The Oath of the Horatii depicts a story from pre-Republican Rome, the heroic phase of Roman history that had been pushed to the foreground of public interest by the sensational archeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The topic of heroism was not an arcane one for David's audience. This story of conflict between love and patriotism, first recounted by ancient historian Livy, had been retold in a play by Pierre Corneille that was performed in Paris several years earlier, making it familiar to David's viewing public.According to the story, the leaders of the Roman and Alban armies, poised for battle, decided to resolve their conflicts in a series of encounters waged by three representatives from each side. The Roman champions, the three Horatius brothers, would face the three sons of the Curatius family, the Alban warriors. A sister of the Horatii, Camilla, was the bride-to-be of one of the Curatius sons.

David's painting shows the Horatii as they swear on their swords to win or die for Rome, oblivious to the anguish and sorrow of their sisters. In its form The Oath of the Horatii is a paragon of the Neoclassical style. The theme is stated with force and clarity. In a shallow picture box, defined by a severely simple architectural framework, the statuesque and carefully modeled figures are deployed across space, close to the foreground, in a manner reminiscent of ancient relief sculpture. The virile rigid forms of the men effectively eclipse the soft, curvilinear shapes of the mourning women in the right background. Such manly virtues as courage, patriotism, and unwavering loyalty to a cause are emphasized over the less heroic emotions of love, despair, and sorrow symbolized by the women.

The message is clear and of a type with which the pre French Revolutionary public could readily identify. The picture itself created a sensation when it was exhibited in Paris in 1785, and although it had been painted under royal patronage and was not at all revolutionary in intent, it's Neoclassical style soon became the semiofficial voice of the revolution. David may have been painting in the academic tradition, but he made something new of it; he created a program for arousing patriotic zeal. From David's The Oath of the Horatii onward, art became increasingly political, often in the sense of serving a state or party, as well as, a passionate adherence to selected trends, movements, and ideologies.


Lometa. "Artists and Art in the Classroom" Tucson, Arizona.
1994. (Lecture presented at St Joseph's Catholic School.)

Justus, Kevin. "Art and Culture II." Tucson , Arizona.
1992. (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)

De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
1991. An image of this painting may be viewed at

Mark Harden:

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