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Under Nine Gods
Lays of Ancient Rome by T. B. Macaulay
© 2013 James LaFond
Thomas Babington Macaulay
1842, Robert K. Haas, inc., Publishers, NY, Little Leather Library edition, 93 pages
19th Century Brits loved translations of ancient Latin and Greek texts into English verse. As a researcher I initially grew impatient with this flexing of English literary muscle and took a ransacking approach to my readings, even doing my own stripped down translations, which are the ugliest possible in terms of verse I think. Upon rereading Lays of Ancient Rome for enjoyment as opposed to investigation, I have come to like the 19th Century British verse approach as much as I formerly disliked it.
This is a collection of the oldest Latin verse, from the dawn of the Roman State, being contemporaneous with the work of the classical Greek poets [circa 500 B.C.]. As with the Greek material there was a significant lag between the oral genesis to written form of these poems. This is to be expected. The purpose of verse is to serve as a mnemonic device, permitting trained poets [cultural memory trusts] to preserve a people’s ancestral memories.
The authors are Horatius, Virginia and Capys, with two poems by the former. The struggle to free Rome from the Etruscan yoke, whose 30 prophets upheld the laws of their 9 gods, is the focus of the first poem. The second is The Battle of the Lake Regillus, which is gruesome in its combative imagery. The other two concern civic and religious matters.
Overall the image that is conjured by the translation is of an early Iron Age society living among mist shrouded forests which darken mysterious mountains. Man is not even yet a master of his environment and is already slaughtering on a tribal basis for land rights. We tend to imagine ancient Greco-Roman life being played out in the worn out semi-desert landscapes of the Mediterranean World of our time. Ancient Lays, is to me, above all a reminder that Southern Europe was physically much different a few thousand years ago than it is today, and that the natural world was more akin to our own image of Dark Age Germany; a land of forests, giant deer, wild boar, wolf packs and mysterious hinterlands where lurked savage enemies poised to sweep down on the community.
It is no wonder that the Roman State grew to such grand proportions without ever shedding its savage skin.
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