Ashes of Our Fathers
Copyright 2007 by N.S. Palmer.
Welcome to “Ashes of Our Fathers.” This blog celebrates the noble and heroic aspects of Western civilization: principles, accomplishments, culture, art, institutions, and individuals. Its title comes from English historian Thomas Macaulay’s book of epic poems, Lays of Ancient Rome.
In ancient times, most people could neither read nor write. Thus, history and culture were often transmitted via epic poetry that could be memorized and chanted.
The best-known examples of such poems are The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, which tell about the Bronze Age history and culture of Greece. Though students today struggle to read all the way through Homer’s poems, boys in ancient Greece memorized both poems as a way of learning about their heritage. They also learned how they, as Greeks, differed from — and saw themselves as superior to — people of other nations. Another example is Gilgamesh, an epic poem that taught the people of ancient Mesopotamia their view of the world, of the gods, of life and death, of the costs of civilization, and of how civilized people should behave.
In modern times, both Homer’s works and Gilgamesh were considered pure fiction. Eventually, however, historical and archaeological investigation verified key elements of their stories, such as the existence of Troy and the occurrence of a catastrophic flood in the Middle East.
Epic poems, therefore, are often a rich source of historical information. In writing about the Roman empire, ancient historians such as Livy based their work in part on epic poems. When Thomas Macaulay lived (1800-1859), most of these poems were no longer extant. Macaulay wrote “Lays of Ancient Rome” to show what he thought some of those epic poems might have been like.
Ironically, Macaulay was mainly a historian, but he first became famous for poetry. “Lays of Ancient Rome” established Macaulay as a best-selling author, and guaranteed an audience for his historical works and essays.
Macaulay’s five-volume History of England, though it covers only a short period around the turn of the 18th century, sold more copies in North America than any other book except the Bible. Its sales reflected not only the author’s popularity and people’s interest in English history, but a widespread appetite for Macaulay’s eloquent, often witty writing and his optimistic view of the progress of human society.
Given the steady decay and degradation of Western civilization at the turn of the 21st century, we may be forgiven for fearing that Macaulay was wrong in his optimistic views of freedom and social progress — even as we hope, against all evidence, that he was right.
Macaulay’s works themselves stand as the kind of achievement that this blog seeks to celebrate. His scholarship, eloquence, and dedication to the principles of freedom and justice on which our civilization was founded can continue to inspire us even in these dark times.
In one of Macaulay’s epic poems, only a bridge across the Tiber river stands between Rome and an enemy army intent on sacking the city and enslaving its citizens. The army is led by Sextus Tarquinius, an evil king whom the Romans deposed when they turned Rome into a republic. The Romans must destroy the bridge to prevent Tarquin’s army from reaching the city, but there isn’t enough time to do it. One man, Horatius, volunteers to sacrifice his life to hold back the invaders while his comrades hack down the bridge. Macaulay writes:
“But when the face of Sextus
Was seen among the foes,
A yell that rent the firmament
From all the town arose.
On the house-tops was no woman
But spat towards him and hissed,
No child but screamed out curses
And shook its little fist.
But the Consul’s brow was sad,
And the Consul’s speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
And darkly at the foe.
‘Their van will be upon us
Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
What hope to save the town?’
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?
And for the tender mother
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?
Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe at bay.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand
And keep the bridge with me?'”
If Horatius still lives anywhere, it’s in the heart of every person who takes pride in the achievements and in the greatness of our Western civilization.