Jump to content
UNRV Ancient Roman Empire Forums
  • Time Travel Rome

Sign in to follow this  
georgious

Ronald Syme's " The Roman Revolution"

Recommended Posts

I have finally suceeded to read "The Roman Revolution" of Syme in a linear instead of a haphazard fashion and I have to point out that he makes a vast use of names and family connections of the Roman movers and shakers at the end of the Republic. I suspect that he must have attended a British public school in order to make statements such as "the history of Rome is the history of the governing class". Nevertheless his history of the fall of the Republic and the institution of the Principate is surely such a kind of history from the above. The book has literary qualities and is written in impressive English prose which keeps the interest of the reader if one excludes the very common and long recitation of the names and fortunes of consuls, sons of consuls and grandsons of consuls. One does not always need to be reminded how many consuls one noble family had in the span of five generations. I would not be surprized to learn that Syme was a Tory, because in his book his oligarchic convictions crop up incessantly. Perhaps he projects the ideology of the late British empire to the Roman Republic. He likes sweeping statements such as:"Whatever the name of the polity, always an oligarchy lurks behind the facade".

I also found interesting his belief that he could divine the motives and the rationale behind the acts of the major actors of the political drama and his conviction that what Cicero or Augustus had in mind when he acted thus was such and such. He is a forcefull writer and his prose is strong but his premises are some works by ancient historians and Cicero's letters-how can one reach so solid conclusions about states of mind and motives of political actors? Well his wordview is bleak and relevant to that of Thycidides, Hobbes, Machiavelli and the 20nth century political thinker Panajiotis Kondylis-that is that the main motive behind political action is the pursuit of power and politics is essentially a struggle of power amongst competing groups. This underlying assumption is very clearly inferred from the whole tone and logic of his narrative, and even if he directy attributes this motive to Augustus, he does not imply that his opponents were any better but rather less adept than him in the pursuit of power.

Surely his book resonates in the mind after one has read it and the way it is structured gives a dramatic flair to the clashes of those Republican Romans who reside to the mists of time. I would like to ask which is the present opinion about this book among those interested in Roman history and how are his assumptions and conclusions rated today....

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Syme's work was first published in 1939 and was, I believe, the first treatment of the subject in english. The German scholars like Gelzer, Munzer and the magisterial Mommsen had dominated the topic in the 19th century. I think current thinking sees weaker and more changeable connections between the individuals, families and groups contending for power in the republic. You should read Gruen and Millar et al to compare more recent attitudes.

 

Do you think Syme was wrong about "oligarchies lurking behind the facade"?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Syme's views are coloured by the political world of his day. That was a time of ideological conflict between democracy, communism, and facism in the post 'war to end all wars' period and econiomic disaster.

 

It isn't so difficult to see why he interpreted Roman history in those terms. Since human behaviour is fundamentally similar despite cultural changes, there's probably something in what he says, and the idea that Augustus was the victor of a political struggle for domination of a weakened society is just as relevant today as it was then. That said, it is a book that focuses on that theme alone, and I would consider it to be mildly biased for that reason.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Syme's work was first published in 1939 and was, I believe, the first treatment of the subject in english. The German scholars like Gelzer, Munzer and the magisterial Mommsen had dominated the topic in the 19th century. I think current thinking sees weaker and more changeable connections between the individuals, families and groups contending for power in the republic. You should read Gruen and Millar et al to compare more recent attitudes.

 

Do you think Syme was wrong about "oligarchies lurking behind the facade"?

 

 

Thank you for informing me about Gruen and Millar.

The exact phrase of Syme was: "In all ages, whatever the form and name of the government, be it monarchy, republic or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the facade;and Roman history, Republican or Imperial, is the history of the governing class" Stated like this I think that it is far too sweeping a statement to have universal validity. Confined to Roman history of the Republic and the Empire, it is much more credible.

Edited by georgious

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Syme's views are coloured by the political world of his day. That was a time of ideological conflict between democracy, communism, and facism in the post 'war to end all wars' period and econiomic disaster.

 

 

 

 

 

That is true about the writing of history in general since historians project the conjectures and dilemmas of their age to the past when they describe it. They are also writing for their contemporaries which means that their readership is experiencing the same world as they. The point is that future generations as we, in the case of Syme, have to come to terms with his world, which is remote from us, to understand his analysis of the late Roman Republic and Early Principate, an even more remote world for us and him alike. Which shows how tricky and difficult is to obtain valid and objective historical knowledge.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There is such a thing as being objective. That said, I agree, there is often a tendency to see history in modern perspective. That's fairly natural because we're familiar with the world around us so it's second nature to see former times the same way. Nonetheless it must be recognised that attitudes and motives change with every generation. In Syme's case however, like many authors, he recognised patterns in the historical record and wrote a book concetrating on history from a particular angle. Nothing wrong with that provided it's factual and seen as an alternative view.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There's a comment (by Migdal, I believe) that goes 'If an oligarchy cannot hold power in a democracy, then it is not fit to hold power in any form of government.'

 

With this observation in mind, it is interesting to note how many leading families of the world's largest and most powerful democracies (India and the USA) not only know each other socially but get elected to power generation after generation.

 

Cicero (in De Leg Ag 2.100) talks of those 'designated consuls in their cradles'. This applies pretty well to the Ghandis and Kennedys of today.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Fair comment as long as we remember that Roman democracy was limited in scope.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I suppose it was unavoidable that Syme's account of Octavian's rise to power would be influenced to some extent by what was going on in Europe at the time he wrote. But also, his stated intention was "to record the story...from the Republican and Antonian side" and via "the history of the governing class". This is probably why he does not discuss social or economic factors, or the influence of "The Crowd"; and seems to have an anti-Caesarian bias.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Another book you may want to consider is The Last Generation of the Roman Republic by Eric Gruen (Thank you MPC). It was written as a counter to The Roman Revolution. Syme paints a picture of a system of government that is dysfunctional and doomed. Gruen offers a different view by presenting perhaps THE most thoroughly researched view of Late Republican legislation essentially saying it wasn't preordained to failure and was functioning quite fine (though with the occasional hiccup).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

  • Map of the Roman Empire

×