Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Roman Revolution

Rate this book
The Roman Revolution is a profound and unconventional treatment of a great theme - the fall of the Republic and the decline of freedom in Rome between 60 BC and AD 14, and the rise to power of the greatest of the Roman Emperors, Augustus. The transformation of state and society, the violent transference of power and property, and the establishment of Augustus' rule are presented in an unconventional narrative, which quotes from ancient evidence, refers seldomly to modern authorities, and states controversial opinions quite openly. The result is a book which is both fresh and compelling.

579 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1939

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Ronald Syme

94 books30 followers
Sir Ronald Syme, OM, FBA (11 March 1903 – 4 September 1989) was a New Zealand-born historian and classicist. Long associated with Oxford University, he is widely regarded as the 20th century's greatest historian of ancient Rome. His great work was The Roman Revolution (1939), a masterly and controversial analysis of Roman political life in the period following the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
425 (48%)
4 stars
291 (33%)
3 stars
114 (12%)
2 stars
38 (4%)
1 star
10 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 83 reviews
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,535 reviews1,789 followers
March 12, 2019
General non-introduction
I will begin this review with a warning, a little while ago someone informed me that they had their reading experience of a book spoiled by one of my reviews because they felt I had revealed information about the ending, about which comment much can be said and it is unkind of me to be making a little fun of of their compliant in this way, but just in case if you are still on tenterhooks and waiting for news of the outcome of Actium, or do not want to know precisely which iconic part of the male anatomy that Octavian(Augustus) was invited to suckle upon or indeed was said to be a suckler of , or indeed if you don't want to know yet what Julius Caesar did after he finished conquering Gaul then please read no further...

Digressive demi-introduction with autobiographical asides and Playmobil
I recently read Joachim Radkau's biography of Max Weber: Des Leidenschaft des Denkens in which Weber's opinion was cited that political power is always exercised through oligarchies, my guilty pre-reading of Syme made it clear that Syme's The Roman Revolution was a natural and proper desert after Max Weber, which now by a slightly more convoluted path Syme now gives way to And Quiet Flows the Don (And Quiet Flows the Don #1) . Anyway I recently received an email indicating that Playmobil are tapping into my consciousness as they attempted to seduce me into the perfect accompaniment to Syme - read the book and play out the action, refight Actium in the bath, does though Cleopatra come with attachable Asp I wonder ? One ought not play too much attention to email, maybe, particularly since I received another one telling me that a grow your own oyster mushroom kit is the perfect Valentine's day present, I feel that one ought satisfy oneself that your heart's delight is sufficiently keen on mushrooms first though before sending her or him or them a mass of manure covered in mushroom spoors through the post, this I knew without the help of Ovid of whom more below. Syme's The Roman Revolution had been on my mental mind map for a long time and coming up the track towards it I felt a curious relief and satisfaction like a long distance runner turning a corner and finding them-self on a familiar stretch of the course. I recalled as a child being taken to the British museum to an exhibition about Augustus in which his public image was contrasted with written descriptions to make a point about publicity and propaganda I suppose. Though I imagine that my early earnest worship in the cathedrals of knowledge made greater impact on my thighs than on my brain.

IInd Introduction, earnest with argument and some unparliamentary language
Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution is a work of passion, written with a degree of conviction and ferocity that it doesn't, I feel, quite deliver upon. In fact the two distinctive features of this work cause him problems that I don't think he ever comes to terms with, still less resolves.

First point: this is a work published in 1939. What Syme does is look at the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of empire from the perspective of recent world history. This is a brilliant, yet troubling conception, and under executed. The Bolshevik revolution gives us the Roman Army as the proletariat of Italy, motivated by a Leninist call for Land and Peace. The army had to be paid off and demobilised soldiers rewarded with land grants. This required land seizures from the rich and taxes on the rich. Problem is, beyond the broad outlines and echoes in Virgil one can say nothing in detail about this process nor its outcomes and no hint of revolutionary feeling or class consciousness has come down to us. Next Augustus is a terrorist, more he is a Mussolini, raising an army and marching on Rome, further yet he is a Hitler, developing a new power power structure and crushing those uncertain elements that brought him to power and developing in a conservative direction. There is a complication here immediately ,in that Fascism was consciously modelling itself on ancient Rome, but taking in Augustus's use of private morality and family life as the centre of a programme of Roman renewal, we can see his regime as the forerunner and exemplar of a range of authoritarian through to Fascist movements. The big problem is that this argument is really very disturbing, because it cuts both ways, as Syme's end point is essentially: yes Augustus was a bloody handed bastard, but a necessary one who brought about a real and historically meaningful renewal of Rome:"he had saved and regenerated the Roman People"(p524). 'Roman people' blends into Syme's second distinctive feature, on which point more below. How comfortable are we with the implication that many European countries had run into political dead ends by the 1920s and 30s and had to go through periods of 'national' regeneration, in other words there is an implicit problem,which admittedly the first edition never had to face of looking at the ancient world in a post 1945 world from the perspective of 1939, after yet another round of the all-European championships in the military arts makes all the difference. The second distinctive feature of this book is that Syme was from New Zealand, from the Imperial periphery, and he feels himself analogous to people from the Roman periphery, like Tacitus and Trajan and Co. For Syme at most Empire is a necessary evil, with the emphasis on necessary, again in a world which has seen a degree of decolonisation this puts some of his basic and fundamental beliefs at odds with a more contemporary view point, for Syme a real division of humanity into intrinsically martial (Macedonians, Galatians not only were they the recipients of a letter from St.Paul but also the descendants of wild touring Gauls who settled in the area of modern Turkey 'Romans')and less martial peoples exists, the 'Roman People' is for Syme an unproblematic concept, they are derived from an actual human stock that for him is transforming from a narrowly Roman to a more broadly Italian one, for him these are fundamentally tough peasants, idealised in poetry, though he admits probably not so nice to find rampaging through your native village one day. This for me is a view of race and nation, widespread in the world before 1945, now distasteful in certain swathes of the world and deeply problematic in any case, I call upon my learned friend Ovid, to explain why with reference to his book The Art of Love in short - what were those Romans ? The descendants of a rag-tag bunch of brigands and the Sabine women, the ultimate horror of modern populist politicians: an entire population made up of immigrants hell bent on conquering everybody else for sexual ends and if we add our friend Virgil, who has so far been quiet , waiting his turn to speak, into the mix, a people with a genius for governing others . So Syme, poor fellow, ends up seriously worried about the detrimental effect of too many slaves entering the Roman blood stock, personally I feel that the Romans were as healthy as mongrels, rather than as prone to health problems as pure bred inbreds.

His argument is brilliant, inciting and icky. What can one say? People like Hitler, Mussolini and Augustus ultimately just spoil everything, and on completion I couldn't join with Syme in his assessment of Augustus - a knowing salute from the edge of one Empire to the heart of another - What I wanted to say was felas Octavi!

A cursory glance over other reviews shows that the word cynical crops up often. Personally I would not describe Syme as cynical in any way, indeed at several points he is in need of a generous transfusion of cynicism from a donor cynic. The issue is that he isn't idealistic or inclined to accept the propaganda or marketing at face value. For Syme politics is about power, I don't know if he read Weber, but the bibliography is fairly evenly divided between English, French and German language scholarship, he might have picked up that idea of power exercised through oligarchies at second hand. Syme's views are stark, but not cynical, indeed he is fanciful in places. One example I'll return to below, another is he regurgitates that the 'mob' 'spontaneously' cremated Julius Caesar's body and erected an altar in his memory which is just crazy fantasy. For things like that to happen , particularly with the appearance of spontaneity, takes organisation. It takes a fair deal of seasoned wood to burn a body and the kinds of people who might happen to have masonry or wood working tools on them while crossing the forum one morning, are the kinds of people who've got paying jobs they need to get to in order to put bread and cheese on the table that evening, not the kinds of people who can afford to stand about listening to the reading of wills and then spend time putting up an altar (a task which in another context takes the Senate four years to get completed . But in terms of considerations of power Syme is relatively undeluded (which again may be a feature of being from the colonies).

Paradise Lost
One of the delightful curiosities of Syme's text is that people are invariably sovran rather than sovereign, which gave me the impression that he'd learnt his book English from a copy of Paradise Lost. And I did wonder if Milton had determined his view of Politics - that maybe for him all politicians are little Satans in pain/ Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare (book I 125-6) who through their guile and wiles can only ever manage to bring sin and Death into the world? Certainly this is what we see at the close of the Roman Republic particularly in the person of Augustus who virtually single handedly dragged the Mediterranean world into multiple rounds of civil war until he alone was undisputed ruler of the world. Several times the Mediterranean world appeared to be on the brink of peace before Octavian/Augustus resumed warfare. Ironically the consummate warmonger was a poor general and admiral, he avoided capture and execution on several occasions but that was the limit of his skill. His skill was in political gambling in which he conducted a master class.

Felas Octavi
During the civil wars Octavian /Augustus and his soldiers pin Marcus Antonius' wife and brother in the town of Perusia, this is less of a coup than it might seem. While M. Antonius was a great admirer and lover of women he wasn't the type to limit his affections to only one, and as for brothers... A number of lead bullets fired from slings have been found round the town, some plain others bearing some kind of sharp message to add insult to injury. I assume these bullets were cast and so presumably somebody decided what message to add to the mould, I wonder whether this was L. Antonius himself or the blacksmith attached to a particular legion, one such bullet has the inscription Felas Octavi.

Power, Oligarchy to party to court factionalism
At the centre of Syme's argument is a hole. We're not interested purely in a Sulla, Pompeii, Caesar or Octavian he says but in the people around them, they form , determine and execute the policies carried out in their interests. Fine, problem being that what we know about such people is the result of several generations of careful study of inscriptions and named individuals, trying to build up family trees and a picture of networks and interests when it comes down to it Syme names three key individuals around Augustu,s but Syme only has the not quite purple but certainly mauve idea of falling back on their statute portraits to reach conclusions about the nature of their influence ,these three people were Livia, Agrippa, and Maecenas. This reminds me of this review of which book the reviewer says that the author has the breasts of his female characters do the work of characterisation (so presumably firm, unyielding, generous, ripe etc), second, I heard that the late Princess of Wales asked her portraitist to make her look strong so he slapped extra paint on her shoulders to make her look more muscly. We don't know if Livia or Agrippa really looked like those statues, we only know that they presumably authorised and approved those images, indeed in the case of Augustus we know that he looked more like this: it will be observed that the Princeps was by no means was by no means as majestic & martial in appearance as his effigies show him forth. His limbs were well proportioned, but his stature was short, a defect which he sought to repair by wearing high heels. Nor were all his features prepossessing - he had bad teeth & sandy hair (p480) after the civil war he gave up exercise & only bathed rarely, avoided the sun and couldn't stand the cold wearing four under-shirts and puttees rather than like this, so a short podgy smelly man with bad breath (admittedly sculpture is not a good medium for suggesting smell to the viewer). From the evidence it is hard to link more than a few people with distinct interests, either political or economic which I feel sinks the endeavour of looking at the oligarchies which exercised power, however that for all Pompey's clients he could not stand against Caesar in Italy and that he didn't fall back on Hispania, or indeed the curious longevity over generations of apparent feeling of obligation to one party or family invites further investigation. Another problem is that during this period we are seeing a transition from politics of oligarchy to party to factions at royal court and I don't find Syme convincing here, although he does see the banishment of daughter Julia and the punishment of five highly placed men as likely to be political with the formal accusation of immorality as a cover. The political dynamic around a person who has monopolised power is different to oligarchic factions or even a party ans Syme's method doesn't really capture that. Syme also has a 'must have' opinion on financial experts in Augustus' service, about which I would say more, but I've run out of space.

Octavian's political programme
Octavian initial proclaimed his goal, as the heir to Julius Caesar to be the extermination of his assassins, this was seen as an Act of Piety this he broadened out to destroying all potential rivals and claimants to the legacy of Julius Caesar. This meant that Cleopatra has to be persuaded to die, her suicide is not a final cry of felas Octavi, you'll never take me alive!, but the action of someone persuaded to reign from high office because apparently they suddenly really want to spend more time with this family thing that everybody says they have out there beyond the corridors of power, and her children have to die too many caesars obviously are no good thing. And then lots of other people also have to die or helpfully commit suicide . His politics goes through a revolutionary phase before settling down, the centre piece of Octavian/Augustus' reform policy is a series of laws on family morality, against divorce, against adultery and to encourage child birth. Syme again lacks cynicism and reads these at face value. What I read, post 1945, was in a society whose atomic unit was the family, and whose politics was built through marriage and family connections was that this was a massively ambitious power grab. From this point of view friend Ovid's cynical, yet amusing work The Art of Love becomes a political statement of resistance, a literary felas Octavi to counter Virgil's Aeneid ( which courtesy of Syme looks increasingly propagandistic). No wonder he was exiled, arguing that Roman Imperium had always been about sexual domination, while setting himself in Eros's camp, going on a mission to the theatre to see and be seen, that the true Roman is the sexual adventurer was a little too close to the mark for his times.

Syme fades out with a black arm band on, ripping open the box of tissues as he laments the end of the traditional Roman aristocracy. Do we mourn for them - didn't their unmanageable rivalry bring about their own destruction?

Salve Syme
A great and worth while book that I fear, doesn't and couldn't deliver as much as it promises. However it has vigour and a neat turn of phrase that I've tried to capture in my updates. A rather bracing view of a complex period of transition, yes most of the footnotes are in either Latin or Greek, yes he does stick to the Latin form of names, no there are no maps, nor detailed descriptions of battles nor of the suicide of Cassius. But a pretty powerful historic conception, it could be a self standing read if you down mind jumping in the deep end.

Still ultimately my take is felas Octavi. One can view the Roman republic from a structural point of view as intrinsically headed for disaster the combination of clintentalism, militarism, and honour culture were powerful drivers for ever more violent conflict, but it is not quite Syme's argument that the route to Empire was inevitable, still if omelettes can only be made by breaking eggs then perhaps some political veganism is overdue.
Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews1,210 followers
April 27, 2013
Syme's The Roman Revolution is absolutely first rate interpretive history: exhaustive in its detail, but in the best of ways, particularly in that the learned and opinionated author serves as the filter through which all of the surviving histories of the Latin and Greek primary sources from antiquity are combed and then combined—in beautifully composed, dynamic language timbered with a very Tacitean cynicism, pessimism and severity—to present his encompassing theme: that the turn from what he calls a Free State to Monarchic Despotism was the trade-off between liberty and stability that the Republic demanded, based upon its structural inability to adequately handle the vast geographical expansion of the final century BC and the scheming, avaricious, and increasingly unruly political factionalism that growth engendered; was, in fact, a purposive Revolutionary movement that found its origin in populist and plebeian conflict with the oligarchic and conservative alliance of patrician families and equestrian financiers; novi homines vs. the old guard aristocracy and money. It's an extraordinary achievement: quite simply the best book I have read in a very long time. Gibbon would not merely be proud—he'd be impressed.

There is a plethora of personalities involved within, although the names that dominate the period generally held to have precipitated and advanced the decline of the Republic—Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Cato, Cicero, Caesar, Antonius (like Syme, I refuse to call the man Mark Anthony, as if, at any moment, he'd be prepared to shed his cuirass and robes that he might shake and groove and flash his pearly whites to the rhythm of a funky Latin beat), Lepidus, and Octavian—are perforce called upon to receive a significant share of the page count. Still, Syme made exemplary use of the prosopography undertaken by German scholars like Münzer and Gelzer, to sort and array the omnibus of praenomen, nomen, and cognomen that comprised the body of historically relevant Roman citizens who formed the second and third ranks of important actors, collated from those primary and secondary sources ranging across decades of the period in question, that they could be slotted into the proper ordering and their positional relevance to Syme's great theme made that much clearer in its exposition.

The final despotic structure that emerged was headed and guided by Gaius Octavianus cum Caesar Augustus, and from the outset the author declares that the latter will receive a harsher treatment than his predecessors or peers; however, he also makes clear, in the same passage, that it is not a moral condemnation, but rather a check upon the panegyrics the imperial founder had received in a bevy of modern evaluations that a more sere and unvarnished truth reveal itself beneath a scrubbed veneer:
Whether the Princeps made atonement for the crime and violence of his earlier career is a question vain and irrelevant, cheerfully to be abandoned to the moralist or the casuist. The present inquiry will attempt to discover the resources and devices by which a revolutionary leader arose in civil strife, usurped the power for himself and his faction, transformed a faction into a national party, and a torn and distracted land into a nation, with a stable and enduring government.
As Syme sees it, the core and perduring element of the power structure in the Roman Republic was an oligarchy, comprised of the nobiles, Patrician and Plebeian consulars who jealousy guarded access to the consulate and, hence, to their ruling Senatorial clique. While the Patriciate dominated the ranks of the nobiles, those elevated from the Plebs had forged powerful lineages of their own—and such was the state at the time of the reorganization of Sulla, Roman Dictator in 81 BC and the paradigm of the ruthless political adventurer for those who competed for supremacy in the decades following his abdication from power; especially in his usage of Novi Homines, New Men, upstarts and non-entities whom he rewarded for service by admission to the Senate. However, Sulla, of the aristocratic Cornelii, also strived to strengthen the Senate by diminishing the power of the tribunes and legislating constitutional changes. The following decades would see a fierce competition between this Sullan aristocratic element, the Optimates, and those who, in emulation of Marius, played to the emotions and for the support of the masses, the Populares. Indeed, as Syme views it, this conflict, with its burgeoning factionalism, corruption, manipulation, and violence, progressively undermined the stability and structure of the Roman Republic as powerful and charismatic individuals vied to become the First Man (Princeps) in Rome, with its attendant enhancement of their dignitas and auctoritas. A part of the conflict lay in what constituted a citizen's modus operandi: the old nobility maintained a tradition of service to the state, transcending material interests and containing high ideals—a concept wholly absent from that of the equite financiers.

Pompey was the next innovator, using military victories and acclaim—and the continuous threat of the legions he could raise from his vast number of supporters, in Italy and abroad—as means to securing overseas proconsular provinces, by which he built a web of clientela dependent upon his rewards, ranging from Roman Citizens to foreign kings and their entire subject population. The Optimates, perceiving the threat of Pompey and his boundless ambitions, were forced to maneuver with other political aspirants, which led to the accession of Crassus, the wealthiest man in the Republic, and Caesar, supremely charismatic, well-connected, and, through his popular conquest of Gaul, a military hero to rival Pompey. Syme takes the reader, quite brilliantly, through the rise of the First Triumvirate, the showdown between Caesar, under threat to his dignitas and armed with veteran legions from the Gallic Wars and the support of the Populares, and the Optimates, having elected a reluctant (and jealous) Pompeius as their champion. We all know how it ended: Caesar victorious and voted Dictator for life, only to be cut down by a cabal of Senatorial assassins—the self-proclaimed Liberatores—as he prepared to embark upon a campaign against the Parthians in the far east.

Here's where Syme begins delivering his specialized goods: in convincing detail he traces the lingering discontent within an Italy that had, as recently as the Sullan era, embarked upon a savagely fought conflict, the Social War, to free themselves from the domination of Roman rentiers and politicians. Following Sulla's death, these peninsular realms would prove fertile recruiting grounds for the legions of both Pompey, from his origins and patronage in Picenum and surrounding areas, and Caesar, who headed the remnant Marian populist faction; but they furnished a surprising number of the Novi Homines with which the two—and particularly Caesar—staffed their armies and represented themselves in the maelstrom of Roman civic politics. With his nascent party, the Populares, in control, the opportunity was ripe for a thorough reform of the Republican system, to ameliorate the problems of trying to govern an empire via the constitution of a city-state. However, Caesar did not deliver on his promises of reform—indeed, unwilling to fully embrace the measures demanded by those who had assisted him in his rise, he claimed monarchical powers that needlessly riled the Optimates who had been delivered unto his broad clemency and conspired to murder him; and the latter quickly found themselves helpless to maneuver against Antonius, holding the consulship in 44BC, without making use of Octavian—the heir to Caesar's name—who used that invaluable heirloom as a means of raising a private army with which he forcibly inserted himself into the political competition, first on the side of the aristocratic oligarchy, and then joined with Antonius and Lepidus in the Second Triumvirate.

Syme displays, throughout, a charitable view of Antonius—a man competent, vigorous, and skilled in the ways of both forum dais and military camp, he was also impulsive, loyal, and charitable: as proof of such, Syme offers the three distinct opportunities that Antonius had to eliminate his youthful rival, and of which he never availed himself. However, he also notes how an enduring reason for their reconciliations lay in that it was so-willed by the Caesarian Party, the backbone of which were the legion veterans, who revered the name of Caesar and the personal wealth he lavished upon them (and which Octavian prudently continued in full measure), and the NH, moneymen and senators, established in the provinces, who felt insecure without cohesion between the two leaders of the coalition government. Dreading the possibility of another civil war, and with the chief Liberatores Brutus and Cassius slain after the Battle of Philippi, the Republic groaned beneath a military despotism more stringent and oppressive than anything experienced under Caesar: indeed, in many ways, Syme posits, Octavian and Antonius ruled in a manner that Pompey would have, had he possessed political gifts to match his military ones. Still, there was stability and rule, no matter how precariously balanced—and Rome found itself prepared to accept the stringent and harsh rule of the Triumvirs, with their brutal marshals and governors, however much it debased the republican ideal.

As the years passed, and notwithstanding that both men were associated with the proscriptions that had decimated the senatorial and, in especial, the equestrian ranks—for both political security and financial enrichment, with which the legionaries were paid and the veterans provided with lands to settle upon—the nobiles and foreign notables, including the first rank of the Caesarian party, gravitated to the side of Antonius; while youthful adventurers and talented plebs with grievances against landed property joined with Octavian—and, in any event, Rome was filled with ruffians and the dues paid to pietas shown as an empty charade. At the same time, the structure of Roman politics shifted: no longer were family alliances and resounding lineages the determining factor in the allotment of offices; rather, the number of personal legions and provincial clientele became paramount. The author also paints fascinating portraits of the chief marshals for whom the two dominant leaders competed: Plancus, a talented time-server changing sides as advantage was determined; Lepidus, an ignoble cipher, aligned with Antonius and sidelined by Octavian when he moved too early after the victories over Sextus Pompeius; and Pollio, a literary wit and republican Caesarian who strived for neutrality until Actium convinced him that Octavian's star was ascendant.

And yet it proved that Octavian had the better marshals: Agrippa and Salvidienus, descended from peasant stock, and Taurus, a superb military mind who easily filled Salvidienus' shoes when the latter was executed for treacherous outreach to Antonius after Perusia. Another Etruscan, Gaius Maecenas, served Octavian faithfully as his civil administrator in Rome, entertaining, feeding, and soothing the city masses. As the years passed, and the term of the triumvirate neared expiry, Octavian, through his rule of the Western half of the empire and hewing to Roman norms, developed a potent propaganda effort against Antonius, long absent in the east and decried as having succumbed to Greek tyrannical airs, the proof of which lay in his flaunted marriage with Cleopatra, a foreign queen with rapacious eyes upon Roman provinces. In the deciding Battle of Actium, Antonius saw, one by one, his republican supporters cross over to the side of Octavian—even Ahenobarbus, once Octavian's bitterest foe and the leader of the tattered remnants of the Optimates. Afterwards, when Octavian found himself sole master of the Roman world, it was time to complete the revolution with an artful genius that would disguise its broad, pervasive, and perduring implementation.

What was the revolution? It was not the elimination of the oligarchy itself, because, as Syme perceives, it ever lasted, at the font of power, while Octavian (become Augustus) developed his forms of despotic mastery. The revolution was the overthrowing of the ancient houses and established money by the influx of new names, as well as the vast distribution of landed property amongst legion veterans, in Italy and colonies abroad. It was the evolution of the senate from legislative power to a forum of nominal debate and acceptance of imposed law. It was the change from proconsular provincial rule designed for personal aggrandizement and wealth, that it be wielded in the game of power amongst the nobiles in Rome, and the farming out of administrative needs like tax collection and public services; rather, the rule of Augustus saw the division of the empire into senatorial provinces, governed by praetors until Augustus felt secure enough to give them to the ex-consuls, and military provinces—the only ones with legions—that were governed by legates chosen from men who owed everything to his favor—along with the development of a centralized administration staffed by competent freedmen and knights, rather than the patronage appointments of competing factions. While the tamed senate indulged in powerless orations and displays of wealth, a cabinet, in which the real decisions of government were undertaken, cohered, comprised of such as Augustus, Maecenus, Agrippa, Taurus, and the freedmen, often non-Roman, who occupied that central hub. The former ambitions that drove the nobiles and patriciate into intense competition to become the first man of Rome, and which severely destabilized the republic through the corruption, factionalism, and violence it engendered and required, were harnessed to the service of the Roman state. Unwilling to see one of their own emerge on top, the aristocracy yet proved pliable as long as Augustus lorded, as Princeps, over the lot; it was a swing towards stability, order, regulation, meritorious administration: but it was not all at once, and it was not according to any ordained unfolding. In Syme's calculation, the Caesarian party was revolutionary in spirit and intent, not so much in theory or ideology. It intended to initiate change upon the unstable, violent, and faction-ridden Republic to ameliorate that condition—but did so, under Augustus and the oligarchy, in reaction to events and the moment, not in a doctrinaire service to ideas. The revolution was effected, not premeditated.

The star of the the revolution was Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, the Princeps. Notwithstanding the author's severe portrayal of him as a man cold, inhuman, despotic, and fortunate beyond measure in both his name and his lieutenants, the first Roman emperor was courageous, competent, and politically savvy sans peer. His life story is nigh unheralded, and his progression from callow youth, scrounging up legions and daring the heavyweights, to Triumvir struggling mightily in dealing with the unrest between Roman citizens and unhappy veterans, to Dux commanding the forces of the West against the more experienced (and liked) Antonius, and ending as Princeps of Rome is a remarkable one. Having secured, through his third wife Livia, the allegiance of the Claudii and Livii clans, Augustus ever worked the aristocracy to bring them on board to the Caesarian party and its dominance. As patiently revealed by Syme, Louis XIV had nothing on the Princeps: by assuaging the honor of the upper class through their continued participation in the consulship, membership in the senate, and accumulation of private honor and wealth (to be spent on public goods), Augustus prevailed over their previously ruinous ambition. The aristocracy was regulated and sterilized, set to vie for the emperor's favor in serving the Roman state—the political demagogues and military adventurers from the days of the Republic had no place in the new system. Indeed, when Augustus, in 23 BC, attempted to veer fully into nepotism and monarchy through the raising of his nephew, Marcellus, it was his closest peer, Agrippa, and his wife, Livia, who forced a confrontation and emerged victorious. And although Augustus ruthlessly used the women in his family as marriage tools to cement alliances with important nobiles, it was his austere stepson, Tiberius, who survived to be instated as the emperor's successor.

As so often proves the case when revolution has prevailed, there was also a reactionary rebound: the writerly talents of Rome, under the emperor's patronage, penned paeans to the values of the sturdy (and mythic) Roman peasant of old—chaste, loyal, honest, and hard. Moral laws were promulgated (and mocked in their transgression), the borders expanded to the Danube in a series of hard-fought campaigns, while the Parthian Great King was happy to make enduring peace with the Lord of the World. Roads were built, grain stored and distributed—trade flourished and fortunes were made. Having sown for the masses the vision of a great enterprise, stability and strong, orderly government won the day over the cacophonous electioneering of old. And in this Syme proved a realist: while his sympathies lay with staunch Republicans like Tacitus and Pollio, who lamented the loss to the arts and to life under a staid, overweening despotism, he yet realized that such was a part of the enduring trade-off between liberty and security, in that liberty inevitably loses if security becomes sufficiently threatened. Nor is this balancing act ever fully settled, just like the Human Nature which drives our actions and emotions. Augustus gave the people of his vast, sprawling empire security and stability under the carefully orchestrated illusion of freedom, for which, in the end, they gratefully acquiesced. It is a tale that was written ere the Princeps and ever and anon afterwards—indeed, it plays out in its various permutations and threads in our own third millennium. That is a part of what makes The Roman Revolution such a thoroughly superb work of historical interpretation: that Syme, despairing in the onset of the Second World War, plumbed the words of the near entirety of sources that he might explicate it in ways that both made sense and were relevant to our own times. Only a part, however. That he is such a wonderfully talented writer, acerbic, witty, elegant, able to expound at length and with grace or deliver succinct, driving lunges of sustained energy are a huge part of the remainder.

Indeed, there is only one single drawback, and which stems from the fact that the author wrote his great and enduring work at a time of different standards in general education: he quotes extensively from the primary sources in Latin and Greek, and assumes that the reader has sufficient knowledge of such as to dispense with translation. Aided in a small part by my so-so grasp of Spanish, I nonetheless passed a considerable amount of time typing words, or copying paragraphs, into Google Translate. It was a laborious effort, but proved worth it in the end—as with so many of the best scholars, the pudding wherein lies the proof is to be found in the footnotes. So, gird yourself for plying the trade of translation, and there is no reason whatsoever why you shouldn't drop whatever you are planning on reading and devour The Roman Revolution—after the opus from Mighty Gibbon the Eternal and Resplendent, the single greatest work of Roman history I have ever had the pleasure to experience.
Profile Image for Olethros.
2,610 reviews419 followers
January 22, 2019
-Contracorriente hasta crear su propio curso.-

Género. Ensayo.

Lo que nos cuenta. El libro La revolución romana (publicación original: The Roman Revolution, 1939) ofrece un análisis interpretativo del final de la república y el comienzo del imperio en la Antigua Roma, con especial hincapié en la figura de Octaviano/Augusto y su comportamiento durante dicha transformación sociopolítica. Esta edición en español se corresponde con la segunda edición del original, de 1951, corregida y revisada.

¿Quiere saber más de este libro, sin spoilers? Visite:

Profile Image for Evan Leach.
460 reviews130 followers
March 20, 2014
The Roman Revolution is a tricky book to review. Written back in 1939, Ronald Syme’s book details Rome’s transition from republic to empire between 60 b.c. and 14 a.d. The book has been enormously influential and controversial since its release 73 years ago, and is probably the most famous book of Roman history this side of Edward Gibbon.

First off, this book is not a good introduction to the period in question. Syme assumes that his audience is already familiar with the course of events, and he flies through certain incidents that I wanted to hear about in more detail. This was by far my biggest frustration with this book. I know the basic details regarding the wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey & between Augustus and Antony, but I’m not an expert and was looking forward to learning more about them. And despite the book’s size (almost 600 pages), I was disappointed.

However, I’m hesitant to kill the book for this. After all, it’s not Syme’s fault that I don’t know my Philippi from my Pharsalus. The Roman Revolution is ultimately not a book of general history, but a book of political history. Syme is interested in the detailed mechanics of the transition from republic to empire and the political machine that allowed it to happen. And in this regard, The Roman Revolution is pretty amazing. The level of research that must have went into this is incredible. Syme has painstakingly reconstructed the political web that Augustus built, to a degree that I wouldn’t have believed possible considering all of the participants have been dead for 2,000 years. It’s a pretty herculean work of scholarship. Whether or not you believe his argument that the republic was basically dead on his feet and the shift to empire was virtually inevitable (and I thought he made a convincing case), Syme’s writing is superb and his portrayal of Augustus is inspired.

So. If you already know your Roman history, and are looking for an in-depth examination of how the mechanics of power were used to effect the switch from republic to empire, this book is for you. If like me, your knowledge is somewhat wanting going in, this book will make you realize what you don’t know and cause you to slink off and search for a more general history, like Tom Holland’s Rubicon. I don’t want to make this book sound like a totally myopic look at the Roman power transition: Syme regularly makes observations on the nature of government and power that are universal (given the year the book was released, the book was controversial as some of its arguments could be twisted to support fascism, at least according to certain readers). This was an impressive book and I enjoyed it, but if I knew more about it going in I definitely would have tackled a more general history of the period first. 4.5 stars, recommended for readers interested in political theory and true Rome-ophiles.
Profile Image for Scriptor Ignotus.
487 reviews169 followers
August 16, 2013
This is history writing at its very best. Syme provides readers with a total immersion into the familial and factional maneuvering of the transition from republic to principate. The central narrative of the book deals with the rise of Octavianus; from a 19-year-old youth at the time of Caesar's assassination, to a polished demagogue stirring up trouble, to a marauder with a mercenary army, to a triumvir sharing autocratic power, and finally ascending, at the head of a new coalition, to a position that transcended the state itself, allowing him to rework the constitutional structure into a new governing apparatus, the principate.

The rest of the book chronicles the consolidation of power around Augustus' new ruling faction, and the gradual decline of the old aristocrats, which left the field to a new Augustan aristocracy. Throughout the book, Syme meticulously describes the allegiances and fortunes of the great families, patrician and plebeian, and how they made their way during the revolutionary period.

In addition to the quality of the scholarship, Syme's prose also stands out. His language is both beautiful and skeptical, and some of the laconic statements he makes about political life throughout the work are timeless and worthy of one of the great historians of the twentieth century. It is difficult to do justice to just how great this book is.
Profile Image for Andrew.
533 reviews159 followers
July 5, 2016
There is a sadness to this book as you watch an entire group of people - not all angels certainly - slowly extinguished: the Caecilii, Metelli, Scipiones fade from the history of Rome. And newcomers, to whom the Roman historians have not been kind, set up in their place.

It really was a revolution, not just a slow decay of the Republic. The ruling classes died off in civil wars and proscriptions, to be replaced by a de novo ruling class which, in the incipient empire, could not continue to hold prominence in the Senate, the courts, or the battlefield. All these honours belonged now to the princeps and his increasingly professionalized corps of civil servants.

Continuously in print, this remains an important contribution to our understanding of the fall of the Republic. It is, at times, turgidly dense, as Syme walks through the tangled family connections of the period. But his thoughts on the changing social structure of the time, the uses of propaganda, and the theory of government are vivid and insightful.
Profile Image for Stephen.
99 reviews81 followers
December 30, 2016
When Syme finally says "The revolution is over" (on page 451) you let out a sigh of relief too. Generations of anarchy, civil war, a time when you had to choose sides, with the losing side killed off through vengeful, extralegal means, this is all conveyed marvelously, frighteningly, with the depth of a great literary stylist. Names pass by in a bewildering array, none of whom are explained, as if you are in the center of Rome around the time of Julius Caesar gathering bits of information, none of which makes any sense. But you feel the power at stake and it shakes you. Time passes. Power changes hands. You survive. It makes a little more sense.

At each turn, Syme explains exactly what the choices were for those vying to subdue the country. You come away from this book with a deep knowledge of politics in a world without right and wrong. Not one second is wasted, in other words, detailing how the gods of Rome overlooking the Republic effected men's minds. Syme is as clear-headed as you'd hope a historian could be.

Hobsbawm, together with the liberal bourgeois historians of the 19th century, ask if history had finally slipped away from humanity during the crisis of the French Revolution. Syme doesn't argue for it; he shows that it did. When this happens we are often willing to experiment and try anything to prevent the destruction of a way of life. That's the feel of a revolution: there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. This brought out the guillotine in France; Rome had its proscription lists. The 20th century the atomic bomb, the firebombing of civilians. That's the crux of what Syme details. No one was in control because no one could be in control.

But then it was finally over. Augustus was in charge. Monarch, dictator, hero of the people, the first citizen, suppressor of public immorality - nice labels all, but in reality what the hell was he? Syme doesn't come out and say it. But in a nutshell, a necessary evil.

Syme had so absorbed the writers he studied that his work actually feels Roman. I look at him on the shelves and think he is no different from Tacitus. That's no accident - he said his prose style was sharpened on Tacitus and Sallust. In reading this history you wonder how you'd react. Would you just throw up your hands like those two historians did, incredulous that all has fallen apart?

The final chapters were especially outstanding when he shows how the revolution was secured in every facet of Roman and Italian life. You couldn't call it progress, even though the Republic could now fulfill its imperial aims, extending itself to the east, making forays into the perimeters. Rome may have been heading in this direction anyway but it didn't feel that way at the time. Peace had returned. Public opinion was manipulated to uphold the regime. There was mind control but at least there was peace.

Then there are the patriotic poets like Horace and Virgil, Rome's legacy to world culture. They did as much to shape public opinion as their benefactors demanded. And those benefactors wished to please power. In that, not much has changed in 2,000 years. Their relationship to power isn't to be condemned, since Syme won't condemn it, but like a great poet himself, Syme is under no illusion about the relationship between poetry and politics - it is everything - it is real.

Profile Image for Al.
412 reviews25 followers
August 31, 2020
An excellent work that explores the decay of the Republic and the establishment of the Principate, from 60 BC to AD 14. It uses extensive prosopographal evidence throughout, to outline extensive familial connections among the elite of the Republic in all three classes. Syme outlines the basis of power in the late Republic within three familiar themes: the consulate, the army and the tribunate. This was an extremely dense read, but very interesting in examining motives and methods in achieving not just electoral results to the consulship, but familial alliances and movement among the plebs, knights and patricians. Footnotes are limited to the essential primary and secondary source material. The bibliography is extensive and excellent. Syme also provides an appendix which lists by name and date all of the consuls from 80 BC to AD 14. He also provides family trees of the leading Roman families, such as the Metelli and the family of Augustus, and lists kinsmen of Cato, the Aemilii and the descendants of Pompeius. Once of the best one volume works on the late Republic.
Profile Image for Robyn.
11 reviews5 followers
March 9, 2007
"The" classic work on the Late Republic (before Gruen, which is largely in response to this book), Syme envisions the first century BC Roman world as a crumbling Republic inhabited by squabbling cliques of aristocrats and over-mighty generals. He classifies the shift between the true "Republic" before Sulla and the institution of the Principate in 27 BC as a true 'Revolution.' I love Syme, and I love his ideas, even if I don't entirely agree with his admittedly extremist arguement...
Profile Image for Aurélien Thomas.
Author 9 books102 followers
June 6, 2020
Here's not a biography of Augustus. Here's an expose of how the Roman Republic ended (or did it?) and how a young man greedy for power would establish a new autocratic regime which would define Rome for about three hundred years. This is a political narrative, where the author focus intensely on the political factions, rivalries, families feuds, clash of personalities that would serve a brutal change of government; a change which, also, had been profound indeed. Echoing Tacitus, the author's conclusion about the emergence of the Principate, though, is actually blunt and uncompromising:

'it may be regarded merely as the legalization, and therefore the strengthening, of despotic power.'

One could accuse him of being politically influenced. After all, this was first published in 1939; in an international context which was witnessing the rise of totalitarian regimes all across Europe (fascistic rulers ridding their countries of inadequate regimes, in the name of law and order when civil unrests where threatening...). One could also accuse him of being cynical too. For him indeed, such Roman Revolution was not done out of political ideal, but, self-serving interests from selfish factions of all sorts -the corruption and greed of adventurers, financiers, and feuding families, who all saw in Augustus the defender of their privileges. One could accuse him to do so, yet...

Taking an original approach, the historian tackles his subject using prosopography. This not only allows him to show that, yes indeed, the Republic was inadequate and Julius Caesar a dictator, but, also and above all, that the volatiles factions then fighting each others were so intricately linked by common interest that the oligarchy was too strong to be easily overthrown... should one wish to overthrow it! Augustus, despite all the political slogans, knew better. He just had to tap into it to assert full power, his own coup; and, ruthless and ambitious as he was, he will not hesitate to do just that. Politicians putting self-interest before the common good may (*cough*) sound shocking (well…) but let's not forget how alien Roman politics was to ours. Taking the time to outline key political concepts, the historian also points in fact to a mindset ripe for dictatorship:

'Debauched by demagogues and largess, the Roman people was ready for the Empire and the dispensation of bread and games.'

With such view in mind, it becomes clearer why the likes of Mark Anthony, too conciliant perhaps, were doomed to fail anyway. The rot had already nested within long ago, and so they had to be rid off too. Ronald Syme, here, does a good job in debunking the silly justifications put forward for a war to be declared against him -for, of course, Cleopatra was no threat to Rome! But the propaganda machine had been oiled and fully worked: Actium (not the glorious and grandiose battle you may think it was) had been well exploited.

That is not to say Augustus' triumph wasn't revolutionary. It was, for it would change the constitution of the ruling class forever. But, such drastic changes were more the by-products of the civil wars and their consequences than the result of a clear and intended revolutionary will. Indeed, Augustus the populist would well reward his cronies and, as 'nobiles' had been decimated through intestine wars, the 'novi homines' would rise from all over (from the whole of Italy -newly united- to, later on, the barbarians Provinces). Roman citizenship was on the path of massive change indeed...

Is this a enlightening read on troubled events? Oh yes! Here's brilliant scholarship and a massive opus on one of the focal point in Roman history. It can be daunting too, though. Prosopography might be the most relevant and persuasive approach to deal with the subject, considering Roman society and politics, but, the whirlwind of names and volatiles factions parading in here surely can be confusing and mystifying too! Here is, undeniably, a long and challenging book to go through. Yet, the core argument of it all remains powerful. In fact, Augustus might be here exposed for who he, and his regime, might truly have been about. Was Tacitus right, then? Whatever: this has become a classic on the period!
Profile Image for Czarny Pies.
2,465 reviews1 follower
January 21, 2019
Ce livre etait le manuel d'un cours sur l'histoire de l'empire romaine que j'ai suivi il y a quarante ans quand j'etais etudiant a une universite anglo-saxonne sur le bord de Lac Ontario. Le professeur James Boake nous a fait comprendre que l'Auguste a eu un parcours identique a celle de Michel (plus tard Don) Corleone le protagonsite du Grand Bestseller de l'epoque le Parrain. Dans le Parrain, le jeune Michel fait son retour a New York apres avoir passe les deux annees precedentes dans les forces Americaines dans le theatre du Pacifique qui faisaient la guerre contre les Japonais. L'assassinat du frere aine de Michel par une des familles ennemis met la famille Corleone en crise. Alors, te jeune Michel surprend tout le monde. Il organise rapidement une contre-offensive qui aneantit la famille adversaire et retablit une dominance sans equivoque de la famille Corleone a New York. Alors Syme demontre que le jeune Octave (plus tard Auguste) a vite raile la faction des homines novi apres l'assassinat de Jules Cesar qui a mis leur hegemonie en peril.

Le message du professeur Boake etait qui la politique en Italie se faisait comme ca partout en Italie depuis les debuts de la Republique Romaine jusqu'a la triomphe de Risorgimento en 1871. Apres 1871, on voyait ces pratiques chez les familes mafiosi de Sicile, de New York et de Chicago.

La these de Syme semble bien tenir la route et est peut conteste depuis 1939 l'annee de lancement de "Roman Revolution".

Attention ce Roman Revolution est tout a fait incomprehensible pour ceux qui ne possedent pas une bonne connaissance de l'historie de l'epoque.
Profile Image for l.
1,667 reviews
September 8, 2014
I found most of it quite interesting - Syme traces the role of the 'oligarchy' in the fall of the Republic. It's not actually a difficult read - you are confronted with an intimidating onslaught of detail and the footnotes are in Greek or Latin but the chapters are short, he writes very clearly and has a sardonic tone which is quite amusing at times. I had thought from the introduction and the book's reputation that Syme's bias against Augustus would be much clearer and really detract from the book, but I didn't actually think it a major problem (maybe it's only because I've read worse in my really ill-conceived research project on Elagabalus.) In the chapters dealing with the Principate, Syme does get noticeably overly speculative about Augustus' motives but, imo, that isn't the interesting part of the book anyway - there are definitely more indepth studies of Augustan propaganda (Syme relies totally on texts so he limits himself). I liked that it gave you the sense of a society - the familiar historical figures being simply part of that. Anyway, I enjoyed it!
Profile Image for A.J. Howard.
98 reviews132 followers
January 3, 2016
Full review to come, but quick thought. Syme has me convinced that Octavian/Caesar/Augustus should be considered one of the most successful revolutionary leaders of all time, which has me thinking: perhaps the true mark of success for a revolutionary leader is that future generations no longer consider them truly revolutionary? Before I follow that logic to picturing George Will in a beret and Castro beard, I'll leave. Hopefully, more to come...
Profile Image for Elliott.
324 reviews59 followers
August 5, 2015
This is a good book- a great book even. All interpretive history of Rome could be condensed to Gibbon and this book and shelves while lighter, would be no less rich. Five stars then.
Now that I've given this book its rightful due I do have my criticisms.
For its brilliance it is perhaps too smart for its own good. It is difficult to get past Syme in the classics department. His lens of the end of the Republic has not been changed in 80 years, and his narrative has been swallowed by popular culture.
This is of course no fault of Syme. The book had the (mis)fortune of being written and published concurrently with Weimar's Fall and Hitler's rise. The latter regime, as Italy, identified with all things Roman and certainly Syme's text became fused together as an angst amongst Western democracies that saw appeals to the poor as Augustan machinations, and Caesarian embryos. John Milius recently exploited this in his series Rome. All the Optimates are dour, aloof, and pudgy in a good humored Republican way. All the Populares are slick communicators, with a penchant for hidden sociopathy. Think of the latter as crude portrayals of the Hollywood left. With Syme you can easily find the portraiture that was used. This is not Syme's fault of course, just a tell as to how widespread his influence has been and who that is. He has crafted THE closing of every democratic society.
It should be noted however that Syme's analysis is not supported by the actual progression of history. His primary source is Tacitus and both befall the same problem of viewing history within a preconceived narrative, and backwards. Tacitus saw the hopelessness and precariousness of the plebes and criticized them for the hundreds of years of exploitation they had endured and had been locked into. Syme is gentler recognizing the limitations of the Republican government and how it was undone by its aloofness but still assumes that Augustus from the inexperienced teenager to the septuagenarian had a single authoritarian vision to realize. Syme, like Tacitus views it all backwards, as does the present era in appropriating his narrative. The problem is that the very real issues at the heart of the Republic's fall: income disparity, monopolies, exploitative labor practices, militarism, oligarchical power, deliberate moves to limit the franchise, and moneyed interests are accepted as proper and beyond control at least until one man either says differently (the Gracchi), or appropriates them himself (Augustus). The result is that rather than head off the issue by redistributing wealth for instance the focus is an absurd spotlight towards any potential Augustus'. Taking this to classics departments the spotlight is still on Augustus, ignoring these same issues in their historical contexts. Syme's book limits deeper study of Rome by investing its energies in a few figures at the expense of classes, labor relations, civic organisation and much more. Accordingly for all its very real brilliance this book does not provide a truly accurate history of the Republic's fall and it does not adequately answer the important "how," or "why."
Profile Image for Steve.
64 reviews
December 10, 2020
Capolavoro storico, si legge peraltro in modo quasi facile , scorrevole. Un lavoro forse di altri tempi (è del '36), ma ancora credo un riferimento assoluto per ricostruire la storia di quegli eventi , un tempo lontano ma poi così vicino a noi, dove uomini e donne posizionati in un altro tempo vivevano le relazioni, il potere il danaro, la politica, l'opulenza ...... molto interessante, consigliato.
Profile Image for Francisco.
60 reviews
March 3, 2021
Pesado, académico pero genial.

La lección que me llevo? No te preocupes mucho por los calificativos y nombres que usan tus políticos para el régimen que manejan. Mirá un poco más y te darás cuenta que detrás de tus repúblicas y democracias hay siempre una oligarquía que lleva la batuta.

Y que una revolución es simplemente el cambio de una oligarquía por otra. No importa como quiera llamarse.
Profile Image for C. Çevik.
Author 41 books162 followers
November 16, 2017
Muazzam bir çalışma.
Ronald Syme zamanında Türkiye'de, İstanbul Üniversitesi, Klasik Filoloji'de de bulunmuş bir otoritedir.
Profile Image for Paul.
306 reviews1 follower
June 6, 2022
not only the story of dives julius and divi filius, but that of bureaucracy, oligarchy, the way Roman society influenced its government.
written in a most engaging manner!
Profile Image for Miranda Alford.
95 reviews
November 16, 2022
Not exactly the most exhilarating text, a little bit dense and some parts were a little bit unnecessary. But I'm pleased I've read it?? I think? Sense of achievement rather than actual use to me I think.

It was interesting to see that the political background of Syme's times influenced his opinions on the Roman republic. History never repeats itself huh?

Profile Image for Tom Schulte.
2,909 reviews55 followers
December 5, 2017
The "Roman Revolution" was more of years of civil war that seen a military despot (Julius Caesar) traded for August the autocrat; the war-like Roman city-state emerged from its bloody throes a domineering empire with a monarchy with not really much in the way of republican ideals.

Octavius was named in Caesar's will as his adopted son and heir, then known as Octavianus (Anglicized as Octavian). This author eschews that Anglicization even to the point of calling Mark Antony Marcus Antonius. All those -ius suffixes this Anglicized reader found wearying. Surely, the author is in the right here, as he obviously knows his Roman history in detail. He speeds through it like a fanboy reeling off Marvel Comics back stories of minor characters. Before I even absorb the fact there were 800 to a thousand senators at any one time during this period, he is off on the available details of the nearly lost career of some of them.

The story is told in three acts. Act I, Octavian, Mark Antony, and Marcus Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate to defeat the assassins of Caesar. Act II: War! My copy has extensive marginalia from the previous reader, often about place names. It makes me realize this book needs some maps for the years of conflict about the Mediterranean.

Following their victory at the Battle of Philippi, the Triumvirate divided the Roman Republic among themselves and ruled as military dictators. The Triumvirate was eventually torn apart by the competing ambitions of its members. Lepidus was driven into exile and stripped of his position, and Antony committed suicide following his defeat at the Battle of Actium by Octavian in 31 BC. Actium, here, is shown to have nationalistic impact on developing the Roman identity like Yorktown for us. Because, this is as much about the unification of Italy and an identity for the entire peninsula as hub to the provinces.

Act III: Consolidation and establishment. After the demise of the Second Triumvirate, (now named) Augustus restored the outward façade of the free Republic, with governmental power vested in the Roman Senate, the executive magistrates, and the legislative assemblies. (So much for the rewards of revolution, but the weary populace and subjugated peoples were ready for a new godhead on the throne.) Princeps Civitatis ("First Citizen of the State") oversaw a constitutional framework became known as the Principate, the first phase of the Roman Empire.
Profile Image for Bonnie_blu.
861 reviews18 followers
March 15, 2014
First published in 1937, "The Roman Revolution" was a ground-breaking masterpiece that forever changed how historians look at ancient Rome. Some of Syme's conclusions were extremely controversial for years, but a great many historians now agree that his approach of looking at the events of 60 BCE - 14 CE as being greatly influenced, if not precipitated, by the histories and interactions of Rome's leading families is vital to understanding this crucial period in Western history. As Syme writes: "The nobiles by their ambition and their feuds, had not merely destroyed their spurious republic: they had ruined the Roman People. There is something more important than political liberty; and political rights are a means, not an end in themselves. That end is security of life and property: it could not be guaranteed by the constitution of Republican Rome. Worn and broken by civil war and disorder, The Roman people was ready to surrender the ruinous privilege of freedom and submit to strict government as the beginning of time....So order came to Rome." In other words oligarchies will go to any (often short-sighted) extreme to protect their interests, even if it results in their eventual destruction. His work is as important today as it was in 1937, and is an essential read for anyone interested in Roman history in particular, and Western history in general.
126 reviews3 followers
February 14, 2008
Syme is in complete control of his subject matter and this is not a book intended for the novice Roman history student. In a little over 500 pages, Syme gives us a multi-faceted look at the end of the Republic and the gradual evolution of the Principate. Syme's narrative chapters are insightful and exceptionally apt, conveying a plethora of events in easy flow, while exploring some of the more difficult aspects/dilemmas for the Roman historian. Unfortunately, the specfics of the later chapters, dealing with certain aspects of the Principate and Rome under Augustus, tend to become overbearing and it really takes a lot of concentration to push through. I'm very glad I finished but it was a tough last half of the book. In terms of a general approach to the end of the Republic, Syme triumphs, keeping rival factions and families divorced and hiding some of the clutter that enters his later chapters. A dense, scholarly tome, limited in scope and limitless in depth, an unparalelled study of Augustus.
Profile Image for Peter Crouse.
41 reviews2 followers
February 28, 2021
Learned yes, but extremely poor delivery. Filled with facts about obscure members of the senatorial elite who I really could care less about. Distractingly too many footnotes, most of which in untranslated Latin. The focus on oligarchic "factions" and party takeovers would certainly have resonated in the 1930s and 40s, but comes across today as being dated. This is the failed attempt of an academic study of the roman aristocracy trying to come across as popular history. Could not finish
Profile Image for Carlos  Wang.
194 reviews122 followers
March 15, 2023


羅納德‧塞姆(Ronald Syme),出生在紐西蘭,後來在牛津大學任教,於1939年戰雲密布的時候推出了這本《羅馬革命》(The Roman Revolution),照義大利古典學者莫里米亞諾(A.D.Momigliano)所說,因為其內容在當時的政治環境中顯然有些敏感,所以這本大做開始時並不怎麼被待見,要到戰後才開始發光發熱。


像這樣主題的書多如過江之鯽,而塞姆的書還能被公認為經典,在於他運用了十九世紀德國學者格爾澤爾(Matthias Gelzer)開創的從貴族關係網路研究政治史的手法,觀察奧古斯都是怎麼在內戰及公民權擴大之際,從義大利自治市的上層階及中找到自己的追隨者,完成了凱撒沒有做到的“革命”,並將之交接傳承給提比略,讓帝制成為穩定的政體。羅馬名為共和,實為寡頭統治,政權把握在各大門閥氏族之手,偶爾才有幾個“新人”可以冒出,故此,在研究其政治時,忽略了這些彼此聯姻、鬥爭跟陰謀詭計的貴族,是難以想像的。格爾澤爾在十九世紀首開這條路徑,而塞姆則發揚光大,運用了各種考古結果及古代文獻,充分的觀察了共和末期的每個在政治界中的“行動者”之間的關係網路,為讀者描繪出了一幅充滿洞見的圖景。

























13 reviews
January 10, 2020
The Roman Republic — Definitive History

Reviewed, Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (1939, Clarendon Press, Oxford University, ISBN 0-19-881001-6, Kindle EBook).

Mr. Syme fleshes out the world of Roman civil war leading to the fearsome purges of the Triumviri through the precarious beginnings of a sickly, youthful heir to Caesar, who was scoffed for his sickbed rest during the most critical junctures of Roman warfare, but who for all of that was the designated heir of the slain Julius Caesar, and who had the gift, it is not to much to say genius, for formation of alliances, as well as for the marshaling of societal forces and the transformation and renewal, even reinvigoration of Rome’s institutions, and for the transformation of a chaotic, contentious Republic, sometimes brutally, into a Principate, a virtual Monarchy, which, for all the loss of ancient freedoms, kept the peace and promoted the arts and letters, the poetry and history of which were already recognized by contemporaries as Classical Literature.

In the end, there is much in the times to disillusion the lover of liberty and free speech, much that shocks the conscience — not least, the propensity of Augustus to sacrifice his own loved ones — a dear daughter and even a granddaughter — upon the altar of his own Principate, his ideals, his hypocritical public morality, but above all, his own power.

Mr. Syme eschews biography, but he draws unforgettable portraits of countless worthy women and men, while he narrates the evolution of Rome into a worldwide Empire with a whole body of able administrators, jurists and public servants — both in the army, navy and in a virtual civil service administration based in surprising measure on merit.

Mr. Syme lives and loves his subject, and he loves to quote richly from Tacitus, Horace, Virgil, Dio, Livy, even Cicero, for which the reader needs to let the Latin rhythms roll lovingly off the tongue. (I am illiterate in Latin, but am well familiar with Oxford classical pronunciation of Classical Latin and love how it rolls off the tongue, and am using useful manuals to make up my own lack in the language).

Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution, should be read with the authoritative volumes of H.H. Scullard and Mary Beard.

I give Ronald Syme‘s work the highest of recommendations. His is a work I will advert to repeatedly.

The Kindle Ebook handles the work well, with a very few misprints.
Profile Image for Jenn Phizacklea.
Author 11 books6 followers
April 1, 2019
I can only describe this book as heavy going. If you want to know about this time period, I recommend you start with a good translation of Plutarch, The Civil Wars by Caesar, or in modern works, Augustus by Adrian Goldsworthy. This work by Syme is largely an overview of Ancient authors anyway.

To be frank, I don’t enjoy Ronald Syme’s work. It is old-fashioned in its way of approaching the subject (not surprising noting its year of publication), and far too prescriptive. It offers answers as though they are set in stone to questions which are still very much open questions - again, of its time. This is not helped by the fact that the language is unnecessarily dense (in the sense of, it needs a lot of unpacking); most ‘everyday’ readers would need a dictionary to read through the first few chapters.
And don’t even get me started on the liberal untranslated passages of Latin in the notes and in quotes.

As to Syme’s slant on things, here are some notes I wrote as a clawed my desperate way through this book, for what they’re worth:

- The first half is basically a review of ancient writers that can be read, in good translations, much more engagingly than here. In many ways, it’s little more than an overview - and not an especially readable one. It doesn’t dive in, but skims over the surface of events in a disconcerting way.

- About halfway through: we hit a new angle, called ‘glaring personal bias’.
Syme comes across as entirely one eyed (in the positive) when it comes to Marcus Antonius, and equally one eyed (in the negative) about Octavian/Augustus.
In his view, the propaganda against Fulvia and Marcus Antonius was excessive and no doubt exaggerated; but not so with Augustus - he must have been worse even than he was painted in the slanderous propaganda. Sure it was, Syme.

- Nearing the final quarter: Irritated and over it.
A perfect example of what’s irritating me: he’s talking about the Battle of Actium. He states that a clear record no longer exists for the event, so we can’t say what really happened; but he then goes on to declare that Actium was a non-event, a ‘shabby affair’, and no battle at all. He says that all the records that state that there was a battle must be propaganda.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 83 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.