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Mommsen, Syme, the Nobel Prize, and Octavian Augustus

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Theodor Mommsen, Ludwig Knaus
Theodor Mommsen, Ludwig Knaus

In common consciousness, the names Mommsen and Syme do not occupy a permanent place. However, they are certainly worth remembering, and in the case of an enthusiast of ancient Roman history, they must even be well known. What do these two characters have in common?

Firstly- the Nobel Prize for Literature: Theodor Mommsen received it in 1902 for his monumental work Römische Geschichte. Sir Ronald Syme was one of the nominees in 1962 for his work Roman Revolution.

Secondly, although this one also divides – completely different opinion about Octavian Augustus and his rule. In his historical works, Mommsen created an opinion, that during the reign of Octavian, the system of power called the principate was beeing created by equal: the Emperor (officially princeps) and the Senate. Syme, in turn, took the opposite side by releasing The Roman Revolution in 1939. His work was truly revolutionary: because of its content which refuted the opinion held by his great predecessor; because of the theme – the reign of Augustus – which (which was a intentional anachronism), according to Syme, had all the hallmarks of the great revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In The Roman Revolution, the author thoroughly documented the coup in the power elite (complete removal of the patrician families who had ruled Rome for hundreds of years), leading to making Augustus the most powerful autocrat. In The Roman Revolution, Octavian is not a good guardian from his Res Gestae – Syme showed his cynicism, Machiavellianism, which, combined with the brilliant mind of a political strategist, led him to the top of power.

However the availability of translations does not make it easier for the Polish reader (Historia Rzymska was last published in 1880 (!); Rewolucja Rzymska in 2009, only in the number of 1000 copies), these two works are definitely worth reading – not only to expand your knowledge, but also for the sheer enjoyment of both writers’ literary skills.

Author: Aleksander Krasowski
  • Ronald Syme, Rewolucja Rzymska, Poznań 2009

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