Lays of Ancient Rome

I finally got around to reading the book a few weeks ago and suffice to say it did not disappoint. The whole project fascinates me as Thomas Babington Macaulay sought to recreat an approximation of the Roman tradition of epic poetry. These traditions existed in most cultures but almost invariably died out as the elites embraced literary history leaving the epic poems to slowly fade away while leaving fragments of them in the formal histories which don’t quite match up to formal documents. The attention to detail astounds me as he knows a bewildering number of place names and the prominence of different areas in different era, but what impresses me the most was him writing each section as if it had been changed in places by succeeding generations. Even the epic about the heroic stand of the patrician Horatius (from which this very site gets its name) gets suggestions of later civil strife between the classes in the yearning for good old days when everyone stood together. The epic poems must have been part an Indo-European tradition of story telling going back to their divergence and passed on for thousands of years, and them borrowing elements from other culture’s poems is very consistent with their patterns of syncretism. This makes the surviving poems, and fragments, of greater value since it says much more about these cultures as a whole. Only the Greeks directly passed down and recorded their tradition without any break in it, but a few others preserved their own while the old style story-tellers remained in business, and it says a lot that even a gap of a couple centuries without sponsorship from the aristocrats left these largely intact.

Now I have to admit that reading it revealed a mistake of my own. When first putting up this site I attributed the quote’s place as referring to a siege by the Celts as my knowledge remained second hand. It actually goes to a campaign where the Etruscans attempted to put the Tarquins back on the throne of Rome and would have taken the city had not three men held a key bridge while others tore it down behind them. I felt a little tempted to just correct the mistake in the original post, but I will leave it up as a reminder to myself and hopefully to others about assumptions. I especially liked how Macaulay based his lay on Horatius on the version less aggrandizing for his clan where two others fought beside him in his heroic stand.

The heroic three holding the bridge so well. Spartans eat your hearts out.

The poems themselves have just brilliant prose and I can’t recommend them highly enough. Each one feels so vivid that I had physical emotional reactions to them which I have only gotten a couple times just from reading in the past but had several times while pouring over these; however it does remind me how most books from other languages lose a lot of their subtleties when translated since if these had simply been handed down I doubt anyone would have gone through such trouble making the verses line up so well. It also makes me think that the decline in poetry must really harm vocabulary since more words are needed to make proper verses and have them rhyme together as needed.

It’s interesting to reflect on how much early history passed through the filter of epic poems; moreover that the trend continues as many histories lean very heavily pieces that have more to do with the popular culture of their period then as unbiased sources. Basically imagine if future tellings of the Normandy Invasion all centered on a team of Rangers going in to rescue a single paratrooper. I will always remember when doing some research I read the Iraq War by John Keegan and found only a couple passing mentions of the 3rd ID, you know the western part of the great pincer movement. The airborne who merely followed behind them got whole chapters.


It seems this great war was decided by a small team, and if they could rescue Matt Damon for some strange reason.