A lecture given by Professor Christopher Pelling, Oxford Regius Professor of Greek, is the first annual Syme Lecture to address the work of the great historian of Ancient Rome himself.
Professor Pelling took a literary historiographical approach to Syme’s work; an approach that he agreed was contrary to Syme’s own opinions on biography (which he claimed was "so much easier than history"). Pelling defended his methodology by suggesting that Syme’s authorial presence was so evident throughout the book, “he wrote much as he talked”, that a ‘death of the author’ stance could never work with the manuscript.
Pelling masterfully led the audience through an exploration of the changes made by Syme to the manuscript throughout the drafting process. He showed how some of the most “famous and controversial sentences were added at the end”, often as scribbles in the margins, and he continually rewrote key sentences, settling on the most provocative phrases, even if they did not make perfect grammatical sense. For example, the phrase ‘Caesar lay dead, striken by 23 wounds’, was originally drafted as ‘Caesar lay dead in the Senate House, bleeding from 23 wounds’, but Syme reworded it to startling effect.
Professor Pelling also entertained the audience with anecdotes of his own interactions with the book and with Syme himself. He met Syme half a dozen times throughout his career, and confessed the appropriation of a sentence spoken by Syme at a Trinity Feast for the opening sentence of one of his books.
Professor Lee articulated the thoughts of all present by thanking Professor Pelling for a fascinating lecture that “led brilliantly into the mindset of the writer”.