by Jay Johansen | Nov 21, 2011
I recently read an article that mentioned the story of the ancient Roman hero Horatius Cocles ... and then dismissed the story as impossible.
I've read a number of things over the years where someone says that an event recorded in the history books could never have happenned because it's just too unlikely. What are the odds, they will say, that someone could actually win against such overwhelming odds? How could someone be that brave, that strong, that smart, whatever?
The story of Horatius is told by the Roman historian Livy. Briefly, as Livy tells the story: The city of Rome was attacked by the Etruscans about 510 BC. The Roman army panicked and ran. There was one bridge that the invading army had to cross to enter the city. Of the entire army, only three men -- Horatius Cocles, Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius -- stood to defend the bridge. Horatius called to the soldiers behind him to destroy the bridge while the three men held off the entire Etruscan army. Finally Lartius and Herminius also retreated, leaving Horatius to fight alone. He held off the Etruscans by himself until the bridge behind him was destroyed. Then he leaped into the river and swam to safety.
I certainly agree that the story is amazing. One man holds off an army! But is it absolutely impossible? I don't think so. If the bridge was narrow enough, perhaps the enemy could not come at him more than one at a time. He might not have had to fight several enemy soldiers at once. He just had to be a better swordsman than any one of the enemy in front of him, and to have the stamina to fight one after another. Livy makes clear that they didn't come rushing at him in a continuous stream. They held back, afraid. This is not surprising. Once he killed two or three of the Etruscans, surely the rest would not be anxious to take him on. He'd tire out sooner or later ... but would you want to be one more man who died trying to tire him out?
There are lots of stories like this in the history books. A small group win a battle against overwhelming odds. One person makes scientific discoveries centuries ahead of his time. A poor girl becomes queen and saves a nation. Et cetera.
And the cynics say, I don't believe it. It never happenned. It's just too unlikely.
I certainly can't prove that all these amazing events in the history books really occurred. But I can say this: Yes, the history books record many events that are incredibly improbable. But that doesn't prove they didn't happen. They are in the history books precisely because they are extraordinary. If the odds against something happenning are a million to one, than it follows that once out of every million times, it will happen.
Suppose a small group of men see a huge enemy army approaching. Most of the time they run for help, or just run for their lives. Such incidents rarely make it to the history books because nothing interesting has happenned. Sometimes they stand and fight ... and are promptly slaughtered. Such incidents rarely make it to the history books because it's exactly what we would expect to happen. But sometimes, very very rarely, but sometimes, the small group actually beats the huge army. Maybe they are much more skilled with their weapons. Maybe they use some brilliant tactic. Maybe they have some incredible stroke of luck, like a stray arrow kills the enemy general and the army panics or something. But every now and then, it happens. And that's the incident that makes it into the history books, because that's the one that's interesting.
© 2011 by Jay Johansen