Having found Tom Holland’s Rubicon a worthwhile book, I picked up this one.
Review: Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, Tom Holland, 2015.
In the follow up to his Rubicon, Holland takes up the story of the legendary Julio-Claudian emperors. With 419 pages of text, he covers all the stories of treachery, torture, matricide, fratricide, sexual depravity, assassinations, mutinies, and excess you’ve heard. To that, he explains how Roman sexual mores, religious festivals, family relations, and the plebians’ continued fascination with the dynasty that started with Julius Caesar played a part in everything.
And Holland, particularly in the chapter on Tiberius, “The Last Roman”, approaches his emperors in an empathetic if not sympathetic way.
The prose is stylish with Holland sometimes using very modern terms to give us the flavor of the strange and also familiar Roman imperial culture. He deftly shows how Rome’s own myths reveal something of their character. Specifically, Romans held their race started with a rape, and its resulting issue was suckled by wolves.
In the book’s pages, you find an emperor who tearfully and theatrically threw himself on the mercy of the Roman public (Augusta), an emperor who never wanted the job and descended into an old age of watching aristocratic children recruit mythological sex scenes (Tiberius), an emperor always ready for a very malicious and deadly joke on an aristocrat (Caligula), an emperor incestuously besotted with his niece (Claudius), and an emperor under the domineering thumb of his mother (Nero). But Holland doesn’t skimp on covering the other power players at this time, particularly the eventually divine wife of Augusta, Livia. She may have been married to Augustus, but her primary interest was always furthering the glory of her own family, the Claudians.
But Holland isn’t just writing an update of Suetonius’ salacious Twelve Caesars. He shows the change in Roman politics, how the Roman people and Senate were tamed, first by smooth talk, legal legerdemain, flattery and then open terror into accepting what they long despised – a king. It is a story dependent on the magical place the dynasty of Caesar had in the mind of the Roman public and “the exhaustion of cruelty” after decades of civil war.