Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.06.14

Ronald Syme, The Provincial at Rome and Rome and the Balkans 80BC-AD14.   Exeter:  University of Exeter Press, 1999.  Pp. xxvi + 238.  ISBN 0-85989-632-3.  

Reviewed by J. F. Drinkwater, University of Nottingham (
Word count: 2405 words

This book makes available several substantial pieces of research undertaken by Ronald Syme in the early years of his academic career but not carried through to publication. These comprise a monograph (S.'s first) on a well-known episode in the history of Roman Gaul, prepared in 1934/35, and five papers examining Rome's intervention in the affairs of the Balkan region, one from 1932/33 and four from 1940.

In this review I will deal mainly with the Gallic monograph (pp. 1-126), but before doing so I will, for the sake of completeness, say a little about the Balkan papers. These are: 1. 'Macedonia and Dardania, 80-30 BC'; 2. 'Proconsuls of Macedonia, 80-50 BC'; 3. 'The status of Illyricum, 80-60 BC'; 4. 'Caesar's designs on Dacia and Parthia'; 5. 'The early history of Moesia'. The editor, Anthony Birley, tells us (p. viii) that he selected them because of S.'s early interest and undoubted expertise in the region, and because they hang together remarkably well. "Together they form virtually a connected history of Roman involvement in the Balkans from 80 BC to AD 14. (It may be noted that the Balkans in the Republican part of this period are sparingly treated in the new edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, vol. IX.)" This is a fair judgement. Compared to the Gallic monograph, these papers are generally much tighter and more concerned with establishing 'the facts' -- geographical, ethnographical, military and political (the last two categories involving, as might be expected, much deployment of prosopography) -- than with broad interpretation. The sole exception is the paper on Caesar which is as much to do with the Dictator's overall ambitions as his Danubian policy. There is no doubt that they will be of use to the modern student of the Roman Balkans, of all periods: S.'s grasp of the political geography of, say, Naissus and its region (pp. 129-30) helps us understand aspects of fourth-, as well as first-, century history. And they continue to be relevant for contemporary history -- when they were written, because of the German invasion of Jugoslavia; now, because of the collapse of the Serbian federation. A final observation: under relentless pressure to churn out publications or be sacked, it is a bitter-sweet experience for the modern academic to be reminded of that golden age when first-rate papers could be researched, written and then put in a drawer and forgotten.

Indeed, it is clear that S. left his five Balkan papers in a condition more or less ready for publication; and they have dated surprisingly little over time. Thus they required very little editorial attention (as a rare example, p. 150 n.122: a possible new proconsul). This was not the case in respect of the Gallic monograph.

Anthony Birley and his Düsseldorf team have done a fine job in editing and presenting Syme's manuscript -- clearly a considerable responsibility. Where S.'s draft did not have footnotes, they have added these from references implicit in his text. They also indicate important instances where S.'s later research shows a subsequent change of mind (e.g. p. 10, n. 15), where his arguments need to be judged in the light of more recent findings (e.g., in particular, 'Additional Notes' A-C, pp. 119-126), and even, though rarely, where he can be shown to have made a mistake (e.g. p. 13, n. 5). They demonstrate an awareness of the needs of modern readers by usually (though not always, e.g. pp. 46 [Latin] and 83 [Greek], and apparently deliberately so) giving English translations of ancient texts quoted by S. in the original language (p. xxii). It would have been convenient if they had cited more of Tacitus than they do, covering the context and conclusion of Claudius' speech. Likewise, it would have been handy to have had the Lyon tablets reproduced in full.

S.'s aim was to assess the significance of Claudius' speech of 48, in which he successfully proposed the admission of men from the 'Three Gauls' (i.e. Gaul beyond the heavily Romanised, even significantly Hellenised, southern province of Narbonensis) into the Roman Senate. The emperor's words were reported by Tacitus (Ann. 11.24) and recorded directly in a Lyon inscription (CIL 13.1668). From the start (p. 10) S. reveals himself implacably hostile to the view that these documents show Claudius freeing distinguished Gauls, who were also Roman citizens, from some sort of legal restriction which had hitherto denied them access to the Senate: i.e. that they provide evidence for the existence and granting of a formal 'ius honorum'. Insisting on the need to consider the speech in its historical context, he deals with it last, first giving his attention to broader historical developments.

In two introductory, rather short, 'chapters' (a better description, here and elsewhere, is 'sections') S. sets the scene, raises the problem of the so-called ius honorum and explains how he intends to deal with it. He then devotes eight sections to the recruitment of provincials into the Senate down to 48. In the two following sections (Chapters 11 and 12) he finally analyses Claudius' speech in the Annals and the Lyon tablets respectively. He ends (Chapter 13) by pointing out significant promotion of western provincials to the Senate by Claudius' two immediate predecessors.

His conclusions are simple and straightforward. Claudius' admission of leading men of the Three Gauls into Senate did not involve their being granted any sort of ius honorum. This is a legal instrument that exists only in the minds of modern scholars; it was "alien to ancient jurists" (p. 92). Entry into the Senate had long been open as a matter of course to all male citizens living in the provinces, provided that they had the necessary background, education, wealth, commitment to imperial values and service, thick skin (to endure the habitual snobbishness of the metropolitan elite -- pp. 39ff.) and, above all, contacts. They possessed no "defective franchise" relative to their peers in Italy (pp. 105f.) and so needed no special dispensation. As a result, with regard to the west, recruits from Spain and Narbonensis had been entering the Senate at a small but steady and significant rate from the time of the late Republic. And this was true not just of descendants of Roman/Italian colonial settlers: from an early date there was acceptance of men of native blood (e.g. pp. 53f. [Spain], 66 [Narbonensis]). In principle, exactly the same the same could be expected of the Three Gauls: "Legally, a Gallic dynast had no more right, and no less, to a seat in the Senate than had any other Roman knight who was not the son of a senator." (p. 13)

Claudius' otherwise routine, albeit -- because executed by means of a SC -- dramatic, adlection of Gauls provoked contemporary criticism and the (partial, p. 95) interest of Tacitus because of the type of men recruited -- for all their Roman pretensions, not "the better sort" (for this phrase see p. 60). The emperor attacked a powerful social prejudice, a gentlemen's understanding, known and accepted on both sides of an unofficial 'glass ceiling', that made the leaders of the Three Gauls unwelcome in the Roman Senate (p. 85). The problem was that these were not regarded as being fully Roman.

What had hitherto barred the admission of dynasts from Tres Galliae was no defect in their citizenship, no lack of a ius honorum, but themselves. They were tribal dynasts, representing not municipal or even urban but gentile and feudal society: they had no part in that career of municipal and equestrian service that conducted the normal novus homo to the door of the curia. (p. 111)

This adlection was a change -- "a shattering novelty" (p. 111), and a bad one. Claudius had to act the despot in forcing it upon a properly sceptical imperial establishment, and it failed. Most eligible Gauls refused to throw themselves into imperial service; and, ironically, one of the few that did, Vindex, in rebelling against Nero in 68, brought down the Julio-Claudian dynasty and plunged the empire into a prolonged and costly civil war.

In terms of presentation, it is interesting to see how early S. had developed his idiosyncratic and deliberately mannered English style. I have to say that in the hard academic and professional worlds of the early twenty-first century this style strikes me as decidedly strange, and hardly consistent with, for example, Lord Denning's insistence on brevity and clarity. It has been a curse to generations of university-teachers trying to encourage students to write a good, basic English. Here there are places where -- admittedly probably unrevised -- it results in obscurity, for example, from a relatively small group of pages: p. 28, the administrative relationship between Egypt and Cyprus; p. 30, a Biblical allusion -- helpfully explained (n. 24) by ARB; p. 38, the maddening negative construction of the closing sentence. Especially unnerving, given S.'s denial of the existence of a formal ius honorum, is the question he raises on p. 78: "How long was Gaul to remain subject to special statute?" [my emphasis].

The Gallic monograph could have been shorter; and one can see why it was not finished. (As it stands, S.'s text is plainly far from complete. Apart from footnotes, it lacks important substantive elements such as (p.36) details of senatorial recruitment in the east, a deficiency made good by ARB's Additional Note C.) Though time may have been a problem, it soon becomes clear that even as he was writing this book S.'s mind was already progressing from the narrow question of the ius honorum to much wider and more significant issues: the origins and long-term operation of the imperial monarchy, the (prosopographical) reconstruction of the interconnecting families, careers and attitudes of its ruling-class (both senators and "higher knights", p. 26), and the expertise of its greatest historian. We can see this in Chapter 1, a brief but powerful description and assessment of the principate as a form of government, including a run of brilliant observations on emperors and Senate (pp. 3f.), in discussion of the crucial importance of patronage in the fall of the Republic and the rise of Augustus (pp. 14ff.), and the poetry of Tacitean prose (p. 93). The Roman Revolution (published 1939) was gestating, and Tacitus (published 1958) already conceived.

Though S. did not publish this monograph, he redeployed much of its material (see, for example, Tacitus, Chapter 34). As a result, much of what he says here must strike the modern reader as entirely acceptable, because familiar, as part of the current communis opinio which S. played so important a role in shaping. To cite only one instance, S.'s estimation of the difference between the Three Gauls and Narbonensis is fully consonant with that of Chr. Goudineau, as expressed in the new edition of the Cambridge Ancient History (X2, 1996, 502): "Compared to Narbonensis, so quickly assimilated, the Tres Galliae seem like a world still resting on Iron Age foundations." On the other hand, major historical cruces are seldom fully resolved. Though, thanks to the work of Syme and, especially, his contemporary A. N. Sherwin White (The Roman Citizenship2, 1975, 235 [1st edition published in 1939]) the ius honorum appears to have been generally dismissed in anglophone circles, its "echo" (p. xxiii) still rings in francophone scholarship, being taken up by, for example, no less an authority than Goudineau in the contribution to the new CAH already cited (X2, 1996, 491, 499).

Considered in detail, the work is open to a variety of criticisms. Above all, S.'s historical judgement appears to have been affected by his clear dislike of Claudius. The request for promotion came from the Gauls themselves: pressure was building up which needed to be released in order to avoid dangerous resentment. Yet, as S. says, there was considerable prejudice against them which went back not just to the revolt of Florus and Sacrovir in AD 21 but also to the Gallic sack of Rome around 390 BC (cf. my Roman Gaul, 1983, 7). More recent was Claudius' own trouble with Valerius Asiaticus -- as S. observes (p. 86), suspect because of his role as a Gallic dynast. The emperor was in a difficult position; no wonder that in his speech he glissaded over embarrassing issues. Further, Claudius was in no position to know that one of the beneficiaries of his generosity, Vindex, was to make so much trouble for the empire twenty years later; and modern thinking is to make much more than S. of the 'Roman', rather than the 'tribal' aspect of this revolt (cf. p. 88, n.60). S. also (pp. 81ff.) treats Gallic absence from imperial service as uniform throughout the first and early second centuries, as part of a general reluctance of the Gauls to integrate with the empire. S. recognises, but disparages, the growing Romanisation of the Gallic upper-classes which led to Claudius' action in the first place and overlooks the example of Vindex acting like a Roman senator of the old school, the impact of the renewal of Roman prejudice after the civil wars of 68-70 and possible imperial regret at how the situation was developing to be detected in Tacitus' formulation of the speech of Cerialis (Drinkwater, Roman Gaul, 50). Finally, it has to be said that S. frequently, though of course unavoidably, shows himself a man of his age in a way that younger readers may well find disquieting. There is much, approbatory, mention of "the better sort" of provincial; and Roman prejudice against the wrong sort, the "tribal chieftains", is seen as (p. 89) perfectly justified. One cannot but feel that this distinction derives from that between white colonial and black 'native' of the British Empire of S.'s youth and early manhood. Indeed, his account of the lifestyle of the Gallic landowners (p. 86) could well be a 1930s view of that of the princely rulers of the Dependent States of British India.

This is a fascinating book, and can be highly recommended; but for whom and for what? As a work of history it has clearly been overtaken by subsequent scholarship, including S.'s own. It would not, therefore, be wise to include it without great qualification on undergraduate or even postgraduate reading-lists. Rather, it deserves attention as an historiographical gem, of enormous interest and importance in helping us understand S.'s development to become one of the greatest modern authorities on imperial Rome (see K. Christ, Neue Profile der Alten Geschichte, 1990, Chapt. 5).

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