Dynasty – Tom Holland

Dynasty is subtitled The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar.  It’s a very straightforward and clear account of the Roman empire during the hundred years straddling the birth of Christ,  the new starting date for time itself, the shift from BC to AD.

Holland begins with a brief summary of the rise of Rome as a power in Italy, focusing on the issue of fratricide inherent in the founding story of Romulus and Remus, and seeing this as a symbol for the internal strife that was to tear Rome apart at both the beginning and the end of the Caesars’ reign.  He looks briefly at other Romans who achieved high status, such as Scipio Africanus, who came to the fore in the Carthaginian Wars, and argues that as Rome expanded it became almost inevitable that the old republic, based on two consuls holding joint office for a year, would fail.  The distances became too vast, and the challenges of managing the empire too complex.

The shift from Republic to Empire is seen as a gradual and inevitable transition, with Pompey prefiguring Caesar’s rise to power, and the denouement of this particular phase of empire is described in some detail: the famous triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar and Lepidus, the role of Antony and Cleopatra and the final rise of Octavius.  It’s a well known story, and if you know your Shakespeare, much of it is encapsulated in two of the Roman plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Or try Plutarch’s Lives, which was Shakespeare’s source.

The death of Antony and Cleopatra leads on to the rise of Octavius, known as Emperor Augustus, and from here Holland traces the development of empire through the generations of the Caesars until the death of Nero in AD 68, culminating with the rise of Vespasian, who became emperor in AD 69.

Holland tells this story in three sections, providing three useful family trees, which show clearly the intermarriages and complex relationships in the line of Augustus. He explains the ways that Augustus maintained his hold on power, focusing on his puritanical streak, and his apparent obedience to the Roman gods and to Roman tradition. Augustus was adept at enhancing his own power, becoming at the same time the proponent and the embodiment of Rome’s gods and traditions, and in the end being deified.  Holland shows how Caesar manipulated and intimidated the senate, and describes the way in which the people of Rome responded to him.  He describes the development of Rome and its laws during this period.

The following sections of the book repeat this process in much detail with respect to the Caesars who followed – Caligula and Nero being the most well known.  He writes about the politics of the time, focusing on Rome itself, on the challenges it faced in the far flung reaches of its empire, on its military conquests and on the culture of its people.  We see how events in Germany, where a legion was massacred, and in Britain, where revolt led to many Roman deaths and eventually reprisals on a huge scale, both affected the emperors status and ability to rule, and were used by them to enhance their power.

Tom Holland is a writer I know well, and like.  Persian Fire, Millennium, The Rubicon and In the Shadow of the Sword: I’ve read them all.  Classical history, the history of ancient empires has always been an interest.  As a child I enjoyed classical antiquity because it’s often about military conquest and because it links geography and history.  The sweep of empires and civilisations provides a good story and generally the pernickety details are avoidable – the dates and names of kings which typify British history for example.

In time the influence of this period on modern civilisation became an interest that went beyond wars and battles.  Civilisation was formed here, genuinely. Democracy began in Athens, whilst the development of two power centres, which was the Romans’ practical response to tyranny, is at the heart of modern democratic structures.  Religion developed through this time, events in Israel giving rise to the three religions of the Word, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. There are political similarities with today that are fascinating, and should not be ignored: the way rulers manipulate large populations is not very different in ancient Rome from today – circuses and bread, oratory and tradition.

Tom Holland writes well. Though some people criticise his style, I find it interesting.  He often develops broader ideas from specific examples which he brings to life in quite dramatic language.  At times perhaps he overdoes that poetic description.  Holland often puts himself in the shoes of his protagonists, explaining things from their viewpoint, or showing elements of their ignorance or their blinkered perspective.  He is not averse to some of the tricks of the fiction writer, using flashbacks at the beginning of chapters, or fleshing out the details of historical figures in ways that can only be based on his imagination.  He generally doesn’t brook or consider alternative explanations or possibilities, rushing ahead with his narrative.  I like this approach.  My only criticism would be that at times there are so many details, so many events that they blur into each other, though I blame myself for that, my poor concentration.

I recommend this book as a good general introduction to the Caesars, and an interesting read.




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