Friday, August 28, 2009

Syme and an "Augustan Party".

The following is a little edited version of an essay I wrote during my masters on the topic of whether or not the term "Augustan Party" is useful when talking about the period of Rome's history when The Divine Augustus (Son of the Divine Julius Caesar!) was Princeps.

The essay title was initially:

“Can we usefully talk about an Augustan Party, and if so, of whom did it consist and why did they support Augustus?”

Although, as was my terrible habit, I didn't necessarily answer the question. I think what comes is best considered a review/brief analysis of Ronald Syme's "The Roman Revolution" and the ideas therein, specifically with reference to an "Augustan Party".

Generally, as with the other old essays posted here, I'm quite happy with it. It contains some phrases that I wouldn't use now, a notion which can be applied to several aspects of it's style (i.e. I wouldn't employ them now) but I'm quite happy with the content, and while I'd perhaps posit something a little different now (Syme did, afterall, publish some follow up works, such as "the Augustan Aristocracy" which showed his views had evolved somewhat), I think it's an OK (if not first rate) essay on an interesting topic.

I do apologise for how lengthy this is. In the event that anyone does read it, I hope it was not too painful.


In 1939 Ronald Syme released a book entitled “The Roman Revolution”. Unapologetically and somewhat abrasively, he set out to challenge the conviction that the Augustan Age was one of overwhelmingly successful cultural, social and political change, smoothly implemented and controlled. This view, Syme rightfully claims, I think, is “simply panegyric” (Syme, Preface, pg.8) and he then sets out to prove Augustus as despot and tyrant. The impact of Syme’s work cannot be understated, indeed the difficult questions about exactly how Augustan power was manifest have been coloured by his work since its release. One of the specific claims that Syme makes is that there existed an “Augustan Party” that oversaw the successful change from Republic to Principate. Syme dedicates a chapter to the topic, arguing for the existence of such a party on the basis of German scholarship on the prosopography of the period. It’s the aim of this short essay to discuss Syme’s assertion that there was a “Party of Augustus”, to see whether that term is useful or not and if so, to consider whom it consisted of and why they supported Augustus.

Syme begins by saying that the “modest origins” of the Octavian faction are betrayed by its founders name [Syme, pg.349]. Although he’s not too clear at this juncture what exactly he means, the fact that Octavian was provincial in origin comes full circle by the end of the chapter. Nevertheless, Syme is attempting to illustrate that Octavian and his party come from somewhat humble backgrounds, indeed Syme makes mention that prior to his marriage to Livia, only one supporter of his faction comes from a Consular family (Cn. Domitius Calvinus) [Syme, pg.368]. This talk of Octavian’s origin crops up later when Syme attempts to justify his view of latter Augustan policy, and so it’s worth bearing in mind for the time being. Syme moves on to a commentary of the senatorial purges of 28 B.C under the Consulship(s) of Octavian and Agrippa. Syme, quite reasonably, considers this a preparatory move for the coming restoration of the state in early 27. B.C. Dio tells us that some two hundred “undesirables” had retirement firmly suggested to them. [Dio, 52.42.1]. Syme considers it clear, and most modern scholarship agrees, that this purge was very much dealing with the three hundred senators that had sided with Antonius prior to Actium, or at the very least the ones from that group that were unrepentant [Syme, pg.349]. Those left, Syme says, were the “Caesarion partisans and successful renegades” [Syme, pg.350]. He claims they were aware of the true purpose of Augustus’s reforms and the irony therein [Syme, pg.351]. The damage done to the aristocracy was to be healed by the creating of a new one, which Syme goes on to discuss.

One of the central tenets of Syme’s conception of an “Augustan Party” is the new role of the Equestrian order in public affairs. He considers promotion into and above the order to have been made vastly easier during the Augustan age [Syme, pg.352], with the primary justification for such promotions being military service. He illustrates the process by hyperbole when saying “sons of knights, knights themselves and finally Thracian and Illyrian brigands became Emperors of Rome” [Syme, pg.352]. “The Roman Revolution”, Syme contends, “opened up a path of promotion, which the new state perpetuated, for the common soldier” [Syme, pg.353]. He makes mention that it was feasible to be promoted or to gain Equestrian status through finance prior to the Augustan period, but that there was no organised and established dynamic for promotion from Centurion to Equestrian posts [Syme, pg.353]. Syme tells us that promotion to the Equestrian ranks happened in two ways [Syme, pg.354]. Firstly, that a soldier or soldier’s sons earned the rank through military service – he uses an example, from Suetonius’s live of the Divine Vespasian [Sue. Div. Vesp. 1] that illustrates how Vespasian’s grandfather was a Pompeian veteran who had a son that was of Equestrian status, and whose son, in turn, became Emperor. The second mode of promotion was through being a freedman. Augustus was to employ a great deal of freedmen as secretaries, especially in financial duties [Syme, pg.354]. The natural step up from this process was that the “choice flowers” of the Equestrian ranks could be promoted to the senate (Syme, pg.354). Syme thus labels knights as the “cardinal factor in the whole social, military and political structure of the new State” [Syme, pg.355]. Under Augustus, then, Syme considers the Equestrian order somewhat divorced from the murky politics it may have engaged in during the Republic (primarily in tax gathering and the various dishonesties arising from it) and granted it a new “dignity and usefulness” [Syme, pg.355]. For Syme this part-stratification of the Equestrian order under Augustus was manifest in the practice of giving the Latus Clavus (a mark of senatorial birth) to promising young Equestrians (notably among them, although he decided not to pursue such an end, was the poet Ovid). The result was that loyalty and service now allowed the able of humble origin to “ennoble their family for ever” [Syme, pg.359]. Thus this process allowed Augustus to ensure that the senate was filled with “good, opulent men from the colonies and municipia” [Syme, pg.359]. These men, Syme claims, were the “backbone” of the Augustan faction [Syme, pg.359]. This order of promotion and senatorial establishment reverberated into the provinces as it was now possible to truly make something of oneself - an early Roman incarnation of the American Dream, to put it in crude terms. Syme concludes his chapter by going back to the beginning. He asserts that Augustus was no more than “a small town bourgeois, devoted and insatiable in admiration of social distinction” [Syme, pg.368]. The upshot of Syme’s argument here is that Augustus desired to have the old aristocracy support him, but when it was obvious that would not happen like he may have imagined (many of them were dead, many had supported Antonius) he set about re-creating the aristocracy, outsourcing it, so to speak, and developing it into a new body that owed everything to the system he had set in place.

Thus, this was Syme’s conception of an “Augustan Party”. In search of a balances narrative, I’d now like to pass over the question regarding the veracity of Syme’s argument, assume it sound for the time being, and consider the departure question of who was in this party and why did they support Augustus?

The striking point of Syme’s argument is that initially Augustus had few supporters, indeed the “Augustan Party” was a deliberate creation to fill this gap. The period of civil strife prior to the Augustan Age had much depleted the traditional aristocratic talent pool, leaving any Augustan Party rather empty. As mentioned earlier, Syme considers this problem solved by Augustus’s streamlining of promotion into and above the Equestrian class. The rub of this very deliberate act, Syme contends, was to create a new aristocracy, a group of “novis homines” that would have standing in the Empire yet also support Augustus. It’s perhaps a little crude, but Syme’s sentiments can be echoed by saying that the Augustan party initially contained no-one of real note and eventually contained everyone, with “everyone” representing, of course, the elite only. In summation, then, Syme considers the Augustan Party to comprise of the new aristocracy. This new body consisted of senators and equestrians that owed their status to him. The make up of this new aristocracy, and indeed the creation of it, was very much a product of the depleted aristocracy of the late Republic, Syme claims:

“The old families had been decimated by a generation of civil wars: the sons of the slain were found willing to make their peace with the military dynast. Augustus bent all his efforts to attaching these young ‘nobiles’ to his person, to his family and to the new system” [Syme, pg.368].

Syme is typically interested in depicting Augustus as tyrant, but nonetheless I think the make up of the Augustan Party, that Syme advocates, is now somewhat clearer: Able soldiers capable of promotion to equestrian rank; equestrians themselves capable of achieving senatorial rank through loyalty and service and also, interestingly, the new generation of the old aristocracy - now unable to rely on their forebears and instead reliant on Augustus for status, and so the party consisted of, Syme says, “diverse elements, the most ancient Patrician houses and the most recent of careerists” [Syme, pg.368]. Still, it is important to stress that, for Syme, the aristocracy was new, and was an Augustan creation. He did not force the elite to join his party, but rather created a new elite altogether that was inherently Augustan from its very conception. Syme is also at ends to point out that this new aristocracy was able to rely heavily on the provincial elite for its numbers, a fact that he attributes to Augustus as the “small town bourgeois” [Syme, pg.368] orientated towards his own class. The question thus arises of why These men allowed their crafting into an Augustan party - why did they support him? Syme’s answer is a natural continuation from his argument regarding who was in the party. This new created “Augustan Party” owed its aristocratic status to Augustus, he is, as Syme argues in a later chapter, the “master of Patronage” [Syme, pg.369ff]. That, then, was the reason they supported him - he had been the arbiter of their fate and it was thanks to him that their status has been gained. As Syme states:

“The Princeps controlled access to all positions of honour and emolument in the senatorial career, dispensing to his adherents magistracies, priesthoods and provincial commands. The Quaestorship admitted a man to the highest order in state and society, the cons ululate brought nobility and a place in the front ranks of the oligarchy” [Syme, pg.369].

This situation is how Syme articulates the support for the Augustan Party - they supported him because their status and livelihood depended on it. Syme very much emphasises the dynamic of patronage. Augustus assumed the role of patron to the members of his party and so their dependence on him ensured their support. Although on a grandiose scale compared to earlier times, Augustus was the most powerful patron there had ever been and so the patron relationship as an explanation for support for the Augustan Party remains a fruitful one.

In the almost 70 years since the release of “The Roman Revolution” the concept of an “Augustan Party” has rightfully been debated. The scholarly force and abrasiveness of Syme’s account has ensured its legacy, but nonetheless many have taken issue with his arguments for the existence of any kind of “Augustan Party”. These criticisms cover a vast amount of interpretations of Syme’s work from the veracity of prosopography, to the overwhelmingly Tacitean distaste he has of the Principate. Having discussed Syme’s chapter, it’s now my intention to discuss these criticisms and attempt to see whether or not Syme’s term “Augustan Party” remains a useful one.

One of the most interesting criticisms of Syme is that the context he was writing in (the so-called Inter-War period, between the Two World Wars) has very much coloured his account. This is, of course, the nature of any writing, but the distinction here is that the atmosphere of the 1930s is so very overt that it in someway affects his arguments for the existence of an Augustan Party. One of the startling things read into The Roman Revolution is that Syme’s portrayal of Augustus metamorphosis into “gambler and terrorist, into the most exalted father of the fatherland, Augustus Pater Patriae, invoked comparisons with the dictatorships of Mussolini and Franco, Hitler and Stalin” [Galsterer, pp.2-3]. One doesn’t need to look far to find terms associated heavily with that period, either. For example Syme labels Augustus’s rise to power as being based upon “the seizure of power and redistribution of property by the revolutionary leader” [Syme, pg.2]; he constantly refers to Augustus as the “military dynast” or “tyrant”. On the surface, it’s not difficult to see the parallels between the use of these terms and the atmosphere the book was written under. Syme consistently argues for a picture of Augustus as dictator and despot, which very much broke from previous tradition. When one considers why he perhaps places such vast emphasis on Augustus as negative, it is possible that he was being swayed by his understanding of tyranny, dictatorship and despotism in 1930s Europe. The consequences for this, if it is indeed a just criticism, are that his understanding of how the political process worked during the Augustan age is based heavily upon how the same processes worked in 1930s Europe, which at best leaves Syme guilty of anachronism and at worst throws his entire conception of an Augustan Party into jeopardy. For example, it has been argued that Syme eschewed the old methods of historical interpretation (those based on ideology and constitutions) because they had been dominant in the political discourse that followed the First World War, and instead focused on the individual, as increasingly it was the individual that dominated the world stage – Hitler, Stalin etc. [Galsterer, pg.4]. His goal here would be to reconstruct Augustan politics based on the players involved in it.

The shift of emphasis he employed here is not problematic in itself, but if it was a move influenced by the political processes of the 1930s then it becomes problematic. To elaborate: understanding Augustan Politics with a framework used to understand 1930s European politics is to anachronistically apply a method that is detrimental to the veracity of ones understanding. I think it’s easy to sympathise with this criticism. The 1930s was an immensely thick period of ideology and politics in Europe, and elements of it do seem manifest in Syme’s approach to the Augustan period. Nevertheless, use of such a method by Syme does not necessarily preclude it being useful. The shifted emphasis to the individual in Augustan politics that Syme employed has proven widely influential. It has facilitated discussion regarding the Augustan political processes that might not have happened to the same degree otherwise. For example, his contentions have forced serious discussion on how Augustan politics truly worked. As he stated was his intentions, he has provoked discussion and criticism [Syme, preface, pg.9]. Strictly, then, the criticism is valid. Syme does seem to have allowed 1930s politics to have permeated his work, especially in how he conceives of an Augustan party through emphasis on the individual. While the criticism may call his reasoning into question, it leaves his argument standing. His use of modern political processes to understand Augustan ones is a useful exercise, and as such the idea that an Augustan Party existed remains a useful one.

Closely connected is the criticism of prosopography as a discipline. Syme makes his debt to prosopography clear:

“It will at once be evident how much the conception of the nature of Roman politics here expounded owes to the supreme example and guidance of Münzer: but for his work on Republican family-history, this book could hardly have existed” [Syme, preface, pg.8].

Prosopography is the study of individuals in a collective sense that can facilitate historical understanding that would otherwise be hidden. The method is heavily based on the scant evidence we have for individuals, inscriptional and literary, although usually the former. This method features heavily in Syme’s work, and his whole basis for an Augustan Party is argued upon the evidence prosopography provides. Generally speaking, Prosopography is a useful field. It allows one, as it did Syme, to consider a collective group of individuals and perhaps come up with some historical insight. Syme uses prosopography to paint a picture of Augustan politics as large and connected political family – a party, so to speak. Syme’s employment of prosopography allows him to identify the individuals of Augustan politics and to interconnect them, that is to say that he uses prosopographical evidence to establish a Party for Augustus. As Syme says in the opening line of his chapter on the topic:

“The modest origins of the faction of Octavianus stand revealed in the names of its foundation-members: and subsequent accessions have been indicated from time to time. It grew steadily in numbers and in dignity as Caesar’s heir recruited followers and friends from the camps of his adversaries until in the end, by stripping Antonius, it not merely swallowed up the old Caesarian party but secured the adhesion of a large number of Republicans and could masquerade as a national party” [Syme pg.349]

This is a clear statement of how Syme uses prosopography. He analyses the extant evidence of individual careers and ties their achievements into their involvement in an Augustan Party. An example is that Syme conceives the Augustan party to have only one supporter from a consular family before Augustus marries Livia [Syme, pg.368]. The method at work here is somewhat hidden, but Syme has used prosopography to look for links between Augustus and consular families and came to the conclusion that few links existed prior to his marriage. The problems of how Syme incorporates prosopography into his arguments are vast. Firstly, prosopography is a method that can only be as useful as the evidence it utilises. Although we have much inscriptional evidence, there is easily as much that is lost to us. The gaps could indicate conflicting evidence, but that is unknown to us. Furthermore, prosopography is notably divided in veracity along Republican/Imperial lines [Galsterer, pp.10-11]. An example is that we have almost no inscriptional evidence for the career of Marcus Crassus, the Triumvir and large character of the late Republic, prior to his Spanish proconsulship in 72/71 B.C, despite the fact that he likely spent time climbing the cursus honorum prior to that [Galsterer, pg.10]. On the converse, we know every office held by the Senators Iulius Severus and Lollius Urbicus during the 2nd century A.D, despite them being much more minor characters [Galsterer, pg.10]. That the Augustan age falls right on the “crossroads of republican and imperial prosopography” [Galsterer, pp.10-11] presents us with a problem, for the prosopographical evidence could be somewhat lacking in one respect, but present in others. As such, any argument based on the prosopographical evidence we have for the Augustan age would be tainted. Syme’s argument very much loses some veracity owing to this problem, for if the evidence is lacking then his argument will similarly be left wanting.

Related is how Syme interprets the prosopographical evidence. Much has been made of the “mechanical” [Galsterer, pg.11] understanding of the evidence. Galsterer makes the useful point that “if a Fabius had married an Aemilia and was consul together with a Sempronius Gracchus, this should indicate an alliance among the Fabii, Aemilii and Sempronii. Moreover, if, two generations later, a Fabius and a Sempronius Gracchus were once again colleagues, this would indicate that such an alliance had continued through all this time” [Galsterer, pp.10-11]. Galsterer admits that this may be an overstatement, but I think the rhetorical force of his objection remains quite strong. The lateral way that Syme interprets the prosopography that allows him to conjecture for the existence of an Augustan party is questionable. The work of Christian Meier, “Res Publica Amissa” specifically, has further rejected the idea of straight links between individuals, for Roman politics is far too complex for such alliances, and indeed the factional theory altogether, to endure. An offshoot of this is that Syme overlooks individual agency in order to see the “mechanical” prosopographical links, when indeed the role of the individual and their personal aims and political alliances was surely important in following Augustus. Furthermore, another fault of the prosopographical approach is that it is very much elite oriented. The nature of the evidence it uses – inscriptional – means that other elements of society are excluded because they are not the subject of inscription. On this occasion one of the most obvious omissions is the rank and file of the army. The fact that much of Augustus’s power was military based – and Syme stresses his role as military dictator – makes the omission of the army rank and file as a central element of any Augustan Party somewhat suspicious. Syme does make mention of the army in how he conceives of promotion through the Equestrian class, but that emphasis lies on how such promotion develops a new aristocracy – the army in general is very much left out in “”The Roman revolution”. Syme has remedied this to an extent is more recent work, the “Danubian Papers” specifically, but how the army fits into the conception of an Augustan Party is still not clear.

The criticism of Syme’s use of prosopography is quite convincing, I feel. The problems presented by limited evidence and questionable methods of interpreting that evidence leave Syme’s idea of an Augustan Party quite damaged. That prosopography, as he admits himself, underpins his entire argument means that any weakness in it necessarily means a weakness in his argument itself. In light of this, it would seem that the term “Augustan Party” is somewhat misleading, and not especially useful for really describing Augustan Politics.

Related, again, is the overwhelmingly Republican character of the work. Syme admits himself that Tacitus, Pollio and Sallust are his main literary sources and inspirations, all of them “Republican in sentiment” [Syme preface, pg.7]. The Tacitean quality of the work has been recognized by many. Michael Comber, for example, called Syme and Tacitus the “two great Roman historians” [Comber, pg.214] in an article on the topic. The problem that this presents is that Syme is liable to fall into the same limitations and overt prejudices of those historians, Tacitus especially. As the most Republican of men, Tacitus was very distasteful of the entire Principate, Tiberius most notably. His lack of zeal of the Augustan Age also shone through in the opening parts of his “Annals”, as he briefly describes Rome being subjugated by the first Emperor. The negative focus on Augustus, and the Tacitean method more generally, that Syme readily adopts has some consequences for his argumentation. Syme would have us believe that Augustus created for himself such massive prestige in the lamentable absorption of every available power that the only available career path for the aristocracy was under his aegis. It was through the necessity of his support that the Augustan Party developed. Tacitus found this situation incredibly saddening. A familiar vein running through his works, from the Annals to the Agricola and the Dialogus is that the men of the Republic could be great owing to their skills and talents, which they received great acclaim for. All great men under the Principate were subservient to the greatest man – the Emperor. The Tacitean, and consequently Republican, character of Syme’s work presents a quandary. It obviously creates a very strong bias, but that hardly makes Syme’s theories less powerful, no more than they do that of Tacitus. Rather, I think, they present the historian with something to keep in mind while reading Syme. He wanted his work to truly jostle the established order, and the abrasive qualities of his writing often have one questioning how bias he truly is, yet the quality of his work still shines through these possible indiscretions. The criticism of his work having a Republican bent, much like the criticism that the 1930s permeated much of it, is very much something to be aware of, but ultimately leave the edifice of his theory still standing. The usefulness of the term “Augustan Party” is somewhat affected, to its detriment, by this fact, for it now holds within it not just the influence of the 1930s political process, the problems of prosopography but now also the possible Republican bias inherent in conceiving of its existence.

Assessing whether or not Syme’s use of the term “Augustan Party” is useful is notoriously difficult. The sheer impact of Syme’s work on the topic has lead to his being called “The Emperor of Roman History” [Bowerstock, pp.8-13]. The term can be misleading. For example, using the term “party” seems to be being used somewhat anachronistically, for it relies somewhat on an understanding of more modern political processes. Syme’s characterisation also suffers the same criticism for it seems very much informed by the ferment of 1930s Europe, where Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini dominated the stage. As a consequence, Syme is unapologetically Republican in sentiment, using Tacitus very much as a base and such bias in his assumptions makes one question them. Furthermore, the serious problems that his reliance on prosopography presents are difficult to overcome. The nature of the method as being based on very limited evidence, in scope and possibly number, and also the “mechanical” interpretations that reading prosopography laterally provides have called Syme’s reliance on it into question. These criticisms are quite strong, and as such they make Syme’s conception of an Augustan Party quite weak. In this sense the use of the term “Augustan Party” is certainly not useful, for they make understanding Augustan politics even more difficult than they may be initially. In some respects, though, Syme’s use of the term has been resolutely useful. Much of this reasoning lies in the fact that Syme’s work has been so influential that even in parts where he errs, the sheer fact that he unapologetically posited a theory on the topic has forced the hand of historians ever since to truly think about Augustan politics. It’s been remarked that:

“a classic work is a classic precisely because of its lasting value and its ability to offer at least partial answers to questions that one would not originally foresee” [Galsterer, pg.2].

That sentiment seems very apt when applied to Syme’s work. It’s a testament to how important, and indeed how useful, his use of the term “Augustan Party” is when discussion over it is being set as an essay – almost some seventy years since the book was initially released in 1939. In this respect, then, it’s very easy to consider the “Augustan Party” a useful term, for it has spurned discussion over the intricacies of Augustan politics no end. In concluding, then, it seems that the answer is, as with all elements of Augustan Rome, not entirely simple. In some aspects the term is not useful at all, and indeed is quite misleading, however in another it is vastly useful, stimulating fervent discussion. Thus, the only conclusion I can come to in reference to the departure question is that it’s a little useful and a little misleading, and in some ways that dichotomy altogether renders itself quite useful in the scope of Roman historiography.




Cassius Dio, “Roman History”

Suetonius, “Life of Vespasian” in his "Lives of the Caesars"


Bowerstock, G, “The Emperor of Roman History”, New York Review of Books (1980) pp.8-13

Comber, M, a review of Luce, T.J and Woodman, A.J, “Tacitus and Tacitean tradition”, Journal of Roman Studies (1996) pp.214-215

Galsterer, H, “Syme’s Roman Revolution after 50 years”, in “Between Republic and Empire”, Ed. Raaflaub, K.A and Toher, M, Oxford (1990)

Syme, Ronald, “The Roman Revolution”, Oxford (1939)

Syme, Ronald, “Danubian Papers”, Bucharest (1971)


On another note, I'm currently reading some work on Classical Athens and the role of the "bad citizen", which I'll post about soon, I hope.

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