Too Many Consuls, Too Few Captains
The poem tells us how the Etruscan potentate, Lars Porsena, grew tired of what he saw as Rome’s insolence, in reality Rome’s assertion of its independence and liberty. The Romans had just expelled their king and had opted for a republic; Posena saw that as a threat to all kings. At the head of a powerful force and with a Roman traitor—“false Sextus”—by his side to serve as his satrap following what he assessed would be an easy victory, he marched forth.
The Etruscan horde of 90,000 advanced, terror and pillage marking the progress of its march. The Roman government did little if anything to check the enemy’s advance, even though the Consul correctly identified a decisive measure: drop the bridge over the river. The commanding hill of Janiculum with its important temple was taken, and its “stout guards” were killed. Stout the guards may have been; sadly, the governing class proved less than that, and the hand-wringing continued. Presently, the enemy army was seen advancing toward the bridge. Even though he knew what had to be done, the Consul asked openly, “What hope to save the town?”
One soldier, Horatius, recognized opportunity amid the turmoil. If the bridge were lost, so would go the town, but if the bridge could be held then the city had a fighting chance. He saw that at the bridge’s head three men might hold off the entire enemy army for a time. He stood up and volunteered to go, and asked for two to go with him.
The good captain’s action galvanized the city fathers, and shaken from their funk they organized an effort to wreck the bridge while the three soldiers bought them time. Those who failed to see to their defenses when it was easy were now compelled to extreme measures, gambling now on the ability of three men to hold the only remaining defense.
As we know, Horatius and his wingmen did indeed keep the bridge, neatly dealing with the half-dozen Etruscans who imprudently came forward to challenge them. And behind them the bridge demolition had succeeded; the two soldiers dashed back across but before Horatius could follow, the structure collapsed and he was trapped. With singular sang froid, he ignored demands to surrender, turned his back and leaped into the flooded river. He surfaced and swam to shore, though weakened by wounds, to the thunderous cheers of his fellow citizens and even the Etruscans.
The story reminds me so much of the current state of the nation. Defeatism seems to have taken hold of a large part of the electorate; I wonder if they won’t float the campaign slogan, We Can’t Win, So Why Even Try? Ostensibly responsible officials know what has to be done but do nothing about it. No foreign army is laying waste to our countryside today, but we have battle at the end of our bridge nonetheless. The far end is far overseas, where a small number of volunteers are keeping their posts against tough odds. At home our people wring our hands, and in some cases extend our own legal protections to our sworn enemies. Traitors march openly in our capitol. Like the Romans before us, we appear wracked by doubts, not about how to fight the battle but if.
Let’s hope we elect the right men in November, who will not only hold the bridge but cross it and defeat the enemy before they can get close. Right now, we’re in a stalemate of our own making. Right now, we seem to have too many Consuls in charge, and too few Captains.
ps: Following the great advice of the evil Chinese general in The Manchurian Candidate, there is a humorous twist here on this story. Anyone in the military who has ever seen an award get downgraded to an ass-chewing will get a laugh out of it.