“The Innocents”


A tale of the birth of Jesus. In the time of Octavian and Herod, Isaiah's prophesy comes true and the King of the Jews is born. Brutal Herod orders the children of Bethlehem slain. Jesus escapes, but there is great mourning in Bethlehem

Supplemental text

Innocents, The
  Partial text(s)

          *** A ***

From Arthur Quiller-Couch, The Oxford Book of Ballads, #108,
pp. 451-454. Source not listed.

Mark this song, for it is true,
For it is true as clerkes tell:
In old time strange things came to pass,
Great wonder and great marvel was
    In Israel.

There was one Octavian,
Octavian of Rome Emperour,
As bookes old doe specify,
Of all the wide world truely
    He was lord and governour.

(16 additional stanzas)


Loosely based on the story of Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents in Matt. 2:1-18.

However, this is very obviously a literary production. It shows an apparent knowledge of Josephus (at least indirectly), since it refers to Herod as a "Paynim born" -- which is technically true (Herod was of Edomite ancestry) but rather unfair; Herod regarded himself as Jewish.

Even more interesting is the reference to Octavian as Roman Emperor. It is true that Octavian was Roman Emperor when Jesus was born (so explicitly Luke 2:1, but we would have known it even without that reference). But the Bible refers only to "Caesar Augustus," never "Octavian." So the author either got the name from Josephus (though this is unlikely; Josephus usually says "Augustus" or "(Young) Caesar") or a Roman history. This effectively precludes the possibility of folk composition.

Overall, the language of the whole rather over-stylized business strikes me as probably being of the seventeenth century. - RBW

Historical references

  • 44 B.C.E. - Death of Julius Caesar brings Octavian to the front of Roman politics
  • 37-4 B.C.E. - Reign of Herod the Great in Palestine
  • 31 B.C.E. - Battle of Actium. Octavian gains sole control of Roman world
  • 27 B.C.E. - Octavian named "Augustus" and declared "Princeps" by the Senate
  • 6 B.C.E - Approximate date of the birth of Jesus
  • 14 C.E. - Death of Octavian/Augustus


  1. OBB 108, "The Innocents" (1 text)
  2. ST OBB108 (Partial)
  3. BI, OBB108


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1920 (Oxford Book of Ballads)