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MACAULAY’S LAYS OF ANCIENT ROME 1843 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume I - Autobiography and Literary Essays 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume I - Autobiography and Literary Essays, ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger, introduction by Lord Robbins (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).
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MACAULAY’S LAYS OF ANCIENT ROME
Westminster Review, XXXIX (Feb., 1843), 105-13. Headed: “Art. V.—Lays of Ancient Rome. By Thomas Babington Macaulay. [London:] Longman. 1842.” Running title: “Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome.” Signed: “A.” Not republished. Identified in Mill’s bibliography as “A review of Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ in the Westminster Review for Febry. 1843 (No. 76.)” (MacMinn, p. 55). The Somerville College copy (tear sheets) is headed in Mill’s hand: “(Westminster Review, February 1843)” and two corrections are made: at 525.31 “no” is altered to “on”, and at 527n.6 “ylaeddfed” is changed to “deadly feud”; there was a second issue of this number (a tear-sheet copy of Mill’s article in this version is also in Somerville College, with no corrections or emendations), in which the first correction was made, and part of the second (the reading became “deadly fed”).
For comment, see the Introduction, p. xlii above.
Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome
the general reader, even if he be so much an exception among general readers as to have remained personally ignorant of this volume, must be sufficiently cognizant of its contents from criticisms and extracts, not to require either outline or additional specimens on the present occasion; but he must not suppose that specimens, however well selected, can give a sufficiently favourable idea of such a work. No one can judge of a tragedy, from seeing only its fifth act, or of a novel from having read its most highly-wrought scenes; and the more perfect and harmonious the composition may be as a work of art, the less can those portions of it be properly estimated by themselves, because they pre-suppose in the reader or spectator a state of excitement as well as a mental preparation which can only be the effect of the previous portions. A reviewer, fresh from reading these poems, quotes the passage by which he has been most strongly moved, expecting that it will move his own reader as strongly; but it is nothing to be in at the death when you have not followed the hounds: and we ourselves at first read in the newspapers with a certain sensation of flatness, the very incidents and descriptions which afterwards, when read in their proper place, acted upon us like the most stirring strains of Campbell or Scott.
For it is with those two great masters of modern ballad poetry that Mr. Macaulay’s performances are really to be compared, and not with the real ballads or epics of an early age. The Lays, in point of form, are not in the least like the genuine productions of a primitive age or people, and it is no blame to Mr. Macaulay that they are not. He professes imitation of Homer, but we really see no resemblance, except in the nature of some of the incidents, and the animation and vigour of the narrative; and the Iliad, after all, is not the original ballads of the Trojan war, but those ballads moulded together, and wrought into the forms of a more civilized and cultivated age. It is difficult to conjecture what the forms of the old Roman ballad may have been, and certain, that whatever they were, they could no more satisfy the æsthetic requirements of modern culture, than an ear accustomed to the great organ of Freyburg or Harlem could relish Orpheus’s hurdygurdy; although the airs which Orpheus played, if they could be recovered, might perhaps be executed with great effect on the more perfect instrument.
The forms of Mr. Macaulay’s ballad poetry are essentially modern; they are those of the romantic and chivalrous, not the classical ages, and even in those they are a reproduction, not of the originals, but of the imitations of Scott. In this we think he has done well, for Scott’s style is as near to that of the ancient ballad as we conceive to be at all compatible with real popular effect on the modern mind. The difference between the two may be seen by the most cursory comparison of any real old ballad, “Chevy Chase”[*] for instance, with the last canto of Marmion,[†] or with any of these Lays. Conciseness is the characteristic of the real ballad—diffuseness, of the modern adaptation. The old bard did everything by single touches; Scott and Mr. Macaulay by repetition and accumulation of particulars. They produce all their effect by what they say; he by what he suggested; by what he stimulated the imagination to paint for itself. But then the old ballads were not written for the light reading of tired readers. To do the work in their way, they required to be brooded over, or had at least the aid of tune and of impassioned recitation. Stories which are to be told to children in the age of eagerness and excitability, or sung in banquet halls to assembled warriors, whose daily ideas and feelings supply a flood of comment ready to gush forth on the slightest hint of the poet, cannot fly too swift and straight to the mark. But Mr. Macaulay wrote to be only read, and by readers for whom it was necessary to do all.
These poems, therefore, are not the worse for being un-Roman in their form; and in their substance they are Roman to a degree which deserves great admiration. Mr. Macaulay’s prose writings had not prepared us for the power which he has here manifested of identifying himself easily and completely with states of feeling and modes of life alien to modern experience. Nobody could have previously doubted that he possessed fancy, but he has here added to it the higher faculty of Imagination. We have not been able to detect, in the four poems, one idea or feeling which was not, or might not have been, Roman; while the externals of Roman life, and the feelings characteristic of Rome and of that particular age, are reproduced with great felicity, and without being made unduly predominant over the universal features of human nature and human life.
Independently, therefore, of their value as poems, these compositions are a real service rendered to historical literature: and the author has made this service greater by his prefaces, which will do more than the work of a hundred dissertations in rendering that true conception of early Roman history, the irrefragable establishment of which has made Niebuhr[‡] illustrious, familiar to the minds of general readers. This is no trifling matter even in relation to present interests, for there is no estimating the injury which the cause of popular institutions has suffered, and still suffers, from misrepresentations of the early condition of the Roman Plebs, and its noble struggles against its taskmasters. And the study of the manner in which the heroic legends of early Rome grew up as poetry and gradually became history, has important bearings on the general laws of historical evidence, and on the many things which, as philosophy advances, are more and more seen to be therewith connected. On this subject Mr. Macaulay has not only presented, in an agreeable form, the results of previous speculation, but has, though in an entirely unpretending manner, thrown additional light upon it by his own remarks: as where he shows, by incontestable instances, that a similar transformation of poetic fiction into history has taken place on various occasions in modern and sceptical times.
“History,” says Hume, with the utmost gravity, “has preserved some instances of Edgar’s amours, from which, as from a specimen, we may form a conjecture of the rest.”[*] He then tells, very agreeably, the stories of Elfleda and Elfrida, two stories which have a most suspicious air of romance, and which, indeed, greatly resemble in their general character, some of the legends of early Rome. He cites, as his authority for these two tales, the chronicle of William of Malmesbury, who lived in the time of King Stephen. The great majority of readers suppose that the device by which Elfleda was substituted for her young mistress, the artifice by which Athelwold obtained the hand of Elfrida, the detection of that artifice, the hunting party, and the vengeance of the amorous king, are things about which there is no more doubt than about the execution of Anne Boleyn, or the slitting of Sir John Coventry’s nose. But when we turn to William of Malmesbury, we find that Hume, in his eagerness to relate these pleasant fables, has overlooked one very important circumstance. William does, indeed, tell both the stories; but he gives us distinct notice that he does not warrant their truth, and that they rest on no better authority than that of ballads.*
Such is the way in which these two well-known tales have been handed down. They originally appeared in a poetical form. They found their way from ballads into an old chronicle. The ballads perished; the chronicle remained. A great historian, some centuries after the ballads had been altogether forgotten, consulted the chronicle. He was struck by the lively colouring of these ancient fictions: he transferred them to his pages, and thus we find inserted, as unquestionable facts, in a narrative which is likely to last as long as the English tongue, the inventions of some minstrel whose works were probably never committed to writing, whose name is buried in oblivion, and whose dialect has become obsolete. It must, then, be admitted to be possible, or, rather, highly probable, that the stories of Romulus and Remus, and of the Horatii and Curiatii, may have had a similar origin.
And again, on the legend of the appearance of the Dioscuri actively aiding the Roman host in the battle of the Lake Regillus, and afterwards personally announcing at Rome that the republic had been victorious:
How the legend originated, cannot now be ascertained but we may easily imagine several ways in which it might have originated; nor is it at all necessary to suppose, with Julius Frontinus, that two young men were dressed up by the Dictator to personate the sons of Leda.[*] It is probable that Livy is correct when he says that the Roman general, in the hour of peril, vowed a temple to Castor.[†] If so, nothing could be more natural than that the multitude should ascribe the victory to the favour of the Twin Gods. When such was the prevailing sentiment, any man who chose to declare that, in the midst of the confusion and slaughter, he had seen two god-like forms on white horses scattering the Latines, would find ready credence. We know, indeed, that in modern times, a similar story actually found credence among a people much more civilised than the Romans of the fifth century before Christ. A chaplain of Cortes, writing about thirty years after the conquest of Mexico, in an age of printing-presses, libraries, universities, scholars, logicians, jurists, and statesmen, had the face to assert that, in one engagement against the Indians, St. James had appeared on a grey horse at the head of the Castilian adventurers.[‡] Many of those adventurers were living when this lie was printed. One of them, honest Bernal Diaz, wrote an account of the expedition. He had the evidence of his own senses against the chaplain’s legend; but he seems to have distrusted even the evidence of his own senses. He says that he was in the battle, and that he saw a grey horse with a man on his back, but that the man was, to his thinking, Francesco de Morla, and not the ever-blessed apostle St. James. “Nevertheless,” he adds, “it may be that the person on the grey horse was the glorious apostle St. James, and that I, sinner that I am, was unworthy to see him.”[§] The Romans of the age of Cincinnatus were probably quite as credulous as the Spanish subjects of Charles the Fifth. It is therefore conceivable that the appearance of Castor and Pollux may have become an article of faith before the generation which had fought at Regillus had passed away. Nor could anything be more natural than that the poets of the next age should embellish this story, and make the celestial horsemen bear the tidings of the victory to Rome.
There is no greater triumph of skill and taste in these poems than the manner in which Mr. Macaulay has treated this very incident. The supernatural is always a touchstone of an author’s genius and tact, and it was here necessary that the supernatural should be pure ancient-Roman, and yet so presented as to act with overawing effect upon modern imaginations. We are almost reluctant to quote passages which have so often been quoted before, but we think that, viewed in this particular light, they deserve a more critical attention than has perhaps been paid to them.
Mr. Macaulay shows himself so well acquainted with the best modern views of Roman history, that we presume it is purposely, and from conviction, that he adheres to Livy’s story of the five years’ anarchy which preceded the passing of the Licinian laws;[†] although Niebuhr and Arnold have, as it seems to us, shown sufficient reason to believe that it was an inference, grounded on the absence of the names of consuls or military tribunes from the Fasti during an apparent interval of five years, produced solely by an error of chronology.[‡]
We are more disposed to break a lance with our author on the general merits of Roman literature, which, by a heresy not new with him, he sacrifices, in what appears to us a most unfair degree, on the score of its inferior originality, to the Grecian. It is true the Romans had no Æschylus nor Sophocles, and but a second-hand Homer, though this last was not only the most finished but even the most original of imitators. But where was the Greek model of the noble poem of Lucretius?[*] What, except the mere idea, did the Georgics[†] borrow from Hesiod? and who ever thinks of comparing the two poems? Where, in Homer or in Euripides, will be found the original of the tender and pathetic passages in the Æneid, especially the exquisitely-told story of Dido? There is no extraordinary merit in the Carmen Sæculare as we have it, the only production of Horace which challenges comparison with Pindar;[‡] although we are not among those who deem Pindar one of the brightest stars in the Greek heaven. But from whom are the greater part of Horace’s Carmina[§] borrowed, (they should never be termed Odes), any more than those of Burns or Bérenger, the analogous authors in modern times? and by what Greek minor poems are they surpassed? We say nothing of Catullus, whom some competent judges prefer to Horace. Does the lyric, then, or even the epic poetry of the Romans, deserve no better title than that of “a hot-house plant, which, in return for assiduous and skilful culture, yielded only scanty and sickly fruits?”[¶] The complete originality and eminent merit of their satiric poetry, Mr. Macaulay himself acknowledges. As for prose, we give up Cicero as compared with Demosthenes, but with no one else; and is Livy less original, or less admirable, than Herodotus? Tacitus may have imitated, even to affectation, the condensation of Thucydides, as Milton imitated the Greek and Hebrew poets; but was not the mind of the one as essentially original as that of the other? Is the Roman less an unapproachable master, in his peculiar line, that of sentimental history, than the Grecian in his? and what Greek historian has written anything similar or comparable to the sublime peroration of the Life of Agricola?[∥] The Latin genius lay not in speculation, and the Romans did undoubtedly borrow all their philosophical principles from the Greeks. Their originality there, as is well said by a remarkable writer in the most remarkable of his works,* consisted in taking those principles au sérieux. They did what the others talked about. Zeno, indeed, was not a Roman; but Pætus Thrasea and Marcus Antoninus were.
[[*] ]“The Ancient Ballad of Chevy-Chase,” in Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 3 vols. (London: Dodsley, 1765), Vol. I, pp. 1-17.
[[†] ]Walter Scott, Marmion (Edinburgh: Constable, 1808).
[[‡] ]In his History of Rome.
[[*] ]David Hume, History of England, 8 vols. (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, London: Pickering, 1826), Vol. I, p. 108; the stories, with the references to William of Malmesbury, are on pp. 109-12.
[* ]“ ‘Infamias quas post dicam magis resperserunt cantilenæ.’ Edgar appears to have been most mercilessly treated in the Anglo-Saxon ballads. He was the favourite of the monks; and the monks and minstrels were at deadly feud.” [For Macaulay’s quotation, see William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum anglorum, ed. Thomas Duffus Hardy, 2 vols. (London: English Historical Society, 1840), Vol. II, p. 236 (Bk. II, § 148).
[[*] ]Sextus Julius Frontinus, The Stratagems, in The Stratagems, and The Aqueducts of Rome (Latin and English), trans. Charles E. Bennett (London: Heinemann; New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1925), p. 75 (Bk. I, Chap. xi, §8).
[[†] ]Livy (Latin and English), 14 vols., trans. B. O. Foster, et al. (London: Heinemann; New York: Putnam’s Sons; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1919-59), Vol. I, p. 285 (Bk. II, Chap. xx).
[[‡] ]Francisco Lopez de Gómara, The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the Weast India, trans. Thomas Nicholas (London: Bynnemann, 1578), pp. 44-5.
[[§] ]Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of Mexico, trans. Maurice Keatinge (London: Wright, 1800), p. 48.
[* ]We notice here what seems to us the single blemish in this fine poem. The twin-gods should not have made a speech in reply to Aulus. Their divinity should have been felt, without being told. The Homeric gods mixed openly as gods, in the battles as in the banquets of men; but the type of the Etrusco-Roman supernatural legend (also not without its Greek prototype in the Arcadian Pan and elsewhere) was the voice which, in the dead of the night following the conflict in which the first Brutus was slain, announced that one fewer had fallen of the Romans than of the enemy. [See Livy, Vol. I, p. 239 (Bk. II. Chap. vii).]
[[*] ]“The Battle of Lake Regillus,” Lays, pp. 121-9.
[[†] ]Livy, Vol. III, pp. 315-19 (Bk. VI, Chap. xxxv); Macaulay, Lays, pp. 39-41.
[[‡] ]Niebuhr, History of Rome, Vol. II, pp. 557-9, and Vol. III, p. 24n; and Thomas Arnold, History of Rome, 3 vols. (London: Fellowes; Oxford: Parker; Cambridge: Deighton, 1838-43), Vol. II, p. 40n.
[[*] ]I.e., De rerum natura.
[[†] ]Virgil, Georgics, in Virgil, Vol. I, pp. 80-236.
[[‡] ]Horace, Carmen saeculare, in The Odes and Epodes (Latin and English), trans. C. E. Bennett (London: Heinemann; New York: Macmillan, 1914), pp. 350-6; Pindar, Carmina (Glasgow: Foulis, 1744).
[[§] ]In The Odes and Epodes, pp. 2-346.
[[¶] ]Macaulay, Lays, p. 143.
[[∥] ]In Tacitus, Dialogus, Agricola, Germania (Latin and English), trans. William Peterson (London: Heinemann; New York: Macmillan, 1914), pp. 168-252.
[* ]Mr. Maurice, in the essay on the history of moral speculation and culture, which forms the article “Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy” in the Encyclopædia Metropolitana. [See Vol. II, pp. 626-9.]