April Books 4) Macaulay’s Essays and Lays of Ancient Rome

4) Essays and Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Babington Macaulay

This book was given to my great aunt as a second prize for general good behaviour at her Somerset boarding school in 1886. It includes several of the Lays of Ancient Rome published first in 1841, two other historical essays (on Robert Clive and Warren Hastings) published at the same time, and Macaulay’s first ever historical essay on Milton, published originally in 1825.

I don’t remember my father’s aunt, who died aged 98 when I was very small; she was one of the oldest of my great-grandfather’s 15 children, and her husband was the chieftain of one of the Irish clans, whose brother founded a medium-sized poliical party in the early years of the Irish Free State and then merged it into what became Fine Gael. Meanwhile my great-aunt’s son grew up to become a British ambassador in south-east Asia, and added a knighthood to the clan chieftainship which he eventually inherited.

However the book is not especially enlightening about her – presumably she had no qualms about leaving it behind in her parents’ house when she got married in 1894. Once or twice in my historian days I found relics from early on in someone’s life, and it does leave you realising how little you can tell of what lies in store for you at that stage. The connection between this book and the elderly lady who, visiting Dublin in the 1940s, would stay in Phoenix Park with her former neighbour, President Douglas Hyde, is fairly slim. But not completely fictitious.

Oh yes, the book itself. Well, the Lays of Ancient Rome are supposedly translated from a Latin original by Macaulay into the style and rhythm of ballads, the most famous being “Horatius at the Bridge”. I felt bothered by the fact that actually much of the plot and all the incidental details were as far as I can tell made up by Macaulay, so it’s really a work of historical fiction by him. Good stirring stuff, but to this cynical reader obviously invented to inspire good manly values in the reader – build the alliance of aristocracy with the common people in order to prevent democracy and mob rule. Indeed, that’s what I felt about all the poems.

The two historical essays on Englishmen who got involved with India, Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, brought home to me how little I know about India. Macaulay of course lived there for several years himself, but earlier readers – both in the 1840s when the essays were written and in the 1880s when my great aunt was given the book (one of her brothers later died in Fyzabad, now Faizabad, enforcing the values of the Raj) – would have had a much better knowledge of the localities mentioned than I do. His opinion of Bengalis is so negative that it is comical (one of my mother’s sisters is married to a Bengali). John Keay’s History of India is sitting on my shelf looking accusingly at me; I don’t think I got beyond 700 AD when I last tried reading it a few years ago.

Finally, the essay on Milton – as I said, Macaulay’s first published work, and one that is much more directly political. For any Irish reader it’s difficult to deal with the approval rating that Cromwell gets from otherwise sane and sensible English people. Macaulay of course isn’t sane and sensible by any measure, and I felt I learnt a lot more about Milton and his age from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Pepys – although Milton isn’t actually mentioned in Pepys’ diary, his secretary was the brother of Pepys’ long term lady friend.

In summary, a book that made me realise how distant we are (or at least, how distant I am) from the cultural heritage of the nineteenth century, and also how much more mature history (at least the history I read) is as a discipline than the rhetorical Whiggery which made Macaulay famous.

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