Reading The Roman Revolution 11: Political Catchwords

It is almost impossible to imagine a more fortuitous chapter to read this week than chapter 11 of  Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution. Titled, “Political Catchwords,” it outlines the rhetoric of political culture in first century BC Rome. 

The first paragraphs frames the discussion in Syme’s typically uncompromising way:

In Rome of the Republic, not constrained by any law of libel, the literature of politics was seldom or edifying. Persons, not programmes, came before the People for their judgement and approbation. The candidate seldom made promises. Instead, he claimed office as a reward, boasting loudly of ancestors or, failing that prerogative, of his own merits.

And the reminder:

Crime, vice and corruption in the last age of the Republic are embodied in types as perfect of their kind as are the civic and moral paragons of early days; which is fitting, for the evil and the good are both the fabrication of skilled literary artists.

Syme, however, also reminds us that the invectives to which Roman politicians subjected each other did not turn them into snowflakes. In fact, “On the contrary. The Romans possessed a feeling for humour and a strong sense of the dramatic…It was a point of honour in a liberal society to take these things gracefully.” He tells of Caesar inviting Catullus for dinner which echoes President Trump’s recent invitation to Alec Baldwin to join him for a meal of McDonald’s hamburgers at the White House. For Romans of the Republic, the freedom to endure and even appreciate (if not enjoy) invective was central to the notion of libertas and the loss of political freedom under the principate “was not the worst feature of monarchy — it was the growth of servility and adulation.” Syme goes on to not, however, “Nobody ever sought power for himself and the enslavement of others without invoking libertas and such
fair names.”

Of course, in appreciating the freedom of speech in Roman politics, Syme reminds us that it remains an aristocratic game. This required the careful balancing in rhetoric of the rights of the people and the authority of the Senate. The former should never impose itself on the latter and appeals to the mos maiorum served as a rhetorically expedient brake on change. In the Late Republic, however, Syme accepts Sallust’s critique of Pompey and Crassus: “whether they asserted the People’s rights or the Senate’s, were acting a pretence: they strove for power only.”

Syme theorizes: “The political cant of a country is naturally and always most strongly in evidence on the side of vested interests. In times of peace and prosperity it commands a wide measure of acquiescence, even of belief. Revolution rends the veil.”

Whatever the bankruptcy of the oligarchs, the soldiers, however, were at least “sincere,” and perhaps the most useful as Civil War loomed: “Octavianus had the veterans, the plebs and the name of Caesar: his allies in the Senate would provide the rest.”

Reading the Roman Revolution 10: The Senior Statesman

This chapter in Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution is brilliant. If you only ever read one chapter of this book, it should be chapter 10. Syme has already shown a kind of ambivalence toward Cicero. He supported the established order without a strong loyalty to any particular party. “No politician could compete with Cicero for versatility…” Syme paints Cicero as a tragic hero in an age that required someone greater and less flawed. It is hard to avoid the feeling that this speaks directly to our contemporary political culture where opportunities for determined actions abound, but the individuals capable of seizing the moments and making significant stand against injustice are lacking. The real context for this chapter is more chilling. Syme isn’t speaking to our generation, but to his.

Cicero sided with Pompey during the Civil War, but in a lukewarm fashion, commanding a body of troops in Campania and staying well away from the main fields of action. Syme describes Cicero’s position in typically Laconic fashion: “Cicero came close to being a neutral in the Civil War. Returning from his province of Cilicia, he made what efforts he could to avert hostilities. He showed both judgement and impartiality. It was too late. He had few illusions about Pompeius, little sympathy with his allies.”

He accepted Caesar’s clemency and remained on the sidelines after his assassination despite his claims to the contrary. As tensions between Antonius and Octavianus grew, he tried to flee to Greece, reversed course, and, to Syme, sealed his ultimate fate. His return to Rome marked the start of an overt rivalry with Antonius and suggested a warming of his relationship to Octavianus.

“The political alliance between Octavianus and Cicero was not merely the plot of a crafty and unscrupulous youth… Cicero was possessed by an overweening opinion of his own sagacity: it had ever been his hope to act as political mentor to one of the generals of the Republic.”

Syme’s description of Cicero’s plan offers some critique for our contemporary situation:

“It was Cato’s fatal plan all over again — the doom of Antonius would warn the young man [Octavianus] against aspiring to military despotism and would reveal the strength which the Commonwealth could still muster.”

He praised Octavianus — omnis habeo cognitos sensus adulescentis. nihil est illi re publica canus, nihil vestra auctontate gravius, nihil bonorum virorum iudicio optatius, nihil vera gloria dulcius. (Phil. 5.50) — but: “it may be doubted whether at any time he felt that he could trust Octavianus. Neither was the dupe.”

As tensions rose between Octavianus and Antonius, Syme unpacks Cicero’s motivation in a brilliant passage that deserves to be quoted in full:

Now came the last and heroic hour, in the long and varied public life of Cicero. Summoning all his oratory and all his energies for the struggle against Antonius, eager for war and implacable, he would hear no word of peace or compromise: he confronted Antonius with the choice between capitulation and destruction. Seven years before, the same policy precipitated war between the government and a proconsul.

Fanatic intensity seems foreign to the character of Cicero, absent from his earlier career: there precisely lies the explanation. Cicero was spurred to desperate action by the memory of all the humiliations of the past exile, a fatal miscalculation in politics under the predominance of Pompeius and the compulsory speeches in defence of the tools of despotism, Balbus, Vatinius and Gabinius, by the Dictatorship of Caesar and the guilty knowledge of his own inadequacy. He knew how little he had achieved for the Republic despite his talent and his professions, how shamefully he had deserted his post after March 17th when concord and ordered government might still have been achieved.

Now, at last, a chance had come to redeem all, to assert leadership, to free the State again or go down with it in ruin. Once he had written about the ideal statesman. Political failure, driving him back upon himself, had then sought and created consolations in literature and in theory: the ideal derived its shape from his own disappointments.”


The evidence for this comes from Cicero’s own writing after Caesar’s assassination in De officiis and De gloria. In another purple passage, Syme describes Cicero’s mindset. Atticus encouraged Cicero to seek shelter from the growing storm: “he urged his friend to turn to the writing of history. Cicero was obdurate; he hopes to make history. Duty and glory inspired the veteran statesman in his last and courageous battle for what he believed to be the Republic, liberty and the laws against the forces of anarchy or despotism. He would stand as firm as Cato had stood…”

At the same time, Syme reminds us that Cicero: “did not exhibit the measure of loyalty and constancy, of Roman virtus and aristocratic magnitudo animi that would have justified the exorbitant claims of his personal ambition.” His partiality and political ambitions haunted his actions and as a tragic figure, even when the greatest opportunity for personal courage and meaningful action presented itself, Cicero failed. In one of the most famous passages in a chapter that, to my mind, is the jewel of the first part of The Roman Revolution, Syme observes: “It is presumptuous to hold judgement over the dead at all, improper to adduce any standards other than those of a man’s time, class, and station. Yet it was precisely in the eyes of contemporaries that Cicero was found wanting…”

He concludes this brilliant chapter on a somber note as armies massed and political invective raged. “Winter held up warfare in the north… at Rome the struggle was prosecuted, in secret intrigue and open debate, veiled under the name of legality, of justice, of country.”


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.

Reading the Roman Revolution 9: The First March on Rome

Chapter 9 in Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution starts with one of the most stirring passages in the book so far. It’s worth quoting in full as it captures a sense of tensions and movement in events. 

“At the beginning of the month of August certain political intrigues went wrong, and hopes of concord or of dissension were frustrated. Brutus and Cassius did not return to Rome and the rival Caesarian leaders were reconciled through the insistence of the soldiery.”

That this occurred in the month of August provides a useful, if coincidental, opportunity for foreshadowing the rise of Octavianus to the rank of Augustus despite the somewhat ambivalent results of his first march on Rome in November: “The coup failed. Antonius was approaching with the Macedonian Legions. The veterans refused to fight. Many deserted and returned to their homes, none the worse for a brief autumnal escapade.”

The moves of Antonius and Octavianus over the later months of 44 led to both sides securing the loyalty of legions and positioning them in northern Italy and Cisapline Gaul. The action was described in a series of short, propulsive, declarative sentences:

“Antonius had failed as a non-party statesman in Roman politics; as a Caesarian leader his primacy was menaced. Senate, plebs and veterans were mobilized against him. His enemies had drawn the sword: naked force must decide.”

More complex and strategic passages, such as Antonius’s initial efforts to repudiate Octavianus rhetorically, required more elaborate expression: “Turning to the person and family of the revolutionary, he invoked both the traditional charges of unnatural vice with which the most blameless of Roman politicians, whatever his age or party, must expect to find himself assailed, and the traditional contempt which the Roman noble visited upon the family and extraction of respectable municipal men. Octavianus’ mother came from the small town of Aricia!” 

The first half of the chapter focused on the movement of armies and the political strategies of the two rival heirs to the Caesarian party. The latter half detailed the retinue of Octavianus and introduced us to “C. Maecenas, a diplomat and a statesman, an artist and a voluptuary” and Q. Salvidienus Rufus and M. Vipsanius Agrippa. Despite Agrippa’s later fame: “Of the origin and family of M. Agrippa: “friends or enemies have nothing to say; even when it became safe to inquire or publish, nothing at all could be discovered.”

These character fit well the part of Octavianus which, to Syme: “was purely revolutionary in origin, attracting all the enemies of society: old soldiers who had dissipated gratuities and farms, fraudulent financiers, unscrupulous freedmen, ambitious sons of ruined families from the local gentry of the towns of Italy.”

This all being said, Syme knows that both he and Octavianus have more work to do. Octavian cannot become Augustus without “the open backing of senior statesmen in the Senate : through their auctoritas he might acquire recognition and official standing. Which of the principes were ready to give their sanction?”


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.

Reading the Roman Revolution 8: Caesar’s Heir

Chapter 7 in Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution left us with a cliff hanger. Antonius was out of Rome settling Caesar’s veterans when Caesar’s heir, C. Julius Caesar Octavianus, arrived in the city. He was the grandson of Caesar’s sister and from a wealthy, but undistinguished family from the town of Velitrae. At the time of Caesar’s death, Octavianus was in Apollonia preparing to participate in the dictator’s Balkan campaigns. He deliberately and cautiously returned to Italy after Caesar’s death and after consulting with various members of Caesar’s party. He was 18.

Syme’s description of Octavianus is reserved, and this created a sense of the ominous. He observed (with more than a hint of irony): “The custom of prefixing or appending to historical narratives an estimate of the character and personality of the principal agent is of doubtful advantage at the best of times it either imparts a specious unity to the action or permits apology or condemnation on moral and emotional grounds. All conventions are baffled and defied by Caesar’s heir.” He goes on to observe that his signet ring was a sphinx. This creature defined the first moves of his public career leaving Syme to rely on truisms to construct Octavianus’s character: “The personality of Octavianus will best be left to emerge from his actions. One thing at least is clear. From the beginning, his sense for realities was unerring, his ambition implacable.”

Perhaps the ambiguity surrounding Caesar’s heir prevented Antonius for taking him seriously. Octavianus, for his part, did what he could to associate himself strongly with Caesar’s memory and status which Antonius rebuffed in an effort to preserve the balance between the Caeareans and Republicans. When a split between the two men appeared immanent, Antonius publicly recognized Octavianus’s status as heir and sought formal reconciliation. Despite this, tension simmered between the expectations of Caesar’s veterans and those of the Senate. Octavianus curried the favor of both. He was know among the legions from his time at Apollonia and among the veterans from his travel up the Italian peninsula prior to his arrival in Rome. He was also a more appealing figure among members of the Senate who were loyal to Caesar’s memory and feared Antonius’s ambition.

Octavianus’s strategy was, however, grounded in a conceptual understanding of how the Roman state worked. For Octavianus, “Legitimate primacy… could only be attained at Rome through many extra-constitutional resources, bribery, intrigue, and even violence; for the short and perilous path that Octavianus intended to tread, such resources would have to be doubled and redoubled.” And “With his years, his name and his ambition, Octavianus had nothing to gain from concord in the State, everything from disorder.”

The final paragraph of the chapter makes the situation clear: “To assert himself against Antonius, the young revolutionary needed an army in the first place, after that, Republican allies and constitutional backing.”



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.

Reading the Roman Revolution 7: The Consul Antonius

With the assassination of Caesar, the real consequences of the Civil War and the political resilience of Caesar’s party emerge, at least for a moment, in the ascendency of M. Antonius. In chapter 7 of his The Roman Revolution Syme’s description of Antonius finds once again in a more lyrical mode through which he balances his vivid description with doses of political theory and narrative. 

The will of Caesar was upheld allowing for both the liberators and the members of Caesar’s party to enjoy the rewards offered by the dictator. And, it almost appeared, for a moment, that Rome would return to a kind of constitutional rule. 

This was illusory: “Antonius had played his hand with cool skill. The Liberators and their friends had lost, at once and for ever, the chance of gaining an ascendancy over the Senate. The people, unfriendly to begin with, turned sharply against them. Accident blended with design.”

To Syme, the Antonius’s funeral oration for Caesar was just made the fate of the Liberators clear. They had little support and the assassination of Caesar was, in Cicero’s words: “animo virili, consilio puerili.” The ratification of Caesar’s laws two days after his death and the distribution of magistracies and provinces ensured that partisans of Caesar and of the Liberators both had reasons to preserve Caesar’s legacy.   

For whatever reason, I love this passage, maybe because I am a Romanist working in the Greek world: “The Liberators had not planned a seizure of power. Their occupation of the Capitol was a symbolical act, antiquarian and even Hellenic. But Rome was not a Greek city, to be mastered from its citadel.”

Antonius controlled the situation on the ground and revealed himself to be not lacking political skill. The absence of the old guard nobility, largely killed or discredited during the Civil War, created an environment for Antonius to wield considerable influence with few rivals. Even Cicero (in another brilliant passage): “Cicero, who had lent his eloquence to all political causes in turn, was sincere in one thing, loyalty to the established order. His past career showed that he could not be depended on for action or for statesmanship; and the conspirators had not initiated him into their designs. The public support of Cicero would be of inestimable value after a revolution had succeeded.”

Syme’s analysis of the Roman plebs is also likewise pessimistic: “Debauched by demagogues and largess, the Roman People was ready for the Empire and the dispensation of bread and games.”  The Italians were no more willing to support the Liberators, even after their flight to various communities in Latium, the wealthy equites were not willing to fund their resistance (“Demonstrations of sympathy cost nothing. Money was another matter”), and the legions were loyal to Caesar’s memory and Antonius.

And, in the end, despite the negative impression of Antonius (a Roman Alcibiades) left in the sources, Syme reminds us (mixing a bit of historical critique with some political theorizing): “He belonged to a class of Roman nobles by no means uncommon under the Republic or Empire whose unofficial follies did not prevent them from rising, when duty called, to services of conspicuous ability or the most disinterested patriotism. For such men, the most austere of historians cannot altogether suppress a timid and perhaps perverse admiration. A blameless life is not the whole of virtue, and inflexible rectitude may prove a menace to the Commonwealth.”

In other words, whatever the flaws of his character, “Chance and his own resolution had given Antonius a position of vantage. At first he seems harmless: before long he was seen as a resourceful politician presenting a double front, both Caesarian and Republican, and advancing steadily.”

The chapter ends with Antonius out of Rome working on the settlement of some of Caesar’s legions in Campania. “When he returned, it was to discover with dismay that a new and incalculable factor had impinged upon Roman politics.”



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.

Reading the Roman Revolution 6: Caesar’s New Senators

In the current political climate, an interest in how oligarchies function seems like a reasonable academic pursuit. Chapters 5 and 6 of Syme’s The Roman Revolution unpacked the Caesarean Party and Caesar’s Senate respectively. 

Chapter 6 starts with an insightful (and oddly contemporary) piece of political theory:

“When a party seizes control of the Commonwealth it cannot take from the the bitter and barren vanquished consolation of defaming the members of the new government. The most intemperate allegations thrown about by malignant contemporaries are repeated by credulous posterity and consecrated among the uncontested memorials of history.”

Syme then goes on to describe in his typical laconic and incisive style the “ghastly and disgusting rabble” who made up Caesar’s new Senators. This included “centurions and soldiers, scribes and sons of freedmen.” These men were known for their loyalty rather than any claim to membership among the ruling elite of Rome. Caesar also elevated “men from the provinces.” It is important to appreciate Syme’s irony here, and it’s helpful to remember that Syme himself hailed from Eltham, New Zealand. Despite the Syme’s playful critique of the new Senator’s character, “their proportion must have been tiny in an assembly that now numbered about nine hundred members.” And warns agains the “incautious acceptance of partisan opinions about the origin and social status of Caesar’s nominees.” We probably shouldn’t take too seriously that “Cicero shuddered to think that he would have to sit in the Senate in the sight and presence of the rehabilitated Gabinius.” And Syme pokes him “he could now see beside him a great company of bankers and financiers, the cream and pride of the equestrian order, old friends, loyal associates or grateful clients.”

Many of the Senators who appear to have unconventional origins may have entered the Senate after the Sullan proscriptions especially the descendants of Roman knights.

Caesar did recruit from the elite of Italy and perhaps was responsible for the final closing of the wounds exacerbated by the Social War. Caesar’s association with the memory of the Marian faction and his triumphs over the Gauls won him respect among the Italian cities which he rewarded with seats in the expanded Senate.

The better known receive biographies in Syme’s vivid style: 

“Most famous of all was P. Ventidius, the army contractor. All posterity knows Ventidius as a muleteer. His career was laborious, but his origin may have been reputable. History has record of a family of Ventidii, municipal magistrates at Auximum, enemies of the Pompeii. When the young Pompeius raised his private army, he had to expel the Ventidii from that city”

Despite these new members of the Senate, Syme reminds us that Caesar continued to advance the interest of the traditional Roman nobiles by naming them consuls and arranging for magistracies. As a result, they did not oppose Caesar even after the Ides of March and some, like M. Antonius and M. Lepidus become the heirs to Caesar’s party and the restored republic. 

Uncharacteristically, Syme concludes the chapter with a question: “When the tyrant fell and the constitution was restored, would Antonius be strong enough to hold party and government together?”

This is also a question that has a haunting relevance today.



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.

Reading the Roman Revolution 5: The Caesarian Party

In Chapter 5: The Caesarian Party, Ronald Syme is back in his proper element. If Chatper 4: Caesar the Dictator saw some awkward digressions into narrative, historiography, and even the theory of history, Syme’s study of the Caesarian Party returns The Roman Revolution  to the more familiar ground of concise and insightful descriptions.

Syme summarizes the party of Caesar as: “senators, knights and centurions, business men and provincials, kings and dynasts” and he treats each in turn. The Nobiles of patrician stock who followed Caesar included: “the worthy Ti. Claudius Nero, whom Cicero desired for son- in-law, and the debauched P. Cornelius Dolabella, a sinister and disquieting figure, whom the choice of his wife and daughter imposed” as well as “P. Servilius was a man of some competence: Lepidus had influence but no party, ambition but not the will and the power for achievement. Caesar, offering the consulate, had captured them both…”

Among the equites, Syme paints eloquent pictures with remarkable brevity. If “Mamurra, an old Pompeian from Formiae,” was “notorious for wealth and vice”, “the phenomenal P. Ventidius” could have served in the Victorian British civil service: his “infancy had known slavery and degradation : captured by Pompeius Strabo at Asculum, he had been led or carried in a Roman triumph. From obscure years of early manhood some said that he served as a common soldier Ventidius rose to be an army contractor and attached himself to Caesar the proconsul as an expert manager of supplies and transport.” Aulus Hirtius was different: “a comfortable person of scholarly tastes, in high repute as a gourmet : it was a danger to ask him to dinner.”

Foreign elites too. “Balbus ruled his native Gades like a monarch: in Rome the alien millionaire exercised a power greater than most Roman senators.” In Cisalpine Gual: “In Verona the father of the poet Catullus, no doubt a person of substance, was the friend and host of the proconsul.” In Transalpline Gaul: “C. Valerius Troucillus,
‘homo honestissimus provinciae Galliae’, son of the tribal chieftain of the Helvii.” 

Ultimate some of these allies of Caesar as well as Pompeians to whom he showed clemency formed the basis for the new ruling class in Rome and populated the expanded Senate. As Syme is want to do, the final sentences of the chapter are precise, summative, and set the stage for what is next to come: 

“Many of Caesar’s measures were provisional in purpose ,transient in effect. This was permanent.”


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.







Reading The Roman Revolution 4: Caesar the Dictator

Chapter 4 of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution considers Caesar’s dictatorship. Syme had a soft spot for Caesar. In chapter 2 where he describes the Roman oligarchy, he mostly decried his ambition: “Active ambition earned him a host of enemies. But this patrician demagogue lacked fear or scruple.” Compared to Pompeius or Crassus, Syme’s Caesar was closer to the stubborn, overconfident, and aristocratic Cato. Perhaps Caesar’s aristocratic family offered an excuse for his ambition. It was at least historically justified:

“Caesar and his associates in power had thwarted or suspended the constitution for their own ends many times in the past. Exceptions had been made before in favour of other dynasts; and Caesar asserted both legal and moral rights to preferential treatment. In the last resort his rank, prestige and honour, summed up in the Latin word dignitas, were all at stake: to Caesar, as he claimed, ‘his dignitas had ever been dearer than life itself.’ (BG 8.52.4: sibi semper primam fuisse dignitatem viatque potiorem)”

Lest we blame Caesar’s actions on his aristocratic obligations, Syme reminded us that “The very virtues for which the propertied classes were sedulously praised by politicians at Rome forbade intervention in a struggle which was not their own,” but only if “They pretended that the issue lay between a rebellious proconsul and legitimate authority. Such venturesome expedients are commonly the work of hot blood and muddled heads. The error was double and damning. Disillusion followed swiftly. Even Cato was dismayed.”

Syme doesn’t spend much time on the end of Pompeius and the Senatorial resistance to Caesar and moves on swiftly to Caesar’s rise the restorer of the Republic to dictator for life. That move was necessary, in part, because, the “cause of Pompeius had become the better cause. Caesar could not compete.” Without the support of the nobiles, it was impossible to restore the Republic and legitimize his rule. His only recourse was to depart Italy to campaign in the East. Syme rejected speculation on Caesar’s ultimate design for the state: “The present was unbearable, the future hopeless.”

Caesar’s death almost would have come as a relief, but the “Liberators knew what they were about … They stood, not merely for the traditions and the institutions of the Free State, but very precisely for the dignity and the interests of their own order. Liberty and the laws are high-sounding words. They will often be rendered, on a cool estimate, as privilege and vested interests.”

Syme goes on to offer a general statement on the work of history: “The tragedies of history do not arise from the conventional conflict of right and wrong. They are more august and more complex. Caesar and Brutus each had right on his side.”

“Without a party a statesman is nothing.”


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.

Reading Wednesday: The Domination of Pompeius

Syme disliked Pompeius “the Great,” and his father, Cn. Pompeius Strabo:

“Brutal, corrupt and perfidious, Strabo was believed to have procured the assassination of a consul. When he died of a natural but providential death the populace broke up his funeral. Strabo was a sinister character, ‘hated by heaven and by the nobility’ [hominem dis ac nobilitati pennvisum.], for good reasons. There were no words to  describe Cn. Pompeius the son.”

The third chapter of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution describes the rise of Pompeius who for Syme anticipated the rise of Augustus and the end of the Roman Republic. Pompey’s efforts to secure the loyalty of the military, to secure the authority of the tribunate, and to move himself or his pandering allies into the consulate established his power at Rome whether he managed to endear himself to the nobiles or not. At first, the process did not go smoothly when Pompeius victoriously returned from the East and sough to secure land for his troops and Senate approval for his treaties. Syme’s description was brilliant (and eerily contemporary):

“By scandalous bribery he secured the election of the military man L. Afranius. The other place was won by Metellus Celer, who, to get support from Pompeius, stifled for the moment an insult to the honour of his family. [Pompeius had divorced Celer’s half-sister to marry Cato’s niece.] 

Everything went wrong. The consul Celer turned against Pompeius, and Afranius was a catastrophe, his only talent for civil life being the art of dancing.”

And: “The triumphal robe of Magnus seemed chill comfort in political defeat.”

Despite these setbacks and the efforts of his enemies, Pomeius’s managed to seize power and, when the Republic and the Senate was confronted by a cornered Caesar, he revealed to his enemies their dependency on his standing and his troops. This victory, however, came at great cost to both himself and the entire Republic. There’s a lot to chew on in this description:

“They might have known better Cato’s stubborn refusal to agree to the land bill for Pompeius’ veterans only led to worse evils and a subverting of the constitution. After long strife against the domination of Pompeius, Cato resolved to support a dictatorship, though anxiously shunning the name. Cato’s confidence in his own rectitude and insight derived secret strength from the antipathy which he felt for the person and character of Caesar. 

The influence and example of Cato spurred on the nobiles and accelerated war. Helped by the power, the prestige, and the illicit armies of Pompeius Magnus (stationed already on Italian soil or now being recruited for the government and on the plea of legitimacy), a faction in the Senate worked the constitution
against Caesar. The proconsul refused to yield.”

The end result is well known:

“To the bloodless but violent usurpations of 70 and 59 B.C. the logical end was armed conflict and despotism. As the soldiers were the proletariat of Italy, the revolution became social as well as political. The remedy was simple and drastic. For the health of the Roman People the dynasts had to go. Augustus completed the purge and created the New State.”


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.

Reading The Roman Revolution II

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.