Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar

By Tom Holland

Doubleday | 2015 | 419 pages | $30.00

Reviewed by Michael Carey

Tom Holland is a uniquely gifted author. He has been recognized time and again for his work, and not just for the Historical books he has written. The subject matter of his non-fiction seems to be centered around the Mediterranean Sea and the progress of Western Civilization.

To date he has covered from the Greek-Persian Wars through the founding of the Global Arab Empire. Recently Holland once again set his sights on the Roman Empire. In Rubicon, he told the story of Julius Caesar’s rise to power, and now in Dynasty, Holland continues the story of the house that Caesar built.

The descendants of Julius Caesar produced five rulers of Rome. The transition from the Republic (whose supporters cut down their would be leader on the ides of March rather than see him rule) to the Empire we all know it became is a subtle, but powerful, tale of ambitious, intelligent, and ruthless men and women. It is also a story of death, loss, and fear.

In the wake of civil war, a war that brutalized and shook the foundation of Rome to its core, the citizens desired any alternative to the shadows of their immediate past.

Octavius, now known better as Augustus, was young, but he dared to give the people what they wanted. The methods of his rise, as disreputable as they are rumored to be, led way to peace, a peace the Romans would give almost anything to keep.

Augustus put away his childish games when his power was solidified and became first man of the republic. His genius to play the system saw his rise to divine status and his chosen successor’s rise to leadership of the Senate and the whole of the Roman Empire.

The following four rulers of Rome were as diverse as they were eccentric. Each had peculiar characteristics that define their legacy. Tiberius, son of Livia, Augustus’ second wife, and the height of the ancient Claudian line, succeeded his stepfather. As a staunch and methodical general, he committed himself to Roman virtue, but Rome was not what it had once been, or what it was meant to be.

He strived to live the Rome ideal, but lived long enough to make a mockery of his ruling class with epic and mythical perversions.

Caligula was an expert at playing the game. Learning from Tiberius and being born a great-grand son of Augustus, the emperor, whose name means “little bootkins”, bided his time. When he was clear of Tiberius, his true nature became apparent. He was a playful ruler, but his games, his pleasure, lay in cruelty.

Claudius, a son of Tiberius and uncle to Caligula, was written off at a young age due to his disabilities, but out of the spotlight, he was a dedicated historian. When his opportunity came, he was quickly moved into power and he sought to use his knowledge do great things in Rome. As with others in the dynasty of Caesar, he grew suspicious and rightly so.

Nero was ever the actor. He loved to make a show of everything he did, from the murder of his mother to competing in the Olympic games. He secured himself as the end of the Dynasty with his actions.

Great ambition and strong character saw the Caesar Dynasty installed. Strong character and self-interest led to its downfall. Tom Holland carries along this history with great affection. At times you see the great admiration with which he holds these leaders of the world, perverted as they might be. But this enthusiasm fortifies the book. It is seen in his efforts to streamline and make narrative of the thematic and historic points he wishes to make.

The book is more or less written in consecutive order in regards to the time passing, but within any section there may be time lapses, Holland uses to ground the points he wishes to touch on. Tom Holland does a spectacular job of bringing the various avenues of his research into a pointed story. The substance of Dynasty, is historical, and dense by nature, but the author dances through the period, informing the reader of all the interesting and intriguing details, the back stories, and even making note of the rumors and unknowable details that comprise this awe-inspiring time in history.

Holland has received praise for his translation of Herodotus’ The Histories, and Herodotus was known as the Father of History. It seems relevant that Holland continues to strive to bring history to the world in an interesting and narrative way. It seems as if he fathering a present age movement of exploring history through narrative.

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