paradox: Thomas Babington Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome indoctrinated generations of Victorian and Edwardian schoolboys with ideals of of heroism, duty, and patriotism that well served the British empire, and yet surprisingly their author greatly preferred Ancient Greece to Rome and the Roman Republic to the Imperium. Like Edward Poynter's Faithful unto Death (1865) and Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii (17??), Lays of Ancient Rome created an image of heroically patriotic Rome that encouraged these qualities in a contemporary audience. As Catherine Edwards reminds us about these once enormously popular poems, which "offered many people their first significant encounter with Roman antiquity," immediately "captured the public imagination" and long remained extremely poppular: "The British Library Catalogue lists sixty-three editions published between 1842 and 1939. Many of these were texts intended for schools; only with the Second World War did the Lays retreat from their entrenched position in the curriculum" (70).
Drawing on his letters "to his old friend and fellow classicist T. F. Ellis," Edwards reveals that Macaulay "was a decided Hellenophile, vastly preferring Homer to Virgil . . . rating Thucydides superior to Tacitus, Demosthenes to Cicero" (74). In fact, a decade or so before writing the Lays he had rather dismissively remarked that "'the Latin language is principally valuable as an introduction to the Greek', while in an essay on Dryden Macaulay wrote: The literature of the Romans was merely a continuation of the literature of the Greeks. The pupils started from the point at which their masters had, in the course of many generations, arrived. They thus almost wholly missed the period of original invention. The only Latin poets whose writings exhibit much vigour of imagination are Lucretius and Catullus'" (74).
Macaulay preferred Greek to Latin literature for qualities that define late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century Romanticism, qualities he found in the works of Sir Walter Scott and the Celtic Bardic tradition. This essentially Romantic understanding of ancient Greece goes a long way toward explaining Macaulay's approach to the legends of Republican Rome. He believed, like a number of European scholars from earlier centuries, in the universality of ballad traditions, and he therefore chose to present these mythic representations of courage and patriotism in bardic form. As Edwards explains,
Macaulay believed these stories to be largely fictitious; his principal interest lay in exploring the contexts in which such legends originally circulated. Each bardic voice is different in tone and located in a different context. Macaulay made clear that the narrative voices of the poems were intended to represent particular types from early Roman society. He makes clear that the versions he has chosen to present in the Lays are not necessarily the most truthful but the representations of the past one might expect from bards of a particular background in particular political circumstances. . . . 
Each of the four Lays develops a story from early Roman history (mainly taken from Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus). presenting it as it might have been told in later years by a popular bard. 'Horatius' tells the story of the defence of Rome against Etruscan incursions in the earliest years of the republic (when Horatius and two others heroically held a bridge until their compatriots could demolish it, then swam to safety). [69/70] Battle of lake Regillus' recounts a victory of the Romans over the Latins, allegedly with the supernatural aid of Castor and Pollux, generally dated to the early fifth century BCE. 'Virginia' offers an account of a father of plebeian family who, in order to save his daughter from the lustful advances of the patrician Appius Claudius, kills her — an incident which precipitated the end of exclusively patrician rule in Rome (this story, too, is traditionally dated to the early fourth century). 'The prophecy of Capys', set in the time of Romulus, Rome's founder, makes an ancient seer tell of future victories, culminating in that over King Pyrrhus in the early third century BCE. [70-71]
Edwards, Catherine. "Translating empire? Macaulay's Rome." Roman Presences: Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Ed. Catherine Edwards. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Last modified 16 November 2006