Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

Succession Planning

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar


Little, Brown 482pp £25 order from our bookshop

Monarchy accustoms us to think of hereditary succession. So it is natural for Tom Holland to give his history of the first emperors of Rome the title Dynasty. The empire was certainly a family business then, as it was only periodically again to be before the capital was moved to Constantinople. The Julio-Claudians, the first ruling dynasty, consisted of two families connected by history, status and marriage. The first emperors might have been the heirs of Julius Caesar, but none of them was his descendant. Augustus (who was born Octavius) was Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son. His successor, Tiberius, was his stepson; Tiberius was followed by his own great-nephew Caligula. None of the Julio-Claudian emperors was succeeded by his own son.

The Roman Republic expired because it had been too successful. The institutions of a city-state in which the chief responsibility for government lay in the hands of consuls whose terms of office were limited to a single year proved inadequate after Rome had conquered the Mediterranean world and Gaul. Armies, engaged in campaigns that might last for years, were no longer composed of citizen-soldiers but of professionals whose loyalty was directed to their commander rather than to the republic. Caesar’s army followed him unquestioningly when, threatened with impeachment, he crossed the Rubicon, invaded Italy, occupied Rome, made himself dictator and, having eliminated his rival Pompey, subjected the republic to the rule of a single person. Caesar, incomparably the greatest man alive, did not trouble to hide his dominance. This was intolerable. He was murdered by men who called themselves ‘liberators’, determined to restore the republic. They failed because they thought killing Caesar was enough; they had planned a murder, but failed to orchestrate a coup.

Civil war resumed and the young Octavius emerged victorious, master of the Roman world. He fascinates Holland, as he has fascinated everybody who has written about him. The classical historian Ronald Syme asked how the ruthless young Octavius, ‘icy and bloodstained’, transformed himself into ‘the benign father of his country’. He secured his greatness, Holland writes, ‘over the corpses of his fellow citizens’; and, having done so, displayed his political genius. He restored the republic, or rather, he erected a facade of republican government. From thenceforth, he declared in his political testament, he had no more power than those who were his colleagues in the Senate, but he ‘excelled all in authority’. He contented himself with the title ‘princeps’, the first man in the state, and kept control of the frontier provinces, where the legions were based.

Augustus certainly hoped to found a dynasty. His daughter Julia was married to his greatest general, Agrippa, and their sons, Gaius and Lucius, were his delight and destined heirs. When Agrippa died, Julia was married to Augustus’s stepson Tiberius, who was compelled to divorce his first wife, Agrippa’s daughter. When the young princes both died, Augustus perforce recognised that Tiberius must be his successor.

Tiberius, a great general himself, lacked his stepfather’s geniality. He was a flinty aristocrat, a republican by tradition and temperament. He tried to involve the Senate in the government of the empire. It failed to respond. ‘O generation fit for slavery’, he sighed. Holland treats him with the respect he deserves, but, though the provinces were well governed and the frontiers secured, his reign was ultimately a disaster. Tiberius, disillusioned, withdrew to Capri, leaving the day-to-day business of government in the hands of his capable lieutenant, Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus set himself to destroy the younger members of the imperial family, Tiberius’s great-nephews. Treason plots were discovered or invented. Meanwhile, Tiberius lived on, isolated and increasingly fearful, his days reputedly given over to debauchery and vice.

Here we come to the problem that every historian of the period faces. Neither of the chief authorities, Tacitus and Suetonius, wrote their accounts during the dynasty’s rule. Tacitus, a master of irony and invective, loathed the empire and hankered for the lost virtues of the republic; Suetonius was an engaging gossip. How much of what they wrote is to be believed? Is it credible that Tiberius, after a life distinguished by virtue and public service, should have become a jealous and pederastic monster in old age? It is possible. Senility may destroy one’s judgement and cause inhibitions to be relaxed. Holland, like most who have written about Tiberius, repeats the stories and sensibly casts doubt on their veracity.

Augustus and Tiberius were men of great ability. Their successors, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, were not. Caligula was young and unbalanced, then, after a severe illness, probably clinically mad. Claudius was a weakling, governed by his wives and his freedmen, and Nero was a buffoon. Holland writes about them with great verve and insight, and is generous and understanding. He even accepts Nero’s view of himself as an artist. Unfortunately, he was only artistic, not the same thing at all. It is a testament to the abilities of Augustus and Tiberius that the imperial structure survived their successors.

Holland gives us a richly panoramic picture of Rome in the first century AD, dwelling on its manners and morals. He makes good use of literary evidence, drawing on the work of Horace and Ovid, two of the great poets of the Augustan age. Curiously, he pays less attention to Virgil, though The Aeneid is the great patriotic epic, promising Rome ‘empire without limits’. In spite of this, Virgil himself may have been a reluctant convert to the new regime, aware of what had been lost or destroyed in the transition from a republic of free citizens to an empire requiring subservience.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter