Book Recommendation: The Roman Revolution

Jim Whitehead (
Fri, 12 Dec 1997 17:50:01 -0800

Well, two weeks ago I finished sitting in on a course on imperial Roman
history (covering the transition from the Roman Republic to the imperial
system, up to Constantine), and I have a book recommendation from the
experience. The book is "The Roman Revolution," by Ronald Syme, Oxford
University Press, 1939, (1960, paperback), which was one of the texts for
the course. Ronald Syme is (at least to my Prof.) considered to be one of
the great Roman scholars, and this book is extremely influential in this

The book covers the transition period between the Republic and the Imperial
period using the technique of prosopography, which focuses on individual
people, and their alliances. A central theme throughout the book are the
political parties of the major actors, and the major participants in each
political party.

In brief, the transition between the Republic and the Imperial periods
starts with Julius Caesar breaking with convention and marching on Rome,
thereby seizing power. Although J. Caesar wa a brilliant man, he was a
one-man show, and failed to create a stable government which would outlast
him. When he was murdered, a period of chaos resulted due to the resulting
power vacuum. Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, eventually manages to
reclaim his father's political party, and become the first true Emperor of

The book traces the development of the Julius Caesar's political party
through patronage to his soldiers from the Gaul campaigns (in the Roman
army, the deal was you served, and in return received direct cash booty and
also ownership of enough land to farm), and also by the people Caesar chose
to bring into his party, leading to long discussions of which families were
granted the consulship in a given year. By marching on Rome with his army,
which was an institution of the people, not of the aristocracy (even though
the aristocracy provided many of the officers), Caesar effected a social
revolution, placing more power in the hands of the people than it had

"The principes strove for prestige and power, but not to erect a despotic
rule upon the ruins of the constitution, or to carry out a real revolution.
The constitution served the purposes of generals and demagogues well
enough. When Pompeius (Pompey) returned from the East, he lacked the desire
as well as the pretext to march on Rome; and Caesar did not conquer Gaul in
the design of invading Italy with a great army to establish a military
autocracy. their ambitions and their rivalries might have been tolerated
in a small city-state or in a Rome that was merely the head of an Italian
confederation. In the capital of the world, they were anachronistic and
ruinous. To the bloodless but violent usurpations of 70 and 59 B.C. the
logical end was armed conflict and despotism. As the soldiers were the
proletariat of Italy, the revolution became social as well as political."

I personally found the book to be hard going in places. It is hard to keep
the names straight, which is not helped by the Roman convention of naming
daughters after the clan name, e.g. Julia for the Julians, generation after
generation. However, the language of the book is so delightfully different
from the norm in computer science, and the topic manner is handled in such
a rigorous way by grounding assertions about politics in the human
composition of political parties, that I found the book to be well worth
the effort.

- Jim