The Great, The Bad, and The Mad – A Review of Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

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It’s hard to talk about ancient Roman history without mentioning the Roman emperors. They loom large in it, after all, both literally (in the form of historical artefacts and documents) and figuratively. From William Shakespeare to Ridley Scott, Robert Graves to Steven Saylor, imperial Rome has provided imaginations both fertile and febrile with a setting and a cast of characters worthy of the stage, the page, and the screen both silver and small.

But of all the emperors who ruled Rome, few were as famous as the emperors of the House of Caesar. On one hand, they defined the heights of greatness an emperor could achieve: they shaped Rome into the vision of marble buildings and wide squares that we in the twenty-first century associate with the words “ancient Rome”. On the other hand, they delineated the depths to which an emperor could descend: when one thinks of the quintessential “mad emperor”, it is emperors from the House of Caesar who form the template for that image.

It is these highs and lows, in both their extremes, that Tom Holland seeks to document in Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar. In this book, Holland tells the story of what scholars would later dub the Julio-Claudian dynasty: Rome’s first imperial house, whose story begins with Augustus’s rise to power, and ends with Nero’s ignominious suicide. While doing so, Holland attempts to navigate the grey area between truth and fiction, for though much has been written about the Julio-Claudian Emperors, so much of that material is of questionable factuality. How great, really, was Augustus? For that matter, how mad, really, was Caligula?

Dynasty is divided into into two parts, with seven chapters overall. “Part I: Padrone” covers Chapters 1 to 3, and is about beginnings: the founding of Rome, the creation and destruction of the Republic, all the way to the rise and death of Octavian, more famously known as Augustus – the first emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. “Part II: Cosa Nostra”, which covers Chapters 4-7, deals with what Augustus’ successors did with the enormous shoes their predecessor left for them to fill: some tried to live up to his legacy, some tried to tear it all down, but all sought, in their own way, to be honoured and loved as Augustus had been honoured and loved.

The first thing the reader will notice about the book is Holland’s prose. It is lucid and easy to read, with a certain beat to it that resembles fiction more than non-fiction. This may have to do with the fact that Holland is a presenter for BBC Radio, and a writer of TV documentaries as well as fiction. These influences have done wonders for his non-fiction, which he writes with the cadence of a born storyteller – indeed, Dynasty reads in such a manner that makes it seem like it would translate very well into audio format.

It certainly helps that his chosen subject lends itself very well to this approach, as Holland himself notes in the Preface:

When people think of imperial Rome, it is the city of the first Caesars that is most likely to come into their minds. There is no other period of ancient history that can compare for sheer unsettling fascination with its gallery of leading characters. Their lurid glamour has resulted in them becoming the very archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts. Monsters such as we find in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius seem sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set… For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything. Murderous matriarchs, incestuous powercouples, downtrodden beta males who nevertheless end up wielding powers of life and death: all these staples of recent dramas are to be found in the sources for the period. The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.

It’s hard to miss the Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire references in the above – indeed, using the term “House of Caesar” in the book’s subtitle taps into the idea of the “Great Houses” in George R.R. Martin’s creation. The book also contains maps, family trees, and a list of Dramatis Personae: features that are obvious echoes of contemporary fantasy epics.

Whether or not Holland is deliberately targeting that fanbase, Dynasty has no problem appealing to those  “who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison”, and so on. Take, for example, this excerpt from his discussion of Tiberius’s Capri retreat, which tackles the Romans’ approach to privacy, and why Tiberius’ decision to ensconce himself there was so disturbing to them – and even to Tiberius himself:

To the Roman people, privacy was something inherently unnatural. It permitted aberrant and sinister instincts free reign. Only those with sexual tastes they wished to keep veiled from their fellow citizens could have any reason to crave it. …Tiberius, for eleven years, had enjoyed the run of an entire island. People in Rome were not fooled by his high-flown pretensions to scholarship. …in the playground that Tiberius had made of Capri, there were no censorious mobs to keep the Princeps’s fantasies in check. … Rapes and fantastical copulations were rife in the tales told of the gods. What greater pleasure, then, for an old man fascinated by their doings than to watch their couplings being graphically restaged?

Naturally, [Tiberius] despised himself for it. Tiberius, heir to the Claudian name, the greatest general of his generation, a man who by virtue of his many services to the Republic would have deserved to rank as Princeps even had his divine father not adopted him, knew the standards by which he would be judged – for he shared them.

However, the above excerpt also shows one of Dynasty’s potential pitfalls. Holland acknowledges that he has taken much of his information from the histories of Suetonius and Tacitus – something which might cause alarm bells to go off in the heads of some readers. Anyone who has read Suetonius and Tacitus (whether in translation or in the original Latin) with any kind of rigour knows that it is difficult to trust their accounts – particularly Suetonius, who appeared to write as if there wasn’t a scandal or whiff of a scandal he didn’t like. Holland, however, attempts to balance the more questionable material by turning to other contemporary sources such as Josephus and Cassius Dio. Aside from referencing ancient historians, Holland also includes any contradicting ideas and theories put forward by classics scholars both past and present in his footnotes.

Another thing that readers will note is that while Holland adjusts his focus from time to time to include discussions of Roman cultural norms whenever necessary, he does not really move the metaphorical camera out of Rome to the rest of the empire. Momentous events that might have taken up considerable space in other histories, such as Boudica’s revolt or the beginnings of the First Jewish-Roman War, are only mentioned in passing; the exception to this is the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which Holland tackles at length. The reason for this appears to be that Holland wishes to focus exclusively on the personal drama of the Emperors, both as people and as leaders. As Holland notes in the Preface:

The depravities for which [Tiberius and Caligula] would end up notorious rarely had much impact on the world at large. It mattered little in the provinces who ruled as emperor—just so long as the centre held.

Though the emperor wielded great power and privilege, and hence was of great importance within Rome itself, those in the provinces had other concerns. As long as there was an emperor, as long as there was a fulcrum upon which the vast Roman Empire could turn, the identity of that fulcrum didn’t really matter to those who could not directly participate in Roman politics and cultural life. This is why Holland doesn’t tackle any revolts and wars unless one of the emperors of the House of Caesar directly participated in it. As for the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, it is the exception because of the way Augustus reacted to its outcome, and because of the influence it exerted on Tiberius and (to a lesser extent) Caligula.

But then, with such characters as the emperors of the House of Caesar, Holland doesn’t really need to look very far afield in order to find interesting (and disturbing) stories to tell. This frees him up to thoroughly explore each one as best as the ancient sources and current scholarship will allow, developing them into as fully-fledged characters as he can possibly make them. By approaching history as if it were a novel or a movie, Holland brings greater readability to what might otherwise be a subject made dreary by the numerous times it has been discussed and dissected by other historians and scholars.

Overall, Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar is remarkably entertaining: Holland’s prose is easy to read, and though his decision to focus nearly exclusively on the first five Roman emperors might be puzzling to some readers, it is in fact a very good decision to make. This allows him to treat the span of history he covers, and the personages he focuses on, in a way that’s more like fiction: setting each emperor up as a central character surrounded by side-characters, and telling the story of their lives in a manner familiar to anyone who reads epic fantasy. Though he relies on Suetonius and Tacitus for some of the more lurid bits, he does attempt to counterbalance those somewhat questionable details with accounts from other ancient historians, and by putting forward alternate or contradictory ideas from present-day scholars in the footnotes. Classics scholars and avid students of ancient Roman history will probably not find anything new here, but readers who are new to ancient Roman history, or who picked the book up after watching shows like Rome or Spartacus or even Game of Thrones will find plenty to enjoy.

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