Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar

by Tom Holland, Little, Brown 2015, Hc 512 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1408703373.

Tom Holland has given us an account of the early empire and the emperors from Augustus to Nero.  This is a popular history giving the outline of the narrative with minimal notes or historical argument.  For Holland the story is the all-important thing.  He writes a text that is factual but which has the forward narrative thrust of fiction. All the good scenes are there already in Tacitus, Suetonius or the other less well-known historians and Tacitus sometimes provides the best lines as well, such as  “Occidat dum imperet” as Agrippina says about Nero (although Latin is largely absent from the text and everything is translated).  As someone who was introduced to this period of Roman history from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, I wish this volume had been available to me when I was a student.  Holland does not spare us the details of the sex and violence of the emperors and writes without prevarication or euphemism about Caligula’s and Nero’s excesses (as well as Augustus’ and Tiberius’).  It might be argued that he is insufficiently sceptical about some of the stories that were attached to the emperors by those with an anti-imperialist agenda, but often those with monstrous reputations seem to get off a bit lightly.  Holland takes the emperors as they were on their own terms and from the point of view of those in the society that surrounded them, in such an empathetic way that extraordinary behaviour on their part seems to emerge as the new normal.  This is a 21st century history in that it does not seek to judge or expect these characters to adhere to a particular morality but to evaluate them in their own terms (which is a very 21st century attitude).  We learn how they manipulated their own images, how they were conscious of their own traditions and how they subverted them.  The overall impression Holland leaves us with is that 1st century Rome was an ultra-violent place, where the value of life was cheap.  Help is given to the reader in the form of maps and the essential family trees (no-one can master Julio-Claudian family politics without a detailed knowledge of who was married to whom, and who was whose son/daughter).  The list of dramatis personae is largely unhelpful as the characters are listed by type – conspirators, slaves, survivors – and if you need to look someone up you really don’t know which group they will be in.   Footnotes are kept to a minimum and refer mainly to original sources, useful to see who exactly who was the origin of a particularly striking tale or anecdote.  There is a bibliography but hardly any discussion of controversial historical points.  It is quite liberating to be freed of the apparatus of scholarly discourse and to read for the thrill of finding out (or being reminded of) simply what happened next.  The awful details make for uncomfortable reading sometimes, but the narrative is compelling and to be recommended for anyone coming new to this period to establish the outlines of these famous figures, as well as to a general reader who will find this a good read, and even someone familiar with the period who would like to be reminded what a colourful story there is to be told here and what great writers there were around then to fashion the material into what we now call history.

John Bulwer