Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

Book Review by Philip Matyszak

This book is a splendid read. Those familiar with Tom Holland's style will be unsurprised by the confident deftness with he sweeps readers into the political maelstrom of the Roman Revolution at the end of the first century BC and then deposits them, better-informed and breathless, on the edge of the Year of the Four Emperors in AD 69. It is quite a ride.

Basically this is the story of the Julio-Claudians, from the rise of Augustus to the fall of Nero. The book is essentially the biographies of the emperors in that line (other members of the dynasty get far less attention, and that usually in the course of being killed off by whoever was emperor at the time). The focus is on the glamour and public appeal of the Julio-Claudians, the author's point being that no other dynasty has had the same mix of glamour, perversion and sheer deranged blood-lust as the Julio-Claudians. He considers – in his words - 'the House of Caesar as something eerie and more than mortal. Painted in blood and gold, its record would never cease to haunt the Roman people'.

Given this approach, this book is ideal for those who, (as the author says in a slightly different context), 'like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion'. That's what you get, in spades.

However, this caution is thrown into the winds in the main body of the text, where no rumour is too flimsy or gossip too scandalous or extreme for the author not to repeat it with huge gusto, describing the action involved in basic Anglo-Saxon four letter words. This is certainly not a book for your maiden aunt.

Is it however, a book for the serious student of Roman history? Here the answer is more nuanced. While no single book on the Julio-Claudians can be anywhere near comprehensive, some of the omissions are startling. Two examples: at the beginning of the book the summary of the upheavals of the first century BC is accomplished with huge flair but barely a single mention of Sulla; and at the end of the book, Nero's reign is described without a single mention of Corbulo (the general whose execution by Nero did more than any other single act to turn the army against him). Given the clearly evident depth of research elsewhere, these omissions cannot be accidental. The author is telling 'a' story of the Julio-Claudians, not 'the' story, and those items which are too awkward to fit easily into his narrative are seamlessly edited out.

Perhaps for the same reason, we are told much of how Caligula's outré violation of social norms delighted the Roman people almost as much as it outraged the fuddy-duddy senate. However in portraying Caligula as the popular darling, that emperor's famous wish that 'the Roman people had but one neck, that I might sever it with a single blow', requires either explaining away, or simply omitting, so it does not appear in the book. Likewise, from a Roman perspective the 'jaw-dropping weirdness' of Jewish customs with which the author later has some fun would be mitigated if it were mentioned that the Jewish Herod Agrippa was one of Caligula's closest friends, so Herod Agrippa does not appear in the narrative.

In a way, biographies of the Julio-Claudians are like actors' portrayals of Shakespeare characters. Each can be given a very different interpretation. Holland has gone for Augustus the brilliant deceiver and Tiberius the upright but ultimately despairing and cynical conservative. Caligula is stone-cold sane, but a thoughtful and ingenious sadist. Claudius is a careful politician slightly out of depth in hidden political currents, and Nero the master of blending reality and fantasy. Each of these characters is wonderfully portrayed. The author expertly shows how with each emperor, unlimited power combined with human failings and a clear understanding of the very real dangers of the job to made the Julio-Claudians the way they were.

It might be argued that, for instance, Nero is given too much praise for the contemptible person and very bad ruler that he actually was. Nor, given the evidence of the original sources, were the Roman people quite as taken in by the Neronian glamour as the author himself appears at times to be. Nevertheless, the Nero who emerges from this description is a truly memorable individual whose excesses appear comprehensible, if not excusable.

Therefore in many ways, this book is rather like the subject matter itself – larger than life, and presenting an illusion so beguiling that it seems almost a shame to peek behind the scenes.

There is much here that the professional historian will disagree with, and disagree with vehemently - while still thoroughly enjoying the book. On the other hand, for anyone looking to meet the Julio-Claudians for the first time, to understand their lives and the brilliant, bloody era in which they lived, this is an ideal introduction.

Philip Matyszak is the author of Hercules: The First Superhero

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Union Jack House of Caesar for the UK