Sir Ronald Syme.

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Ben C. Smith
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Sir Ronald Syme.

Post by Ben C. Smith » Fri Dec 29, 2017 10:43 am

I first encountered Sir Ronald Syme in college (not the man himself, of course, but his work). My quirkiest Classics and Classical History professor happened to have met Syme at a lecture once, and had been tasked with driving him to and from the venue. This professor was able to recount several amusing anecdotes about him, but Syme's main influence on me was through a Roman History class which this same professor taught; the class focused on the changeover from the Republic to the Empire under Augustus, and our main text was The Roman Revolution by Syme.

What struck me immediately was the man's prose; it was amazing. Here is but one example of his style (which, I soon learned, had been inspired by the Latin prose of none other than Tacitus, Syme's favorite Roman historian):

The energy of Antonius, the devotion of the Caesarian legions, the timidity, interest or patriotism of the governors of the western provinces, all had conspired to preserve him from the armed violence of an unnatural coalition. In Italy that coalition had already collapsed; Caesar's heir turned his arms against his associates and was marching on Rome. Fate was forging a new and more enduring compact of interest and sentiment through which the revived Caesarian party was to establish the Dictatorship again, this time without respect of life and property, in the spirit and deed of revolution.

I still go back sometimes and read selections from this book just for the sound and the feel of it.

At any rate, I recently came across this description of Syme's achievements in the Classics, and it resonated with me profoundly:

Rhiannon Ash, Oxford Readings in Tacitus, pages 8-9: Yet one book above all has made the most impact of Tacitus, so much so that we must divide the scholarship on Tacitus into two distinct periods, pre- and post-1958. The publication of Tacitus by Sir Ronald Syme (1903-1989) had an immediate, longlasting and ongoing bearing on the field, not least of all because he succeeded in realigning two distinct scholarly strands, which had previously tended to consider Tacitus in a polarized fashion, either as a historical source or as a literary artist. .... In engaging with Tacitus, Syme draws on an extraordinary range of expertise, including an unparalleled knowledge of epigraphy, prosopography, and Roman history, combined with nuanced stylistic engagement with Tacitus' Latin (and its evolution throughout his works) to create an integrated reading of the historian. .... The 95 appendices alone contain a remarkable range of invaluable discussions, running from source-criticism to Tacitus' origin and his friends, but arguably the most substantial component is on style and words.

I remember being mightily impressed with the range of knowledge and interests Syme had displayed in The Roman Revolution; and I remember being even more impressed when later I browsed through Tacitus, the book which Ash is praising. Syme was not (only) a literary critic, not (only) an historian, not (only) an epigrapher and prosopographer (I had not even heard of prosopography until taking that class): Syme did it all. He is one of my principal inspirations for the way in which I approach biblical criticism and early Christian history. I do not like to focus on only one field to the exclusion of others. Literary criticism is great, but it does not rule out source criticism. Numismatics and papyrology are great, but they do not rule out research conducted through written histories. I like this hobby of mine best when I am able to draw all of those fields and many others together into a single argument for or against this or that proposition.

And that is something that I think Sir Ronald Syme did better than almost anybody.


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