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On the lookout for agency and ambition.

By JOSEPH EPSTEIN [Wall Street Journal] — [Ronald] Syme was a master of the brief character sketch, not infrequently followed by a sharp observation. The mixture of good and evil in the same people fascinated him. After toting up Marcus Antonius’ many flaws, he writes that “a blameless life is not the whole of virtue, and inflexible rectitude may prove a menace to the Commonwealth.” Cicero, he says, “had lent his eloquence to all political causes in turn, was sincere in one thing only, loyalty to the established order. His past career showed that he could not be depended on for action or statesmanship.”

Augustus succeeded owing to his ambition and cunning, and to his awareness that, after long years of civil war, Romans were willing to surrender liberty for peace and concord. Concord meant rule by one man—monarchy—whose worst feature, along with the loss of liberty, “was the growth of servility and adulation.”

Unsurpassed in his erudition, relentless in his perspicacity, Syme combined these merits with a historical style in the tradition of Thucydides, Sallust, Tacitus and Gibbon, great disillusionists all. The interjection of the short, deadly sentence is among the hallmarks of this style. “Two days of diplomacy divided the Roman world,” is but one example from Syme. The murder of Cicero “disgraced the Triumvirs and enriched literature with an immortal theme” is another. Accounting for the rise of Octavianus, he writes: “Accident blended with design.”

With a single sentence he fills in long spans of time. “From first to last the dynasty of the Julii and the Claudii ran true to form, despotic and murderous.” He writes of Antonius and Cleopatra in Egypt that they “spent nearly a year after the disaster [of the battle of Actium] in the last revels, the last illusory plans, and the last despondency before death.” He specializes in the risky yet authoritative generalization: “Lacking any perception of the dogma of progress—for it had not yet been invented—the Romans regarded novelty with distrust and aversion.” Sometimes this style turns aphoristic: “Politics can be controlled but not abolished, ambition curbed but not crushed.” Again: “It is not enough to acquire power and wealth; men wish to appear virtuous and to feel virtuous.”

Toward the close of “The Roman Revolution” Syme writes: “To explain the fall of the Roman Republic, historians invoke a variety of converging forces or movements, political, social and economic, where antiquity was prone to see only the ambition and agency of individuals.” As with all historical masterpieces, one comes away from “The Roman Republic” feeling unblinkered and intellectually rejuvenated.

Continued at The Wall Street Journal | More Chronicle & Notices.

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