Lays of Ancient Rome, by T. Macaulay Free eBook

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Lays of Ancient Rome, by Thomas Babington Macaulay
-The Battle of Lake Regillus
-Ivry, A Song of the Huguenots

The Lays were composed by Macaulay in his thirties, during his spare time while he was the "legal member" of the Governor-General of India's Supreme Council from 1834 to 1838. He later wrote of them:

The plan occurred to me in the jungle at the foot of the Neilgherry hills; and most of the verses were made during a dreary sojourn at Ootacamund and a disagreeable voyage in the Bay of Bengal.

The Roman ballads are preceded by brief introductions, discussing the legends from a scholarly perspective. Macaulay explains that his intention was to write poems resembling those that might have been sung in ancient times.

The Lays were first published by Longman in 1842, at the beginning of the Victorian Era. They became immensely popular, and were a regular subject of recitation, then a common pastime. The Lays were standard reading in British public schools for more than a century. Winston Churchill memorised them while at Harrow School, in order to show that he was capable of mental prodigies, notwithstanding his lacklustre academic performance.


The first poem, Horatius, describes how Publius Horatius and two companions, Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius, held the Sublician bridge against the Etruscan army of Lars Porsena, King of Clusium. The three heroes are willing to die in order to prevent the enemy from crossing the bridge, and sacking an otherwise ill-defended Rome. While the trio close with the front ranks of the Etruscans, the Romans hurriedly work to demolish the bridge, leaving their enemies on the wrong side of the swollen Tiber.

This poem contains the often-quoted lines:

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.

The Battle of Lake Regillus

This poem celebrates the Roman victory over the Latin League, at the Battle of Lake Regillus. Several years after the retreat of Porsena, Rome was threatened by a Latin army led by the deposed Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his son, Titus Tarquinius, and his son-in-law, Octavius Mamilius, prince of Tusculum. The fighting described by Macaulay is fierce and bloody, and the outcome is only decided when the twin gods Castor and Pollux descend to the battlefield on the side of Rome.

This poem includes a number of finely described single-combats, in conscious imitation of Homer's Iliad


This poem describes the tragedy of Virginia, the only daughter of Virginius, a poor Roman farmer. The wicked Appius Claudius, a member of one of Rome's most noble patrician families, and head of the college of decemvirs, desires the beautiful and virtuous Virginia. He initiates legal proceedings, claiming Virginia as his "runaway slave", knowing that his claim will be endorsed by the corrupt magistracy over which he and his cronies preside. Driven to despair, Virginius resolves to save his daughter from Claudius' lust by any means—even her death is preferable.

Ivry, A Song of the Huguenots

Ivry celebrates a battle won by Henry IV of France and his Huguenot forces over the Catholic League in 1590. Henry's succession to the French throne was contested by those who would not accept a Protestant king of France; his victory at Ivry against superior forces left him the only credible claimant for the crown, although he was unable to overcome all opposition until converting to Catholicism in 1593. Henry went on to issue the Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting tolerance to the French Protestants, and ending the French Wars of Religion.

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