Chapter 18 of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution has palpable relevance. It focuses heavily on the culture of Rome under the Triumvirs and considered the kind of literature and critique that was possible under a despotic regime. Syme connects the state of Roman culture with the changing nature of the political regime. Gone with the oligarchs of the last generation of the Roman Republic, replaced by a thousand new men and a slate of freshly minted and rapidly produced consulars. Syme’s careful prosopography foundered when confronted with men of obscure origin and dubious allegiance to anyone other than their proximate political patrons. He states is bluntly: “Contemporaries were pained and afflicted by moral and by social degradation. True merit was not the path to success and success itself was unsafe as well as dishonourable.”
For Syme, the result was a transformation of the arts. Oratory, in particular, took on a “hard and truculent manner of speech would be well matched with the temper of a military age” and retreated to private life where it became rhetoric and, pubic speech became the panegyric.
Other expressions of culture become private life. “Freedom, justice and honesty, banished utterly from the public honours and transactions of the State, took refuge in the pursuits and relationships of private life.”
The aristocrat Varro becomes an example with his antiquarian interest and treatise on farming. Sallust likewise abandoned politics for history where he wrote in an archaic style. Syme, at his most playful, defends him for stealing his style from Cato: “No matter: Sallustius at once set the fashion of a studied archaic style and short sentences, ending abruptly; he laid down the model and categories of Roman historiography for ever after.” Sallust, of course, wrote of decline. “Men turned to history for instruction, grim comfort or political apology, raising dispute over the dead.”
In contrast, the flourishing of poetry in the Late Republic died with Catullus, Calvus, Lucretius, and Cinna (as Shakespeare reminds us in his Julius Caesar). In their place arose Vergil and Horace and a new group of patrons. “Horace had come to manhood in an age of war and knew the age for what it was. Others might succumb to black despair: Horace instead derived a clear, firm and even metallic style, a distrust of sentiment and a realistic conception of human life.”
It’s hard to deny that Syme was channeling the spirit of the interwar epoch in his assessment of Rome between the end of the Republic and the ascension of Augustus: “a strange mixture of the old and the new.”
But as he ominously concludes: “One thing was clear. Monarchy was already there and would subsist, whatever principle was invoked in the struggle, whatever name the victor chose to give to his rule, because it was for monarchy that the rival Caesarian leaders contended ‘cum se uterque principem non solum urbis Romae, sed orbis terrarum, esse cuperet.’”
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 #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.