Hardcover: 512 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown (3 Sept. 2015)
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.