Magazine article The Spectator

'Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar', by Tom Holland - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar', by Tom Holland - Review

Article excerpt

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

Little, Brown, pp.512, £25, ISBN: 9781408703373

According to Francis Bacon, the House of York was 'a race often dipped in its own blood'. That being so, one wonders what Bacon made of Rome's Julio-Claudian dynasty, the gore-spattered family that gave the empire its first five rulers, and the subject of Tom Holland's latest popular history of the ancient world.

Recounting one of the era's many fratricidal civil wars, Holland rightly observes: 'The aptitude of the Roman people for killing, which had first won them their universal dominion, was now unleashed upon themselves.' And no one was more adept at such incestuous slaughter than the imperial family itself.

The dynasty's strongman founding father, Augustus, was probably the least murderous of the lot and had many positive reforms to his credit. After avenging his great-uncle Julius Caesar's murder by destroying his assassins, and his own erstwhile ally Marc Antony, Augustus seized the reins of power himself. His achievements as 'Princeps Civitas' ('first citizen' rather than formal emperor) included expanding the empire by conquest, reforming its chaotic taxation system, creating the elite Praetorian Guard and restructuring the constitution to ease Rome's path from a republic to a hereditary monarchy ruled by his own family.

When Augustus (unusually) died aged 75 in his own bed, apparently of natural causes, his widow Livia seized effective power, making her son by her first marriage, Tiberius, the new emperor. For it was a feature of the first family that its female members were at least as ruthless, rapacious and ambitious as their menfolk. Though he had been a successful soldier, Tiberius proved a dud emperor. Gloomy and fearful, he steered well clear of Rome, only occasionally launching Stalin-style purges of his relatives and rivals, and shut himself away on the island of Capri, where he devoted himself to sexual debauchery.

An ingenious pervert, Tiberius allegedly trained boys and even weaning infants in the art of swimming between his legs in his pool and performing fellatio upon him. Reporting such lurid stories, Holland is judicious in their presentation. Though his principal sources, the historians Suetonius and Tacitus, give him more than enough sensational material to paint a perverse picture of crime and decadence, he is careful in how he uses it and often acquits his subjects of the grosser accusations against them. …

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