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Ripensando Tacito (e Ronald Syme): Storia e storiografia. Edited by MARIA 
ANTONIETTA GIUA. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2007. Pp. 231. Paper, €18.00. ISBN 

Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Forum Online Exclusive 2009.01.03

The rationale of this slender volume is presented on the back cover. The 
first sentence reads, “The volume collects the contributions of an 
international meeting at the University of Florence, November 30—December 
1, 2006, dealing with historical and historiographical aspects of 
Tacitus’ works and his greatest 20th-century interpreter Sir Ronald 
Syme” (my translation). This is an intriguing approach, yet a reading 
leads to some disappointment.

There are twelve papers, divided into four triads: “Tacito e Ronald 
Syme”; “Questioni di metodo”; “Fra storia e storiografia”; and 
“Conquista e gestione dell’impero.” Only the first deals with the 
relationship Tacitus–Syme, and only the second paper, by Giua herself, 
treats the subject with any depth. It can essentially be said of most of 
the other papers that they could have been delivered and published in any 
context, and Syme generally appears only in footnotes. Here too appear some 
difficulties, since the Italian scholars tend to cite Sir Ronald’s great 
work in the Italian translation, which has far more pages than the 
original. References are therefore useless for readers who have Tacitus at 
their sides.

Another peculiarity, for an international conference discussing Syme, is 
the absence of any Anglo-Saxon participants, the people who likely knew 
Syme longest and most intimately, his students and colleagues in Great 
Britain and the United States. There are nine Italians represented here, 
three French scholars (two of whom collaborated on one paper), and one 
German, whose text is presented in Italian. All papers are in and of 
themselves interesting, although Dieter Timpe’s is an updated version of 
a piece published only a few years ago in German.

The most intriguing and valuable of all, to me, is Giua’s “Osservazioni 
sul Tacitus di Ronald Syme.” Her leitmotif is that Tacitus and Syme 
shared a basic pessimism, and that over the years the two became almost one 
being. She offers a good discussion of the origin and development of 
Syme’s book, but does not mention (if indeed she is aware of it) the 
steady increase in its coverage and size. Before 1950, Syme had planned 15 
chapters. In 1952, the number had risen to 36, a year later to 40, in 1954 
to 44. (This information privately from Sir Ronald.) The book appeared in 
1958 with 45 chapters and 95 Appendixes, which themselves offer a detailed 
outline for study of Tacitus.

The first contribution, “Syme e Tacito: qualche ricordo,” by Emilio 
Gabba, very brief and really a eulogy, mentions the relationship between 
Syme and himself, one of the surviving reviewers of Syme’s book, a 
half-century or so later. Both Tacitus and Syme wrote of the end of 
republican Rome and the growing influence of provinces and provincials. It 
was for long commonly known that Syme’s intended first book dealt with 
the provincial at Rome. As time passed, that was largely absorbed into The 
Roman Revolution and Tacitus; indeed, the last section of the latter bears 
the heading “THE NEW ROMANS.” Nonetheless, the publication of the 
original manuscript in 1999, entitled The Provincial at Rome, by Anthony 
Birley, was a signal event for Symeians.

The third paper in the first section is by J. Direz, “Capax imperii, un 
fil rouge de Tacite à Syme,” discusses the leitmotif of capax imperii, 
which played such an important role in Syme’s interpretation. Tacitus is 
the only ancient author to use this expression. The concept depends upon 
high birth as well as personal abilities.

The three papers of the second triad deal with aspects of Tacitus’ 
approach to history. M. Pani, “L’innovazione tacitiana: una rivoluzione 
a metà,” emphasizes one of Tacitus’ great introductions into the 
writing of history, introspicere. The historian must not only seek the 
apparent truth, but reveal the dissimulatio of the times. Consideration of 
rumores is important. His chief concern is the state, above all the state 
ruled by one man. M. Ducos, “Portée et signification des questions 
juridiques dans les Annales de Tacite,” emphasizes Tacitus’ interest in 
laws, their application and the evolution of justice. Tacitus’ 
originality lies in inserting juridical problems into an analysis of the 
principate, and of justice, as is particularly apparent in the importance 
given jurists. Yet institutions are fragile when faced by the overwhelming 
power of the emperor. C. Franco, “Dal documento al racconto: i libri 
claudiani,” discusses Syme’s insistence upon Tacitus’ use of the acta 
and other documentary material in these books. There is often a contrast 
between senatorial meetings and the consilium principis. Claudius’ own 
(now lost) works also come into play.

Triad three comprises papers differing greatly from each other. G. Firpo, 
“Antioco IV di Siria e l’onolatria nell’ ‘Archaeologia giudaica’ 
di Tacito (Hist. V 2–13),” gives particular attention to 5.8.2, the 
attempt by Antiochus IV to transform the Jews and the episode of the Jews 
being saved by the appearance of asses. Tacitus is unimpressed by this 
story. O. Devillers and F. Hurlet, “La portée des impostures dans les 
Annales de Tacite: la légitimité impériale à l’épreuve,” discuss 
the ”pseudos” of the Julio-Claudian era: Agrippa Postumus, 
Germanicus’ son Drusus, the Neros. Tacitus devotes more attention to 
imposture than does any other ancient author, and is most concerned with 
the question of dynastic legitimacy. B. Scardigli, “Corbulone e dintorni 
(Tac., Ann. XV 15),” notes that the chapter appears to contain 
incongruities, such as the construction of the bridge and the various terms 
of capitulation. These in all likelihood came from Corbulo’s Memoirs.

Up to this point, the volume contains no discussion of Tacitus’ minor 
works. But the first paper in the final collection of three essays 
partially remedies that omission. This paper, which I found very 
interesting, is by C. Gabrielli, “Insularità e impero 
nell’Agricola.” The author discusses the cultural presuppositions 
concerning the perception of Britain and its conquest, its island nature, 
and the impact of new conquests, above all political consequences and 
ethno-geographic understanding. The Agricola shows a cultural model, 
center-civilization/periphery-barbarism, of the representation of space and 
of humanity. I. Mastrorosa, “Politica suntuaria ed economia imperiale in 
un intervento di Tiberio (Tac., Ann. III 52–55),” closely examines 
Tacitus’ treatment of the equilibrium between politics and the economy, 
with particular attention to Tiberius’ intervention in the crisis of AD 
22. D. Timpe, “L’insurrezione dei Batavi nell’interpretazione di 
Tacito,” again discusses the Batavi, Civilis and other prime participants 
in the great uprising against Rome, one of the most significant parts of 
the surviving Historiae.

All the papers in the collection are worth reading, but on the whole it 
disappoints. When I saw the title, I rejoiced. But there is too little 
Syme, and nothing that can be called a bahnbrechende Arbeit. Readers 
unfamiliar with the person, character and achievements of Sir Ronald will 
do better to read the appreciations of him, such as F. Millar, “Style 
Abides,” JRS 71 (1981) 144–52; A.M. Devine, “Sir Ronald Syme 
(1903–1989): A Roman Post Mortem,” AncW 20 (1989) 67–75; M.T. 
Griffin, “Sir Ronald Syme 1903–1989,” JRS 80 (1990) xi–xiv; K. 
Christ, “Ronald Syme,” in Neue Profile der Alten Geschichte (Darmstadt, 
1990) 188–247; G. Alföldy, “Two Principes: Augustus and Sir Ronald 
Syme,” Athenaeum 81 (1993) 101–22; and G.W. Bowersock, “Ronald Syme, 
1903–1989,” PBA 84 (1994) 539–63.

Emory University
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