Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House Of Caesar by Tom Holland


Looking back to the misty days of my schooling, Rome was one of those highlights of history lessons that appeal to teen aged boys.  The period has everything you could want to distract you from the fact that you are actually learning.  Rome, two millennia on, still thrills, delights, repulses and titillates like no other that has come since.  One thing that does slip from mind usually that the line of Julies Caesar only lasted until 69 CE, yet produced the Emperors that most spring to mind.  A decade after he crossed the Rubicon, Tom Holland (Historian, cricketer and not Spiderman) has returned to Rome to tell us the story of the men and remarkably formidable women that took up Caesar’s mantle and finished the dismantling of The Republic.

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (Die-na-sty people, not Din-ast-y) begins, as all good tales should, at the very beginning. Rome, legend has it, was founded with the rape of a princess by Mars himself and her resultant twins Remus and Romulus, as brothers do, fighting for supremacy.  In what could be considered the books pre-title sequence, Holland takes us through a whistle-stop history of Rome; from Romulus’ fratricide, to founding of The Republic that ousted the Kings and brings us to The Ides of March, where he finished Rubicon, more or less, off.  Here Holland gets into the meat of his subject, the Princeps of Rome that would be come it’s first Emperors, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.  Each Emperor is considered in turn, as well as in the greater political significance of each of their periods as Rulers of the World.  The story is a rather well trodden path, but Holland, with a love for his subject that is as infectious as it is enlightening, carries you along, rarely pausing for breath.  Whether it is Augustus’ building of the incredible façade of the power of a puppet Senate, Tiberius’s assured, austere rule degenerating into an orgy of deviance on Capri, Caligula’s harnessing of the mob akin to the Divine Julius himself, Claudius’s rebuilding of Rome despite many disabilities or Nero quite literally out Caligula-ing Caligula, each tale is told within the framework of the environment each man found, or made, for himself.  While quite compartmentalised in it’s telling, Dynasty does not flinch from going from triumph to depravity as fast as the subjects themselves.  Adding colour to the portrait of the men at the top are the equally remarkable women, who come across as more than a match for any of the Princeps themselves.  While the men in the tale hold power, the women tend to hold the reigns.  From Octavian’s wife Julia, who played the game better than many of the men around her and ended up deified alongside her husband, to the remarkable Agrippina, wife of Germanicus, mother of Caligula, who’s power and influence where unrivalled, until she was imprisoned and starved herself to death.  Her daughter,  Agrippina, mother of Nero, sister to Caligula, played the game better than her mother, until her son tired of her and she too was removed from the scene.  The above does lead to one of the issues with any book about Rome, the incredible unimaginativeness of Roman parents to name their children.  Granted, the names they repeatedly used are far better than the monikers some poor kids get saddled with today by idiot parents, but this does cause pause in the narrative when your mind quickly has too backtrack and remember who or which was who and who had changed their names when to cover up the fact they we of no relation to whoever was important at the time.  Another small criticism is probably more of a reflection on me than anything else, the family trees throughout the book are maddeningly complex.  Granted, given the all inter-marrying and adoption going on, it is a genealogists nightmare, but the tables hindered me more than once to remember just which line the later Emperors belong too and to whom they did not.  But, frankly, this is reflects more on the Caesarian family and my simple brain than it is upon the author.

Tom Holland has again crafted a wonderful narrative history that fills you with wonder and revulsion in unequal measures.  The later tipping the scale.  The anecdotes are wonderful throughout.  My mind seems to go to the hot water seller in the Forum who didn’t get the memo that Caligula had cancelled all fun upon the death of his mother, and was promptly executed for selling his wares.  Or that there is no Latin word for “Moustache”, or just about any moment with Ovid.  While it does involve the odd hunting back for the aforementioned family trees, and maps, to keep to grips with the monumental scale of the story being told, Dynasty is a fabulous read from the first to the last and leaves you wondering how anyone was left alive to keep Rome going for another 300-odd years?

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar is available now in Hardback and those other formats.


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