Ronald Syme’s The Roman Republic a Masterpiece
New Zealander Sir Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution, written under the cloud of fascism, is a compelling account of the decline of the Roman oligarchy in favour of a principate, according to author Joseph Epstein in a review for the Wall Street Journal.
In his study of the Roman historian Sallust (86-35 B.C.), Syme writes that, “historians are selective, dramatic, impressionistic.” Later in the same work he notes that, “systems and doctrines decay or ossify, whereas poetry and drama live on, also style and narrative.” These words apply to Syme himself, a man generally considered the greatest modern historian of Rome. Syme wrote biographies of Sallust and Tacitus and much else, but his reputation rests on The Roman Revolution. Published in 1939 when the specter of fascism clouded Europe, it was soon recognised as the magnificent book it is.
Syme was born in Eltham, South Taranki in 1903. He studied at and settled in Oxford. His specialty was prosopography, or the study of collective biographies to find common characteristics of historical social classes or groups. This was invaluable for The Roman Revolution, which is a compelling account of the decline of the Roman oligarchy in favour of a principate, or monarchy, quietly but implacably put in place by Augustus, the first of the Roman emperors. If historians had Rolodexes, none could be more complete than Syme’s on the Romans in the last years of the Republic.
“In any age in the history of the Roman Republic,” he notes, “about twenty or thirty men, drawn from a dozen dominant families, hold a monopoly of office and power.” An intramural, nearly incestuous, affair was Roman political life; consider alone Servilia, “Cato’s half-sister, Brutus’s mother, Caesar’s mistress.”
A man who sees beneath every surface, demolishing all pretenses, Syme, early in his great book, writes: “The Roman constitution was a screen and a sham.” Of the idealism of the Republic, he notes: “Liberty and law are high-sounding words. They will often be rendered, on a cool estimate, as privilege and vested interest.” No cooler estimator existed than Syme. “The career of Pompeius,” he writes, “opened in fraud and violence. It was prosecuted, in war and peace, through illegality and treachery.”
Toward the close of The Roman Revolution Syme writes: “To explain the fall of the Roman Republic, historians invoke a variety of converging forces or movements, political, social and economic, where antiquity was prone to see only the ambition and agency of individuals.” As with all historical masterpieces, one comes away from The Roman Republic feeling unblinkered and intellectually rejuvenated.
Syme died in England in 1989 at the age of 86.
Original article by Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2016.