Sir Ronald Syme; Studied Ancient Rome

From Associated Press

Sir Ronald Syme, an Oxford historian who shook the dust from the study of ancient Rome with his theories about the intrigues of its nobles, has died at age 86, the university said Tuesday.

Syme died Monday at an Oxford hospital he entered last week, said Dr. Martin Francis, secretary of the governing body of Oxford’s Wolfson College, where Syme had lived since 1975. The hospital did not give the cause of death.

“His grasp of the language and concepts used in Roman society, combined with his sense of style, has made him the foremost scholar of Roman historiography,” Kirsti Simonsuuri, senior research fellow at the University of Helsinki, wrote in a 1983 anthology of modern thinkers.


Instead of focusing on the ideals and constitutional structure of the Roman emperors as his predecessors had, Syme disclosed the lust for power and money that motivated their careers, comparing them to European dictators in the 1930s.

He introduced those theories in his first and most famous book, “The Roman Revolution,” published in 1939.

Syme was knighted in 1959. In 1976, he was awarded the Order of Merit, Britain’s most desired civil distinction, which is limited to 24 intellectuals and scientists.

Born in New Zealand, Syme studied classics at Oxford in the 1920s.

As part of his work, Syme held that the Roman republic was transformed into an empire partly because of struggles between political factions surrounding the Emperor Augustus, who died in AD 14.

His last book, “The Augustan Aristocracy,” was published in 1986. Of his earlier works, a two-volume study of the Emperor Tacitus, published in 1958, was generally seen as his masterpiece.

Syme was not known to have any immediate survivors.