Book Review: Dynasty the rise and fall of the house of Caesar by Tom Holland.

Hardcover: 512 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown (3 Sept. 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1408703378


What a fine job Little Brown Books have done. A dramatic dust jacket featuring the work of Gareth Blayney graces Dynasty. A production with something of an American gloss to it, fire seems to be the colour scheme, perhaps mirroring the actions of Nero and yay! No gold embossed writing. Instead they have used a silver depressed version which though worried me at first proved resistant to touch and handling. Inside we find 418 reading pages with a multitude of maps and graphs showing the family trees of the Dynasty as it progressed. To the rear is a timeline, dramatis personae, notes, bibliography and index. Two blocks of colour pictures liven things up and give faces and places to names. The photography of Holland himself, Wikipedia and Sophie Hay feature prominently including one more illustration from the cover artist. It’s a weighty book, but it feels as a book should, tough on the outside and crisp on the inside.

Dynasty, the rise and fall of the house of Caesar “Is the portrait of a family that transformed Rome”. It is a feast for the senses, and an assault upon them. A book that could only have been written by an author steeped in the subject at hand, there are very few facets of Roman culture, religion and history that Tom Holland cannot link in symbolism to another. In so doing Holland is firing masses of information at the reader per page, often with the inexhaustible and consistent quality of a merciless bombardment a Roman army might have aimed at a hostile city. You don’t always have foreknowledge of what weapon threw the boulder that demolishes your house, but from the arc of its fall you know where it comes from. This is a torrent however that has the attribute of an fluid and honestly delightful prose, enviable in its near seamless advance from beginning to end, blending a coherent and meaningful narrative in which the centuries fall away and yet, we can still feel their weight.
In replying to a tweet on Twitter, Holland explained that the book was ruder than Rubicon. It is so. He does not shy away from much. He has the ability to discuss the merits of the Roman’s more arcane obsession with ribald frankness, and then explain with no less assertiveness that the sordid proclivities of some of the Caesar’s and their family members was an affront to old fashioned Republican morals. And that the abrogation of the natural way of things rather depends of how the Romans perceived the “natural way”. It is in itself very Roman.
This is in that sense a very Roman book, told from a Roman point of view. I have no doubt that Augustus would have praised the author for it, but secretly made sure his readers lost faith in him, that Tiberius would have banned it, that Caligula would have laughed at it and then invited Holland to court so he could have invented some cruel mind game at his expense for it, Claudius would have tried to do something very low key about it, and Nero would have had to ponder on whether it truly reflected his artistic greatness and depending on the answer had him murdered or given a position at court.
In the author’s estimation the modern love of drama on TV and characters that are loved for hate come directly down to us from this line of infamous rulers, who’s story is told in Dynasty. Much is devoted to the rise, Caesar, and Augustus then levels off with Tiberius before going into the downward spiral of the first ruling family of Rome. In his last Roman foray Holland told the tale of the destruction of the Roman Republic, and this ground is briefly recovered here, and then picks up were he left off, with the ascension of Augustus. A man whose brilliance is evident in, not only how he brought order out of chaos and founded a dynasty, but how well and effectively he hid the bodies. As opposed to his descendants, who rather than rule with subtlety became increasingly public in their manoeuvres. From the grim and taciturn Tiberius, who went from a colourless but dignified soldier trying to play the role left to him by Augustus, keeping a firm hand on the tiller to a paranoid and reactionary recluse, at prey to his own vices, to Caligula, a man who brought a breath of fresh air to the empire, but was seemingly bent on playing out a depraved mind game, perhaps in a warped form of revenge for the treatment of his family, to test how much power he wielded, and inevitably paid the consequences. Claudius, who survived to take power by shielding his ambition and intellect behind the dribbling and shuffling curtain of disability, suddenly torn away by a murderous Praetorian after the death of Caligula. And Nero, who Holland identified as the most fun to write about; the actor, to whom all the world was indeed a stage, whose performance carried worrying echoes of Caligula, though Nero enacted crimes for art’s sake than for personal pleasure. It is not by coincidence that it is the later of the two Caesar’s account for the majority of the asterisks in Dynasty.
This is a new and open look at the Julio Claudians. A look that is not quite revisionary, nor particularly accusatory, but most definitely necessary in light of recent scholarship that reexamines the notorious reputations of men like Nero and Caligula. Of note is the premise that each emperor was a product of the world left behind by their predecessor, a passage marked of all things by a row of trees and some miraculous white chickens. Each reflected elements of the times they emerged from. If they were sick, so too was the Rome that created them.
Most of the classicists I’ve come across have a sort of quirky irreverence about their subject matter. No sooner have they outlined how deeply Roman and Greek history are imbedded in modern culture than they have lapsed into fits of giggles at some bit of naughty classical literature. Often archness and speaking with the tongue firmly jammed into the cheek are hallmarks, and more often than not downright alien nature of their fields lends itself immeasurably to “in jokes”. They delight in reducing the grandest and most forbidding figures to items of fun, that while at first is seemingly the stuff of playground high jinks is to be honest often exactly what the ancients themselves did. Despite its cruder passages, designed to shock and awe, and make no mistake this is a tale as weird and strange as it is compelling, the tale is told with as much wit as grit and bald faced matter of factness. Holland manages to infuse what can only described as a majestic subject with moments akin to Woodhousian humour, such as when using one of his echoing, semi rhetorical sentences to describe the Moors. He tells us where they lived then goes on to describe their prowess in war and in the same breath explains that their prowess at horsemanship was only matched by their “high standards of dental hygiene”.
Those fortunate enough to have some basis in Roman history will enjoy the nuances to their full extent, thus heightening the appeal of this book, but it should by no means be either flat, boring or dull to those who are oblivious of the early Principate. Indeed as the classically educated Mayor of London has already pointed out, it is a universally attractive book that should appeal to a wide base of people due to its almost novelistic approach and use of short quotations. In my estimation it would be hard for Holland to top his; Persian Fire, which remains my favourite, however this “sequel ” to Rubicon maintains the high standard expected of him and once more confirms Holland as not just an “#EliteSportsman” as he likes to put it on Twitter, but and “Elite Writer” too.


Al Valore. The Sardinian Medal.

In 1856 Victtorio Emanuelle II authorised a special medal to honour 450 men of the British army and Navy (400 going to the former). Similar to the Military Medal of Valour instituted in 1833, the sky blue ribbon suspended a shining silver disc engraved with the name of the recipient and the corps in which they served surrounded by a palm and laurel wreath with the words “Spedizione D’Oriente” written around the edge and the date 1855-1856 at the bottom. On the back was the royal arms of Sardinia surrounded by laurel and palm with the words “Al Valore Militare” inscribed.

Sardinian Medal for Valour awarded to John Sheppard, VC. HMS St Jean d'Arc.
Sardinian Medal for Valour awarded to John Sheppard, VC. HMS St Jean d’Arc.i

Sardinia entered the Crimean war in 1855, politically Vittorio Emanuelle hoped to strengthen his links with France by helping Napoleon III defeat the Russians. The disciplined lines of dark uniformed infantry and cavalry arrived in the Crimea and made a great impression on the British when they paraded under General Màrmora. The elite Bersiglieri with their feathered helmets, rapid March and high spirited bugle playing were particularly noted, and one British officer observed that because the Sardinians and the British had never quarrelled before, unlike in the case of the French, when they cheered each other it was always wholeheartedly.

Sardinian Medal for Valour awarded to Gunner John Bull, Royal Marine Artillery. Held in the Royal Maritime Museum Greenwich
Sardinian Medal for Valour awarded to Gunner John Bull, Royal Marine Artillery. Held in the Royal Maritime Museum Greenwich. Royal Maritime Museum Greenwich.

The 18,000 Sardinians arrived in time to join the French in the often overlooked Battle of the Chernaya, in which 9,000 participated. Overall 2,050 Sardinians died of wounds and disease during their deployment. After the war the allies sent out medals to each other, in order to strengthen their diplomatic ties. Sardinia’s is not only one of the most attractive, but also highly collectable due to the fact they are personalised. A fine example of how, even the smaller allied nations recognised the courage of the others.

Sardinian War Medal awarded to Private John Fahey, 3rd (The East Kent) Regiment of Foot (The Buffs), 1856. National Army Museum.
Sardinian War Medal awarded to Private John Fahey, 3rd (The East Kent) Regiment of Foot (The Buffs), 1856. National Army Museum.


Book Review: The Volcano Montserrat and Me by Lally Brown.

Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 2484 KB
Print Length: 285 pages
Publisher: Lally Brown; 2 edition (23 Feb. 2015)



I must have been 7 or 8 when I saw Dante’s Peak. It was the inflight movie on the trip back to Britain from Florida. A journey undertaken mostly in the dark over the wide Atlantic. To my mind it was a rather scary movie, having had no realistic or to be honest scary depictions of volcanos ever put before me, but as I huddled down in my seat, peeking cautiously through the crack of the seat I had no idea that a real Dante’s Peak had been happening hundreds of miles away on the small Caribbean Island of Montserrat. The classic image of a volcano, a distinctive upturned triangle with an orange tip, pouring a gentle smokestack into the sky is the basic picture most of us have of volcanoes. I lost this image reading about the destruction of Pompeii, and it is an image everyone will forget about when they read this book and they find out the reality of what a volcano can do.
Preconceptions about what a volcanic eruption is, and what it truly means to live through one, will take a severe jolt, here. There is much less running around and screaming as there is silent terror, communal fortitude against the might of nature and dogged determination to maintain some kind of normality through not just days but years of constant uncertainty and threat.
Written with the immediacy and detail that comes only from the mind of an eyewitness, Lally Brown recounts her extraordinary years spent living through Hurricanes, earthquakes and almost unceasing volcanic eruptions with her family and friends on Montserrat after the volcano in the Soufrière Hills exploded back into life after its long torpid sleep of many centuries. By any estimation the year 1995 was an unlucky one to arrive in the island, but it puts the author in an excellent position to tell the story of the crisis from ground level and it is done excellently. This is no heroic tale of self glorification, no ego trip to say “I lived through this”, it is a very understated and humble account of a population under siege, very nearly cut off from effective help and increasingly at the mercy of a force of nature of immense power and at the same time of incredible mystery.
In my estimation this is a narrative that would sit at home with Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius, and I think Pliny would be proud. For with wit, sensitivity, sharp observations and a sometimes poignant play by play format Lally tells it as she saw it. About the people she knew, some of whom seem to have been characters a novelist would struggle to create, like “Kamikaze” Jim the Helicopter man, or Beryl the Fruit lady. Of politicians trying to keep order, of nations and officials dropping in to shake their heads sadly and then leave, of sympathetic royal visits, and scientists desperately trying to outthink the volcano. All the while the population reacts to the crisis. The things she saw constantly brought shades of Pompeii to my mind & it was fascinating to read how the volcano both added and took away from the culture of Montserrat.
In short this book is a must read for those interested in volcanoes, in natural disasters, amazing real life events, or just plain old good story telling.


Four Horses.

The Horse in Art  & Heroic Imagination through the centuries and a journey through time from Ancient Egypt to Georgian Britain, showing how the ancient world inspired and influenced the art of later civilisations. What can 4 horses teach us about history, art, heroes and power? Quite allot actually.

Continue reading “Four Horses.”