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.

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