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Sir Ronald Syme, OM, FBA (11 March 1903 – 4 September 1989) was a New Zealand-born historian and classicist. Long associated with Oxford University, he is widely regarded as the 20th century's greatest historian of ancient Rome. His great work was The Roman Revolution (1939), a masterly and controversial analysis of Roman political life in the period following the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Syme was born to David and Florence Syme in Eltham, New Zealand, where he attended primary and secondary school; a bad case of measles seriously damaged his vision during this period. He moved to New Plymouth Boys' High School (a house of which bears his name today) at the age of 15, and was head of his class for both of his two years. He continued to the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington, where he studied French language and literature while working on his degree in Classics. He attended Oriel College, Oxford between 1925 and 1927, graduating with a First Class degree in Literae Humaniores (ancient history and philosophy). In 1926, he won the Gaisford Prize for Greek Prose for translating a section of Thomas More's Utopia into Platonic prose, and the following year won the Prize again (for Verse) for a translation of part of William Morris's Sigurd the Volsung into Homeric hexameters.
His first scholarly work was published by the Journal of Roman Studies in 1928. In 1929 he became a Fellow of Trinity College, where he became known for his studies of the Roman army and the frontiers of the Empire. During the Second World War, he worked as a press attaché in the British Embassies of Belgrade (where he acquired a knowledge of Serbo-Croatian) and Ankara, later taking a chair in classical philology at Istanbul University. His refusal to discuss the nature of his work during this period led some to speculate that he worked for the British intelligence services in Turkey, but proof for this hypothesis is lacking.
After being elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1944, Syme was appointed Camden Professor of Ancient History at Brasenose College, Oxford in 1949, a position which he held until his retirement in 1970. Syme was also appointed Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford from 1970 until the late 1980s, where an annual lecture was established in his memory.
Syme was knighted in 1959 and received the Order of Merit in 1976. He continued his prolific writing and editing until his death at the age of 86.
The work for which he is chiefly remembered, The Roman Revolution (1939), is a masterly and controversial analysis of Roman political life in the period following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Inspired by the rise of fascist regimes in Germany and Italy, and following Tacitus in both literary style and pessimistic insight, the work challenged prevailing attitudes concerning the last years of the Roman Republic. Syme's main conclusion was that the structure of the Republic and its Senate were inadequate for the needs of Roman rule; Augustus was merely doing what was necessary to restore order in public life, but was a dictatorial figure whose true nature was cloaked by the panegyrics written to honor him in his last years and after his death. "The Roman constitution", he wrote, "was a screen and a sham"; Octavian's supposed restoration of the Republic was a pretence on which he had built a monarchy based on personal relationships and the ambition of Rome's political families. In The Roman Revolution, Syme first used, with dazzling effect, the historical method of prosopography—tracing the linkages of kinship, marriage, and shared interest among the various leading families of republican and imperial Rome. By stressing prosopographical analysis, Syme rejected the force of ideas in politics, dismissing most such invocations of constitutional and political principle as nothing more than "political catchwords." In this bleak cynicism about political ideas and political life, The Roman Revolution strongly resembled another controversial historical masterwork, The Structure of English Politics at the Accession of George III, published in 1930 by the specialist in eighteenth-century British political history, Sir Lewis B. Namier.
Syme's next great work was his definitive two-volume biography of Tacitus (1958), his favorite among the ancient historians. The work's forty-five chapters and ninety-five appendices make up the most complete study of Tacitus yet produced, backed by an exhaustive treatment of the historical and political background—the Empire's first century—of his life. Syme blended biographical investigation, historical narrative and interpretation, and literary analysis to produce what may be the single most thorough study of a major historian ever published.
In 1958, Oxford University Press published Colonial Élites. Rome, Spain and the Americas, which presents the three lectures that he offered at McMaster University in January 1958 as part of the Whidden Lectures. Syme compares the three empires that have endured for the longest periods of time in Western History: Rome, Spain, and Britain. Syme considers that the duration of an Empire is directly linked to the character of the men who are in charge of the imperial administration, in particular that of the colonies. In his own words, the "strength and vitality of an empire is frequently due to the new aristocracy from the periphery." This book is currently out of print.
Syme's biography of Sallust (1964), based on his Sather Lectures at the University of California, is also regarded[by whom?] as authoritative. His four books and numerous essays on the Historia Augusta firmly established the fraudulent nature of that work; he famously dubbed the anonymous author "a rogue grammarian".
His History in Ovid (1978) places the great Roman poet Ovid firmly in his social context.
Intervening between his studies of Tacitus and Sallust was his 1958 set of lectures, Colonial Elites, which compared the processes and results of colonisation by Romans in Spain, by Spaniards in Latin America, and by English settlers in New England; on various grounds, Syme distinguished English colonisation of North America from its Roman and Spanish counterparts.
Syme's The Augustan Aristocracy (1986) traces the prominent families under Augustus as a sequel to The Roman Revolution. Syme examined how and why Augustus promoted bankrupt patrician families and new politicians simultaneously to forge a coalition in government that would back his agenda for a new Rome.
A posthumous work (edited for publication by A. Birley), Anatolica (1995), is devoted to Strabo and deals with the geography of southern Armenia and mainly eastern parts of Asia Minor. His shorter works are collected in the seven volumes of Roman Papers (1979–1991), the first two volumes of which are edited by E. Badian, and the remainder by Anthony Birley.
- Victoria University of Wellington's Classics Department holds a lecture in Syme's honour every two years.
- "Rhine and Danube Legions under Domitian", Journal of Roman Studies 18 (1928) 41–55; see Anthony Birley, "Editor's Introduction", in The Provincial at Rome (Presses Université Laval, 2000), p. xi online and pp. xi–xx on Syme's publications and scholarly career.
- "Colonial Élites. Rome, Spain and the Americas - Sir Ronald Syme". Francisco Vázquez. Retrieved 2010-05-15.[dead link]
- Emperors and Biography (Oxford, 1971) p. 263.
- Obituaries of Syme appear in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (vol. 135, no. 1, 119–122) and in The Journal of Roman Studies (vol. 80, xi–xiv)
|Camden Professor of Ancient History, Oxford University
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