Interview with Tom Holland on Dynasty
Interview by Philip Matyszak
Philip Matyszak for UNRV: First of all congratulations on Dynasty - it is a great read. What inspired you to write the book?
Tom Holland: My first book on ancient history, Rubicon, covered the fall of the Roman Republic, and I was eager to take the story forward the moment I had finished it. My publishers, though, were keen to see me explore other areas of interest, and so it was only after I had written histories of the Persian Wars, Western Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries, and the rise of Islam, that I finally returned to the 1st century BC, and the mutation of the Roman Republic into an autocracy.
UNRV: One of the things that struck me is that there were several striking omissions from the narrative - e.g. no mention of Sulla in the description of the first century BC and no discussion of whether Caligula was actually insane, or of the existence of Corbulo (a key character from Nero's reign). Why is this?
Tom Holland: Sulla’s career was extensively covered in Rubicon, and I did not want to reheat cold meats. I do actually discuss the issue of Caligula’s supposed insanity in the introduction, and my narrative of his career is my attempt to demonstrate that almost all the stories told of him can be explained as an expression of his chill and cynical cunning, rather than of lunacy. Armenia, where Corbulo campaigned, is mentioned for the role it plays in Nero’s grandstanding - but since the focus of ‘Dynasty’ is the imperial capital rather than the provinces, I did not think that the details of his campaigns were strictly relevant.
UNRV: You mention that much of the scandalous rumour about the Julio-claudians probably tells us more about the Roman people than the Caesars - how much of this 'gossip' do you personally believe to be true? (One notes the frequent use of 'was said to' and 'allegedly' and similar distancing techniques in your text.)
Tom Holland: Ultimately, it’s impossible to know. I suspect that Livia’s private activities were indeed, as Syme wonderfully puts it, “deep and devious”; I think on balance that she was responsible for the execution of Agrippa Postumus; and I’m pretty confident, based on the principle of cui bono, that Agrippina did poison Claudius. I have my doubts about some of the more repellant activities attributed to Tiberius on Capri. They are important, because they reflect the Roman presumption that only a monstrous pervert would seek to seclude himself from the public gaze, but it is important to counterpoint such gossip with the far more favourable reports of a provincial such as Philo.
UNRV: Given the strong feelings of those who make up our original sources, is it possible to write a truly objective history of the first Caesars?
Tom Holland: Yes, Tacitus and Suetonius both often have axes to grind, but there is enough source material - coins and archaeological remains included - to enable a historian to aspire, at the very least, to a measure of objectivity.
UNRV: A lot of your book focused on image, manipulating public perception and propaganda. While admitting that Nero was a master in this field, I would argue that your focus on this aspect of his reign glosses over what a disastrous leader and administrator he actually was. Any comment?
Tom Holland: You have clearly been suborned by Flavian propaganda!
UNRV: In the book you don't say explicitly whether the Julio-Claudians as a whole were actually good for Rome and the people of the empire. Would you care to take a position on this?
Tom Holland: I think the balance sheet is too complicated for a 1066 And All That style judgement on whether they were Good or Bad Things. That said, the salient fact for most of the millions who lived under their rule is that they provided the world with peace. As I point out in my introduction, it was not for nothing that later Christian writers would see the hand of divine providence in their maintenance of the pax Romana.
UNRV: If you had been a Roman senator in the civil wars, whom would you have supported - Caesar or Pompey, and later Mark Antony or Octavian? Why?
Tom Holland: Like Atticus during Caesar’s war with Pompey, and Pollio during Octavian’s with Antony, I would have sought to maintain a dignified neutrality.
UNRV: Your writing shows a deep interest in the ancient world - what brought this about?
Tom Holland: I was the kind of young boy who was obsessed by dinosaurs. I would walk up the lane behind my house, look at the cows, and wish they were sauropods. My instinctive presumption that things were more glamorous, exciting and colourful in the past is something so deeply rooted that I cannot remember a time when I didn’t have it. When I was eight, and I moved from an obsession with prehistory to one with ancient history, it seemed to me a perfectly logical progression. What was Rome, after all, if not the tyrannosaur of its day - the apex predator, as thrilling and terrifying as it is now reassuringly extinct?
UNRV: Are there any plans for future books on Rome or ancient Greece in the pipeline?
Tom Holland: Yes, I will be taking the story forward as far as the Antonines, in a book that will be focussed much more on the provinces than on Rome itself.
UNRV: Mr. Holland, thank you for your time.
- ...some more Interviews!
- Interview with Dr. Philip Matyszak
- Interview with Adrian Goldsworthy
- Interview with John R. Clarke
Tom Holland is the author of Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, which won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. Persian Fire, his history of the Graeco-Persian wars, won the Anglo-Hellenic League’s Runciman Award in 2006. His third work of history, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom, was published in the autumn of 2008. In the Shadow of the Sword, covers the collapse of Roman and Persian power in the Near East, and the emergence of Islam. Dynasty, about the first Caesars, has been published by Little, Brown Book Group this autumn.
Philip Matyszak is a British non-fiction author, primarily of historical works relating to ancient Rome and Greece. Matyszak has a doctorate in Roman history from St John's College, Oxford. In addition to being a professional author, he also teaches ancient history for Madingley Hall Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge University.