Syme’s Revolution

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • Roman Papers by Ronald Syme, edited by E. Badian
    Oxford, 878 pp, £35.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 19 814367 2

During the fifty years that have elapsed since the publication of the earliest of the essays collected in these volumes, there has been a revolution in the study of Roman history in which Ronald Syme has played a part comparable with that of Augustus in the revolution which his most famous book describes. When his career began, that study was still dominated by the gigantic figure of Theodor Mommsen, who was born in 1817 and died in 1903, the year of Syme’s birth. The History of Rome which made Mommsen familiar to the general reader – it even earned him one of the earliest Nobel Prizes for Literature – was only one item in his vast output, and was viewed by him with some misgiving as a popularising work. More important, in his view, were his detailed studies of the Roman provinces, his immense contribution to the collection and publication of inscriptions, his planning of the great series of Monumenta Germaniae Historica, his comprehensive works on Roman public and private law. Mommsen began from the study of Roman private law: a fact that had great consequences. For all his power to portray individuals, he was above all a student of institutions. The flaw in his approach to history was that it was too legalistic. ‘He codified Roman law more than the Romans ever did,’ writes Arnaldo Momigliano, ‘instead of trying to see how the Roman ruling class built the system of their own government to ensure order in the State and continuity to their own rule.’

Mommsen’s influence lasted long, particularly in England, where the ‘Whig’ approach to modern history had its counterpart in the study of Rome. The political strife of the last century of the Republic was seen in terms of a struggle between a conservative party of Optimates and a reforming party of Populares, behind whom lurked the Whigs and Tories. Material seeming to support this view was furnished by the works of Cicero. The great reforming leader was the dictator Caesar, the hero of Mommsen’s Römische Geschichte; his heir and successor was Augustus, the restorer and reformer of the Republic. Eduard Meyer, in a famous book published in 1922, preferred to make Augustus the successor, not of Caesar, but of Pompeius Magnus, whom he saw as a military leader who respected the constitution.

As an undergraduate reading Greats just after the war, I attended and admired a course of 24 lectures on the development of the Roman constitution given by H.M. Last, Syme’s predecessor in the Camden Chair of Roman history. Last had a legal cast of mind: with much learning and with subtle reasoning, he outlined the constitutional niceties of tribunician power and imperium maius by which Augustus justified his domination. But after I had read The Roman Revolution, which Syme had published in 1939, at the age of 36, I felt the subject of Last’s course to be a good deal less important than I had thought at first.

Born in New Zealand in 1903, Syme came to England as a Rhodes Scholar. He started as a military historian: his first large undertaking was to write for the tenth volume of the Cambridge Ancient History (1934) an admirable account of Rome’s northern frontiers from the start of Augustus’s reign to the end of that of Nero. This work must have impressed on him the central importance of the fact that after Actium Augustus controlled all the legions: compared with that, tribunician power and imperium maius mattered little. Living in the Thirties, and hearing Mussolini haranguing the mob from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia, Syme would appear to have reached the conclusion that constitutional niceties, fascinating as they were, signified less than the realities of power.

‘The policy and acts of the Roman People,’ he wrote in the masterly opening chapters of The Roman Revolution, in which he sketched his own approach, ‘were guided by an oligarchy, its annals were written in an oligarchic spirit.’ He set himself to study that oligarchy, observing the local origins of its members, their connections by blood and marriage, the details of their careers. To this task he brought a sovereign command of the literary texts and numerous inscriptions which furnished his material. He knows the Latin language and literature better than most professors of Latin, and has a delicate feeling for nuances of style; starting from the pioneer work on Roman proper names of the great comparative linguist Wilhelm Schulze, he knows how to extract historical information from the observation that a particular name points to a particular Italian region. He takes nothing for granted: in the handling of his sources, his critical sense is never not alert. Every person and every problem is grasped in its concrete individuality, but in the mass of details the historian never forgets the central problems.

The general reader in this country knows the historical method which is termed ‘prosopography’ above all from the work of the late Sir Lewis Namier, whose Parliament at the Accession of George III appeared in 1929. The method had been employed by Roman historians well before that time: Matthias Gelzer’s Die Nobilität der römischen Republik had come out in 1912, F. Münzer’s Römische Adelsparteien und Adelsfamilien in 1920. One may doubt, however, whether it has ever been employed more effectively than by Syme, who apart from being a great historian is a considerable literary artist. The mandarin prose of his predecessors had run to long, flowing sentences, suggesting an affinity with Isocrates or Cicero: Syme instead writes short sentences, pithy, concise, and loaded with meaning, recalling the manner of Sallust and still more of Tacitus, and echoing Gibbon. Provided one has a reasonably good memory, one can read The Roman Revolution as though it were a memoir or a novel; anyone who enjoys St Simon need not hesitate to tackle it, and people who admire Balzac or indeed Proust will be well advised to do so.

‘The political life of the Roman Republic,’ Syme writes, ‘was swayed, not by parties and programmes of a modern and parliamentary character, not by the ostensible opposition between Senate and People, Optimates and Populares, but by the strife for power, wealth and glory.’ He calls the Roman constitution ‘a screen and a sham’, showing how the political dynasts used links with men of money, patronage exercised in the law courts, and the personal allegiance of ‘clients’ of all kinds, ranging from freedman to foreign monarchs, to build up their power and influence. The nobiles, men of consular ancestry, constituted a more or less closed circle, not easy for a ‘new man’ to penetrate; during the last century of the Republic they were challenged by the domination of the great generals, holders of the extraordinary commands which the growing empire had made necessary. The civil wars between the faction of Marius and Cinna and that of Sulla were followed by an uneasy interval, marked by the growing power of Pompeius Magnus. Finally the main body of the nobiles was obliged to join forces with Pompeius to resist the still more threatening power built up by Julius Caesar during his ten years as governor of Gaul. Syme’s Caesar is not the superman of Mommsen, consciously planning, in the manner of Bismarck or Cavour, to put an end to the abuses of the old system by establishing a monarchy on the Hellenistic pattern. Like the brilliant German historian Hermann Strasburger, but independently of him – Strasburger’s book on Caesar’s entry into history came out in 1938 – Syme sees him as a typical, if exceptionally gifted, Roman aristocrat struggling with his peers for power and honours, and forced in defence of what he called his dignitas into the struggle with Pompeius and the Optimates whose successful conclusion carried him to supreme power.

The period of chaos, intrigue and civil strife that followed the dictator’s assassination is brilliantly narrated in full detail. Syme admires the courage which Cicero showed in the last year of his life, but declines to sentimentalise him: he believes that in raising up the young Caesar ‘through violence and illegal arms’ against Antonius he showed himself ‘fanatical and dangerous’. Marcus Antonius has had his history written largely by his enemies: Syme treats him with sympathy, pointing out that a careless and disorderly private life did not prevent him from showing on occasion ‘consummate skill as a statesman’, besides courage and generalship. His downfall was due partly to ‘a sentiment of loyalty incompatible with the chill claims of statesmanship’. Syme does not allow the awareness of Augustus’s final achievements to prevent him from describing as it happened the rise of the young adventurer, with no advantages except his status as the heir of Caesar, when he backed the nobiles against Antonius in the war of Mutina, seized the consulship after the opportune death in battle of both its holders, changed sides and joined Antonius in the blood-bath of the proscriptions, throwing his ally Cicero to the wolves, held onto Italy while Antonius departed for the east, avoided war before he was ready by the Pact of Brundisium and played every card correctly until the final show-down, smearing his enemy by means of a propaganda worthy of Goebbels. Syme does not depreciate the greatness of Augustus, which he says ‘will the more sharply be revealed by an unfriendly presentation’. But he shows how the Triumvir Octavianus, co-author of the proscriptions, turned into the defender of Rome and Italy against the oriental despotism of Antonius and Cleopatra, and finally into the noble and disinterested Princeps, restorer of the Republic, subtly dissociating himself from the dictator to whose heritage he owed his start. His Antonius and his Augustus are recognisably the same as Shakespeare’s.

The story is told with abundant wealth of documentation. Syme shows how the faction behind the young adventurer gradually expanded, incorporating more and more well-connected and respected persons, yet never lost the support of the Italian municipalities and of well-to-do supporters in the provinces, and how the Princeps gave it an ultra-respectable look by artificially reviving the relics of the ancient aristocracy by means of subsidies and honours. He describes the rise of factions within the faction, and the shifting balance of power as one plan after another for the succession to Augustus was frustrated by an adverse fortune. A thoroughgoing social revolution, involving the rise of a new ruling class and a change from liberty to despotism, is presented with vivid colour: nor have subsequent discoveries or researches substantially modified the facts as here narrated.

Even if Syme can be said to have equalled this early masterpiece, he has not so far surpassed it. But it was only the first of a succession of books ranging over the whole of Roman history from the age of the Gracchi to the fall of the Western Empire. The flow of publications was briefly halted by the Second World War, when Syme was in Belgrade, Ankara and Constantinople. After the war, the steady stream of articles continued. In 1958 came two books, a small but significant and characteristic work called Colonial Elites and a masterly study of Tacitus, in two large volumes. The former work, dealing with Spain and the Americas as well as Rome, showed that Syme had not forgotten his New Zealand origins, which have been as useful to him as his experience in the Hampshire Militia was to Gibbon. In his Tacitus, Syme’s command over the great body of evidence that illustrates the subject seems complete, and the history of the period is surveyed from a fresh, unprejudiced and enlightened point of view. The paradox of the historiography of the imperial period emerges clearly: the historian regretted despotism but acknowledged its necessity, praising but not admiring the Stoic martyrs who defied it. If the book has a weakness, it is that of being too sympathetic to its subject. Syme credits Tacitus with an active interest in establishing the true facts, and with a freedom from contemporary prejudices not easily to be conceded to a writer of his time. The same tendency may be more readily observed in a work on a far smaller scale, a lecture on Thucydides to be found in the Proceedings of the British Academy for 1962 (Vol. 48), which makes the historian out to be freer from the limits imposed by time and situation than others can imagine: here Strasburger’s attitude is significantly different. Like The Roman Revolution, Tacitus is notable as a work of literary art: but the subject is less unitary and the wealth of detail even greater, so that it is less satisfying from the literary point of view. Still, it represents a quantity of learned labour that would suffice for the lifetime of a distinguished scholar, and a colleague who, unlike me, is an expert in the field tells me that he thinks it Syme’s greatest work as a historian.

In 1964, Syme brought out a much extended version of the Sather Lectures on Sallust which he had given at Berkeley in 1959. By Syme’s standards, this work is a little disappointing. Sallust’s rhetorical moralising about the corruption of the nobiles is given more credit than it deserves for being an effective criticism of the system, and from being concise the style has become virtually staccato, sometimes giving, like that of Seneca, a displeasing impression of jerkiness. Yet the learning is as great as ever, and the book contains much brilliant analysis, particularly in the chapters that deal with the conspiracy of Catilina. Syme here rightly reminds us that the last age of the Republic, for all its turbulence, was ‘an era of liberty, vitality and innovation’.

The last 15 years have seen a marked renewal of interest in the problems of the late Empire, and Syme has been much occupied with the difficulties posed by the series of lives of emperors attributed to six named authors that is called the Historia Augusta. His theory that they are the work of a single author working at the end of the fourth century, a learned, unscrupulous and malicious writer, rather like Sir Edmund Backhouse, who reacted in a mocking spirit to the publication of the great history of Ammianus Marcellinus, has been set forth in a book (Ammianus and the Historia Augusta, 1968) and a whole volume of essays (Emperors and Biography, 1971). It has not won universal assent, but of the value of Syme’s contribution to the discussion of the enigmatic work and its relevance to the history of the period there can be no doubt, and one may say the same of his penetrating remarks about ancient fiction and pseudo-history in general.

History in Ovid (1978) supplies a postscript to The Roman Revolution, showing the Augustan regime in its sombre last years, and, while not pretending to offer a solution to a problem that is scarcely soluble, points in the direction in which an answer to many of the questions about the great poet’s exile that one can scarcely help asking is surely to be found. Syme’s findings correspond closely with those of a younger scholar in two remarkable articles that he can have seen only at a late stage of his work: one on ‘Augustan poetry and the life of luxury’ and another on ‘Propertius and Antony’, published by Jasper Griffin in the Journal of Roman Studies for 1976 and 1977.

But Syme is not only a writer of books: much of his best work is to be found in his numerous articles and in his occasional reviews. Some have already been collected in Ten Studies in Tacitus (1970) and in Danubian Papers (1971). Now we have a generous selection from the minor writings published between 1929 and 1970, well printed in two handsome volumes and decorated with a good photograph. The collection was originally planned to honour Sir Ronald on his 70th birthday in 1973. Its appearance was delayed in the hope that an index would be available in time, a hope that has sadly been disappointed. But we are promised an index that will embrace the contents not only of this volume but of the other two collections of opuscula, and we have here a bibliography of Syme’s writings down to the end of 1970.

These articles range over Roman history from the second century BC until the fall of the Western Empire; some are especially welcome here because they were published in remote places. Historical study, like military intelligence, must construct a great framework of detail, since even an apparently insignificant fact may suddenly acquire importance, and some of these articles are severely prosopographical. Syme traces missing persons and lists senators, tribes and towns with unfailing learning and acuteness; even in these technical pieces one may at any moment come upon a characteristic flash of wit or insight. But a great deal of the book is of great general interest and importance; much of Syme’s best writing can be found here. The style is recognisable even in the earliest item, a brilliant refutation of the assumption that the ‘bad’ emperor Domitian must have left the Empire’s finances in a parlous state. But as time goes on we see the sentences become shorter, the style grow more aphoristic and allusive, the idiosyncrasies more noticeable.

Some articles throw new light on famous persons: the cross-grained and independent statesman and historian Asinius Pollio; the poet, friend of Virgil and Governor of Egypt C. Cornelius Gallus; the Caesarian lieutenant and Pompeian partisan T. Labienus; Tiberius’s minister and victim Sejanus; the louche Caesarian henchman, suspected of throwing live slaves to his red mullets to improve their flavour, Vedius Pollio; the famous general Corbulo (one of the seven irregularly-born children of the six-times-married Vistilia, and so half-brother of the notorious prosecutor Sullius Rufus and of Caligula’s last wife). But light is also thrown upon obscure persons: upon Catullus’s friend Veranius, on the possible identity of the ennobled muleteer Sabinus in the Catullan parody of the tenth poem in the Catalepton, on a whole group of connections of the elder Pliny, on bastards in the Roman aristocracy, and upon many more. The study of individuals yields significant general conclusions: we are shown in detail how, first, Italians and, later, provincials acquired a share in wealth and honours. Important studies are devoted to certain provinces: Pamphylia, Cilicia, Spain, Africa. There are several essays on themes of great general importance: on the reasons for the fall of the Roman Republic, on Caesar, the Senate and Italy, on Livy in relation to Augustus and his regime, on the Greeks under Roman rule (this last superbly written, and illustrated with telling quotations from Bagehot and from Mr Podsnap). A brief talk on Roman historians and Renaissance politics makes one wish Syme had wandered more often outside the confines of Roman history: it touches on Machiavelli and the Renaissance vogue for Tacitus. It contains the only real error I have discovered in the book: the school that had Camden for Headmaster and Ben Jonson for a pupil was not St Paul’s, but Westminster.

Like all valuable ideas in scholarship, prosopography has been abused by minor scholars who have treated it as a key to open all doors, applying it mechanically and indiscriminately. Some such persons have even aped the style of the master, some of whose idiosyncrasies lend themselves to caricature. He has on occasion used the phrase, ‘so far so good’, employed by Widmerpool in his famous oration at the old boys’ dinner of Le Bas’s house. Not long ago, a gifted young Oxford historian was heard to boast that he took no interest in the study of institutions: so far have we come from the still Mommsenian Oxford that Momigliano found when he first came to England. Syme can be blamed for none of these things. He has shown Roman history from a new angle, indicated by the circumstances of his own time. Momigliano once wrote that Syme reacted directly against the exaltation of Augustus that prevailed in the ‘pro-fascist circles’ of the appeasers of the Thirties: I would rather say that he reacted against the residual Victorian stuffiness that made people find Augustus as respectable as the Emperor Wilhelm I or Queen Victoria, and profited by the experience of being a contemporary of Hitler and Mussolini to understand such episodes as Nero’s suppression of the conspiracy of Piso in a way that would not have been easy for men brought up in the security of the English 19th century. His achievement has significantly altered our view of Roman history, and the editor of this collection is right to compare him with Barthold Georg Niebuhr and with Theodor Mommsen.