During the fifty years that have elapsed since the publication of the earliest of the essays collected in these volumes, there has been a revolution in the study of Roman history in which Ronald Syme has played a part comparable with that of Augustus in the revolution which his most famous book describes. When his career began, that study was still dominated by the gigantic figure of Theodor Mommsen, who was born in 1817 and died in 1903, the year of Syme's birth. The History of Rome which made Mommsen familiar to the general reader - it even earned him one of the earliest Nobel Prizes for Literature - was only one item in his vast output, and was viewed by him with some misgiving as a popularising work. More important, in his view, were his detailed studies of the Roman provinces, his immense contribution to the collection and publication of inscriptions, his planning of the great series of Monumenta Germaniae Historica, his comprehensive works on Roman public and private law. Mommsen began from the study of Roman private law: a fact that had great consequences. For all his power to portray individuals, he was above all a student of institutions. The flaw in his approach to history was that it was too legalistic. 'He codified Roman law more than the Romans ever did,' writes Arnaldo Momigliano, 'instead of trying to see how the Roman ruling class built the system of their own government to ensure order in the State and continuity to their own rule.'
LRB 24 January 1980 | PDF Download