Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Octavian the man. Augustus the God.
”When people think of imperial Rome, it is the city of the first Caesars that is most likely to come into their minds. There is no other period of ancient history that can compare for sheer unsettling fascination with its gallery of leading characters. Their lurid glamour has resulted in them becoming the archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts.”
The women are schemers, and the men are ruthless. Even Augustus and Claudius, who are considered the more humane and least insane of the Caesars, also wade through the blood of their enemies, those confirmed and those suspected, to maintain their always tenuous hold on power.
”Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools.
Caligula, lamenting that Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through.
Agrippina, the mother of Nero, scheming to bring to power the son who would end up having her murdered.
Nero himself, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome.”
”The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.”
I discovered Tom Holland when I picked up his first book Lord of the Dead, which was a novel about Lord Byron as a vampire. Of course, Lord Byron would make a perfect vampire. I then started hunting down his other horror novels as assiduously as Van Helsing, and in many cases I had to order them from England to be able to read them.
Then he disappeared.
Or so I thought.
Then I discovered his book Rubicon, which ends where this book begins. At first, I thought it must be a different Tom Holland, but after some research, I discovered it was the same man, a horror scrivner remade into a writer of the horrors of history. He doesn’t list his novels in the first few nonfiction works; after all, he has become a serious writer of history and doesn’t want to muddy the waters with claiming those rather lurid novels that I found to be delicious fun. (As I’m writing about them, I’m getting the itch to go read one again.) In this book, listed along with his nonfiction work, are those early horror novels. He must have reached a point in his career where he no longer had to think of those books as orphaned children, written by another man who was lost in the fetid, murky waters of pulp fiction.
There is a vampire horror novelist still lurking behind those eyes.
The significance of this for you, dear reader, is that his nonfiction books are written to entertain you. That does not mean they are not serious in nature for it is obvious he has done his research. He has a practiced eye, from writing to fiction, to know what readers want to know. For instance, Augustus saves the empire twice from complete destruction, which is actually fascinating with all the power struggles that the death of Julius Caesar causes. What is equally fascinating is that as Augustus grows older and becomes a God (the wheels might have started to come off the chariot), he becomes more conservative. He imposes those views on a traditionally hedonistic Roman population. The problem is the only child of his loins, Julia, doesn’t get the message, or she feels that being the child of a god that she is beyond reproach.
Julia, one of history's most famous adulterers.
The stories regarding her infidelities are numerous and legendary, but for me, the following statement attributed to her actually makes me gasp. ”Far from dismissing the rumours of adultery, she dared to mock the censoriousness of those who spread them. How could the stories that she had cheated on Agrippa possibly be true, she was once asked, when Gaius and Lucius look so very like him. ‘Why,’ she answered, ‘because I only ever take on passengers after the cargo-hold has been loaded.’”
There are plenty of people to scurry back to her father and relate these outrageous statements to him. Whether there is truth in all the allegations that land at her sandals, who can say? She certainly does not quell those rumors, but merely breathes more life into them. The end result is that Julia is exiled to an island by her dictorial father. Ovid, the poet concerned with the artistry of the bedroom, in particular seducing married women, is another thorn in the godly backside of Augustus. He too pushes things too far and is exiled, which is worse than death to a man obsessed with culture.
It is hard to like Augustus in his later years simply because he becomes more concerned about his own immortality, even more than preserving the few remaining members of his family. His heirs have been dropping like flies, and the rumors of his wife Livia poisoning them to clear the way for her son by her first marriage, Tiberius, are becoming harder to ignore.
Germanicus and Agrippina by Rubens, the power couple of the Roman Empire representing all that Rome believed themselves capable of.
Germanicus and his wife Agrippina are the apple of the eye of the Roman Empire. They are not only a beautiful power couple (bigger than Benniffer or Brangelina), but they are also proving very capable quelling any uprisings across the wide expanse of the reach of Rome. She, unlike most Roman wives, travels with her husband on his military campaign so his successes are more their mutual achievements, and that makes the people of Rome love them even more. When Germanicus dies under rather odd circumstances, that clears the way for Tiberius.
Tiberius is so stiff necked and puckered assed that he was must have squeaked like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz when he walked. Holland sums him up very well. ”Bloodstained pervert and philosopher-king: it took a man of rare paradox to end up being seen as both.” We focus on his perversions, but he is actually very capable. Before succeeding Augustus, he wins several critical military campaigns. He just is horrible at promoting himself. He feels above it all and winning is just what he is supposed to do. Why should it be a surprise to anyone? He spends a good deal of time on his pleasure island of Capri and basically tells the world to go screw itself. He has a peaceful reign but, like all the Caesars, certainly becomes ruled by rampant paranoia.
It isn’t paranoia if people are really trying to kill you. The problem with the House of Caesar is that they don’t always target the right people or, in the course of suppressing conspiracies, bring death to such a broad sweep of people, who may or may not have been involved in a conspiracy, that they leave their friends about as equally depleted as their enemies.
Next in line is the infamous Caligula, who kills just about everyone who could possibly be considered a legitimate heir. He is the son of Germanicus, and any empathy that he was born with must have been burned out of him in the course of watching his family members die one by one. Tiberius’s comment was: ”I am rearing them a viper.”When Caligula is killed by his own Praetorian Guard, well mostly for being a psychopathic asshole, the only real option as his successor is his gibbering fool of an uncle.
Claudius survives numerous purges of his family by acting like a simple minded, helpless imbecile. The senators that bring him to power probably have it in mind that he will be easy to control.
He is not.
He is a student of history and natural science. He is infinitely smarter than anyone could comprehend. Because of his infirmities, he mostly has to travel through the eyes of others. Ambassadors knowing his interest in the arcane bring him specimens from all over the world. (If you have not watched the miniseries I, Claudius starring Derek Jacobi, it is excellent.)
When Claudius breathes his last, the empire is left with Claudius’s great nephew Nero. His mother is Agrippina the Younger, daughter of Germanicus. The rumors of imperial incest between mother and son run rampant throughout Rome. Instead of denouncing those rumors, much like Julia, he embraces them. ”It was noted that he kept as one of his concubines a woman who looked exactly like Agrippina. And that whenever he fondled her, or showed off her charms to others, he would declare that he was sleeping with his mother.”
When Rome burns and Nero is one of the main suspects (after all his main concern is beautifying Rome, and how better to do that than to have a clean canvas to start from), he blames those pesky, noisy, obnoxious Christians. Between 900 and 1000 are killed and murdered (St. Jerome calls them martyrs.) in various creative ways. We don’t know for sure if the Christians had anything to do with the burning of Rome, but given the Sodom and Gomorrah events being sponsored and encouraged by Nero, I can see them convince themselves that burning Rome would be doing God’s work.
Nero was a cheeky looking bastard.
Nero believes strongly in applying pageantry to all aspects of his life, including executions. ”Spectacle, illusion, drama: these were the dimensions of rule that truly mattered. Attentive though Nero might be to the grind of business, his true obsession was with a project that he felt to be altogether worthier of his time and talents: to fashion reality anew.”
Augustus dies in bouts of blood, possibly from a poisoned fig. Tiberius may have been smothered by a pillow. Caligula is hacked to pieces by his own guard. Claudius may have been poisoned, but the wily, old bastard might have just died from old age. Nero commits suicide moments before a sentence of death is to descend upon him. The women don’t fare any better. They are starved to death, exiled, beheaded, run through with swords, and poisoned.
What a family! Despite their best efforts to destroy themselves they manage to hang onto power from 27BC to 68AD. It isn’t long after their passing, despite the bloody uncertainty of their reigns, that Rome misses them.
They must have missed the flair, the pageantry, and the insanity.
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