Friday, 3 June 2016
No Theory Please, We're Roman
C. Octavius, now C. Julius Caesar Octavianus and with no emphasis on the "Octavianus" (he was Caesar the Dictator's great-nephew and adopted son) within months of the Ides of March, 44 BC:
Such were the resources that Octavianus gathered in late summer and autumn of the year. Men and money were the first thing, next the skill and resolution to use them. An inborn and Roman distrust of theory, an acute sense of the difference between words and facts, a brief acquaintance with Roman political behaviour - that he possessed and that was all he needed. It is a common belief, attested by the existence of political science as a subject of academic study, that the arts of government may be learned from books. The revolutionary career of Caesar's heir reveals never a trace of theoretical preoccupations: if it did, it would have been very different and very short.
R Syme, The Roman Revolution (1939) p120 (1982 edn)
Syme completes the chapter "Caesar's Heir" with a magnificent review of Octavianus' position and political education:
He soon took measure of Antonius: the Caesarian soldier was a warning against the more generous virtues and vices. Another eminent Roman could furnish a text in the school of politics. The failure of Cicero as a statesman showed the need for courage and constancy in all the paths of duplicity. A change of front in politics is not disastrous unless caused by delusion or indecision. The treacheries of Octavianus were conscious and consistent.
Syme is here, as elsewhere, also down on biographers in recasting the fall of the 'Free State':
But it is not enough to redeem Augustus from panegyric and revive the testimony of the vanquished cause. That would merely substitute one form of biography for another. At its worst, biography is flat and schematic: at the best, it is often baffled by the hidden discords of human nature. Moreover, undue insistence upon the character and exploits of a single person invests history with dramatic unity at the expense of truth. However talented and powerful in himself, the Roman statesman cannot stand alone, without allies, without a following[...] In all ages, whatever the form and name of government, be it monarchy, republic or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the façade; and Roman history, Republican or Imperial, is the history of the governing class.
As Syme points out, nobody at the time knew what was going to happen next. Yet the natures and foibles of the rest, Antony, Cicero, Cassius, Brutus, are discernible; redeemed from biography the characterless Octavianus' rise seems inexorable.
Writing in 1939, terms Syme uses such as 'Free State', 'New State', 'Commonwealth', 'July days', have a weight to them. Did contemporaries use these terms?