Introduction to the Web EditionLays of Ancient Rome is not much read today, and more's the pity because few writers have ever controlled the language as did Thomas Babbington Macaulay. He wrote with a seemingly effortless power that made his subject, whatever it was, immediate, interesting and entertaining.
Macaulay lived a life that probably isn't possible any more, that of a scholarly man of business. He was a clever essayist and critic of literature, a politician of the most ardent Whig variety, a government bureaucrat in India, a Member of Parliament, Secretary of War, and the author of a famous History of England.
Perhaps the Lays go unread because the audience for which Macaulay wrote no longer exists. Macaulay's readers, even schoolboys, were completely familiar with the events he made the subjects of the poems. Many of the audience had read the legends in Latin. To them, Macaulay's speculations about what ancient Roman ballads might have been like were probably entertaining in themselves, quite appart from the power of the actual productions. Very few of you reading this, however, will be familiar with the Roman Kings and the Commonwealth, the Patricians and the Plebeians, the Volscians and the Latians
Before reading the Lays, then, it is a good idea to read a quick overview of ancient Roman history. There are several places you can do that on the Web. For more detailed information about the expulsion of the Tarquins and the rape of Lucrece, subjects important to understanding the first two Lays, refer to my notes on Sextus Tarquinius. If you are interested in more information about Rome under the Kings, see one of the web editions of Livy.
Before reading the individual lays, it is also a good idea to read the poem's Preface. Macaulay is careful to describe the historical context for each lay, and the events will be much easier to follow if you have the necessary background.
If this is your first reading of the Lays, then you are in for some pleasant surprises. No matter how cynical or jaded you may be, you will get a chill when you read of Horatius' defense of the bridge, and your eyes will not be dry when you read Virginius' words to his daughter. The poems are well-told stories. If you are returning to the poems after some number of years, I suspect you will find them better than you remember, because the emotional and political aspects will be clearer now, and the technical excellence more evident.
This is in no way a scholarly edition of the Lays, but I intend for it to be accurate. I transcribed it by hand after comparison of several 19-century editions. British spelling and punctuation are retained. Mistakes in copy or interpretation are mine, and corrections are welcome.
Bob Blair, Editor.