Ed Watts’s Mortal Empire

This weekend, I read and enjoyed Ed Watts’s Mortal Empire: How Rome Fell into Tyranny (2018). As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, I retain a soft spot for Roman History as it was my first love in graduate school long before my more serious commitment to archaeology and Late Antiquity. More than that, I’ve maintained a mildly antiquated belief that the Late Roman Republic has something to teach us about our contemporary political situation (even if this isn’t a simple proposition and comparing contemporary politics to those in antiquity is always fraught).

More than that, I am an admirer of Ed Watts work in Late Antiquity and deeply impressed by anyone who makes a serious effort to write for a broad non-professional audience. Above everything else, this book is a good story, well told (as the kids say) and has the potential to introduce gripping and important story about the end of the Roman Republic to a new audiences (and to re-introduce to a prodigal scholar like myself). In fact, I assigned this book to a small undergraduate Roman History readings class that I am running this summer. I’m eager to hear what my students thought of the book! 

I say all this because I want to be clear that any and all critiques that I offer below are not so much critiques of this specific book, but musings on writing for a general audience and using the Roman Republic to think about our present situation.

So, before I go further, if you have time this summer, do go and read this book!

And, here are some thoughts:

1. Writing Roman Republic. One of the great challenges facing anyone writing about the end of the Roman Republic is the work of Ronald Syme. His The Roman Revolution is not only a minor masterpiece of historical prose writing, but it also connected the rise of Augustus to the political situation in Europe in the 1930s and made a profound statement on how reading the Roman Republic could speak to contemporary events (for my failed effort to re-read The Roman Revolution last year, see here). It is no overstatement, then, that Mortal Republic is a kind of prequel to Syme’s Roman Revolution and a reader could do much worse than reading these two books for insights into both Ancient Rome and the political culture of the long 20th century.

It is worth noting that Syme’s early-20th century imitation of Tacitus remains far more stylish that Watts’s early 21st century prose. This isn’t necessary a criticism of Watts, but rather an observation that contemporary writing draws more heavily from the plain-spoken diction of journalism than “public school” class(ic)ism. One side effect of Watts’s matter-of-fact writing is that his prose struggles to carry the pace of events and to communicate tension and characters as vividly as Syme. It is more descriptive than immersive and maybe this is for the best.

2. Narrating a Republic. Both Syme and Watts understand the Roman Republic as a cabal of aristocrats operating within a system designed to keep in balance the acquisition of personal prestige, wealth, and status. Unlike, say, contemporary republics which seek (broadly) to represent the will of the governed, the Roman Republic served at least partly to preserve the public good (shared security, collective prosperity, et c.) by maintaining an equilibrium among powerful aristocratic interests who if left unchecked might jeopardize the stability of the state. 

This view of the Roman Republic, which is almost certainly an accurate one, means that most narratives of its fall emphasize the political movements of a tiny aristocratic elite set against a backdrop of roiling, but largely undifferentiated, urban and rural unrest in both Roman and Italy. The unrest only comes into focus at moments when one or another opportunistic politicians seeks to marshal the “power of the mob” to advance his political career, the risk of restive population at Rome during times of famine or danger, and the vaguely defined threats by soldiers whose interest in fighting is never articulated in ideological or political terms, but directly tied to the ability of the commander to pay them and provide them with land at the time of their discharge. 

In other words, narrating the Roman Republic and thinking about it in terms of contemporary political life, forces us to ponder the ability of ordinary people to change our situation. In this context, the result of the two decades of almost continuous civil war was not the loss of liberty for most Romans who had precious little freedom (by contemporary standards) in the Roman state prior to the rise of Augustus. Instead, it was the loss of liberty for the Roman ruling class. 

In light of this, works like Watts suggests that many of the problems in our Republic are not problems with the citizens who generally just want peace and stability (which are as good as freedom in many cases), but in the political culture of the elite whose wrangling for power rely periodically (at elections, during protests, and during ham-fisted coup attempts) on the opportunistic politicizing of ordinary citizens. This might be a rather uncharitable reading of contemporary political life in our own republic (and I might not necessarily agree with it), but, to my mind, this perspective appears to be one way of recognizing how the Roman world speaks to our own. As someone who lives in what pundits often describe as a deep red state, I often feel like the fractures between the right and left in our community are far less severe than between our political leaders.  

3. Making Ancient Rome. Watts’s book draws upon a good bit of recent scholarship (although even my outdated familiarity with trends in Roman history did not notice many fresh observations). The notes, nestled out of sight in the back of the book, offer a curious reader a nice introduction to the massive and contentious world of scholarship on the Middle and Late Roman Republic.  

I do sometimes wonder whether our desire to make the past relevant to the present obscures the way that scholars working in the present shape how we understand our past. This is particularly significant to me because some of Watts’s chapter on the Second Punic War relies heavily on the work by my old graduate school buddy Mike Fronda. This is not a criticism. Watts cites Fronda appreciatively in the notes. 

At the same time, it struck me that as much as view of the Second Punic War came from the sources, it also emerged from lengthy debates and discussions in Nate Rosenstein’s Roman History seminars at Ohio State. Fronda’s argument that Italian cities support of Hannibal against the Romans often mapped onto long-standing pre-Roman rivalries sought to expand the view of the Roman Republic from the narrow confines of aristocratic competition and locate it in a wider and more dynamic ancient world. 

In this regard, Fronda was not revolutionary, but followed a larger trends in the discipline of history toward decentering our narratives and demonstrating that affairs in Rome, the Roman-Italian dipole, and even the outcome and consequences of the Punic War only reveal part of the story of Rome’s emergence as a Mediterranean-wide power.  

When writing for a general audience, I sometimes wonder whether relegating these debates to the endnotes does our discipline a disservice because it obscures the hard work and shifting conversations that shape how we understand antiquity. In its place, we have a good story, well told, that seems to emerge from the mists of eternity full formed to speak to our contemporary situation. A more overt engagement with the contemporary conversations about the end of the Roman Republic might have gone even further to anchor the significance of fall of the Roman Republic for our contemporary world.

As I said, Watts’s book is well worth reading, but I can’t help but thinking about how the story he tells helps us understand our own world and its changing view of the past.    

Reading The Roman Revolution 19: Antonius in the East

It’s coincidental that just as Ronald Syme turned his attention to Antonius’ time in the East, I arrived in Cyprus for the first part of my summer study season. In Chapter 19 of Syme’s The Roman Revolution, he unpacks Antonius’s work in the East while Octavian consolidated his power in Italy and at Rome.

In the popular imagination, this is the story of Anthony and Cleopatra, which has sparked romantic fantasies in both antiquity and more recent periods. Syme is, predictably, somewhat more sober in his assessment. For Antonius, Cleopatra was a key eastern dynast whose loyalty formed part of his larger eastern settlement in the aftermath of the costly, but successful Parthian campaigns. While they did have a liaison that resulted in twins and Antonius’s rewarded their alliance with expanded territory in the East, Syme describes Antonius’s relationship with Cleopatra succinctly: “If Antonius be denied a complete monarchic policy of his own, it does not follow that he was merely a tool in the hands of Cleopatra, beguiled by her
beauty or dominated by her intellect. His position was awkward if he did not placate the Queen of Egypt he would have to depose her.” Far from the Orientalizing historical narratives, Syme recognized in the relationship between Antonius and Cleopatra pure practical power.

For Octavian, making Antonius appear the Asiatic despot under the sway of the Egyptian queen contributed to his argument for a just war. Antonius through his alliance with Cleopatra constituted a foreign enemy and, even after a decade of civil war, established Octavian’s hostility toward Antonius as morally right. For Syme: “The situation and the phraseology recur in the history of war and politics whenever there is a public opinion worth persuading or deceiving.”

For Syme, Antonius was ruthless, but he was loyal both to Cleopatra and to his supporters and agreements. Octavian was not. He refused to send the troops that he promised Antonius and sent a token force and some ships instead. Moreover, he continued to build a case for war.

As per usual, the final paragraph of the chapter restates the goals of the duplicitous Octavian:

Created belief turned the scale of history. The policy and ambitions of Antonius or of Cleopatra were not the true cause of the War of Actium; they were a pretext in the strife for power; the magnificent lie upon which was built the supremacy of Caesar’s heir and the resurgent nation of Italy. Yet, for all that, the contest soon assumed the august and solemn form of a war of ideas and a war between East and West. Antonius and Cleopatra seem merely pawns in the game of destiny. The weapon forged to destroy Antonius changed the shape of the whole world.


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.

Because I’m in the field these days and it’s a bit harder to find time for slow reading, I’m going to pause this project at the very cusp of war. It’ll resume later this summer, when I have a bit more time!

Reading The Roman Revolution 18: Rome Under the Triumvirs

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

Reading The Roman Revolution 16: The Predominance of Antonius

Chapter 15 of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution focused on Octavianus’s struggles in Italy while Antonius was in the East. In chapter 16, Syme looks to the East and the affairs of Antonius which led to the Pact at Brundisium and the renewal of the Triumvirate.

While Syme’s attention remains focused on Rome, he does acknowledge the larger situation in the East which involved foreign queens, namely Cleopatra of Egypt, the Parthians as assertive and opportunistic enemies, and bungled settlements with client kings and rogue Roman generals. The affairs in the East distracted Antonius from the problems in Italy in the aftermath of Philippi.  At the same time, Octavianus was responsible for the settlement of the soldiers and the management of Italy and, in many ways, the Siege of Perusia and the scuffling that simmered as Civil War did more harm to his position than to the status of Antonius. 

As Syme says: “The War of Perusia was confused and mysterious, even to contemporaries. All parties had plenty to excuse or disguise after the event; and Antonius, if adequately informed, may still have preferred to wait upon events. At last he moved.”

In the lead up to the Pact of Brundisium tensions were high, but “The darker the clouds, the more certain was the dawn of redemption.” The meeting marked the culmination of a slow inversion of the roles of Octavian and Antonius. Octavian, “the adventurer”, who had achieved protected the Republic from Antonius, had incurred the hatred of Italy and Rome after proscription, posturing, and Perusia. Antonius, once the public enemy, had emerged as the moderating and stable protector of traditional nobles, the Italians, and the state. 

As if to mark the significance of this moment, Syme digresses and considers the Messianic messages in Virgil’s Forth Eclogue. Antonius after a visit to Rome with Octavianus and an agreement with the rogue admiral Sextus Pompeius, returns East.

Within two years, Octavian and Sext. Pompeius had clashed and Antonius, now clearly recognized as the senior member in terms of prestige and power in the Triumvirate of four returned to Italy to intervene. “Resentful and suspicious, the dynasts met at Tarentum. Both the patience of Antonius and the diplomacy of Maecenas were exhausted.” Octavia, Octavian’s sister and Antonius’s wife intervened. The meeting extended the Triumvirate for an additional 5 years. Octavian received ships to conduct his war with Sext. Pompeius and Antonius was to receive troops. “Antonius departed. Before long the conviction grew upon him that he had been thwarted and deceived.”

The final paragraphs of this chapter finds Syme at his most theatrical: “As yet, however, neither his predominance nor his prestige were gravely menaced and there was work to be done in the East. Antonius departed for Syria.  From Corcyra in the late summer the year he sent Octavia back to Italy. He may already tired of Octavia. Anything that reminded him of her brother must have been highly distasteful. His future and his fate lay in the East, with another woman. But that was not yet apparent, least of all to Antonius.” 


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 15: Philippi and Perusia

Chapter 15 of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution is tense. Starting with the Battle of Philippi and concluding in the aftermath of the siege of Perusia, the fortunes of Octavianus wax and wane as the ultimate prize of Rome hangs in the balance. For those modern readers enthralled by the Game of Thrones, the days of the Second Triumvirate offer a historically grounded drama that gives away nothing to the George R.R. Martin’s imagination.

Syme does the narrative justice. The cast of the political drama constricted with the death of so many consulars, Senators, and nobiles of Republican stock and with it the opportunities for single-sentence descriptions of character and standing. Left are the political and military maneuverings of Antonius and Octavianus and their inner circles. Without the letters of Cicero, there are gaps throughout. Nevertheless, Syme offers a tense scene, first at Philippi and then in Italy as it haltingly moves toward Civil War.

At Philippi, the outclassed Brutus and Cassius suffer defeat at the hand of Antonius and both died on their own swords. In the lead up to Philippi: “Brutus at last was calm and decided. After the triumph of the Caesarian generals and the institution of the proscriptions he knew where he stood.” But at the height of the first battle: “Cassius despaired too soon…. deceived, perhaps, as one account runs, through a defect in his eyesight.” Three weeks later the final blow occurred as Antonius defeated the overmatched Brutus.

Syme marks the results of this battle with all of his limited sympathy for oligarchy: “This time the decision was final and irrevocable, the last struggle of the Free State. Henceforth nothing but a contest of despots over the corpse of liberty. The men who fell at Philippi fought for a principle, a tradition and a class narrow, imperfect and out-worn, but for all that the soul and spirit of Rome.” He even spares a thought for Antonius: “As Antonius gazed in sorrow upon the Roman dead, the tragedy of his own life may have risen to his thoughts… he had surrendered himself to Octavianus and he would pay for his folly in the end.”

M. Antonius went East and left to Octavianus the settlement of soldiers in Italy under the watchful eye of his brother, L. Antonius, who served as consul. Things went poorly as both the Italian cities from whom land would be taken and the anxious soldiers (and anxious lieutenants of Antonius with their legions at the ready in Cisalpina Gaul) watched warily.

Things went poorly. Octavianus continued, at first, to suffer the ill-health that made him a marginal actor in the campaign and battle of Philippi. “Rumour freely of his death. The rejoicing was premature…” As his health recovered, he found that the Italian cities resisted the confiscation of property and revolted. The allies of Antonius did little to help with this situation and as Octavianus came to champion the claims of the veterans, Antonius’s allies increasingly sided with the aggrieved cities. Syme puts its bluntly: “War was in the air. Both sides mustered troops and seized temple-treasures.”

The clash between Octavianus’ and Antonius’ legions in Italy largely involved feints and threats except for the siege of Perusia. The consul L. Antonius marched on Rome first before departing with his legions to support various allies throughout Italy and await the arrival of Antonian legion from Gaul. Out maneuvered by Octavianus’s generals, L. Antonius holed up in the city of Perusia and was invested by Octavianus. The other Antonian generals show little interest or ability to break the siege even as supplies ran short. There was dissent among them. Syme was blunt: “The soldierly Ventidius knew that Plancus had called him a muleteer and a brigand; and Pollio hated Plancus. But there was a more potent factor than the doubts and dissensions of the generals their soldiers had an acute perception of their own interests as well as a strong distaste for war: it would be plain folly to fight for L. Antonius and the propertied classes of Italy.” L. Antonius was forced to surrender, but the political and and military consequences of this conflict left Octavianus exposed. “He was master of Italy, a land of famine, desolation and despair.”

Whatever confidence Octavianus gained from surviving the challenge of Perusia, M. Antonius landing and siege of Brundisium made it brief. “The final armed reckoning for the heritage of Caesar seemed inevitable; for Rome the choice between two masters. Which of them had the sympathy of Italy could scarcely be doubted; and, despite the loss of the Gallic legions, the odds of war were on the side of the great Antonius.”


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 14: The Proscriptions

This chapter of The Roman Revolution is chilling. Syme describes emergence of the so-called second triumvirate and the proscriptions that they enacted on the Roman aristocracy. The chapter starts with Octavianus occupying Rome and negotiating an alliance with Antonius and Lepidus who were both the proximate threats to his position and shared his animosity toward the Liberators who had amassed an army in the East. 

The alliance between Octavianus, Lepidus, and Antonius occurred at Bononia and once it was formalized in Rome under the Lex Titia, the city “shivered under fear and portents.” Syme does not mince words: “Roman society under the terror witnessed the triumph of the dark passions of cruelty and revenge, of the ignoble vices of cupidity and treachery.” And he does not deflect the blame from Octavianus onto the more experienced Antonius and the flaccid Lepidus:  “Caesar’s heir was no longer a rash youth but a chill and mature terrorist. Condemnation and are apology, however, are equally out of place…The Triumvirs were pitiless, logical and concordant.

The proscriptions were designed to eliminate whatever opposition remained and to accumulate wealth from the the sale of their properties. By the end of the proscriptions, the Senate and aristocracy was unrecognizable. Those who were not killed fled: “Less spectacular than the decadence of the principes, but not less to be deplored, were the gaps in other ranks and orders. The bulk of the nobiles, both ex-Pompeians and adherents of Caesar, banished from Italy, were with the Liberators or with Sex. Pompeius.”

The triumvirs repopulated the senate with their creatures and watered down magistracies by expanding their number and the frequency of their appointments. Under their reign, the Senate increased to over 1000 members. Syme, who felt only the weakest sympathy for the traditional Roman aristocracy and the old order, noted: “The foundations of the new order were cemented with the blood of citizens and buttressed with a despotism that made men recall the of Caesar as an age of gold.” The new leaders of the Caesarean party, at least in the field, included many of non-Latin origin.

Syme’s treatment of the proscriptions was both distant and elusive. He barely notes Cicero’s demise and from this point forward in the book, the last hope for the Republic recedes from view to become a well-cited source for past practices. There’s something anti-climatic about this chapter considering the weighty and somber paragraphs the mark its conclusion: 

The Republic had been abolished. Whatever the outcome of the armed struggle, it could never be restored. Despotism ruled, supported by violence and confiscation. The best men were dead or proscribed. The Senate was packed with ruffians, the consulate, once the reward of civic virtue, now became the recompense of craft or crime.

‘Non mos, non ius.’ So might the period be described. But the Caesarians claimed a right and a duty that transcended all else, the avenging of Caesar. Pietas prevailed, and out of the blood of Caesar the monarchy was born.”


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 13: The Second March on Rome

There is more action in this chapter of The Roman Revolution, which traces the tense months from the Battle of Mutina to Octavian’s second march on the city of Rome. Syme follows Antonius into across the Apennines and through Liguria as he escapes into Gallia Narbonensis through the narrow Ligurian road.

He also keeps an eye on Octavian, whose reluctance to intercept Ventidius’s legion in Etruria allowed them to join Antonius and augment his forces. The death of the other consul Pansa after the death of Hirtius at Mutina, the plodding ambivalence of Plancus and even D. Brutus with the raw and untested legions, and a distrust toward Octavian not only ensured Antonius’s escape but also the eventual reconciliation with Lepidus and his legions who had moved north from Hispania. Syme makes it clear that this alliance was inevitable: “Their palpable community of interest, hardened by the renascence of the Republican and Pompeian cause, was so strong that the loyal dispatches which Lepidus continued to send to the Senate should have deceived nobody.”

The sentences that describe the immediate aftermath of this alliance are brilliant: “A lull followed. Antonius was in no hurry. He waited patiently for time, fear and propaganda to dissolve the forces of his adversaries.”

Of course Syme blames Cicero. He was eager for Civil War despite the risks and overly confident in his ambitious plan to cultivate Octavian and use him as a counterweight to Antonius, on the one hand, and the reluctant and conflict averse Senators on the other, unwound. More than that, as it unwound, Syme makes clear that Octavian increasingly understood Cicero’s manipulative efforts. He slips into the historical present to make this clear: “With their providential removal, the adventurer emerges again, now unexpectedly to dominate the game of high politics.” 

The ruin of Cicero’s plan led to the bizarre situation in which he argued that Octavian be eligible for the consulship. Octavian, lobbied for the same, and turned his legions once again to march on Rome. Syme succinctly state: “The argument of youth and merit had already been exploited by Cicero. The Senate refused. The sword decided.” Faced with his legions and no other choices, he received the consulship before his 20th birthday.

“Cicero, for all his principles, accommodates himself to servitude and seeks a propitious master. Brutus for his part will continue the fight against all powers that set themselves above the law.”



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 12: The Senate Against Antonius

In the 12th chapter of The Roman Revolution, Ronald Syme immerses the reader in the tense action of the year 43 BC in the immediate aftermath of Antonius’s consulship. Cicero takes center stage as the leader of a reluctant Senate. 

Syme has prepared us to understand Cicero’s position in the Late Republic with considerable cynicism. His opportunistic character, exaggerated view of his own historical and political significance, and desperate desire to align himself with power compromised any noble motivation that history might impute. In 44 and 43, Syme makes clear that his return to significance was as much the product of the power vacuum created by the dearth of consulars whose ranks civil war, age, and wariness of the overheated political environment had thinned. 

As a result, Syme’s prosopographic approach had to take a backseat to his ability to describe the actions of the elite. At a few points, he still couldn’t resist a pithy shot at some of the major actors of the Late Republican drama. “Where Lepidus stood, if the word can be used of this flimsy character, was with Antonius…” Aulus Hirtius, despite his somewhat uneven reputation in the ancient literature and his being a “comfortable person of scholarly tastes, in high repute as a gourmet…” in Chapter 5, could, in Chapter 12, still rise “weak and emaciated from his bed of sickness, [to] set out for the seat of war.” Hirtius would fall later that year at the Battle of Mutina and I find it charming to imagine that Syme approved of the scholarly and sophisticated consular emerging as an early martyr for the Republican cause.

Octavian, for his part, remains marginal in this chapter, as Antonius, Cicero, and the Liberators arrange their alliances and move toward conflict. In the East, Brutus and Cassius appear to have marshaled the Caesarean forces against Antonius. Cicero convinced the Senate to authorize their unconventional commands. While Antonius had allies in the West, like the spineless Lepidus, they were distant from his position in Cisalpine Gaul and reluctant to commit to what might be a lost cause. The Senate marshaled forces in Italy who filled the ranks of the legions sent north to face the increasingly isolated Antonius.

Syme presents the lead up to the Battle of Mutina in a series of fine passages. Short sentences and short paragraphs create a sense of acceleration and urgency and tension:

Seven days later, Antonius was forced to risk a battle at Mutina. He was defeated but not routed; on the other side, Hirtius fell. In the field Antonius was rapid of decision. On the day after the defeat he got the remnants of his army into order and set out along the Aemilia towards the west, making for Gallia Narbonensis and the support of Lepidus and Plancus, assured to him a month earlier, but now highly dubious.

At Rome the exultation was unbounded. Antonius and his followers were at last declared public enemies…

Syme allows us to revel in the success of the Republican cause for just a moment. He reminds us: 

Cicero had boasted in the Senate that the Caesarian veterans were on the wane, no match for the fervour of the levies of patriotic Republican Italy. When it came to battle at Mutina, the grim and silent sword work of the veterans terrified the raw recruits. The carnage was tremendous.

More than that, Syme reminds us in the final paragraph of the chapter that Cicero’s strategy was flawed: “The ingenious policy of destroying Antonius and elevating Caesar’s heir commended itself neither to the generals of the western provinces nor to the Liberators … The unnatural compact between the revolutionary leader and the constitutional party crumbled and crashed to the ground.” 


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 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.