Dynasty by Tom Holland

The Roman Republic was tottering on the brink. In the capital, the city’s senate, aristocratic and arrogant, were ever more detached from the lives of the people they supposedly governed. Secure in the belief that they were a chosen elite whose right to rule was built on unshakable foundations, they failed to halt the growing menace within.

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Generals like Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great were leading legions that were more like private armies than state-sponsored troops. They saw their chance of attaining ultimate power and so plunged forward in a mad race for the prize, one that would lead to their murders and centuries of rule by the House of Caesar: the Dynasty of Tom Holland’s title.

Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Claudius and Nero, the emperors of the Julian-Claudian dynasty continue to fascinate us today, second only to World War II in the interest that they generate.

To be the ruler of the world, able to indulge in whatever depraved passions you desired, to poison your enemies whilst they are sitting at your dining table – the baroque cruelty of these men and their wives is like a Greek myth come to life (something not lost on the Caesars themselves).

It’s also a very well-known story so it’s worth asking why Tom Holland should bring a new title onto a very crowded bookshelf. Part of the reason is that he is a deft and witty storyteller. Can you guess who these people are?

The natives were, if anything, even more barbarous than the Germans. They painted themselves blue; they held their wives in common; they wore hair on the upper lip, an affection so grotesque that Latin did not even have a word for it. Nor were their women any better. They were reported to dye their bodies black and even on occasion to go naked. Savages capable of such unspeakable customs were clearly capable of anything

Yes, those are our ancestors, the ancient Britons.

More importantly, Holland is able to bring new light to bear on old stories, and reveal hitherto unknown details about this much-mythologised family.

For instance, after Caesar had been knifed to death, Rome erupted into civil war. Once his murderers had been dispatched, this effectively left Caesar’s trusty number two, Marc Antony locked in a power struggle with the dead man’s adopted son Octavian.

Octavian would reinvent himself as Augustus, the savior of Rome, but Holland shows us the man behind the myth, a general completely dependent on his sidekick, the hardman Agrippa:

Agrippa shared with the taskmaster he served so loyally an unspoken secret. The young Caesar was a hopeless general… At Philipi he had managed to lose his tent to the enemy while spending most of the campaign sick; in the war against Sextus he had suffered two resounding defeats.

Augustus’ rival Marc Antony was little better. Leaving his own troops in the lurch, he famously fled the battle of Actium only to commit suicide along with his lover Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. I had always thought of Antony as one of the great losers of Roman history, but Holland, with his careful unpicking of the dynastic marriages and alliances in the House of Caesar reveals a great irony.

Antony may have lost in war but his descendants would rule as emperors through the marriages of his two daughters. Caligula and Nero were his great-grandchildren while Claudius was his grandson.

The conflict between the heirs of Julius Caesar, Augustus, his psycopathic wife Livia, and Marc Antony would continue to ripple through the generations as they married, divorced and slaughtered each other. By the end of Dynasty, not one natural heir of Augustus remains alive, all victims of the family’s endless internecine battles.

Dynasty is a wild journey through the blood-soaked saga of the Caesars and is highly recommended, even if there isn’t a single shoulderpad in sight.

 

PS If you do read the book, don’t miss the Dramatis Personae at the end, which contains little gems like this:

 THRASYLLUS: Tiberius’s astrologer. Avoided being thrown off a cliff.