Book Review by Ursus
Does the world need yet another book on the Caesars and the fall of the Republic? Well, yes, actually, as long as it is written with the clarity and probing analysis of Philip "Maty" Matyszak. In The Sons of Caesar, the good Cambridge doctor of history offers a penetrating study of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the convoluted and dysfunctional family that presided over Rome's transition from Republic to Empire.
I have read my share of modern books on the early empire, and they seldom improve upon the primary sources of Tacitus and Suetonius whose histories make excellent reading in their own right. The main problem with the two Roman historians are their biases. Tacitus the senator shared his order's jealousy and loathing for the imperial family, while Suetonius the equestrian let his history be colored by scandalous gossip whose veracity is sometimes in doubt. Taking their two accounts together, the ages have held all the early emperors (with the possible exception of Augustus) in a very dim light indeed. But given the biases at work how fair is the assessment? Matyszak is willing to take a step back and analyze the personalities and policies of the Julio-Claudians outside the biases of the primary sources. What emerges is a tale not quite as dire as either Tacitus or Suetonius would have you believe.
Those who bemoan the passing of the old Republican order and who are willing to condemn the imperial family in toto might find the assessment painfully revisionist. Indeed, one of the leading reviews for this book on Amazon.com accuses Matyszak of writing an apology that whitewashes the dynasty's crimes. This is unfair! At no time does the author excuse any crimes that have historical evidence; he merely places the actions of the dynasty in their proper perspective. The Julio-Claudians offended the ruling classes in Rome far more than the people or the provincials, which explains the former's hostility to and the latter's general support of the dynasty. When all is said and done the dynasty placed the empire on a basically sound footing And Matyszak states unequivocally it was the dysfunctional imperial family itself who was its own worse enemy, for their continual execution and banishment of their own rivals within the familial ranks doomed them to political extinction in six generations.
Chapter one is a short introduction entitled "From Republic to Empire." In it the author dismisses a commonly held view that the Republic fell because its government was ill suited to imperial pressures: "...autocracies are not, ipso facto, better at running large states than democracies." Matyszak points out the empire was largely a loose federation of urban centers requiring minimal oversight from the center, whatever form of government it manifested. He also states that the political machinery of the Republic was not dismantled but adapted for the Empire, with the one major change being the imperial family rather than the Senate at its head. Instead he points to the vicious competition between the Republic's leading families and the resulting corruption as the death knell of the Republican order:
"The self-interest and internecine struggles of the Roman elite alienated the Roman people whose lives and lands they blighted. The cynical contempt of Rome's aristocracy for their own political system proved all too contagious and, even as they accepted the bribes, the electorate came to despise the bribers. ... in short, by the first century BC Rome was ripe for a military coup led by an aristocrat."
This theme of the Roman elite being their own worse enemies, with the collateral damage it inflicted on the state as a whole, appears throughout the book. Chapter one also discusses the sources used for the author's study. In addition to Tacitus and Suetonius mentioned above, we have Caesar and Octavian's own self-written propoganda about their exploits, the literati of Rome's golden age whose works the Caesars patronized, and finally the material remains of archaeology. This fortunately is a well documented period of history.
Chapter two is entitled "Family Fortunes." This is one of the most interesting chapters of the book. The author outlines how familial legacies and politics were entwined in Rome, and how nepotism and the client-patron relationship were staples of the system. From that perspective, the "high commands bestowed upon the relatives of a Julio-Claudian emperor were merely the continuation of republican business as usual." The chapter also discusses adoption, patria potestas, and how Romans felt one's character was fixed at birth and largely inherited from one's family. With that in mind, separate outlines of the Julians and the Claudians are offered. Both were among Rome's oldest families. The Claudians had a reputation for haughtiness since day one, and while the Julians are somewhat less documented, their reputation for sexuality might perhaps be traced to their claimed mythological progenitor - Venus.
Octavian, the adopted ward of Julius Caesar, married Livia, who through her father was descended from the infamous Pulcher branch of the Claudians. That these two ancient and powerful families would meld to form Rome's first imperial dynasty should, in retrospect, not come as a source of astonishment. The heirs they produced were infamous for their arrogance, sexuality and sheer energy. Some, as it turned out, were also psychotic. A dangerous combination, but one not surprising giving their bloodlines. Perhaps Matyszak's greatest contribution is helping to elucidate the terribly confusing web of relations between these two families and their allies. He does this not only with clear prose, but with ubiquitous visual charts that help outline a given character's descent.
The rest of the study then devotes a chapter to each of the rulers from Caesar to Nero, with an epilogue at the end highlighting the "Year of the Four Emperors" and the rise of the Flavian dynasty. Of Caesar and Augustus there is not much novelty here, either in the facts presented or the assessment thereof. These two chapters do however offer an excellent summary of these great men (I think Matyszak offers in a chapter what it takes authors like Goldsworthy and Everitt entire books to say).
The gentle reassessment of the dynasty begins with Tiberius. Matyszak dismisses as gossip Suetonius's allegations of Tiberius conducting sexual crimes on the island of Capri. Instead he finds in Tiberius an able general and fair administrator who ruled with moderation and left the empire an overflowing treasury. His major fault was his lack of charm; unlike Augustus he did not know how to court either the Senate or the People, try as though he might: "To the last, it was the fate of a man who had served his country steadfastly and to the best of his ability to find himself unloved and his efforts unappreciated."
Gaius Caligula was hardly a saint worthy of redemption. But Matyszak also claims his vices need to be placed in proper perspective. It seems he left the empire fiscally solvent as well. While Caligula could be extravagant, the author states his combined expenditures did not do as much damage to the empire as costly wars or currency debasement, twin pillars of later regimes. While his vices are well documented, they did more damage to the Senatorial order than to the people as a whole. And here was Caligula's true downfall, for unlike Augustus he did not know how to integrate the established aristocracy into the new imperial order: "Individual senators could be replaced or killed, but senators in general were vital to Roman society. What the Senate failed to realize until Gaius Caligula's death was that the same was now true of Roman Emperors."
Claudius was an able administrator if a somewhat uninspiring one. While his invasion of Britain ultimately proved unprofitable, he did build aqueducts for Rome and a harbor for Ostia which increased the empire's wealth. Indeed, the entire empire was generally peaceful under his reign, and with increasing Romanization came increased prosperity. The nascent imperial civil service began to mature under Claudius. He also granted religious freedom to the Jews, and took compassion on slaves and other unfortunates. Throughout his reign he tried his best to maintain good relations with the Senate. The one downfall in his reign transpired at its birth. Having been effectively elected by the Praetorians, the tenor of imperial-senatorial relations changed forever: "Henceforth the power of the Caesars openly rested on the soldiers .... Rome was now an autocracy which happened to have a senate rather than a senatorial government which happened to have an emperor."
Then comes Nero. Aside from his comittment to the liberal arts, Nero was a rather depraved fellow. But from this book's perspective, his main faults were four. First, he threatened to completely dissolve the Senate and rule through his courtiers. The Senate as a consultative body and pool of potential administrators was vital to the Empire, and had Nero had made good on his promise the empire would have been robbed of its capable elite. Second, Nero's Golden House alienated the people as a sign of extravagant luxury, and taxes used to finance it were bleeding the provinces try. He also alienated the Praetorians by having the popular Agrippina murdered. Finally he started the dangerous trend of debasing the currency which would cause severe inflation problems with the later empire. The only people left generally fond of Nero were the Greeks, as he had been an admirer and patron of their culture.
But if Nero had to die, why did the dynasty die with him? Because in six generations the Julio-Claudians had exterminated themselves. The history of the dynasty is one of the males and females of the family executing, poisoning or banishing internal rivals for power. Nero was the last male Julio-Claudian left. The last female descendant of Augustus died under Vespasian. Here was a bloody tell of woe. Brutus and Cassius' daggers did not do as much damage to the Julians as did a few well-placed poisoned mushrooms from overly ambitious females within the family.
Nonetheless, the legacy of the dynasty as a whole is a proud one. They laid the basis for an increasingly Romanized and prosperous empire. The people and the provincials generally supported the so-called tyrants over a senatorial oligarchy that had bled them dry during the Republic: ".. as Nero's lingering support in the East demonstrated, the provinces experience of even a bad Julio-Claudian was for more pleasant than (for example) the truly tyrannical oppression of the noble republican Brutus."
The Sons of Caesar is a brilliant book which offers a moderate revision of a much maligned family. Carried along with clear prose, elucidating charts, some great photographs, and plenty of juicy quotes from the primary sources, this is a book that anyone interested in imperial politics will want on their shelves.
Discuss and order this book online at Amazon
Continue reading an interview with author Philip Matyszak.