Legend tells us that the bridge was made entirely of wood. The name comes from Latin pons, pontis, "bridge," and the adjective sublicius, "resting on pilings," from the stem of sublicae, pilings. As a sublica was a pick, sublicae implies pointed sticks; that is, the bridge was supported by pilings driven into the riverbed. Julius Caesar’s engineers used this construction to bridge the Rhine.
The bridge was rebuilt repeatedly. The date of its final disappearance is not known, but it is not in classical times. The Via Latina went over the bridge and connected to the Via Cassia, a road built over an old Etruscan road that led to Veii. The bridge was a favorite resort for beggars, who used to sit upon it and demand alms, hence the Latin expression "aliquis de ponte" for a beggar.
The bridge was downstream from the Pons Aemilius, a good stone bridge with which it is sometimes confused. Between the two, the Cloaca Maxima, or great sewer, was effluent into the Tiber.
In the drawing by Friedrich Polack (published 1896) included with this article the pile bridge is falsely shown as a pile pier. Presumably some structure still existed prior to 1896, which was incorrectly identified. Otherwise the drawing appears to be accurate in the major details.
The observer is standing on the Via Ostiensis at the foot of the Aventine, which is at his back. The river flows toward him. The stone bridge in evidence is the Pons Aemilius. The Servian Wall goes along the bank of the river, is pierced by the Porta Trigemina (you can see the three openings) and starts up the Palatine. Beyond the gate is the Forum Boarium. In the immediate foreground are the docks, or Navalia.
The pier is highly unlikely, as any ship tied up at is as shown would be unstable in the full force of the current. Moreover, the masts would have to be shipped for passage under the bridges. One can readily see how unsuitable the river was for sea-going traffic and how necessary the port of Ostia would have been to Rome.
The opening of the Cloaca Maxima is between the docks and the stone bridge. Beyond the bridge you can just see the Aesculapium on Tiber Island. Looming over the whole scene is the Capitoline, with the temple of Juppiter Capitolinus upon it. The rising ground on the opposite side of the stone bridge is the Janiculum.
The legend of Horatius at the bridge appears in many classical authors, most notably in Livy. Already immortal in literature, Horatius was augmented in modern fame by Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 1842 poem, Horatius, from his Lays of Ancient Rome. The Romans revolted against the Etruscan domination of Rome and threw off the rule of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last king, in favor of a republic. Lars Porsenna, king of Clusium, taking offense at this move, led a force on Rome. The senators decided to hew down the bridge. Horatius Cocles, a member of the gens of the Horatii, with two others bought some time by defending the opposite end of the bridge:
Macaulay lacks nothing at all of Livy’s sentiment and spirit. Finally the bridge came down:
On the wrong side of the river, Horatius prayed to the Tiber and jumped in:
He made the swim, of course, was given a land grant and a statue at Rome, which other writers actually saw. Some say that he fought alone and died there, but this is the lesser legend. After the difficulty in breaking the bridge down, it was reconstructed without nails, so that each beam could be removed and replaced at will, by the pontifices. They were officials of early Rome who were responsible for bridges. Afterwards the bridge was considered so sacred that no repairs could be made without previous sacrifice conducted by the pontifex maximus.
The ceremony was probably an Etruscan magical military tactic, comparable to another in which a Gallic man and woman were buried alive in the Forum Boarium. The Greeks and the Gauls were being ritually buried or drowned, which the superstitious Romans believed had a real effect on their Greek or Gallic enemies. They carried out this type of sacrifice also after major defeats.