Ronald Syme was one of the greatest ancient historians of this century. Upon his death in 1989 he left an overpowering legacy of magnificent books and perceptive articles. His two best-known books, which are also his first two books and his two best books, are The Roman Revolution (published in 1939) and Tacitus (published in 1958); almost all of his numerous articles have now been collected and reprinted in various volumes, including the seven (so far) volumes of Roman Papers. These works made Syme into one of the high priests of empirical studies in Roman history. Syme himself was candid in admitting that he was not much interested in historical theory or comparative methodological studies: “One uses what one has, and there is work to be done.” His interests were much more narrowly focused on political and military history, the interactions of elites, and the evaluation of the historical reliability and content of classical texts. In comparison with some recent books that chase after fashionable but sometimes transient topics and methodologies, Syme’s writings are rather low-key and forbidding; but because they provide such solid and reliable information, they remain required reading.
A phenomenal memory for details was not the only virtue that has made Syme so influential. Other factors also distinguished him from most of his peers. One was the distinctive tone of his historical perspective, “pessimistic and truculent” as he described it in the introduction to The Roman Revolution. Even though many of his writings were about the Roman empire, Syme seems to have been, like Sallust and Tacitus, a Republican in sentiment. Unlike them, however, his writings were judgmental without dipping into moralizing; in The Roman Revolution he candidly called Augustus “a chill and mature terrorist,” and he nonchalantly insisted that “the Roman constitution was a screen and a sham.” This candor was of course an implicit justification for a program of historical research that focused on “the identity of the agents and ministers of powers” in the oligarchies that Syme thought lurked everywhere. At the same time, part of the sheer pleasure of reading Syme has always been an admiration for his willingness to conjure up a typically dark and forbidding atmosphere of personal ambition and relentless calculation.
Another distinguishing feature was his unique prose style and the distinctive format of his books. These days many scholars, especially those influenced by French literary critics, prefer a lush and steamy prose filled with extended rolling cadences, multiple restatements of the issues, and luxuriant adjectives. Syme’s prose was instead refreshingly austere and arctic, somehow leaving the impression that its frosty precision was a guarantee of historical veracity and insight. He himself, as usual, provided the best characterization of his own style in his description of some of the significant ingredients of Sallust’s prose, “a studied archaic style and short sentences, ending abruptly.” Like that one. Those of us who never met Syme might furthermore wonder how self-analytical he was in musing on Sallust’s “brief broken sentences, reflecting perhaps some discordance in his own character.” After his first book Syme also seems to have preferred a series of interlocking studies rather than a continuous narrative or an extended linear exposition. The Roman Revolution had included a central narrative about Augustus’ rise to power; as a result, it leaves a powerful impression of a terrifyingly ruthless man who surrounded himself with equally hard-nosed men and women. Syme’s subsequent books, however, consisted of a series of chapters, each usually a very effective but still more or less discrete study, that often added up to somewhat less than the sum of their parts. Syme once published a book entitled Ten Studies in Tacitus; because the chapters in his Tacitus were likewise organized by topics, this book might just as well have been entitled “Forty-Five Studies (and Ninety-Five Appendices!) in Tacitus.” This large book hence leaves no general impression of Tacitus as either an historian or a personality. Syme himself seems to have been unable to find a coherent personality for Tacitus, an author, in the same way that he had found a consistent character for Augustus, the subject of others’ writings. At the end of Tacitus Syme was reduced to suggesting that one key to understanding Tacitus was to compare him with, of all people, “the sombre, reticent, and sagacious figure of Tiberius Caesar.” Tacitus would have been aghast at this comparison.
During his years as professor of classical philology at Istanbul in the mid-1940s Syme composed more than 600 handwritten pages of a book entitled Anatolica. He did not complete all his proposed chapters, however, and he never published the manuscript. After his death the pages were among the papers collected in the Syme Archive at Wolfson College, Oxford. Anthony Birley, who has previously edited five of the volumes of Roman Papers, has now edited these pages into this new book. Since Syme had already provided most of the annotation, Birley has added a few updated references, corrected a few mistakes, and included some maps taken from Stephen Mitchell’s recent (and marvelous) Anatolia. In part Syme’s book is a regional study focused on central and eastern Asia Minor, and hence resembles his Danubian Papers, a collection of reprinted articles and reviews about the Roman provinces in the Balkans. In part too the book resembles some of Syme’s other books about specific authors and texts, such as his books about Sallust, Ovid, and the Historia Augusta, since the ostensible focus of Anatolica is the writings of Strabo. This book is hence a preview of the combination of geographical history and close textual exegesis that Syme would perfect a little over a decade later in his Tacitus.
Tacitus, however, was a profound meditation on the integration of western Europe into the Roman empire and a genuinely perceptive study of one of the best historians of antiquity. Strabo does not have the same stature as Tacitus; and although Asia Minor assumed increasing importance in the eastern Roman empire, these studies are too focused on small points to provide any overall interpretation of political or cultural assimilation. The twenty-eight chapters in Anatolica are essentially appendices without a general narrative, and the result is a book primarily for specialists on Strabo and Asia Minor. Although Syme grouped related chapters in various topical sections, they are all discrete and virtually self-contained studies. Four themes are particularly important. One is Syme’s typical preoccupation with the prosopography of elites, this time in disentangling the careers of local notables in Asia Minor and of Roman generals who campaigned there. His chapters include studies of king Deiotarus of Galatia (11), king Archelaus of Cappadocia (13), king Tarcondimotus of Cilicia (15), and Lycomedes, a priest at Pontic Comana (16), as well as of the provincial governors P. Sulpicius Quirinius (23) and C. Marcius Censorinus (26). In all of these studies Syme’s approach is the by now familiar one of combining extensive familiarity of the texts with a very close reading of those texts in order to correct them, if necessary, and to straighten out the chronology and personal relationships. A second theme is geography. The first chapter, a study of the royal road of Persia, is a fine account of the interaction between topography and communication (and hence heightens our regret that Syme never wrote his proposed chapters on roads under Seleucid and Roman rule); chapter 10 is an excellent survey of the new provinces created by Pompey. Many other chapters analyze small details mentioned by Strabo, such as the location and identities of mountains, passes, river crossings, tribes, peoples, cities, and colonies, or the exact boundaries of various client kingdoms and Roman provinces. Syme seems always to have had a keen interest in historical geography and topography, especially in the context of military and administrative history. His approach in these chapters might be called a prosopography of places, since he adopts essentially the same technique of comparing, examining, and sometimes emending the texts. A third important theme is the history of military campaigns, wars, and specific battles. Chapter 8 in particular is an interesting reflection on the gradual representation of the Euphrates as a frontier between the Roman empire and Parthia. And a final pervasive theme is Strabo himself, or rather, the inadequacy of Strabo as a geographer and an historian. Syme clearly did not think much of Strabo’s abilities, and he repeatedly pointed out Strabo’s mistakes and careless misuse of his sources. “Almost every page of the Geography betrays the hand of the hasty compiler” (pp. 82-83); “Strabo is generally overvalued” (p. 160). Syme conceded that Strabo is often the primary, and sometimes the only, source for important information about the middle and later years of Augustus’ reign, but that certainly did not stop him from disparaging Strabo and trying to correct his text. Syme seems never to have connected with Strabo in the same sympathetic way that he did with Tacitus, Sallust, or even Ovid. Hence, even though he may have conceded that Tacitus’ personality remained mysterious, the last sentence of Tacitus made clear his estimation that everyone would greatly enjoy simply reading Tacitus’ pungent prose: “Men and dynasties pass, but style abides.” With that perspective perhaps Syme’s distaste for Strabo becomes more explicable: “Strabo has no style” (p. 356).
In many respects this book is already outmoded and dated. Despite Birley’s occasional references to recent modern studies, this book is still fifty years old. The problem here is not only that historical interests and approaches have changed dramatically. In his outlook, and in his footnotes, Syme was arguing with the (then recent) entries in the Real-Encyclopädie and with the (still very useful) works of W. M. Ramsay, A. H. M. Jones, and T. R. S. Broughton on Asia Minor, all published in the 1930s or earlier. D. Magie’s Roman Rule in Asia Minor was still almost a decade in the future (and is now itself approaching its golden anniversary); the epigraphical work of the great Louis Robert seems to have had little impact yet; so many of Syme’s conclusions have since been anticipated in the intervening half century between the composition and the publication of this book. In fact, Syme himself recycled some of this material into other articles, since republished in Roman Papers. On the other hand, barring the discovery of new inscriptions or literary texts, empirical studies are essentially timeless. Because Syme limited himself so resolutely to his “preoccupation with [elite] minorities and the pursuit of detailed enquiries,” his research retains a freshness and immediacy long after more overtly interpretive and methodological studies, even the very best ones, have gone stale. Syme’s careful studies on Strabo and Asia Minor are not going to challenge any currently fashionable approaches or topics in ancient history; but in the working out of those approaches or the researching of those topics every generation of scholars must struggle again with the sort of meticulous investigations represented in these chapters. We can only hope that the Syme Archive contains more outtakes such as these from the career of a renowned historian.