Ammianus and the Historia Augusta
Emperors and Biography: Studies in the Historia Augusta
The Historia Augusta: A Call for Clarity
History in Ovid
The Roman Revolution
In a large volume that appeared in the late summer of 1939 a thirty-six-year-old Oxford don from New Zealand undertook to reassess the whole tumultuous transition of the Roman state from republic to empire. The focus of the work was Caesar Augustus, whom Mussolini’s Italy had lavishly celebrated just two years earlier on the occasion of the two-thousandth anniversary of Augustus’s birth. The book bore the title The Roman Revolution, and its author described its tone as “pessimistic and truculent.” Its aim was nothing less than the demolition of the Augustan Age which generations of modern scholars had carefully fabricated from a largely favorable ancient tradition. Instead of the Augustus who rescued Rome from anarchy and designed a beneficent Augustan peace, there emerged a cruel and duplicitous politician who deliberately destroyed the Roman republic while announcing that he was restoring it.
The Roman Revolution was instantly acclaimed as a masterpiece by those who had time to read it in the fearful months that followed its publication. Reviewers in 1940 struggled to make an appropriate comparison. It was the best work on the subject since Eduard Meyer in 1918, the best since Rostovtzeff on the Roman Empire in 1926, one of the most important works on Roman history since Mommsen. The shadow of contemporary events in Europe on the new portrait of Augustus was unmistakable. This was “a book of great and much more than purely academic significance, though its strictly academic virtues are of the highest.”1 The author, already well known to ancient historians at that time through a series of professional publications that went back to 1928, was Ronald Syme, now Sir Ronald and by general consent the greatest living historian of Rome.
The Roman Revolution had to wait a long time for widespread recognition. The Second World War effectively kept the book from entering the mainstream of historical scholarship, and it was not until the early Fifties that Syme’s impact began to be felt. But the impact, when it finally came, was tremendous. Syme’s work shook the sturdy edifice of Roman history which had been erected by Mommsen in the nineteenth century and subsequently decorated by succeeding generations of historians. Mommsen’s labors on the constitutional complexities of Roman government were still the foundation of Roman history as taught at Oxford when Syme was there in the Thirties, and intricate problems such as whether or not Augustus possessed the imperium consulare or whether he received a portion of the tribunicia potestas before he received the whole thing continued to divert Oxford undergraduates well into the Fifties (and are not altogether forgotten today). It is hard now to imagine just how refreshing, how truly exhilarating it was to open a book that declared, “The Roman constitution was a screen and a sham.”
Syme’s rebellion was the result of years of arduous, time-consuming work in a field of historical research cultivated…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.