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Ronald Syme

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.

Life[edit]

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.[1] 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.

Major works[edit]

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 honour 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 favourite 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.[citation needed]

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.[2]

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".[3]

His History in Ovid (1978) places the great Roman poet Ovid firmly in his social context.

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.

Legacy[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "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.
  2. ^ "Colonial Élites. Rome, Spain and the Americas – Sir Ronald Syme". Francisco Vázquez. Retrieved 15 May 2010. [dead link]
  3. ^ Emperors and Biography (Oxford, 1971), p. 263.

Sources[edit]

  • 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)

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Hugh Last
Camden Professor of Ancient History, Oxford University
1949–1970
Succeeded by
Peter Brunt

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Syme — Please support Wikipedia.
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22 news items

 
Corriere della Sera
Tue, 05 Aug 2014 05:35:03 -0700

“The Roman revolution” di Ronald Syme del 1939, pubblicata in italiano da Einaudi nel 1962, torna in libreria in seconda edizione con l'introduzione del 1961 di Arnaldo Momigliano e quella nuova di Giusto Traina, che spiega ai lettori l'importanza di ...

New Statesman

New Statesman
Fri, 29 Aug 2014 08:45:00 -0700

This was the view of the New Zealand-born Oxford historian Ronald Syme, probably the most celebrated 20th-century scholar of ancient Rome, who in his landmark study The Roman Revolution described Augustus's 44 years of power and the enormous ...
 
The Australian
Fri, 15 Aug 2014 07:40:45 -0700

Twentieth-century examples such as Ronald Syme, who wrote the seminal book The Roman Revolution, were heavily influenced by the rise of fascism and the Russian Revolution, and saw Augustus not as a saviour, but just another totalitarian leader.

DeWereldMorgen.be

DeWereldMorgen.be
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 04:15:46 -0700

In 1939 schreef de Nieuw-Zeelandse historicus sir Ronald Syme een boek over de opkomst van het Romeinse Keizerrijk. Zonder het rechtstreeks te vermelden spiegelde Syme de gebeurtenissen in de laatste decennia v.Chr. aan de opkomst van het nazisme ...
 
Neue Zürcher Zeitung
Fri, 15 Aug 2014 20:22:30 -0700

Während Wilhelm Weber, der nationalsozialistische Althistoriker an der Berliner Universität, in den dreissiger Jahren des vergangenen Jahrhunderts Augustus als Begründer des Führerprinzips feierte, entlarvte Ronald Syme in Oxford, wenige Tage nach dem ...
 
Schwäbische Zeitung
Fri, 15 Aug 2014 10:26:15 -0700

sz An Augustus kommt niemand vorbei. Sein Name fällt, wenn immer Weihnachten aus dem Lukas-Evangelium gelesen wird: „Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit, dass ein Gebot von dem Kaiser Augustus ausging, dass alle Welt geschätzt werde.“ Augustus – ein ...
 
Lampertheimer Zeitung
Mon, 18 Aug 2014 17:37:53 -0700

Auch Augustus war ein Revolutionär, wie sein scharfer Kritiker, der Engländer Ronald Syme, vor vielen Jahren festgehalten hat. Der Neffe und Erbe Julius Cäsars erwies sich bei seinem Aufstieg als skrupelloser Bürgerkriegsgeneral, der weder vor ...

Avvenire.it

Avvenire.it
Mon, 04 Aug 2014 02:00:00 -0700

Qualche anno fa Canfora ha ricostruito la conquista del potere di Augusto in un libretto dal titolo significativo La prima marcia su Roma (Laterza): «In realtà il primo a definirla così fu sir Ronald Syme (1903 - 1989) - spiega Canfora - . A rigore fu ...
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