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Ronald Syme

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Ronald Syme

Sir Ronald Syme
OM FBA
Born 11 March 1903
New Zealand
Died 4 September 1989
Oxford, England
Nationality New Zealand
Occupation Ancient historian
Known for Roman history; The Roman Revolution (1939)

Sir Ronald Syme, OM FBA (11 March 1903 – 4 September 1989) was a New Zealand-born historian and classicist.[1] 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.

Life

Syme was born to David and Florence Syme in Eltham, New Zealand, where he attended primary and secondary school; a bad case of measles seriously damaged his vision during this period. He moved to New Plymouth Boys' High School (a house of which bears his name today) at the age of 15, and was head of his class for both of his two years. He continued to the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington, where he studied French language and literature while working on his degree in Classics. He attended Oriel College, Oxford between 1925 and 1927, graduating with a First Class degree in Literae Humaniores (ancient history and philosophy). In 1926, he won the Gaisford Prize for Greek Prose for translating a section of Thomas More's Utopia into Platonic prose, and the following year won the Prize again (for Verse) for a translation of part of William Morris's Sigurd the Volsung into Homeric hexameters.

His first scholarly work was published by the Journal of Roman Studies in 1928.[2] In 1929 he became a Fellow of Trinity College, where he became known for his studies of the Roman army and the frontiers of the Empire. During the Second World War, he worked as a press attaché in the British Embassies of Belgrade (where he acquired a knowledge of Serbo-Croatian) and Ankara, later taking a chair in classical philology at Istanbul University. His refusal to discuss the nature of his work during this period led some to speculate that he worked for the British intelligence services in Turkey, but proof for this hypothesis is lacking.

After being elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1944, Syme was appointed Camden Professor of Ancient History at Brasenose College, Oxford in 1949, a position which he held until his retirement in 1970. Syme was also appointed Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford from 1970 until the late 1980s, where an annual lecture was established in his memory.

Syme was knighted in 1959 and received the Order of Merit in 1976. He continued his prolific writing and editing until his death at the age of 86.

Major works

The work for which he is chiefly remembered, Lewis B. Namier.

Syme's next great work was his definitive two-volume biography of Tacitus (1958), his favourite among the ancient historians. The work's forty-five chapters and ninety-five appendices make up the most complete study of Tacitus yet produced, backed by an exhaustive treatment of the historical and political background—the Empire's first century—of his life. Syme blended biographical investigation, historical narrative and interpretation, and literary analysis to produce what may be the single most thorough study of a major historian ever published.

In 1958, Oxford University Press published Colonial Élites. Rome, Spain and the Americas, which presents the three lectures that he offered at McMaster University in January 1958 as part of the Whidden Lectures. Syme compares the three empires that have endured for the longest periods of time in Western History: Rome, Spain, and Britain. Syme considers that the duration of an Empire is directly linked to the character of the men who are in charge of the imperial administration, in particular that of the colonies. In his own words, the "strength and vitality of an empire is frequently due to the new aristocracy from the periphery." This book is currently out of print.[3]

Syme's biography of Sallust (1964), based on his Sather Lectures at the University of California, is also regarded as authoritative. His four books and numerous essays on the Historia Augusta firmly established the fraudulent nature of that work; he famously dubbed the anonymous author "a rogue grammarian".[4]

His History in Ovid (1978) places the great Roman poet Ovid firmly in his social context.

Syme's The Augustan Aristocracy (1986) traces the prominent families under Augustus as a sequel to The Roman Revolution. Syme examined how and why Augustus promoted bankrupt patrician families and new politicians simultaneously to forge a coalition in government that would back his agenda for a new Rome.

A posthumous work (edited for publication by A. Birley), Anatolica (1995), is devoted to Strabo and deals with the geography of southern Armenia and mainly eastern parts of Asia Minor. His shorter works are collected in the seven volumes of Roman Papers (1979–1991), the first two volumes of which are edited by E. Badian, and the remainder by Anthony Birley.

Legacy

References

  1. ^ "Ronald Syme, 86, Classics Scholar And Historian at Oxford, Is Dead" New York Times 7 September 1989 http://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/07/obituaries/ronald-syme-86-classics-scholar-and-historian-at-oxford-is-dead.html
  2. ^ "Rhine and Danube Legions under Domitian", Journal of Roman Studies 18 (1928) 41–55; see Anthony Birley, "Editor's Introduction", in The Provincial at Rome (Presses Université Laval, 2000), p. xi online and pp. xi–xx on Syme's publications and scholarly career.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Emperors and Biography (Oxford, 1971), p. 263.

Sources

  • Obituaries of Syme appear in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (vol. 135, no. 1, 119–122) and in The Journal of Roman Studies (vol. 80, xi–xiv)
  • S. Mitchell (1989). "Obituary: Sir Ronald Syme." Anatolian Studies, 39:17. doi:10.1017/S0066154600007626.

External links

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
Academic offices
Preceded by
Hugh Last
Camden Professor of Ancient History, Oxford University
1949–1970
Succeeded by
Peter Brunt
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