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The Emperor of Roman History

Roman Papers

by Ronald Syme, edited by E. Badian
Oxford University Press, two volumes, 862 pp., $95.00

Ammianus and the Historia Augusta

by Ronald Syme
Oxford University Press

Emperors and Biography: Studies in the Historia Augusta

by Ronald Syme
Oxford University Press

The Historia Augusta: A Call for Clarity

by Ronald Syme
International Publications Service

History in Ovid

by Ronald Syme
Oxford University Press

The Roman Revolution

by Ronald Syme
Oxford University Press

Sallust

by Ronald Syme
University of California Press

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 previously by only a few German scholars. To determine the identity of Augustus’s political adherents, the means by which he won their support, and the rewards he later provided for them, Syme undertook a detailed analysis of the Roman upper class person by person. At the end of the First World War Friedrich Münzer had shown that patterns of political activity and alliance in republican Rome could be detected by a detailed study of the family histories of the aristocracy. In his Römische Adelsparteien und Adels-familien (1920), he exploited with exceptional erudition and subtlety the methods of what is known as prosopography—the cumulative study of the careers of individual people as a means of escaping from a more abstract, impressionistic, and doctrinaire historiography.

From prosopon, the Greek word for “character” or “person,” together with graphein, the Greek verb “to write,” the modern word prosopography has served for about a century to designate in the field of ancient history what modern historians have called “collective biography.” The family connections and the careers of a substantial number of persons in a given society and period are examined with a view to drawing conclusions about the political system or social structure. Inevitably the characters about whom adequate evidence can be compiled tend to come from the more affluent and important levels of the population, and therefore prosopography is principally useful in studying the political and social patterns of elites.2

This is particularly true in Roman history, where archival material such as the modern historian has at his disposal is simply not available. The Roman historian must work with lists of magistrates (generals, consuls, provincial governors, and the like) together with a huge supply of raw data on families and careers from inscriptions, papyri, and coins. To all this documentary evidence must be added the often indigestible testimony of orators, letter-writers, historians, and anecdotalists. An imaginative and resourceful prosopographer will also be able to make telling inferences from passing allusions to important persons in poetry and fiction. But even in the hands of a master, prosopography has never been able to shed much light on the lower classes. Syme once remarked in a lecture for which he had been assigned the title, “The Government and the Governed,” that he preferred to speak only about the governing class and not about the “governed,” whom he characterized as la gente perduta, “pale without name or number.”

Prosopography had taken hold in Germany in the late nineteenth century as a result of a large project to provide a register of all known persons of any consequence in the Roman Empire. The project, conducted by Hermann Dessau, was known as the Prosopographia Imperii Romani; meanwhile a vast enterprise was launched to provide nothing less than an alphabetical register of the totality of classical scholarship. This undertaking, a monstrous expansion of the old Paulys Realencyclopädie, relied heavily upon contributions from Münzer for personalities in the Roman republic. It was from the detailed work on those contributions that Münzer’s study of the Roman nobility in politics took shape. He opened up a wholly new kind of history with his book in 1920, and Syme acknowledged the debt in the preface to The Roman Revolution: “But for his [Münzer’s] work on Republican family-history, this book could hardly have existed.”

After identifying the members of the political factions which served both Pompey and Caesar, Syme traced the subsequent allegiance of these people and their descendants during the bloody rise to power of the young man whom Caesar adopted by testament at his death and made his heir. This was the future Augustus, who inherited at the start not only Caesar’s name but his clients. To these he added others by promises and coercion, and after the defeat of Antony he did not scruple to create a whole new group of patricians by legislation. Meanwhile Augustus revived the flagging fortunes of decayed aristocrats to increase the number of his supporters and to adorn his state with fine old names. Augustus tightened his control by reserving the principal magistracies for the growing band of his clients.

It is unlikely that many historians were reading Münzer at Oxford apart from Syme, certainly not the presiding genius of Roman studies there at the time, Hugh Last, Camden Professor of Ancient History. Last was a strict Mommsenian, a learned man and a legendary teacher, but not renowned for broad sympathies or a flexible mind. He did not care much for Rostovtzeff or his work, and he had little sympathy for what Syme was doing. Yet, as often happens in situations like this, both were greater historians than he by far. Both were breaking new ground. As far as Syme was concerned, the conflict between the old and the new generations could not have been more obvious than when Syme succeeded Last in the Camden Chair and moved into Last’s quarters in Brasenose College. That was, in its way, a revolution in Roman history.

Syme has become a celebrated figure not only in the relatively circumscribed world of ancient historians but in the considerably larger world of modern historians as well. In the Becker lectures delivered a few years ago at Cornell, Bernard Bailyn described Syme as “one of the most creative and influential forces in twentieth-century historiography.” He meant by this that the tools Syme took from Münzer and a few others enabled him to write a new kind of Roman history based on materials hitherto so scattered as to be virtually lost.

The Roman Revolution is so widely known that its title has now become shorthand for the transitional period of the late republic and early empire, even though when it was chosen it was a bold and provocative title. For what destroyed the republic and brought Augustus to power was not a revolution against the established order. It was a civil war in which the contenders sought power within the frame of the republican system. To be sure, the system allowed for exceptional dispensations which leaders such as Pompey or Caesar might exploit; but even when the assassins of Caesar feared that he aspired to monarchy (as he perhaps did) his position as dictator was nonetheless constitutional. It was natural therefore that Augustus, once victorious over Antony in civil war, strove to show that the republic was back again. No revolutionary in America, France, or Russia saw the re-establishment of the old order as his official objective. For Syme, Augustus effected a revolution in the name of restoration.

The great strength of Syme’s writing, which makes it so powerful even when it is highly technical, is the sharp vision, with its emphasis on personal ambition, calculation, and clientship. Syme’s mastery of the ancient evidence and his prodigious memory enable him to grasp the sweep of Roman history. He moves among details with consummate ease; he never shuffles index cards to illustrate his ideas. It is all in his head, so that he can readily make comparisons and form judgments. The documentation in his publications is amazingly light (especially for classical scholarship). Syme’s clarity of utterance is refreshing and, at least for younger generations, irresistible. As he himself has claimed, “The scholarship of the recent age all too often allows the facts to be choked in verbiage or sunk in bibliography” (Roman Papers II, p. 540).

Syme’s style, as pointed and concise as his scholarly documentation, is now so familiar to historians that others who, under the powerful influence of his work, ape his phrasing are accused of a “Symian” manner. The intensity and brevity of Tacitus undoubtedly lie behind Syme’s style, as many have observed; but equally important in my view is the prose of Edward Gibbon, whose ideal of “philosophic history” is one to which Syme is explicitly committed. Gibbon’s influence was noted first by Arnaldo Momigliano in a review in 1940. 3

In fact, the two authors who were major stylistic influences on Syme were no less influential in shaping his vision of the past. Both Tacitus and Gibbon saw the Augustan restoration as a fraud. In the first chapter of The Roman Revolution Syme wrote,

  1. 1

    A.F. Giles, Classical Review 54 (1940), p. 39.

  2. 2

    For a valuable survey of the nature and achievements of the technique, see Lawrence Stone, “Prosopography,” Daedalus 100 (1971), pp. 49-79. Stone includes in his discussion of modern historians “the more statistically minded mass school,” which is not, of course, concerned with elites. Work of this kind is possible in ancient history only with the generous use of analogies from other cultures.

  3. 3

    Journal of Roman Studies 30 (1940), p. 75.

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