Monday, November 25, 2013

Lays of Ancient Rome, Thomas Babington Macaulay

These “Lays” are Roman styled ballads composed by Macaulay in the 1830’s and first published in 1842.  The became standard assignments for reading in the upper class “public” schools of Britain, and were often memorized and recited by the students.  Winston Churchill memorized them, and I see there effect in the remarkable speaking talent which set him apart in greatness.  It seems that Macaulay felt the loss of the ancient, pre-Greek, oral tradition of Rome and set himself the task of restoring some of it.  Like J. R. R. Tolkien, Thomas Macaulay determined to fill a hole in world literature with a plausible patch of his own creation.  Macaulay’s creation provides a wonderful window into Roman history, and an understanding of the ethos that drove western dominance through the twentieth Century and into the future.

I have read Horatius at the Bridge to my classes and Camp Staffs for decades, albeit in an abridged version.  A couple of years ago I bought my 1947 American printed edition of the book at Sam Wells Book Store.  I am ashamed to admit that it remained unread until this month.  I was rather surprised to find several of the pages still folded, rather than cut, at their outside edge – proof that I was not the first to own it without reading it.  I am very glad I cut the pages and released their wonder. 

I was also pleasantly surprised at how closely my appreciation of Livy and other chroniclers of Rome matched that of Macaulay.  He celebrates the same heroes and heroines I have long extoled. 


Gauls destroy Roman Records:

It is certain that, more than three hundred and sixty years after the date ordinarily assigned for the foundation of the city, the public records were, with scarcely an exception, destroyed by the Gauls. p. ix

Surviving Latin Literature Based on Greek Models:

 The Latin literature which has come down to us is of later date than the commencement of the Second Punic War, and consists almost exclusively of works fashioned on Greek models.  The best Latin metres, heroic, elegiac, lyric, and dramatic, are of Greek origin.   The best Latin epic poetry [Vergil’s Aeneid] is the feeble echo of the Iliad and Odyssey.   p. xiii

Poetry to Help Memory: 

Metrical composition, therefore which, in a highly civilized nation, is a mere luxury, is, in nations imperfectly civilized, almost a necessary of life, and is valued less on account of the pleasure which it gives to the ear, than on account of the help which it gives to the memory.  p. xiv

Only the Greeks Preserved Their Poetry:

In truth, the only people who, through their whole passage from simplicity to the highest civilization, never for a moment ceased to love and admire their old ballads, were the Greeks.  p. xvii – xviii

Romulus and Remus Were Not Like Swine Herds: 

(Quoting Dionysius)  “Even in the hut of Faustulus,” – so these old lays appear to have run, -- “ the children of Rhea and Mars were, in port and in spirit, not like unto swineherds or cowherds, but such that men might well guess them to be of the blood of Kings and Gods.” p. xix

Value of Old Ballads in Education: 

Valerius Maximus give us exactly similar information, without mentioning his authority, and observes that the ancient Roman ballads were probably of more benefit to the young than all the lectures of the Athenian schools, and that to the influence of the national poetry were to be ascribed the virtues of such men as Camillus and Fabricius.  p. xxii

The Genius of Rome and Greece:  The conquered, says Horace, led captive the conquerors.  It was precisely at the time at which the Roman people rose to unrivalled political ascendency that they stooped to pass under the intellectual yoke.  It was precisely at the time at which the sceptre departed from Greece that the empire of her language and of her arts became universal and despotic.   p. xxiv

Triumph of Greek Literature: The victory of the foreign taste was decisive; and indeed we can hardly blame the Romans for turning away with contempt from the rude lays which had delighted their fathers, and giving their whole admiration to the immortal productions of Greece.  p. xxvii

Macaulay on His Poems: In the following poems the author speaks, not in his own person, but in the persons of ancient minstrels who know only what a Roman citizen, born three or four hundred years before the Christian aera, may be supposed to have known, and who are in nowise above the passions and prejudices of their age and nation.  p. xxxv


Duty – the best way to die: 


Then out spake brave Horatius,

The Captain of the Gate;

‘To every man upon this Earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his father,

And the temples of his Gods,


‘And for the tender mother

 Who dandled him to rest,

And for the wife who nurses

His baby at her breast,

And for the holy maidens

Who feed the eternal flame,

To save them for false Sextus

That wrought the deed of shame?  p. 21

Sacrifices for Rome:


For Romans in Rome’s quarrel

Spared neither land nor gold,

Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,

In the brave days of old. pp. 22 – 23


The good old days:


Then none was for a party;

Then all were for the state;

Then the great man helped the poor,

And the poor man loved the great:

Then lands were fairly portioned;

The spoils were fairly sold:

The Romans were like brothers

In the brave days of old.

The evil present:


Now Romans is to Roman

More hateful than a foe,

And the Tribunes beard the high,

And the Fathers grind the low.

As we wax hot in faction,

In battle we wax cold:

Wherefore men fight not as they fought

In the brave days of old. p. 23

The Battle of Lake Regillus

Machiavelli – Roman Style:

Livy and Dionysius tells us that, when Tarquin the Proud was asked what was the best mode of governing a conquered city, he replied only by beating down with his staff all the tallest poppies in his garden.  p. 46

On Roman History – the Stories I Use:

Then the character of the narrative changes.  From the first mention of Lucretia to the retreat of Porsena nothing seems to be borrowed from foreign sources.  The villainy of Sextus, the suicide of his victim, the revolution the death of the sons of Brutus, the defense of the bridge, Mucius burning his hand, Cloelia swimming through Tiber, seem to all be strictly Roman.  p. 47

Forgotten Warriors:


The fisher baits his angle;

The hunter twangs his bow;

Little they think of those strong limbs

That moulder deep below.

Little they think how sternly

That day the trumpets pealed;

How in the slippery swamp of blood

Warrior and war-horse reeled;

How wolves came with fierce gallop,

And crows on eager wings,

To tear the flesh of captains,

And peck the eyes of kings;

How thick the dead lay scattered

Under the Porcian height;

How through the gates of Tusculum

Raved the wild stream of flight;

And how the Lake Regillus

Bubbled with crimson foam,

What time the Thirty Cities

Came forth to war with Rome.  p. 61

How the Jays Called the Eagle to fight:


‘Once the jays sent a message

Unto the eagle’s nest:-- 

Now yield thou up thine eyrie

Unto the carrion-kite,

Or come forth valiantly, and face

The jays in deadly fight.—

Forth looked in wrath the eagle;

And carrion-kite and jay,

Soon as they saw his beak and claw

Fled screaming far away.’ p. 63

On Choosing a Dictator:


In seasons of great peril

‘Tis good that one bear sway;

Then choose we a Dictator,

Whom al men shall obey. p. 64

On the Death of the Sacred King:


Those trees in whose dim shadow

The ghastly priest doth reign,

The priest who slew the slayer,

And shall himself be slain;  p. 66

The Ghost of Lucretia:


A woman fair and stately,

But pale as are the dead,

Oft through the watches of the night

Sat spinning by his [Sextus] bed.

And as she plied the distaff,

In a sweet voice and low,

She sang of the great old houses,

And fights fought long ago.

So spun she, and so sang she,

Until the east was grey,

Then pointed to her bleeding breast,

And shrieked, and fled away. p. 68

Win or Die:


‘Romans, stand firm!’ quoth Aulus,

‘And win this fight or die!’ p. 77


Grievances of the Plebes:

They were excluded from the highest magistracies; They were excluded from all share in the public lands; and they were ground down to the dust by partial and barbarous legislation touching pecuniary contracts.  The ruling class is Rome was a monied class; and it made and administered the laws with a view solely to its own interest. p. 100

On the rights of the Plebes:

From the early period they had been admitted to some share of political power.  They were enrolled each in his century, and were allowed a share, considerable though not proportioned to their numerical strength, in the disposal of those high dignities from which they were themselves excluded.  p. 101

The Tribunes:

The Plebeians had also the privilege of annually appointing officers, named Tribunes, who had no active share in the government of the Commonwealth, but who, by degrees, acquired a power formidable even to the ablest and most resolute Consuls and Dictators.  The person of the Tribune was inviolable; and, though he could directly effect little, he could obstruct everything. pp 101-102

On Roman Respect for Law:

But, even in the paroxysms of faction, the Roman retained his gravity, his respect for law, and his tenderness for the lives of his fellow-citizens. P. 102

Roman Filibuster (The Tribunes at Work):

Year after year Licinius and Sextius were re-elected Tribunes.  Year after year, if the narrative which has come down to us is to be trusted, they continued to exert, to the full extent, their power of stopping the whole machine of government.  No curule magistrates could be chosen; no military muster could be held.  We now too little of the state of Rome in those days to be able to conjecture how during that long anarchy, the peace was kept, and ordinary justice administered between man and man.  The animosity of both parties rose to the greatest height.  The excitement, we may well suppose, would have been peculiarly intense at the annual elections of Tribunes.  On such occasions there can be little doubt that the great families did all that could be done, by threats and caresses, to break the union of the Plebeians.  That union, however, proved indissoluble.  At length the good cause triumphed.  The Licinian laws were carried.  Lucius Sextius was the first Plebeian Consul, Caius Licinius the third.

The results of this great change were singularly happy and glorious.  Two centuries of prosperity, harmony, and victory followed the reconciliation of the orders.  pp. 102-103

The Story of the Downfall of the Council of Ten:

The immediate cause of the downfall of this execrable government was said to have been an attempt made by Appius Claudius upon the chastity of a beautiful young girl of humble birth.  The story ran that the Decemvir, unable to succeed by bribes and solicitations, resorted to an outrageous act of tyranny.  A vile dependent of Claudian house laid claim to the damsel as his slave.  The cause was brought before the tribunal of Appius.  The wicked magistrate, in defiance of the clearest proofs, gave judgment for the claimant.  But the girl’s father, a brave soldier, saved her from servitude and dishonor by stabbing her to the heart in the sight of the whole Forum.  That blow was the signal for a general explosion.  Camp and city rose at once; the Ten were pulled down; the Tribuneship was re-established; and Appius escaped the hands of the executioner only by a voluntary death.  p. 107-108

Late Night Comedians & MSNBC:

Such varlets pimp and jest for hire among the lying Greeks;

Such Varlets still are paid to hoot when brave Licinius speaks.. 112

When There Were No Tribunes:

For then there was not Tribune to speak the word of might,

Which makes the rich man tremble, and guards the poor man’s right.  p.118

History as inspiration for great acts:

Be men to-day, Quirites, or be for ever slaves!

For this did Servius give us laws?  For this did Lucrece bleed?

For this was the great vengeance wrought on Tarquin’s evil seed?

For this did those false sons make red the axes of their sire?

 For this did Scaevola’s right had his in the Tuscan fire?

Shall we, who could not brook one lord, crouch to the wicked Ten?

Oh for that ancient spirit which curbed the Senate’s will!

Oh for the tents which in old time whitened the Sacred Hill!  p. 119

The Value of Good Women:

Then leave the poor Plebeian his single tie to life—

The sweet, sweet love of daughter, of sister, and of wife.

The gentle speech, the balm for all that his vexed soul endures,

The kiss, in which he half forgets even such a yoke as yours.

Still let the maiden’s beauty swell the father’s breast with pride;

Still let the bridegroom’s arms infold an unpolluted bride. pp. 121-122

The Prophecy of Capys

On the Roman Army:

Their arms, their gradations of rank, their order of battle, their method of intrenchment, were all of Latin origin, and had all been gradually brought near to perfection, not by study of foreign models, but by the genius and experience of many generations of great native commanders.  The first words which broke from the king [Pyrrhus], when his practiced eye had surveyed the Roman encampment, were full of meaning;-- ‘These barbarians,’ he said, ‘hae nothing barbarous in their military arrangements.’ p. 140

On the defeat of Pyrrhus:

The conquerors had a good right to exult in their success; for their glory was all their own.  They had not learned from their enemy how to conquer him.  It was with their own national arms, and in their own national battle-array, that they had overcome weapons and tactics long believed to be invincible.  The pilum and the broadsword had vanquished the Macedonian spear.  The legion had broken the Macedonian phalanx.  Even the elephants, when the surprise produced by their first appearance was over, could cause no disorder in the steady yet flexible battalions of Rome. p. 141

Mother Wolf:


The ravening she-wolf knew them,

And licked them o’er and o’er,

And gave them of her own fierce milk,

Rich with raw flesh and gore. p.147

The Fate of Rome Reveled to Romulus:


. . . Thou, that art sprung from the War-god’s loins,

And hast tugged at the she-wolf’s breast.

‘From sunrise unto sunset

All earth shall hear thy fame:

A glorious city thou shalt build,

And name in by thy name:

And there, unquenched through ages,

Like Vesta’s sacred fire,

Shall live the spirit of thy nurse,

The spirit of thy sire. p. 153

Prophesy to Rome:


‘Thine, Roman, is the pilum:

Roman, the sword is thine,

The even trench, the bristling mound,

The legion’s ordered line;

An thine the wheels of triumph,

Which with their laurelled train

Move slowly up the shouting streets

To Jove’s eternal fane.  p. 155

Roman Weapons Prove the Best:


‘Hurrah! For the good weapons

That keep the War-god’s land.

Hurrah! For Rome’s stout pilum

In a stout Roman hand.

Hurrah! For Rome’s short broadsword,

That through the thick array

Of leveled spears and serried shields

Hews deep its gory way. p. 157





No comments: