviving brother. The two sides then turned their attention to burying their champions, though with very different spirits, for the one side had enlarged its empire, and the other side was given over to a foreign power. The graves still stand at the place where the men fell, the two Romans closer to Alba and the three Albans at some distance towards Rome.
Before the armies dispersed, Mettius asked Tullus for his commands. Tullus ordered the Albans to remain in arms, which they would need if there was a war with the Veientes. Then, both armies returned to their homes. Horatius led the army home, carrying the arms of the triplets he had killed.
Now, Horatius had one sister, who had been betrothed to one of the Curiatii. She was awaiting the army’s return in front of the Capena Gate, and recognizing that the cloak her brother was carrying over his shoulder belonged to her betrothed (for she had made it with her own hands), she tore at her hair and tearfully cried out the dead man’s name. This infuriated the fierce young Horatii, who pulled out his sword and ran the girl through, angrily exclaiming, “Since you have forsaken your brother and your fatherland, go to live with your beloved husband among the dead. So let it be done to any Roman who mourns for the enemy.”
Everyone considered this a savage crime, though somewhat excusable given the young man’s recent accomplishments. Nevertheless, he was taken to be judged by the king. Tullus did not want the common people to think him ungrateful by condemning and executing this man, so he convoked an assembly and appointed two men to judge the case. If Horatius were found guilty, he was to be whipped and then taken outside the walls to be hung from a tree. The judges did not think they had the right to absolve even harmless persons, so they proclaimed Horatius guilty of treason, condemned him to punishment, and told the lictor to bind his hands.
While the lictor was binding the noose, Horatius appealed the verdict to the Assembly of the People. His father spoke on his behalf with these words, “Men of the Assembly. Do not condemn my son to death, for my daughter has been justly slain. Indeed, were her death not just, I would have taken the right of a father and executed the boy myself. Consider my fate, men of Rome. Just a short time ago, I was the father of a large family. Now, you are about to take away my last child.”
Then the father tearfully embraced his son and pointed to the spoils that his son had taken from the Curiatii, which were fixed on the place that is now called the Pila Horatia. “Roman citizens,” he pleaded, “look at the man whom you have just cheered in victory. Can you bear to see him bound, whipped, and tortured? Can you bear to see him hanging from the gallows? Even Alban eyes could hardly bring themselves to look upon such a shameful spectacle. Go then, lictor. Bind the hands that have just won an empire for the Roman people. Cover the head that has just liberated the city. Whip his body in the city—in plain sight of the spoils of his enemy. Or if you cannot, whip him outside of the city, amongst the graves of the Curiatii. Where can you take this youth where his glories will not vindicate so disgraceful a punishment?”
The people could not bear the father’s tears or bring themselves to execute so courageous a youth, so they let him go, though it was more in admiration of his virtues than because of the justness of his case. In order to expiate such a manifest murder with some little offering, the father was ordered to make some expiation for his son at the public expense. Having made a few little sacrifices, he put up a beam over the street, and made his son walk under it with his head covered as if in a yoke. Today, this beam, which is known as the sister’s beam, is kept up at the public expense. They built a stone grave for the sister at the spot where she died.