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The Prophecy of Capys

by Thomas Babbington Macaulay

It can hardly be necessary to remind any reader that according to the popular tradition, Romulus, after he had slain his granduncle Amulius, and restored his grandfather Numitor, determined to quit Alba, the hereditary domain of the Sylvian princes, and to found a new city. The gods, it was added, vouchsafed the clearest signs of the favor with which they regarded the enterprise, and of the high destinies reserved for the young colony.

This event was likely to be a favorite theme of the old Latin minstrels. They would naturally attribute the project of Romulus to some divine intimation of the power and prosperity which it was decreed that his city should attain. They would probably introduce seers foretelling the victories of unborn Consuls and Dictators, and the last great victory would generally occupy the most conspicuous place in the prediction. There is nothing strange in the supposition that the poet who was employed to celebrate the first great triumph of the Romans over the Greeks might throw his song of exultation into this form.

The occasion was one likely to excite the strongest feelings of national pride. A great outrage had been followed by a great retribution. Seven years before this time, Lucius Posthumius Megellus, who sprang from one of the noblest houses of Rome, and had been thrice Consul, was sent ambassador to Tarentum, with charge to demand reparation for grievous injuries. The Tarentines gave him audience in their theatre, where he addressed them in such Greek as he could command, which, we may well believe, was not exactly such as Cineas would have spoken. An exquisite sense of the ridiculous belonged to the Greek character; and closely connected with this faculty was a strong propensity to flippancy and impertinence. When Posthumius placed an accent wrong, his hearers burst into a laugh. When he remonstrated, they hooted him, and called him barbarian; and at length hissed him off the stage as if he had been a bad actor. As the grave Roman retired, a buffoon, who, from his constant drunkenness, was nicknamed the Pint-pot, came up with gestures of the grossest indecency, and bespattered the senatorial gown with filth. Posthumius turned round to the multitude, and held up the gown, as if appealing to the universal law of nations. The sight only increased the insolence of the Tarentines. They clapped their hands, and set up a shout of laughter which shook the theatre. "Men of Tarentum," said Posthumius, "it will take not a little blood to wash this gown."

Rome, in consequence of this insult, declared war against the Tarentines. The Tarentines sought for allies beyond the Ionian Sea. Phyrrhus, king of Epirus, came to their help with a large army; and, for the first time, the two great nations of antiquity were fairly matched against each other.

The fame of Greece in arms, as well as in arts, was then at the height. Half a century earlier, the career of Alexander had excited the admiration and terror of all nations from the Ganges to the Pillars of Hercules. Royal houses, founded by Macedonian captains, still reigned at Antioch and Alexandria. That barbarian warriors, led by barbarian chiefs, should win a pitched battle against Greek valor guided by Greek science, seemed as incredible as it would now seem that the Burmese or the Siamese should, in the open plain, put to flight an equal number of the best English troops. The Tarentines were convinced that their countrymen were irresistible in war; and this conviction had emboldened them to treat with the grossest indignity one whom they regarded as the representative of an inferior race. Of the Greek generals then living Pyrrhus was indisputably the first. Among the troops who were trained in the Greek discipline his Epirotes ranked high. His expedition to Italy was a turning-point in the history of the world. He found there a people who, far inferior to the Athenians and Corinthians in the fine arts, in the speculative sciences, and in all the refinements of life, were the best soldiers on the face of the earth. Their arms, their gradations of rank, their order of battle, their method of intrenchment, were all of Latin origin, and had all been gradually brought near to perfection, not by the study of foreign models, but by the genius and experience of many generations of great native commanders. The first words which broke from the king, when his practised eye had surveyed the Roman encampment, were full of meaning: "These barbarians," he said, "have nothing barbarous in their military arrangements." He was at first victorious; for his own talents were superior to those of the captains who were opposed to him; and the Romans were not prepared for the onset of the elephants of the East, which were then for the first time seen in Italy—moving mountains, with long snakes for hands. But the victories of the Epirotes were fiercely disputed, dearly purchased, and altogether unprofitable. At length, Manius Curius Dentatus, who had in his first Consulship won two triumphs, was again placed at the head of the Roman Commonwealth, and sent to conquer the invaders. A great battle was fought near Beneventum. Pyrrhus was completely defeated. He repassed the sea; and the world learned, with amazement, that a people had been discovered who, in fair fighting, were superior to the best troops that had been drilled on the system of Parmenio and Antigonus.

The conquerors had a good right to exult in their success; for their glory was all their own. They had not learned from their enemy how to conquer him. It was with their own national arms, and in their own national battle array, that they had overcome weapons and tactics long believed to be invincible. The pilum and the broadsword had vanquished the Macedonian spear. The legion had broken the Macedonian phalanx. Even the elephants, when the surprise produced by their first appearance was over, could cause no disorder in the steady yet flexible battalions of Rome. It is said by Florus, and may easily be believed, that the triumph far surpassed in magnificence any that Rome had previously seen. The only spoils which Papirius Cursor and Fabius Maximus could exhibit were flocks and herds, wagons of rude structure, and heaps of spears and helmets. But now, for the first time, the riches of Asia and the arts of Greece adorned a Roman pageant. Plate, fine stuffs, costly furniture, rare animals, exquisite paintings and sculptures, formed part of the procession. At the banquet would be assembled a crowd of warriors and statesmen, among whom Manius Curius Dentatus would take the highest room. Caius Fabricius Luscinus, then, after two Consulships and two triumphs, Censor of the Commonwealth, would doubtless occupy a place of honor at the board. In situations less conspicuous probably lay some of those who were, a few years later, the terror of Carthage: Caius Duilius, the founder of the maritime greatness of his country; Marcus Atilius Regulus, who owed to defeat a renown far higher than that which he had derived from his victories; and Caius Lutatius Catalus, who, while suffering from a grievous wound, fought the great battle of the Æates, and brought the First Punic War to a triumphant close. It is impossible to recount the names of these eminent citizens, without reflecting that they were, without exception, Plebeians, and would, but for the ever memorable struggle maintained by Caius Licinius and Lucius Sextius, have been doomed to hide in obscurity, or to waste in civil broils, the capacity and energy which prevailed against Pyrrhus and Hamilcar.

On such a day we may suppose that the patriotic enthusiasm of a Latin poet would vent itself in reiterated shouts of "Io triumphe," such as were uttered by Horace on a far less exciting occasion, and in boasts resembling those which Virgil put into the mouth of Anchises. The superiority of some foreign nations, and especially of the Greeks, in the lazy arts of peace, would be admitted with disdainful candor; but preëminence in all the qualities which fit a people to subdue and govern mankind would be claimed for the Romans.

The following lay belongs to the latest age of Latin ballad-poetry. Nævis and Livius Andronicus were probably among the children whose mothers held them up to see the chariot of Curius go by. The minstrel who sang on that day might possibly have lived to read the first hexameters of Ennius, and to see the first comedies of Plautus. His poem, as might be expected, shows a much wider acquaintance with the geography, manners, and productions of remote nations, than would have been found in compositions of the age of Camillus. But he troubles himself little about dates, and having heard travellers talk with admiration of the Colossus of Rhodes, and of the structures and gardens with which the Macedonian king of Syria had embellished their residence on the banks of the Orontes, he has never thought of inquiring whether these things existed in the age of Romulus.

 The Prophecy of Capys
A Lay Sung at the Banquet in the Capitol, on the Day Whereon
Manius Curius Dentatus, a Second Time Consul, Triumphed Over King
Pyrrhus and the Tarentines, in the Year of the City CCCCLXXIX.
     Now slain is King Amulius,
          Of the great Sylvian line,
     Who reigned in Alba Longa,
          On the throne of Aventine.
     Slain is the Ponfiff Camers,
          Who spake the words of doom:
     "The children to the Tiber,
          The mother to the tomb."
     In Alba's lake no fisher
          His net to-day is flinging;
     On the dark rind of Alba's oaks
          To-day no axe is ringing;
     The yoke hangs o'er the manger;
          The scythe lies in the hay:
     Through all the Alban villages
          No work is done to-day.
     And every Alban burgher
          Hath donned his whitest gown;
     And every head in Alba
          Weareth a poplar crown;
     And every Alban door-post
          With boughs and flowers is gay,
     For to-day the dead are living,
          The lost are found to-day.
     They were doomed by a bloody king,
          They were doomed by a lying priest,
     They were cast on the raging flood,
          They were tracked by the raging beast;
     Raging beast and raging flood
          Alike have spared the prey;
     And to-day the dead are living,
          The lost are found to-day.
     The troubled river knew them,
          And smoothed his yellow foam,
     And gently rocked the cradle
          That bore the fate of Rome.
     The ravening she-wolf knew them,
          And licked them o'er and o'er,
     And gave them of her own fierce milk,
          Rich with raw flesh and gore.
     Twenty winters, twenty springs,
          Since then have rolled away;
     And to-day the dead are living:
          The lost are found to-day.
     Blithe it was to see the twins,
          Right goodly youths and tall,
     Marching from Alba Longa
          To their old grandsire's hall.
     Along their path fresh garlands
          Are hung from tree to tree:
     Before them stride the pipers,
          Piping a note of glee.
     On the right goes Romulus,
          With arms to the elbows red,
     And in his hand a broadsword,
          And on the blade a head—
     A head in an iron helmet,
          With horse-hair hanging down,
     A shaggy head, a swarthy head,
          Fixed in a ghastly frown—
     The head of King Amulius
          Of the great Sylvian line,
     Who reigned in Alba Longa,
          On the throne of Aventine.
     On the left side goes Remus,
          With wrists and fingers red,
     And in his hand a boar-spear,
          And on the point a head—
     A wrinkled head and aged,
          With silver beard and hair,
     And holy fillets round it,
          Such as the pontiffs wear—
     The head of ancient Camers,
          Who spake the words of doom:
     "The children to the Tiber;
          The mother to the tomb."
     Two and two behind the twins
          Their trusty comrades go,
     Four and forty valiant men,
          With club, and axe, and bow.
     On each side every hamlet
          Pours forth its joyous crowd,
     Shouting lads and baying dogs,
          And children laughing loud,
     And old men weeping fondly
          As Rhea's boys go by,
     And maids who shriek to see the heads,
          Yet, shrieking, press more nigh.
     So marched they along the lake;
          They marched by fold and stall,
     By cornfield and by vineyard,
          Unto the old man's hall.
     In the hall-gate sat Capys,
          Capys, the sightless seer;
     From head to foot he trembled
          As Romulus drew near.
     And up stood stiff his thin white hair,
          And his blind eyes flashed fire:
     "Hail! foster child of the wondrous nurse!
          Hail! son of the wondrous sire!"
     "But thou—what dost thou here
          In the old man's peaceful hall?
     What doth the eagle in the coop,
          The bison in the stall?
     Our corn fills many a garner;
          Our vines clasp many a tree;
     Our flocks are white on many a hill:
          But these are not for thee.
     "For thee no treasure ripens
          In the Tartessian mine;
     For thee no ship brings precious bales
          Across the Libyan brine;
     Thou shalt not drink from amber;
          Thou shalt not rest on down;
     Arabia shall not steep thy locks,
          Nor Sidon tinge thy gown.
     "Leave gold and myrrh and jewels,
          Rich table and soft bed,
     To them who of man's seed are born,
          Whom woman's milk have fed.
     Thou wast not made for lucre,
          For pleasure, nor for rest;
     Thou, that art sprung from the War-god's loins,
          And hast tugged at the she-wolf's breast.
     "From sunrise unto sunset
          All earth shall hear thy fame:
     A glorious city thou shalt build,
          And name it by thy name:
     And there, unquenched through ages,
          Like Vesta's sacred fire,
     Shall live the spirit of thy nurse,
          The spirit of thy sire.
     "The ox toils through the furrow,
          Obedient to the goad;
     The patient ass, up flinty paths,
          Plods with his weary load:
     With whine and bound the spaniel
          His master's whistle hears;
     And the sheep yields her patiently
          To the loud-clashing shears.
     "But thy nurse will hear no master,
          Thy nurse will bear no load;
     And woe to them that shear her,
          And woe to them that goad!
     When all the pack, loud baying,
          Her bloody lair surrounds,
     She dies in silence, biting hard,
          Amidst the dying hounds.
     "Pomona loves the orchard;
          And Liber loves the vine;
     And Pales loves the straw-built shed
          Warm with the breath of kine;
     And Venus loves the whispers
          Of plighted youth and maid,
     In April's ivory moonlight
          Beneath the chestnut shade.
     "But thy father loves the clashing
          Of broadsword and of shield:
     He loves to drink the steam that reeks
          From the fresh battlefield:
     He smiles a smile more dreadful
          Than his own dreadful frown,
     When he sees the thick black cloud of smoke
          Go up from the conquered town.
     "And such as is the War-god,
          The author of thy line,
     And such as she who suckled thee,
          Even such be thou and thine.
     Leave to the soft Campanian
          His baths and his perfumes;
     Leave to the sordid race of Tyre
          Their dyeing-vats and looms;
     Leave to the sons of Carthage
          The rudder and the oar;
     Leave to the Greek his marble Nymphs
          And scrolls of wordy lore.
     "Thine, Roman, is the pilum:
          Roman, the sword is thine,
     The even trench, the bristling mound,
          The legion's ordered line;
     And thine the wheels of triumph,
          Which with their laurelled train
     Move slowly up the shouting streets
          To Jove's eternal flame.
     "Beneath thy yoke the Volscian
          Shall vail his lofty brow;
     Soft Capua's curled revellers
          Before thy chairs shall bow:
     The Lucumoes of Arnus
          Shall quake thy rods to see;
     And the proud Samnite's heart of steel
          Shall yield to only thee.
     "The Gaul shall come against thee
          From the land of snow and night;
     Thou shalt give his fair-haired armies
          To the raven and the kite.
     "The Greek shall come against thee,
          The conqueror of the East.
     Beside him stalks to battle
          The huge earth-shaking beast,
     The beast on whom the castle
          With all its guards doth stand,
     The beast who hath between his eyes
          The serpent for a hand.
     First march the bold Epirotes,
          Wedged close with shield and spear
     And the ranks of false Tarentum
          Are glittering in the rear.
     "The ranks of false Tarentum
          Like hunted sheep shall fly:
     In vain the bold Epirotes
          Shall round their standards die:
     And Apennine's gray vultures
          Shall have a noble feast
     On the fat and the eyes
          Of the the huge earth-shaking beast.
     "Hurrah! for the good weapons
          That keep the War-god's land.
     Hurrah! for Rome's stout pilum
          In a stout Roman hand.
     Hurrah! for Rome's short broadsword
          That through the thick array
     Of levelled spears and serried shields
          Hews deep its gory way.
     "Hurrah! for the great triumph
          That stretches many a mile.
     Hurrah! for the wan captives
          That pass in endless file.
     Ho! bold Epirotes, whither
          Hath the Red King taken flight?
     Ho! dogs of false Tarentum,
          Is not the gown washed white?
     "Hurrah! for the great triumph
          That stretches many a mile.
     Hurrah! for the rich dye of Tyre,
          And the fine web of Nile,
     The helmets gay with plumage
          Torn from the pheasant's wings,
     The belts set thick with starry gem
          That shone on Indian kings,
     The urns of massy silver,
          The goblets rough with gold,
     The many-colored tablets bright
          With loves and wars of old,
     The stone that breathes and struggles,
          The brass that seems to speak;—
     Such cunning they who dwell on high
          Have given unto the Greek.
     "Hurrah! for Manius Curius,
          The bravest son of Rome,
     Thrice in utmost need sent forth,
          Thrice drawn in triumph home.
     Weave, weave, for Manius Curius
          The third embroidered gown:
     Make ready the third lofty car,
          And twine the third green crown;
     And yoke the steeds of Rosea
          With necks like a bended bow,
     And deck the bull, Mevania's bull,
          The bull as white as snow.
     "Blest and thrice blest the Roman
          Who sees Rome's brightest day,
     Who sees that long victorious pomp
          Wind down the Sacred Way,
     And through the bellowing Forum,
          And round the Suppliant's Grove,
     Up to the everlasting gates
          Of Capitolian Jove.
     "Then where, o'er two bright havens,
          The towers of Corinth frown;
     Where the gigantic King of Day
          On his own Rhodes looks down;
     Where oft Orontes murmurs
          Beneath the laurel shades;
     Where Nile reflects the endless length
          Of dark red colonnades;
     Where in the still deep water,
          Sheltered from waves and blasts,
     Bristles the dusky forest
          Of Byrsa's thousand masts;
     Where fur-clad hunters wander
          Amidst the northern ice;
     Where through the sand of morning-land
          The camel bears the spice;
     Where Atlas flings his shadow
          Far o'er the western foam,
     Shall be great fear on all who hear
          The might name of Rome."