The second chapter in Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution is pretty remarkable. In less than 20 pages he manages to describe the Roman political order in the final decades of the first century B.C. The chapter manages to be both dense in description and austere in its prose. It reminds me, at its best, of Miles Davis who played the right notes at the right time.
Syme summarizes (p. 11):
The political life of the Roman Republic was stamped and swayed, not by parties and programmes of a modern and parliamentary character, not by the ostensible opposition between Senate and People, Optimates and Populares, nobiles and novi homines, but by the strife for power, wealth, and glory.
This suits his method which is prosopographical. In this chapter, his understanding of the Roman state is less concerned with “constitutional” niceties, ancient precedents, abstract policies, or even in the uncoordinated play of factional rivalries as much as the pure expression of the ambition mediated by the dendritic reach of personal alliances.
This feels remarkably contemporary.
Since Syme sees personal ambition as the driving force, his descriptions of individuals are crucial and appropriate vivid.
His description of Cicero could, with slight changes, apply to many a prominent politician of our own era: “M. Tullius Cicero, in the forefront by brilliance of oratory and industry as an advocate, pressed his candidature, championing popular causes but none that were hopeless or hostile to the interest of property and finance, and at the same time carefully soliciting the aid of young nobiles whose clientela carried many votes…”
Cato: “Upright and austere, a ferocious defender of his own class, a hard drinker and an astute politician, the authentic Cato, so far from being a visionary, claimed to be a realist of traditional Roman temper and tenacity, not inferior to the great ancestor whom he emulated almost to a parody, Cato the Censor. But it was not character and integrity only that gave Cato the primacy before consulars: he controlled a nexus of political alliances among the nobiles.”
He describes Pompey the Great in the chilling final sentence of the second chapter: “The young Pompeius, trecherous and merciless, had killed the husband of Servilia and the brother of Ahenobarbus. ‘Adulescentulus carnifex.'”
The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingTheRonald80. I explain the project here.