Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
Tom Holland’s DynastyA line of hereditary rulers of a country, business, etc.: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar covers the reign of Rome's infamous first five emperors, from Augustus through to Nero, all from the Julio-Claudian dynastyA line of hereditary rulers of a country, business, etc.. For many, these emperors, surrounded as they are by murder, intrigue, and wickedness, represent the worst - and most fascinating - aspects of Roman history.
Holland sets the stage well for the introduction of Octavian, covering in the first chapter a brief history of the Republic (a more detailed version of which is in his earlier work Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic). He correctly says that without an understanding of the late stages of the Republic, it is impossible to understand the place of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He then provides a chatty and often salacious commentary on each of the dynasts in turn, from Augustus through to Nero, taking a broadly chronological approach which keeps the narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. at a decent pace. Perhaps an epilogue, a brief survey of the Year of the Four Emperors and Vespasian’s rise to power, could have been useful to show both the immediate and the longer-lasting effects of the Julio-Claudians. As another classicist has recently observed, Augustus provided the mould for every emperor for the next 200 years.
Tom Holland is a fantastic writer, penning a narrative history that pulls the reader along. Like much of Holland’s work, you can tell he’s enjoyed writing it. The prose is flowing and deliciously descriptive, and the addition of the family tree is useful for navigating the minefield of the Julio-Claudian family. Sadly, the downside of such a strong narrative is a lack of critical thought, and a willingness to take gossip at face value. At times, he makes leaps of, for want of a better word, intuition, that aren't verifiable from the sources. The internal dialogue of the emperors is not available to us, yet Holland makes a number of suppositions which, one can’t help fearing, are based more on an understanding of the present than of the past.
Holland states that the rumours and gossip surrounding the emperors are worthy of study in their own light, as it shows what their subjects thought them capable of. It is true that ‘The anecdotes told of the imperial dynasty, holding up as they do a mirror to the deepest prejudices and terrors of those who swapped them, transport us to the heart of the Roman psyche’, but there is little analysis of this in the text. He does present the question of ‘is it true?’, for example in relation to the tale of Caligula ordering the harvesting of seashells from the beach, but then fails to provide any answer. For the most part, Holland takes a gleeful approach to repeating the seedier rumours that swirled around the Julio-Claudians - I will read many history books to my children, but Dynasty isn’t one of them. Perhaps I should not be surprised: the book’s cover refers to the ‘lurid glamour of the dynasty’, and this sets the tone throughout, but the author doesn't make as much of, or indeed mention, some rumours that are intriguing, such as the alleged poisoning of Augustus by Livia.
There is no doubt that Tom Holland knows his material, but he relies perhaps too much on Suetonius. He does make use of contradictory sources, including Tacitus, who was ‘immeasurably his [Suetonius’] superior as a pathologist of autocracy’, but there is no serious analysis of the writers' purposes or prejudices. A popular history will always attempt to leave heavy academic debate to a minimum, but perhaps Holland has sacrificed too much to the flow of the book. As such, the book is relatively low on new insights, and there is little to be gained here that a reading of Suetonius would not provide. I believe I was a good few chapters in before I was inspired to say ‘huh’ about anything.
I have to admit that, despite its faults, I enjoyed the book, and I will re-read it. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, tabloid-style introduction to the Julio-Claudians, and one that drips with descriptive delights, then this is it. Readers of gossip columns will enjoy Dynasty, probably as would a number of Romans (and certainly Suetonius). But if you’re looking for a more rounded and considered popular history of Rome, perhaps Mary Beard’s new book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, would be more appropriate.
Tom Holland's Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar can be purchased from Amazon. Published in London by Little, Brown (2015)