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Review of Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Babington Macauley

One of the greatest Western leaders was Winston Churchill. Standing alone against the weight of the Third Reich and Imperial Japanese, he weathered one of the darkest periods for human liberty and preserved the torch of freedom in the West.

Though a soldier by training and education, his true genius was with words. Whether written or spoken, his words inspired the world and carried his nation to its ultimate victory in the titanic conflict that was the Second World War.

The question then becomes what led to his eloquence. What did he read and listen to that gave him such an amazing ability to craft words? The answer, if you read The Last Lion, is two books: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon and Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Babbington Macauley, both of which he read while a lancer stationed in India. The latter, in particular, helped him grasp the English language and, ultimately, turn it into a weapon with which he vanquished the Nazis and began the Cold War struggle against the Soviets.

When reading The Lays of Ancient Rome, it’s not hard to tell why. Macauley, while telling stories from Ancient Rome, uses beautiful, flowing language that makes his stories some of the most inspiring and memorable ever written. For example, the story that might have saved the West is that of Horatius Cocles, a Roman soldier that defended a bridge against a vast multitude of Etruscan invaders, thus giving his city time to destroy the bridge and raise defenses, which allowed it to survive. His story, the first in Lays of Ancient Rome, was immortalized by this passage:

“Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods”

That passage inspired Churchill to give his famous “fight them on the beaches” speech, with which he fortified the bravery of the British people and inspired them to continue the fight against the Nazis despite the “fearful odds” arrayed against them; with Churchill’s words, words stemming from Macauley, guiding them, they became the Horatius that gave the US time to raise its armies and defeat the invaders at the gate, the Nazis.

But that’s just a taste of Lays of Ancient Rome. The rest of the story of Horatius, along with the three other Roman lays in the book, are just as inspiring and memorable.

Summary of The Lays of Ancient Rome

Lays, for those that don’t know, are essentially narrative poems or ballads. So, in Lays of Ancient Rome, Macauley fills the pages with poetical stories, noted for their masterful use of the English language, with which he tells some of the greatest tales from Ancient Rome. He describes the stories as such:

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“He [the reader] 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.”

And, when explaining why he uses poetry to tell those stories says this, noting the inherently poetical nature of early Roman history and the pleasing nature of poetry:

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…

…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.

He then proceeds to tell the tale of Horatius at the gate, Castor and Pollux (gods) leading the Romans to victory at Lake Regillus, the hatred against the Claudian house stemming from one of its members falsely claiming a beautiful Roman damsel, Virginia, as a slave, and the prophecy of Capys.

Each story is beautifully written, inspiring, and highly emotional.

Like Churchill’s speeches, they can never be forgotten once heard or read.

My Take: You Must Read The Lays of Ancient Rome

I intentionally kept the summary short and included fewer passages than is normal in one of these reviews. That’s because you must read The Lays of Ancient Rome. Other epics and ancient tales I’ve read and reviewed as of late are great and books you should read, but not necessarily “musts.”

Not so The Lays of Ancient Rome. Macauley’s beautiful words aren’t just inspiring or any other word that could be justly used to describe them. They’re the material with which great civilizations are built.

It’s a short book full of easy-to-read but unforgettable poetical stories. Take the hour necessary to sit down and read it.

By: Gen Z Conservative