In the 7th Century BC, as the city of Rome began to expand her influence, the Romans found themselves in constant war with neighboring cities and peoples. When war broke out between Rome and the powerful city of Alba Longa, it was discovered that each army had in its ranks a set of identical triplets—the Roman Horatii and the Alban Curiatii. To avoid massive loss of life, both sides agreed to let combat just between the brothers settle the whole war.
With each army lined up on opposing sides, the six men met in battle. In the first clash of weapons, the Horatii had managed to wound the three Curiatii, but in the skirmish, two of the Romans received mortal blows. And so, one brother of the Horatii stood facing three enemies. In that moment, the battle certainly seemed to be lost for the Romans.
As both opposing armies watched on, the single Roman soldier began to run. A moan rose from the Roman army as they saw their soldier seeming to run away. But the soldier had a plan. The Curatii chased after him. But their different wounds meant that they were pursuing at different speeds. In the excitement of battle, they did not realize that they were splitting themselves up! The Roman turned and fought with the closest of the Curatii and killed him. He ran again for a bit and then turned to face the second, killing that one as well. Finally, he faced the final Alban soldier. By now the battle had been decided. The single Roman, not even wounded, easily finished off the final Curiatii.
This young man stands as an example of how a situation that looks hopeless may still have a solution. And in this case, his strategy was to give the appearance of defeat. In a sense, the moment his two brothers had fallen, the only thing that mattered was to somehow cancel the massive strategic advantage the other side had. With no time to mourn his brothers, the man had the presence of mind to do something rather than nothing. It may even be that his initial instinct in running away was truly retreat. But upon realizing his enemy had given away their advantage, he acted on it.
The end of this soldier’s story, unfortunately, would turn yet more tragic. The cities of Rome and Alba Longa were close enough that families would intermarry. And the sister of the Horatii was engaged to one of the Alban triplets. Upon his return, the sister asked her brother what had happened, When she learned her fiancée was dead, she wept. In a rage, he declared that she should not mourn for an enemy before her own brothers. And he killed her on the spot. He was supposed to be executed for this murder, but the Roman people demanded the military hero be pardoned. But ever after, his family were required to make a special sacrifice to atone for the crime.