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By Thomas Babbington Macaulay



The Lay

The Battle of the Lake Regillus
The Lay

The Lay

The Prophecy of Capys
The Lay

That what is called the history of the Kings and early Consuls of
Rome is to a great extent fabulous, few scholars have, since the
time of Beaufort, ventured to deny. 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. It is certain that
the oldest annals of the commonwealth were compiled more than a
century and a half after this destruction of the records. It is
certain, therefore, that the great Latin writers of the Augustan
age did not possess those materials, without which a trustworthy
account of the infancy of the republic could not possibly be
framed. Those writers own, indeed, that the chronicles to which
they had access were filled with battles that were never fought,
and Consuls that were never inaugurated; and we have abundant
proof that, in these chronicles, events of the greatest
importance, such as the issue of the war with Porsena and the
issue of the war with Brennus, were grossly misrepresented. Under
these circumstances a wise man will look with great suspicion on
the legend which has come down to us. He will perhaps be inclined
to regard the princes who are said to have founded the civil and
religious institutions of Rome, the sons of Mars, and the husband
of Egeria, as mere mythological personages, of the same class
with Perseus and Ixion. As he draws nearer to the confines of
authentic history, he will become less and less hard of belief.
He will admit that the most important parts of the narrative have
some foundation in truth. But he will distrust almost all the
details, not only because they seldom rest on any solid evidence,
but also because he will constantly detect in them, even when
they are within the limits of physical possibility, that peculiar
character, more easily understood than defined, which
distinguishes the creations of the imagination from the realities
of the world in which we live.

The early history of Rome is indeed far more poetical than
anything else in Latin literature. The loves of the Vestal and
the God of War, the cradle laid among the reeds of Tiber, the
fig-tree, the she-wolf, the shepherd's cabin, the recognition,
the fratricide, the rape of the Sabines, the death of Tarpeia,
the fall of Hostus Hostilius, the struggle of Mettus Curtius
through the marsh, the women rushing with torn raiment and
dishevelled hair between their fathers and their husbands, the
nightly meetings of Numa and the Nymph by the well in the sacred
grove, the fight of the three Romans and the three Albans, the
purchase of the Sibylline books, the crime of Tullia, the
simulated madness of Brutus, the ambiguous reply of the Delphian
oracle to the Tarquins, the wrongs of Lucretia, the heroic
actions of Horatius Cocles, of Scaevola, and of Cloelia, the
battle of Regillus won by the aid of Castor and Pollux, the
defense of Cremera, the touching story of Coriolanus, the still
more touching story of Virginia, the wild legend about the
draining of the Alban lake, the combat between Valerius Corvus
and the gigantic Gaul, are among the many instances which will at
once suggest themselves to every reader.

In the narrative of Livy, who was a man of fine imagination,
these stories retain much of their genuine character. Nor could
even the tasteless Dionysius distort and mutilate them into mere
prose. The poetry shines, in spite of him, through the dreary
pedantry of his eleven books. It is discernible in the most
tedious and in the most superficial modern works on the early
times of Rome. It enlivens the dulness of the Universal History,
and gives a charm to the most meagre abridgements of Goldsmith.

Even in the age of Plutarch there were discerning men who
rejected the popular account of the foundation of Rome, because
that account appeared to them to have the air, not of a history,
but of a romance or a drama. Plutarch, who was displeased at
their incredulity, had nothing better to say in reply to their
arguments than that chance sometimes turns poet, and produces
trains of events not to be distinguished from the most elaborate
plots which are constructed by art. But though the existence of a
poetical element in the early history of the Great City was
detected so many ages ago, the first critic who distinctly saw
from what source that poetical element had been derived was James
Perizonius, one of the most acute and learned antiquaries of the
seventeenth century. His theory, which in his own days attracted
little or no notice, was revived in the present generation by
Niebuhr, a man who would have been the first writer of his time,
if his talent for communicating truths had borne any proportion
to his talent for investigating them. That theory has been
adopted by several eminent scholars of our own country,
particularly by the Bishop of St. David's, by Professor Malde,
and by the lamented Arnold. It appears to be now generally
received by men conversant with classical antiquity; and indeed
it rests on such strong proofs, both internal and external, that
it will not be easily subverted. A popular exposition of this
theory, and of the evidence by which it is supported, may not be
without interest even for readers who are unacquainted with the
ancient languages.

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 Latin
metres, heroic, elegiac, lyric, and dramatic, are of Greek
origin. The best Latin epic poetry is the feeble echo of the
Iliad and Odyssey. The best Latin eclogues are imitations of
Theocritus. The plan of the most finished didactic poem in the
Latin tongue was taken from Hesiod. The Latin tragedies are bad
copies of the masterpieces of Sophocles and Euripides. The Latin
philosophy was borrowed, without alteration, from the Portico and
the Academy; and the great Latin orators constantly proposed to
themselves as patterns the speeches of Demosthenes and Lysias.

But there was an earlier Latin literature, a literature truly
Latin, which has wholly perished, which had, indeed almost wholly
perished long before those whom we are in the habit of regarding
as the greatest Latin writers were born. That literature abounded
with metrical romances, such as are found in every country where
there is much curiosity and intelligence, but little reading and
writing. All human beings, not utterly savage, long for some
information about past times, and are delighted by narratives
which present pictures to the eye of the mind. But it is only in
very enlightened communities that books are readily accessible.
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. A man who can invent or embellish
an interesting story, and put it into a form which others may
easily retain in their recollection, will always be highly
esteemed by a people eager for amusement and information, but
destitute of libraries. Such is the origin of ballad-poetry, a
species of composition which scarcely ever fails to spring up and
flourish in every society, at a certain point in the progress
towards refinement. Tacitus informs us that songs were the only
memorials of the past which the ancient Germans possessed. We
learn from Lucan and from Ammianus Marcellinus that the brave
actions of the ancient Gauls were commemorated in the verses of
Bards. During many ages, and through many revolution, minstrelsy
retained its influence over both the Teutonic and the Celtic
race. The vengeance exacted by the spouse of Attila for the
murder of Siegfried was celebrated in rhymes, of which Germany is
still justly proud. The exploits of Athelstane were commemorated
by the Anglo-Saxons and those of Canute by the Danes, in rude
poems, of which a few fragments have come down to us. The chants
of the Welsh harpers preserved, through ages of darkness, a faint
and doubtful memory of Arthur. In the Highlands of Scotland may
still be gleaned some relics of the old songs about Cuthullin and
Fingal. The long struggle of the Servians against the Ottoman
power was recorded in lays full of martial spirit. We learn from
Herrera that, when a Peruvian Inca died, men of skill were
appointed to celebrate him in verses, which all the people
learned by heart, and sang in public on days of festival. The
feats of Kurroglou, the great freebooter of Turkistan, recounted
in ballads composed by himself, are known in every village of
northern Persia. Captain Beechey heard the bards of the Sandwich
Islands recite the heroic achievements of Tamehameha, the most
illustrious of their kings. Mungo Park found in the heart of
Africa a class of singing men, the only annalists of their rude
tribes, and heard them tell the story of the victory which Damel,
the negro prince of the Jaloffs, won over Abdulkader, the
Mussulman tyrant of Foota Torra. This species of poetry attained
a high degree of excellence among the Castilians, before they
began to copy Tuscan patterns. It attained a still higher degree
of excellence among the English and the Lowland Scotch, during
the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. But it
reached its full perfection in ancient Greece; for there can be
no doubt that the great Homeric poems are generically ballads,
though widely distinguished from all other ballads, and indeed
from almost all other human composition, by transcendent
sublimity and beauty.

As it is agreeable to general experience that, at a certain stage
in the progress of society, ballad-poetry should flourish, so is
it also agreeable to general experience that, at a subsequent
stage in the progress of society, ballad-poetry should be
undervalued and neglected.

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