Mirrored Bedrooms - All the Rage in Ancient Rome; HISTORY

Daily Mail (London), October 2, 2015 | Go to article overview

Mirrored Bedrooms - All the Rage in Ancient Rome; HISTORY


Byline: MATTHEW DENNISON DYNASTY by Tom Holland (Little, Brown)

THE Roman historian Suetonius attributed to the Emperor Tiberius the statement that to lead the Roman people was 'to hold a wolf by its ears'.

In Tom Holland's impressive new survey of Rome's first imperial rulers -- the so-called Julio-Claudians: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero -- these six remarkable men are, in their different ways, every bit as wolf-like as the people they governed.

In place of an ancient system of government by a clique of aristocratic families, all of whom paid lip service to the idea of working for the greater good, Caesar and Augustus created an absolute monarchy. In the hands of their successors, this became a terrifying tyranny.

All six men were capable of astonishing extremes of cruelty and barbarism: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero omitted to hide the fact. Both Caligula and Nero were almost certainly mentally unstable, delusional paranoia plagued Tiberius, and Claudius suffered from physical disabilities, speech impediments and a disastrous line in wives.

Despite it all, the Roman Empire flourished during the century of their erratic rule.

As I discovered when I wrote my own account of early imperial Rome, The Twelve Caesars, it's a period marked by what Holland calls 'lurid glamour'.

The story of how a single family made themselves all-powerful and carefully dismantled the workings of an age-old democracy includes violence, treachery, back-stabbing, extraordinary luxury and, apparently, every possible sexual deviation and perversion -- from underwater oral sex to voluntary castration and rooms lined with magnifying mirrors. No family in history rivals Augustus's heirs for undiluted nastiness and lust for power. No soap opera would dare to include such improbable plotlines.

This is history in which fact and fiction overlap, rigorously researched and lightened with dashes of humour.

'To the Roman elite,' we read, 'nothing screamed success quite like a sprawling estate with water features.' Julius Caesar was an all-conquering general who wowed the people of Rome. Lacking his military prowess, Augustus became a politician of genius. …

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