Ronald Syme

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Sir Ronald Syme, OM, FBA (11 March 1903 – 4 September 1989) was a New Zealand-born historian and classicist. Long associated with Oxford University, he is widely regarded as the twentieth century's greatest historian of ancient Rome.



Syme was born to David and Florence Syme in Eltham, New Zealand, where he attended primary and secondary school; a bad case of measles seriously damaged his vision during this period. He moved to New Plymouth Boys' High School (a house of which bears his name today) at the age of 15, and was head of his class for both of his two years. He continued to the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington, where he studied French language and literature while working on his degree in Classics. He attended Oriel College, Oxford between 1925 and 1927, graduating with a First Class degree in Literae Humaniores (ancient history and philosophy). In 1926, he won the Gaisford Prize for Greek Prose for translating a section of Thomas More's Utopia into Platonic prose, and the following year won the Prize again (for Verse) for a translation of part of William Morris's Sigurd the Volsung into Homeric hexameters.

His first scholarly work was published by the Journal of Roman Studies in 1928.[1] In 1929 he became a Fellow of Trinity College, where he became known for his studies of the Roman army and the frontiers of the Empire. During the Second World War, he worked as a press attaché in the British Embassies of Belgrade (where he acquired a knowledge of Serbo-Croatian) and Ankara, later taking a chair in classical philology at Istanbul University. His refusal to discuss the nature of his work during this period led some to speculate that he worked for the British intelligence services in Turkey, but proof for this hypothesis is lacking.

After being elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1944, Syme was appointed Camden Professor of Ancient History at Brasenose College, Oxford in 1949, a position which he held until his retirement in 1970. Syme was also appointed Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford from 1970 until the late 1980s, where an annual lecture was established in his memory.

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