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'THERE IS ALWAYS AN OLIGARCHY SOMEWHERE',
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This review is from: The Roman Revolution (Paperback)
This great work of scholarly history was first published in June 1939. In his brief foreword Sir Ronald Syme speaks cryptically about its publication being a matter of some urgency. From that we have to infer that he saw it as having contemporary relevance. From a slow and careful reading I would add that we ought to be very careful and circumspect in how we draw parallels and apply lessons. I don't dispute for a moment that a thorough and precise examination of what was done over the turbulent transition from the later Roman republic to the principate gives deep insight into human motivations and political processes. However if one particular lesson comes over loud and clear to me it is how terminology can be distorted for political ends, deliberate or even unperceived. Those prone to assert that 'reading history' will in some inevitable way support some cherished preconception of their own will, if intelligent and attentive, gain a salutary insight into what history really consists of, and with that a perception of the pitfalls of dealing in glib generalisations and citing as convenient parallels things that are no parallels at all.
The first job of the historian is to clarify what really, or probably, happened and to interpret accurately or at least rationally what the sources for the period tell us. This is rarely a matter of simple fact in the sense that multiplication tables are simple fact. Syme's reasoning is bold and forthright, and while he has no claim to be taken as gospel he never seems to me perverse or unreasonable. I personally doubt that Antony was the straightforward and honest type portrayed by Syme - Syme himself can't get away from the part Antony played in the proscriptions. On the other hand he has every reason to ridicule Octavian's propaganda concerning the nonexistent threat posed to Rome from Antony's Egyptian queen and Octavian's official party line that elevated the naval skirmish at Actium into some mighty turning-point of history.
The story I read from Syme is as follows. The Roman republic was always part-sham. Its official mode of governance was by the senate and people, with the consuls as chief officers of government chosen at stated intervals by the people. Real power was exercised by shifting coalitions of nobles together with the unseen influence of the moneyed equestrian class. The values that weighed with both nobles and plebs were tradition and 'authority', there being no written constitution. There was certainly some flexibility, but it was rare for the plebs to choose as consuls anyone lacking aristocratic status. There was no concept of progress whatsoever, and democracy on the Athenian model was despised. 'Liberty' was largely theoretical, except in the sense that free speech was untrammelled to a degree we would never tolerate now. There was no pressure from any class for reform let alone revolution, but the knights and bankers were provoked at the peril of any who did so (as Catiline found to his cost), and the plebs were prone to periodic revolt, offering a power base successively to Marius and to Caesar. Blatant inversion of the meaning of the laws was the stock-in-trade of anyone with a mission, invoking some higher interpretation as suited. Indeed what Cicero tried to do in opposition to Antony was much what he boasted of having repressed as consul in relation to Catiline. Gradually a single figure came to be dominant in the power-struggles. Sulla brutally put down the adherents of Marius in the name of restoring the right-and-proper dominance of his fellow aristocrats. However when Sulla thought his work done he simply resigned. Not so Pompey or Caesar. They sought personal dominance in a way Sulla had not done. Pompey was a brute, Caesar to some extent genuinely liberal (although I see no reason to believe that any Roman republican leader had any opinion except contempt for the plebs). However on attaining power Caesar went back basically to the status quo ante, but took the unprecedented step of accepting dictatorship for life and appointing a successor, something not even Sulla had contemplated.
From there on fate favoured Octavian. His luck was phenomenal, his ruthlessness total, his skill in balancing interests and oligarchies unprecedented, and his mendacity instinctive and brilliant. He was the butcher of Perusia and the co-tyrant of the proscriptions, and he never really changed. He was by no means all-powerful, but he eviscerated the old aristocratic oligarchies and established his own. Unrest had suited him during his rise, stability after he reached the top. He had a genuine Roman respect for tradition, but he had a populist sense that the plebs would be kept on-side with a better water-supply. He knew a good idea when he saw it, and he first supported Egnatius Rufus and his private-enterprise fire-brigade until he realised Egnatius was a danger, at which point he executed Egnatius and nationalised the fire-brigade. He removed occasions of unrest by paying off retired soldiers with money rather than letting them loose to seize land in Italy, and he paid provincial governors a salary to reduce problems to himself from their practice of extortion. Throughout, he adopted the old names and titles while systematically inverting what was done in their name.
Syme has had to interpret the sources, and I have had to interpret Syme. That's history for you. It is a matter of using our brains, and it won't just prove what we prefer it to prove. In the last resort this history gives no comfort whatsoever to my own enthusiasm for democracy. In the first place Romans disliked that idea, and in the second they traded their once-cherished 'libertas' (such as it ever was) for stability, such as it turned out to be. Augustus established a monarchy, leaving a successor of last choice who, as a Roman noble (unlike Augustus), wanted supremacy but hated the form of supremacy he inherited. It all lasted for 400 or 500 effective years. The thousand-year Reich of 1939 lasted all of 12, the British Empire roughly 150, the Soviet empire some 40 or 70 depending on when we start counting, and the New American Century looks dead in the water already. It was the creation of one city and of one man, through oligarchies of course. Go figure.