Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
Tom Holland
Little, Brown  512pp  £25

In Terence Rattigan’s play, The Browning Version, a school teacher makes this case for studying the classics: ‘How can we mould civilised beings if we no longer believe in civilisation?’ Reading Tom Holland’s Dynasty, I wonder if ancient Rome is rather less useful than Rattigan thought. 

It is a catalogue of depravity: assassinations, adulteries, tortures and syphilitic lunacy. It is also very funny. Holland recounts how Nero tried to murder his mother with a collapsing boat. The roof fell in all right, but Agrippina survived. A friend splashing about in the water cried out ‘I am Agrippina!’ to attract rescue – and was promptly ‘clubbed to death with oars and poles’. The real Agrippina swam to shore, crawled home and sent a letter to Nero, telling him what happened. A little while later, soldiers arrived to finish off the job. ‘Strike my belly!’, she demanded. Agrippina went the way of heroes: looking her murderer in the eye.

What on Earth is the student supposed to learn from this? If you are going to kill your mother, do not scrimp on the boat building? Looking back on my own schooldays, I suspect that all Latin exposed me to was complicated vocab and pure filth. The lives of the Caesars were pornographic in their sexual and violent content, a tribute not to civilisation but to the old adage that power corrupts.

Then again, Holland does a good job of explaining his characters’ rationale – and they were idealistic about their civic identity. Rome was their home and there was no place quite like it and everything the emperors did was somehow a reflection of its glory. Where else in the world was ruled by a living god? After Nero disembowelled his mother, he was treated like a victor in a great war – parades and games followed. Why? Because the murder was so audacious, so outrageous. So very Roman. If might did not necessarily make right, it did confer awesomeness. Holland writes of gladiatorial combat: ‘The excitement that spectators took in watching trained warriors fight for their lives was all the greater for knowing themselves to be the masters.’

In this context, Caligula’s Looney Tune antics do not seem nearly so unhinged. To Holland, he was simply the most honest of the emperors, the one who bothered least to pretend he was an equal with the Senate: ‘It was an honesty, though, as pitiless as the African sun.’ Caligula parodied the moral pretentions of the Roman aristocracy; he rubbed their noses in their hypocrisies. To the people he offered spectacle and money. On return from campaign he stood in the street and threw out gold and silver coins: ‘In the resulting stampede, huge numbers were crushed to death – including over two hundred women and a eunuch.’ His rule was, as Plato forewarned, a tyranny of the appetites. It is what happens when a mob endorses a dictator who gives them what they want until their bellies explode.

Some of Holland’s characterisations surprise. I came to quite like Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the arrogant governor of Syria, who was accused by the Roman mob of killing their beloved Germanicus, nephew of Emperor Tiberius. Piso loathed Germanicus because he regarded his monarchical style as unrepublican and his sympathy for local culture as unRoman. But he was almost certainly innocent of the prince’s death and Tiberius’ failure to save him was a heavy, personal betrayal. Discovering that the Senate was against him, the poor man went home and slit his own throat. Indeed, if the student is to learn anything from the classics, then it is not how to live but how to die: with gusto and deny the public their sordid execution. The discovery that Holland is particularly good at writing about violent decadents comes as no surprise. The only question is what he could possibly turn his hand to next. I seem to remember from school that Jacobean drama was suitably bloody. The veneer of civilisation was just as thin then, too.

This is a thrilling book by one of the country’s best popular historians. Holland’s secret is that he started his career writing fiction and he brings to his histories a flare for narrative and character. He has always chosen subjects that suit his style well, ranging from the birth of Islam to the foundation of the Medieval church. He likes wide open spaces and epic conflagrations. There is something genuinely breathtaking to his prose. 

Tim Stanley is the author of Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionised American Politics (Dunne Books, 2014)

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