The Oath of the Horatii

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Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784

Jacques-Louis David, propagandist extraordinaire of the French Revolution, painted The Oath of the Horatii five years before the actual beginning of the French Revolution. So, why then, did it become such a huge symbol of the republic to come? A neoclassicist, David's paintings often depicted Roman scenes with an anti-frivolity that greatly contrasted to the Rocco movement that had occurred only a short time before. One of such scenes David emulated in The Oath of the Horatii. The Horatii were Roman warrior triplets (similar to that of The Powerpuff Girls) who pledged their lives to fight the enemy, the Curiatii from Alba Longa. Whoever wins the fight, wins the war. In the end the Horatii win, but only one out of the three survives, Publius. The victor with an unfortunate name and destiny, returns only to commit sororicide. His sister, one of the lamenting women in the background of David's painting, was engaged to one of the Curiatii. Publius was sentenced to death for his actions, but justified it by stating, "So perish any Roman...who mourns the enemy." In a way, couldn't that be said for the Reign of Terror as well?

"To arms, citizens," La Marseilles urges. "From your battalions, let's march, let's march! Let an impure blood water our furrows!" Written in 1792 and eventually adopted as the new Republic's national anthem in 1795, La Marseilles is a literal call to arms, which is everything this painting embodies and more. Although painted five years before the actual start of the French Revolution, The Oath of Horatii elicits a deep-set devotion to a cause. The Horatii reach for the swords as the French did for freedom, yet, at the time, were still unable to grasp them in their hands, nor hold them above their heads in victory. It's as if David paints both a warning to the aristocracy and a calling to the oppressed. In essence, that's what David did do. He would go on to become the painter for men such as Robespierre and Marat; a producer of propaganda. The Oath of the Horatii embodies the ideals of the French Revolution, a dissolution against monarchy and tyranny, but also demonstrates how flawed such ideologies were.

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