Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Read this book.

I am a Classics major, at a small all-male college, not to say too much, so it is not unnatural that I read a lot of books relating to my field. One book I read, for Latin 302: The Age of Augustus, was Sir Ronald Syme's 1939 classic, The Roman Revolution. After having been in Italy for a while, I have been on an understandable kick on the subject - rereading the Res gestae divi Augusti and Tacitus' Annales, which books have only served to remind me why I'm on the social history side of things, not philology. My Latin is really not great, but it is just competent enough that I can sort of slog my way through it - with my old friends Charlton Lewis, Moreland, and Fleischer.

Syme, while he demands a lot of Latin and Greek, is still accessible enough to be really entrancing to someone like me. Here's an example,

"Populus autem eodem anno me consulem, cum cos. uterque in bello cecidisset, et triumvirum rei publicae constituendae creavit." (RG 1.4)

Sweet, isn't it? The people just up and made Augustus a consul when the two legitimately elected consuls were killed. Yeah, right. Let's see what Syme has to say:

"On the following day Octavianus [as he was then still known, C. Julius Caesar Octavianus] forebore to enter the city with armed men - a 'free election' was to be secured. The people chose him as consul along with Q. Pedius, an obscure relative of unimpeachable repute, who did not survive the honor by many months." (Syme (1939): 186)

With a deadly twist, some pages later (eleven, to be precise), Syme notes that the hapless Pedius - according to Appian - died of the strain of announcing the proscriptions of the Triumviri "rei publicae constituendae." That's really the charm of Syme's book: painstakingly researched history, told with charm and wit. He makes a controversial point, no less controversial than Amedeo Maiuri's 1942 book on Pompeii, though, that the Roman republic was broken and needed a new leadership and new government style. Read Erich Gruen's Last Generation of the Roman Republic if you want a considered response.

The collapse of the Roman republic isn't my area of research. In fact, the subjects on which I have done the most work in my academic career are "Paul's Gospel and the Historical Jesus" and prostitution in the Roman city. I couldn't say much about the former at this point, nor am I sure that I could remember much about the paper, and I could tell you more than you'd ever want to know about the latter (hint: it's not as interesting as it sounds). Still, Syme's tome is an example of really good history. It reads, though a touch dryly at times, like good historical fiction - until you chase down the references. Then, you see that it is a synthesis of contemporary (and, often, later-than-contemporary) sources. Syme imparts to these works a vividness that they must have had for the original readers.


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