Chris Pelling looks back at the man and his first major work
[This article is an extract from a longer version, ‘The Rhetoric of The Roman Revolution’, published in Syllecta Classica 26 (2015), 207–47: I am most grateful to the editors of Syllecta Classica for permission to republish material here, to Professor Sir Fergus Millar for access to Syme’s papers, to the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press for access to their archive file and permission to quote from it, and to the Bodleian Library for allowing the reproduction of pages of the MS. The current title echoes Syme’s own ‘How Tacitus wrote Annals I–III’, Roman Papers III. 1014–42.]
Many of us will remember when we first read Syme’s Roman Revolution. In my case it was largely in a Cardiff suburban back-garden during the summer of 1969: I still have that battered copy, together with my intrigued and not very insightful student comments in the margin. I have often re-read it since, but nothing compares with the initial impact made by that first reading. I had never read any prose quite like it before. A year later I was granted the privilege, unusual for an undergraduate, of attending one of his graduate classes (it would have been the last one he gave), and I discovered, even more remarkably, that he often spoke in the same lapidary, epigrammatic, unforgettable style. In 2014 I had the great honour of being invited to give the Syme Memorial Lecture at Wolfson College, and I decided to revisit the book once again. The main purpose of that lecture was to subject the book to the sort of literary analysis that we have become accustomed to applying to the Greek and Latin historians themselves: more on that in the longer version, published elsewhere. It was an unexpected bonus along the way to gain a few glances into Syme’s workshop, as it were, and see the great work taking shape.
At an early stage I called up a box of Syme’s papers in the Bodleian Library: I had no idea what I would find, but was hoping for some correspondence, perhaps with Oxford University Press. The first two boxes contained something quite different: a long manuscript in Syme’s handwriting, headed ‘Augustus: Leader and party’ (Bodleian MS Eng. d 2099). Many of the phrases seemed familiar, and it immediately became clear that this was an early draft of The Roman Revolution itself: I later discovered that the final title was suggested to him by OUP, and he liked the alliteration. The comparison with the final version is fascinating. It is written in a more legible hand than his later letters: it looks like a fair copy of a penultimate draft, as it is written on the back of earlier handwritten pages, some of which are clearly earlier and scrappier drafts of this same book. It probably dates to 1937 or possibly early 1938.
The contents pages (Figures 1–2) are immediately revealing. Most of the chapter titles are pretty well the same as in the final version. One is called ‘The Terror’ in that draft: it is more soberly ‘The Proscriptions’ in the book. It may look as if a chapter on ‘Rome under the Triumvirs’ has also been added, but that is misleading: that chapter is already there in the manuscript, with separate pagination, and presumably it was added after he wrote out the contents page. But the big changes are all at the beginning, with an expansion of a rather shorter introduction and two numbered chapters in this draft to four chapters in the final version. When one reads on, we see page after page added to those first few chapters, with much greater fullness on the late Republican period, the fifties and forties but even more new material on the seventies and sixties. This is one of several intriguing parallels with Churchill’s drafting of his History of the Second World War: Churchill’s Book One, The Gathering Storm, was rethought particularly thoroughly, and expanded greatly from Churchill’s initial plan (David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War , ch. 6).
In his review in Journal of Roman Studies for 1940, Arnaldo Momigliano suggested that Syme ought to have begun in 78 rather than, as Asinius Pollio had done, in 60. There are several draft papers that Syme wrote in the next few years that deal with the period shortly after Sulla – ‘The abdication of Sulla’, ‘M. Aemilius Lepidus (cos. 78 bc)’, ‘The speech for Roscius of Ameria’: these have now been edited and published by Federico Santangelo in a new volume, Approaching the Roman Revolution (Oxford, 2016). Anthony Birley has suggested that Syme’s work on those papers was prompted by Momigliano’s review, and that is very plausible; but one can also suggest that, in the later stages of writing Roman Revolution itself, he was increasingly aware of the need to go further back, and if Momigliano’s review hit home it was because it struck at a spot where Syme was already uneasy. Momigliano’s point is in fact overstated because so much of those early chapters in the final version did cover the seventies and sixties, though admittedly in less detail than the later years. As so often, one might think of Tacitus, particularly Syme’s own Tacitus of 1958, who came to realise too late that he should have started ten years earlier than he did.
Nor is that the only case where one can sense some unease that chimes with points later made by reviewers. Already in this draft he is impatient with the idea that political theory could drive conduct:
It is a common belief, attested by the existence of political science as a subject of academic study, that the arts of government may be learned from books. The revolutionary career of Caesar’s heir reveals never a trace of theoretical preoccupations: if it did, it would have been very different and very short.
(The Roman Revolution 121)
(The sentences figure a few chapters later in the draft.) That is marvellously said; but critics, beginning with the earliest reviewers, have often wondered if Syme ought to have spent more time on the ideas and the theories. He may have wondered it himself, for a page and a half on Cicero’s theorising in de re publica and de legibus is added between draft and final version (RR 144–5). There are some other additions too that follow some distinctive patterns. Many, for instance, concern women, and Servilia, the mother of Brutus and half-sister of Cato, several times is the subject of particular expansions. ‘Women have their uses for historians’, Syme said nearly half a century later (The Augustan Aristocracy , 168), a remark that has not aged well. One can track his growing interest in the historical ‘usefulness’ of women even at this stage.
Some of these pages are a good deal more rewritten than others, both in the draft itself, with crossings-out and marginal additions, and subsequently before the final version. Figures 3–4 reproduce two pages close to one another from the chapter that was to become ‘Rome under the Triumvirs’. Some of the most characteristic and famous chapters are in fact among the least amended, ‘Political Catchwords’, for instance, or many of the tense, fast-moving pieces of narrative; also, perhaps surprisingly, some of the denser ‘concatenations of proper names’, as he called them, in the thick prosopographical clusters. There are signs, particularly in those narrative chapters, that he wrote at least some parts from memory. At the beginning of the draft chapter on ‘Political Catchwords’, for instance, he relates a lurid story from Cicero of virgins throwing themselves down a well to avoid the lustful Piso in Thessalonica: no – in fact it was in Byzantium (Cicero, de prouinciis consularibus 6), and that is corrected by the time of the final version (RR 149), probably at the time when he came to add footnotes. (He always left the bulk of those till later, sometimes much later.) And, pleasingly for the many who have made the same mistake, an implication in this draft that Brutus was a Stoic is also corrected, and ‘Academic’ is added (RR 57). Perhaps that came during that reading up on Ciceronian philosophy. We cannot tell when all these later alterations came in, but it probably went on for some time; the OUP file (BLB113/551) has some worried exchanges in May 1939 about the number of changes that Syme was making in proof. They were prepared to allow them because of the importance of the book. Churchill too used to make vast numbers of alterations in proof, in his case after dictating a first version and sending it to be set up immediately in hard metal. It was all a very different world from today.
One heavily rewritten page (Figure 4) shows a further feature: the way that some of the most characteristic, and in some cases even notorious, sentences are the afterthoughts. There is the marginal addition about Varro, ‘the aged Varro, the most learned of the Romans, the parent of knowledge and propagator of many errors…’; then before publication he also added ‘The old scholar lacked style, intensity, a guiding idea’. One can sense him rolling around the aphorisms to see what would be most provocative, what comes out best.
The same is true of some of his other most quoted phrases, what we might call his ‘gems’: that is the word Field Marshal Alanbrooke used in his diaries of Churchill’s conversational aphorisms – ‘P.M. in very good form, and produced several gems’ (War Diaries 1939–1945 [London, 2001], entry for 8 November 1943). It is one of Syme’s stylistic quirks that these ‘gems’, if one thinks about them and if one is pedantic, are often ones that don’t, or rather shouldn’t, quite work; at least, they push the language to its limits. For instance, ‘Sulla could not abolish his own example’ (RR 17). ‘Abolish’? That word is heavily freighted, to say the least (it may well echo Tacitus’ L. Sulla dictator abolitis uel conuersis prioribus, Ann. 3.27.2): in the original it was ‘suppress’. ‘The foundations of the new order were cemented with the blood of citizens and buttressed with a despotism that made men recall the Dictatorship of Caesar as an age of gold’ (RR 196). It is a very fine sentence, but our pedant might have commented that you do not buttress a foundation and that blood is unlikely to make a good cement. There ‘blood’ is a supralinear alteration; the original is crossed out with sufficient vigour to be illegible. ‘Caesar lay dead, stricken by twenty-three wounds’ (RR 97). That is a terrific chapter opening, and (rather obviously) at an important narrative juncture. But the original was ‘Caesar lay dead in the Senate House, bleeding from twenty-three wounds’. ‘In the Senate House’ is dropped, with advantage to the rhythm: the staccato ‘Caesar lay dead’ contrasts with the swift, panicky movement that follows. And ‘stricken by twenty-three wounds’ is again so much better than ‘bleeding from’ – yet one reason is that you are not struck ‘by’ a wound (at least in English, though you can be uulnere ictus in Latin), you are struck by a sword or a dagger. It is the very strain that language is put under that makes the style so remarkable. And many will again think of the analogy with Tacitus, and those stylistic oddities and quiddities that Syme himself was to analyse twenty years later.
Tacitus again, then: and the first words of the Roman Revolution are ‘The greatest of the Roman historians…’, referring to the way Tacitus chose to begin the Annals. The manuscript began differently, with what is now the last paragraph of the first chapter: ‘In the beginning kings ruled at Rome, and in the end, as was fated, it came round to monarchy again’ (RR 9) – but that is Tacitus too, in a very typical Symean mode of alluding to a famous passage without actually quoting it. In this case it is the first sentence of the Annals, urbem Romam a principio reges habuere. Job done: the ghostly presence of Tacitus is immediately established, and does not need to be trowelled in throughout.
It is noticeable too that the footnote on ‘In the beginning kings ruled at Rome’ refers to a passage of Appian and leaves the Tacitean allusion unremarked. It would be patronising to point out something that the reader is expected not to need telling. That silence is itself a mode of building a bond between author and reader: don’t you and I, dear reader, know all that material already all too well? You surely don’t need me to spell it out. And indeed that sort of knowingness is a much broader aspect of Syme’s manner, extending to a worldweary cynicism about the hypocrisies and self-seeking motivation of the main actors. The Roman Revolution was eventually published on 7th September 1939, in a week that was momentous for much bigger reasons. ‘It has not been composed in tranquillity’, he says in the Preface, and many readers, again from the first reviewers on, have heard the sounds of the thirties echoing in Syme’s characterisation of that ‘chill and mature terrorist’ Octavianus Caesar. There too, one might argue, he is relying on his readers knowing something already that he knows too, in that case the ways of an all too bloody world. But that is another theme again.
Chris Pelling was Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford from 2003 until his retirement in 2015. He co-authored (with Maria Wyke) Twelve Voices from Greece and Rome: Ancient Ideas for Modern Times (Oxford) came out in 2014, a book which is the ideal Christmas present for the discerning reader. His next book is Herodotus and the Question Why which the University of Texas is publishing in Spring 2019.