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Winter Reading: Tom Holland’s Dynasty – The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar

January 14, 2016


Imagine you are a great-great-grandparent of Maximus, the hero of Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator. It’s 1AD. You live on that beautiful farm among the softly waving cornfields. You visit the local market town occasionally to buy your wine and fish sauce, and to sell your surplus produce.

You exchange gossip with other notables in your town, perhaps about the comings and goings in Rome, that faraway centre of your universe. Perhaps you hear about the latest laws enacted at the prompting of the Princeps – the First Citizen – Augustus Caesar, emperor in all but name.

But apart from the occasional visit by the local tax collectors, your life is untouched by Rome. You have your family, your retainers and your slaves who cultivate the fields. Life is good. It’s been thirty years since civil war raged through your region, as Octavian, now known as Augustus, sought to destroy the factions opposed to his leadership.

Life will continue to be good for the seventy years of your life. Within the frontiers of the empire, peace reigns, even if Rome’s legions are relentlessly pushing to extend those frontiers.

Should you have any cause to visit Rome, you would be entering a different world. A city packed with a million people. Marble temples, golden statues and private gardens co-exist with ramshackle wooden tenements and narrow streets where the sun never shines. And everywhere the stench of butchery, sewage and tanning.

The city is full of slaves, ex-slaves, tradesmen and merchants. They are fed by handouts of grain and entertained from time to time by lavish displays of gladiatorial combat, recreations of famous battles and contests between humans and wild animals. Just as depicted in Gladiator.

The elite, descendants of noble families whose lineage dates back to the time when Rome was ruled by kings, and merchants who have made it good through trade with distant provinces, spend part of their time in the city, but escape when they can to their glittering villas lining the bay of Naples, or to their estates in the fertile hinterland beyond the city.

We’re talking about those who survive the vicious politics of the city, of course. When Augustus, who established the legitimacy of his power by cleverly harnessing the appearance, if not the substance, of ancient traditions, dies in 14AD, the in-fighting gets worse.

There are plots against his paranoid successor, Tiberius, and internecine rivalry within the family of Augustus as a succession of potential heirs die of mysterious causes.

Things get even darker – at least for the elite – when Tiberius is succeeded by Caligula, whose contempt for the established order grows more open every year. Mad? Who knows. Certainly vicious, sexually eclectic and capricious, though wildly popular with the rabble.

Caligula is assassinated by an officer of his guard whom he has mocked for his effeminacy once too often. His successor is his uncle Claudius, who is physically impaired but highly intelligent. Whether by accident or by a carefully-planned coup d’etat, he assumes the throne and curbs the excesses of Caligula. He is known to be rather odd because he is only attracted to women. Although to an extent he restores the respect the senatorial elite feels is their due, he is resented because he devolves real power to a trio of highly capable former slaves.

He does, however leave a permanent mark by extending the port of Ostia and adding a new province to the empire – the savage, windswept outpost of Britain.

Claudius foils a plot in which his beautiful wife Messalina is a player, which triggers another bout of bloodshed and paranoia. Eventually he succumbs to a mysterious stomach ailment, possibly brought on by his next wife, who happens to be the mother of his successor, Nero. Poisoned mushrooms, allegedly.

The young Nero begins his rule under the thumb of his mother and the tutelage of Seneca, a man whose philosophical discourses survived the fall of Rome and are with us today. He ends up killing his mother and Claudius’s son – his closest rival for the throne within the imperial family. Seneca is given the opportunity to commit suicide.

Nero fancies himself as a man of culture and athletic prowess. He competes as a singer, poet, lute player and chariot racer in various Greek festivals including the Olympic Games. He wins, of course. And finally he performs before the Roman public to riotous applause. Not something that endears him to the elite who consider that such exhibitionism is unworthy of an emperor.

Then Rome is devoured by a fire that consumes two-thirds of the city. Nero energetically leads the fire-fighting effort, but he can’t escape the accusation that he started the fire himself so that he could clear parts of the city for the massive palace that he subsequently built on the fire-blackened ruins.

More plots, more bloodshed more paranoia. Eventually, the insurrection led by Galba, one of his most experienced generals, brings an end to Nero’s reign. He commits suicide, the last surviving member of the dynasty founded by Augustus.

You, however, growing old in your idyllic farm in southern Spain, see none of this, even if you hear the highlights on the local grapevine. You have lived through the whole period in peace, as have thousands of other landowners in the vast territory controlled by Rome.

That, in a nutshell, is the story Tom Holland tells in Dynasty, his history of Rome’s first five emperors. And beautifully he tells it too. He pulls together the various sources, some at odds with each other, into a compelling narrative. Unlike some historians who like to linger in the eddies with their analyses of the sources, Holland stays in the middle of his fast-flowing historical river, and takes us down white water rides on the way.

While he doesn’t pretend that there are no gaps and inconsistencies in the ancient sources, the whole story hangs together. As the title suggests, it’s the history of a dynasty. And of course we’re fascinated with dynasties, are we not? Each age has its share. Today we have the Kims of North Korea, for example. Successive generations struggling to retain the authority of the founder, becoming more ruthless and bloodthirsty in the suppression of potential opposition. Some relatively benign, others vicious and tyrannical. All eventually imploding through revolution or the arrival of another, stronger, dynasty.

Not just ancient history then. A story as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago.

Tom Holland is probably my favourite historian, not just because of what he writes, but the way he writes. Direct language – sometimes enough to raise the eyebrows of more sober scholars; rhetorical questions that turn exposition into conversation; humour, and the unfailing ability to paint pictures with stories.

He’s also a favourite because he writes about a period that, as someone who grew up with the classics, was always close to my heart. His other books about the period – Rubicon, about Julius Caesar, Persian Fire, about the empire that grappled with classical Greece, In the Shadow of the Sword, the story of the birth of Islam – are all works that I regularly revisit.

I also like him because I follow him on Twitter. He constantly mocks his – shall we say – indifferent skills as a cricketer. He loves hedgehogs. And as he researches a new book, he tweets about what he finds.

In his use of the social media he’s rather like Mary Beard, another of my favourites, who at more or less the same time as Holland published Dynasty, produced  SPQR, a history of Rome from its foundation to the late second century AD. Her emphasis is different. She uses archaeology to present us with evidence that is often at variance with the official myths and hagiographies provided by Roman historians, who, like writers in many authoritarian states in recent times, wrote to agendas best suited to win themselves favour with the powerful.

Beard is often on Twitter, but she also writes a blog, in which she shared the trials and tribulations as well as the joy of producing her latest book.

Her approach, and Holland’s, is something of a departure from the methods of old school historians who labour away in the quiet groves of academe, or, like another favourite, Max Hastings, remain at a magisterial distance from their audiences.

And good for them, because they engage with far a wider audience than just students of history lucky enough to spend time with their professors.

Dynasty is well worth a read – as compelling as any thriller. And should you manage to get a glimpse into the palaces and fortresses of modern dynasties, you would no doubt find much that you would recognise from Holland’s tale of the first five Roman Emperors.

From → Books, History

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