homas Babbington Macaulay's The Lays of Ancient Rome is a collection of verses written in the mid-nineteenth-century celebrating classical Roman patriotism and valor. In addition to being a poet, Macaulay was an accomplished historian and served as a member of Parliament for several years. It is not surprising that Rome occupied a hallowed position in Macaulay's mind. Since the Renaissance, Europeans struggled to prove they were the legitimate inheritors of classical Rome's power, culture, and grandeur. Even America's founding fathers believed their agrarian republic was poised to be a modern incarnation of the Roman republic. Britons praised the classical past for its eternal life and values, and believed they were heirs to the greatness of Rome. After all, they had crushed Napoleon in 1815 and were well on their way to creating the world's most power empire since Rome. Based on my knowledge of nineteenth-century England, Macaulay's stylized piece is representative of efforts to link classical Rome with modern England. There is more to The Lays of Ancient Rome, however. Rome was not just an ancient predecessor to Macaulay's England; it was an ideal worth emulating. Yet, as we will see, Macaulay also challenges the viability of emulating an idealized past. Macaulay sought to revive the lost ballad poetry of Rome's pre-empire past. Much of Rome's greatest ballads had been destroyed over time, or replaced by different styles as cultural trends dictated. Although the ballad style had long disappeared by the nineteenth century, the topics of ballads were preserved in the histories of ancient Rome by authors such as Polybius. Macaulay's poetry was a sort of literary archaeology; his object was to reverse the process of Rome's historians and "transform some portion of early Roman history back into the poetry out of where they were made."
The Lays of Ancient Rome casts Rome in a heroic and idealized light. In particular, the ballads "Horatius," "The Battle of Lake Regillus," and the "Prophecy of Capys," celebrate the exploits of some of Rome's greatest heroes. The qualities that made Rome all-powerful, and in turn could aid Britain's imperial ascendancy — self-sacrifice, national fraternity, and bravery — seep from the poetry. Like the molten image of Horatius cast in honor of his heroism, The Lays of Ancient Rome is a monument to Rome's best qualities. Verses from Horatius best capture that spirit. Under attack, Romans
Spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
In the brave days of old. (XXXI)
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;
Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers
In the brave days of old. (XXXII)
Speaking as if he were a Roman, Macaulay laments "the brave days of old" repeatedly, leaving one to wonder when the poem would have been written had it been an original. He is explicit his introduction to the poem. The following ballad is supposed to have been made about a hundred and twenty years after the war which it celebrates, and just before the taking of Rome by the Gauls. The author seems to have been an honest citizen, proud of the military glory of his country, sick of the disputes of factions, and much given to pining after good old times which had never really existed.
A subtle, slightly disturbing irony arises as Macaulay simultaneously celebrates Rome's glory days and admits they had never really existed. He suggests the possibility of folly in Britain's celebration and imitation of Rome. For if "the brave days of old" were derived more from myth than fact, their celebration was supercilious and impractical. There could be no point in trying to recreate something that never existed in the first place.
Taken by themselves, The Lays of Ancient Rome could easily be read as patriotic literature embracing ideals needed in England. But when read with Macaulay's commentary, the ideals cease to be tangible and instead emerge as lofty ideals of ballad poetry.
1. Should The Lays of Ancient Rome be read with England in mind, as I've suggested?
2. Does Macaulay portend victory or disaster for England?
3. Is it possible to celebrate an ideal and dismiss it as unattainable?
4. How does Horatius differ from the other ballads in The Lays of Ancient Rome?
Last modified 12 February 2007 2007