Horatius Cocles was a famous Roman hero of the late 6th century BC who, first with two companions and finally alone, defended the Sublician bridge (in Rome) against Lars Porsena and the entire Etruscan army, thereby giving the Romans time to cut down the bridge. Horatius then dove into the Tiber river and swam to rejoin his army.
There are many ancient sources extolling his brave actions, but scholars still debate whether he was a real or legendary person.
The following is a marvelous bit of comedic writing by a colonel in the British Army. What makes it so great is that it beautifully depicts the workings of military bureaucracy. I was in the American Army in 1952-54, and later I served for several decades in a quasi-military government agency. I saw the same sort of inane correspondence between various commands and offices on many occasions. On one such occasion I prepared a letter of moral support to an agency employee (a friend) who was being treated for cancer. The agency director was to sign the correspondence, but by the time the letter had gone through the sort of approval process so well described in the following story my friend was dead.
Horatio at the Bridge
A Medal for Horatius
The True Story
(By Colonel W C Hall, printed in the British Army Journal, January 1953.)
Rome, II Calends, (April) CCCLX
SUBJECT: Recommendation for Senate Medal of Honor
TO: Department of War, Republic of Rome
I. Recommend Caius Horatius, Captain of Foot, CMCMXIV, for the Senate Medal of Honor.
II. Captain Horatius has served XVI years, all honorable.
III. On the II day of March, during the attack on the city by Lars Porsena of Clausium and his Tuscan Army of CMX men, Captain Horatius, with Sergeant Sporius Laritus and Corporal Julius Herminius, held the entire Tuscan army at the far end of the bridge, until the structure could be destroyed, thereby saving the city.
IV. Captain Horatius did valiantly fight and kill one Major Picus of Clausium in individual combat.
V. The exemplary courage and the outstanding leadership of Captain Horatius are in the highest tradition of the Roman Army.
Commander, II Foot Legion
Ist, Ind, AG IV Calends, (April) CCCLX
IInd Ind, G-III IX Calends, (May) CCCLX
I. For comment and forwarding.
II. Change end of paragraph III from “saving the city” to “lessened the effectiveness of the enemy attack.” The Roman Army was well dispersed tactically; the reserve has not been committed. The phrase as written might be construed to cast aspersions on our fine army.
III. Change paragraph V from “outstanding leadership” to read “commendable initiative.” Captain Horatius’s command was II men, only I/IV of a squad.
IIId Ind, G-II II Ides, (June) CCCLX
I. Omit strength of Tuscan forces in paragraph III. This information is classified.
II. A report evaluated as B-II states that the officer was a Captain Picus of Tifernum. Recommend change to “an officer of the enemy forces.”
IVth Ind, G-I IX Ides, (January) CCCLXI
I. Full name is Caius Claudius Horatius
II. Change service from XVI to XV years. One year in Romulus Chapter BPOE, has been given credit for military service in error.
Vth Ind, JAG II, (February) CCCLXI
I. The Porsena raid was not during wartime; the temple of Janus was closed.
II. The action against the Porsena raid, ipso facto, was a police action.
III. The Senate Medal of Honor cannot be awarded in peacetime (AB/CVIII-XXV, paragraph XII, C).
IV. Suggest consideration for Soldier’s Medal.
VIth Ind, AF IV Calends, (April) CCCLXI
Concur in paragraph IV, Vth Ind.
VIIth Ind, G-I I (May) CCCLXI
Soldier’s medal is given for saving lives; suggest star of bronze as appropriate.
VIIIth Ind, AG II Calends, (June) CCCLXI
IXth Ind, JAG II Calends, (September) CCCLXI
I. XVIII months have elapsed since event described in basic letter. Star of bronze cannot be awarded after XV months have elapsed.
II. Officer is eligible for Papyrus Scroll with Metal Pendant.
X Ind, AG I Calends, (October) CCCLXI
For draft of citation for Papyrus Scroll with Metal Pendant.
XI Ind, G-I III Calends, (October) CCCLXI
I. Do not concur.
II. Our currently fine relations with Tuscany would suffer and current delicate negotiations might be jeopardized if publicity were given to Captain Horatius’ actions at this time.
XII Ind, G-II VI (November) CCCLXI
A report rated D-IV, partially verified, states that Lars Porsena is very sensitive about the Horatius affair.
XIIIth Ind, G-I X (November) CCCLXI
I. In view of information contained in preceding XI and XII of the endorsements, you will prepare immediate orders of Captain C. C. Horatius to one of our overseas stations (remote).
II. His attention will be directed to paragraph XII, POM, which prohibits interviews or conversations with newsmen prior to arrival at final destination.
Rome, II Calends, I (April) CCCLXII
SUBJECT: Survey, Report of, Department of War
TO: Captain Caius Caius Horatius, III Legion, V Phalanx, APO XIX, C/O
I. Your statements concerning the loss of your shield and sword in the Tiber River of III (March) CCCLX have been carefully considered.
II. It is admitted that you were briefly in action against certain unfriendly elements on that day. However, Sergeant Lartius and Corporal Herminius were in the same action and did not lose any government property.
III. The Finance Officer has been directed to reduce your next pay by II-I/IV talents (I-III/IV talents cost of one each sword, officers; III/IV talent cost of one each shield, M-II).
IV. You are enjoined and admonished to pay strict attention to conservation of government funds and property. The budget must be balanced next year.
Lieutenant of Horse
Poor Horatius. Not only was he denied a medal for his heroic deeds, he was exiled to a remote overseas post because of certain diplomatic sensitivities. To add insult to injury, two years following the event he was charged for the loss of shield and sword as he swam the Tiber after his brave fight with the enemy.
How does the military ever get anything done? Sometimes it takes men with the genius and drive of Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon to overcome such inertia.