Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ronald Syme - The Roman Revolution

First published in 1939 this classic study of the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome still contains a wealth of scholarship for contemporary readers. The central thesis for Syme's is that a political revolution occurred which transformed the Roman city state into a Imperial nation, capable of fully developing its Empire and utilising the resources of the subjugated nations.

Like a more recent biographer of the first emperor, Syme's considers Augustus a revolutionary, helping to drive through the changes needed in Rome's political structures (notably the Senate) to allow the new Rome to prosper. As Syme's explains, the old order was unsuited to running the new Empire;

"The constitution served the purposes of generals or of demagogues well enough. When Pompeius returned from the East, he lacked the desire as well as the pretext to march on Rome; and Caesar did not conquer Gaul in the design of invading Italy with a great army to establish a military autocracy. Their ambitions and their rivalries might have been tolerated in a small city-state or in a Rome that was merely the head of an Italian confederation. In the capital of the world they were anachronistic and ruinous. To the bloodless but violent usurpations of 70 and 59 BC the logical end was armed conflict and despotism. As the soldiers were the proletariat of Italy, the revolution became social as well as political."

Caesar's victory began as "the triumph of a faction in civil war" but he was no social revolutionary. Despite wanting to curb some of the interests of the aristocracy, he was unable or unwilling to drive through the changes that many wanted to see. Augustus then, can in part be seen as a Bonapartist figure who, in the chaos following Caesar's death, was able to defeat all comers and then drive through the political changes needed to cement the regime in place. These changes began with a war on the old aristocracy, a "regular vendetta against the rich, whether dim, inactive senators or pacific knights". Thus the "foundations of the new order were cemented with the blood of citizens and buttressed with a despotism that made men recall the Dictatorship of Caesar as an age of gold." This may have been a revolution, but it was not one that radically transformed the social structure of Rome, nor that emancipated anyone from the lower echelons of Roman society. In fact, Augustus like those who preceded and followed him, claimed to be restoring things to an earlier Utopia. Those who fell at the battle of Philippi; the confrontation that ended the hopes of Caesar's assassins and ensured that Augustus and Antonious would be the sole figures vying for power, was "fought for a principle, a tradition and a class - narrow, imperfect and out-worn, but for all that, the soul and spirit of Rome."

Syme's analysis has much going for it. His book though suffers in part from the sheer scale of his material. With hundreds of references, quotes from original Latin sources, and enormous detail of the interlocking political alliances, this is almost impossible for the lay-person to follow. Syme's is more interested in the 100s of different senators and the long family trees of those in Augustus' circles, than with the lives of the majority of the population. Those more familiar with Roman history of the period might be surprised at how little mention there is of significant events (such as the death of Cleopatra).

Bigger problems are caused by Syme's refusal to translate any Latin quotes, which are sprinkled liberally through the text. One can only hope that modern readers have new editions which editors have not assumed that those interested have had a classical education.

Finally, Syme's is very much of his time. References to "Marches on Rome" and the importance of Rome having a strong leader to restore social stability smack very much of the late 1930s. That said, this doesn't read as an apology for dictatorship or contemporary fascism, but a scholarly attempt to grapple with enormous social change. A clearer understanding of the period can come from reading it, but those interested would be well advised to develop their knowledge of Roman history somewhat before attempting it.

Related Reading

Holland - Rubicon
Everitt - The First Emperor
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars

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