Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.01.21


R. Syme, The Roman Papers vi + vii. Edited by A.R. Birley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-19-814494-6 (vi). ISBN 0-19-8144900-3 (vii).


Reviewed by David Potter, The University of Michigan.

These two volumes mark the end of Sir Ronald Syme's long and distinguished career of publication. Volume 6 contains 46 items, 24 of them works that were omitted from the earlier volumes, the rest articles published between 1985 and 1989. Volume 7 offers twelve previously unpublished papers on the rise of the Transpadane aristocracy that were written to form the bulk of a book on "Pliny and Italia Transpadana." It concludes with a "fragment of Tacitus" on Titus and Berenice, that Syme composed and equipped with a learned commentary as a study in forgery. All of these papers were approved for publication in the Roman Papers by Syme before his death in September 1989. As with volumes 3-5, Anthony Birley has done a splendid job of compiling an index, that, along with those in volumes 3 and 5 serves as indispensable guide to Syme's work. These indices also are essential guides for research on the history of the Roman empire.

The new volumes are not only valuable compilations of papers, but, thanks again to Birley's care, are also useful guides to the development of Syme's thinking about Roman history (though see below for some unfortunate omissions). Volume 6 opens with an English version of the preface to a 1988 Italian edition of Syme's Colonial Élites (Oxford, 1958), which was also delivered as a lecture at McMaster University. In this paper, Syme describes the evolution of his research interests after the journey that took him from New Zealand to Oxford as "a youth who in 1924 earned MA honours in French -- and who in the sequel wavered for a while between modern languages and the classics" (p. xi). Another essay, "Three English Historians: Gibbon, Macaulay and Toynbee," first published in The Emory Quarterly Review 18 (1962), tells us as much about Syme's attitudes towards historical writing in general as it does about the three authors he describes. As an added treat, this volume also contains Syme's article on Thucydides, one of the best short treatments of this historian.

Neither of Syme's first two articles, "The Rhine and Danube Legions under Domitian," JRS 18 (1928) and "The Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus," CQ 23 (1929) made it into any volume of The Roman Papers. This is unfortunate, as they illustrate the first glimmerings of two major themes in his research: the study of Roman frontiers, and the study of Latin literature. It is also unfortunate that the three articles on the frontiers of the early principate, written in the early 1930s for volumes 10 and 11 of the Cambridge Ancient History, are also omitted. These three articles remain very much at the heart of the debate over the evolution of Roman foreign policy and the role that the emperor could play in its planning. Were Augustan developments dictated by a rational consideration of central European geography that was based upon information gleaned from experienced Roman officers, or were they more random operations stemming from Roman misconceptions about the size of the world and ideological imperatives? Syme presented powerful arguments for the first view, and it would have been useful to have the first papers to hand while reading Syme's defense of these views in "Augustus and the South Slav Lands," and "Military Geography at Rome." The second of these papers is the more important, offering a gentle but, to my mind, effective refutation of Brunt's powerful statement of the opposite view (now reprinted with amplification in Roman Imperial Themes). The early work on Valerius Flaccus would have been nice to read alongside of his last work on the literature of the Neronian age (methodologically similar in approaching questions of composition through references to foreign peoples).

The abiding quality of Syme's research stems from his remarkable command of the texts and feel for language. These features are obvious from his studies of the Historia Augusta (four books and a collection of essays), his Tacitus (along with another collection of papers), Sallust, and History in Ovid. Thus it is no surprise that several of the papers in these volumes are philological masterpieces. One is a study of the word opimus, showing that it should not be restored to the preface of Tacitus' Historiae, on the grounds that it is not a feature of Tacitean vocabulary. Another is "The Date of Justin and the Discovery of Trogus." Here Syme shows how the study of Justin's diction can be exploited to deliver this writer "safely by converging arguments to the appropriate epoch of Latin letters" -- the late fourth century. In doing so, he offers a number of pertinent observations that enhance our understanding of the literature of the age.

Literature in every period of the Roman empire was the product of aristocrats who wrote for the amusement or education of other aristocrats. Syme is justly famous for his studies of the ruling classes of the empire, of the circumstances under which they lived, married, dined, prospered or failed, and died. There are numerous essays that touch upon these themes, some of them maddeningly inconclusive -- though, as Syme shows, this is the fault of evidence that is often treacherous and must be handled with great caution. In addition to the specific essays, there are two general essays in which Syme summarizes his feelings about the general historical value of studying the Roman aristocracy in a world where, by his own estimate, 86.5% of the population lived in the country (p. 192). These essays are "Human Rights and Social Status at Rome," and "Oligarchy at Rome: A Paradigm for Political Science." Whether one agrees or disagrees with his conclusions, these papers belong on any reading list concerned with the historiography of Roman history.

The seven volumes of the Roman Papers contain much that has now become so central to the study of the Roman world that it is impossible to imagine what the subject would be like without it. Anthony Birley must have our thanks for rescuing this project and seeing it through to the end. But, most of all, thanks must go to the scholar whose work will remain very much at the heart of Roman history for the future.