Roman Heroes at Helm’s Deep?

Livy, Macaulay, and Tolkien on the Horatius Cocles Episode


  • Charles W. Oughton Brigham Young University



Livy, Horatius Cocles, Tolkien, Macaulay, Reception, Exemplarity


This article analyzes Tolkien’s narrative of the Battle of Helm’s Deep as a retelling of the Horatius Cocles episode from Livy’s AUC, which contains descriptions of the defenses and the bridge, a rally encouraged by Horatius, his bold stand both with his companions and alone, and the honors paid to him after the battle. Tolkien’s Battle of Helm’s Deep contains the same elements split across two narratives: the defense of the causeway leading to the gates of the Deep by Aragorn, Éomer, and Gimli; and, after the fall of the Deeping wall, Aragorn’s defiant stand alone on the stairway leading to the inner doors of the Hornburg. Aragorn’s double action demonstrates a fulfillment of Livy’s exemplary arc. Tolkien’s knowledge of Macaulay’s “Horatius” provides a possible intermediary that accounts for various additions to the story. However, the larger structure of Tolkien’s narrative as well as the imagery that resonates throughout the text distinctly evoke the vivid descriptions of Livy. While both sets of heroes make brave stands against their enemies, Tolkien’s warriors represent a civilizing force in their efforts to build and restore their defenses while Livy’s Roman heroes destroy the bridge to save their state.