Ronald Syme

Ronald Syme books and biography


Ronald Syme

Ronald Syme

Sir Ronald Syme OM (11 March 1903 – 4 September 1989), New Zealand-born historian, was an eminent classicist of the 20th century.


He was born to David and Florence Syme in Eltham, New Zealand, where he attended primary and secondary school; a bad case of measles would seriously damage his vision during this period. He moved to New Plymouth Boy's High School (a dormitory 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 the School of Literae Humaniores at Oriel College, Oxford between 1925 and 1927, graduating with a First Class degree in ancient history and philosophy.

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 theory is lacking.

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

He 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.


The work for which he is chiefly remembered, The Roman Revolution (1939), was a masterly and controversial analysis of Roman political life in the period following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Inspired by the rise of fascist regimes in Germany and Italy, and following Tacitus in both literary style and pessimistic insight, the work challenged prevailing attitudes on the last years of the Roman Republic. Its main conclusion was that the structure of the Republic and its Senate were inadequate to the needs of Roman rule, and that Augustus was merely doing what was necessary to restore order in public life. "The Roman constitution", he wrote, "was a screen and a sham"; Octavian's supposed restoration of the Republic was a pretence on which he had built a monarchy based on personal relationships and the ambition of Rome's political families.

His two-volume biography of Tacitus (1958), his favorite of the ancient historians, is definitive. 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.

His biography of Sallust (1964) is also regarded as authoritative, while his four books and numerous essays on the Augustan History firmly established the authorship of that work. His History in Ovid places Ovid firmly in his social context.

An early work of Syme's, Colonial Elites, compared colonisation by Romans in Spain, Spaniards in Latin America and by British in New England, with the latter seen as distinctive from similar Roman and Spanish characteristics.

A postumous 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.

External links and references

  • Brief biography of Ronald Syme
  • 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)

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