Monday, March 14, 2016

Book Review: Dynasty

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

No, not the cheesy old TV series. The story of Rome's first emperors is equally soap-operatic, and infinitely more lurid.

It's interesting to contrast Dynasty with Mary Beard's recent SPQR. (Others have done the same.) The books are almost mirror images of one another. SPQR  is cerebral; Dynasty is visceral. SPQR is analytic (though a good read); Dynasty is narrative (though well-researched). SPQR  avoids the Great Man view of history; Dynasty  embraces it. SPQR  is extremely reserved about accepting what the Romans themselves wrote about their history; Dynasty  leans heavily on ancient sources.

In other words, Dynasty is an eye-popping, page-turning, ripping good yarn. If you liked Holland's previous history (the outstanding Rubicon) you'll like Dynasty. I read through the whole thing in a couple of sittings. It's vivid. It's immediate. Above all, it's astoundingly personal; it makes the people and events of two thousand years ago seem like the people and events of today, only writ large.

How accurate it is is another question. I'm not among those who believes that we should disbelieve ancient writers on principle because they were credulous (they weren't) or partisan (they were, but so are modern writers). Nor do I believe, as some writers seem to, that nobody ever actually said anything witty, or did anything theatrically over-the-top, or indulged in some reprehensible appetites. 

All the same, Holland--while acknowledging frankly his struggle with the "Scylla and Charybdis" of extreme skepticism vs. extreme credibility--chooses to lay on the gory details with a broad brush. I think Holland's aim (aside from making narrative sense, which is difficult and worthy in its own right) is to give us some sense of Roman history as the Romans might have understood it. He recounts Roman origin stories that are clearly mythical, for instance, in the same authorial voice that he uses for biography.

So don't look for anything about the daily lives of the populace, or the economics of slavery, or the remarkable engineering infrastructure. This is old-fashioned blood-and-thunder storytelling. Take it for what it is, and enjoy.

Holland's Rubicon, while no less readable, is somewhat more judicious. If you're only going to read one of the two, read that one.


  1. Most interesting. I shall note this for possible future consumption. Did you ever see I, Claudius when it came out? I thought it quite good.

    1. I, Claudius the book was one of the things that got me interested in Roman history, many years ago. I've seen most of the TV series (and liked it). Dynasty is using many of the same sources as Robert Graves did, so there's a good deal of overlap.

  2. I just finished Dynasty recently, and I liked it, but I did get the feeling the original manuscript must have been a bit sticky when Holland handed it in. Quite aside from the "let's take everything people's enemies wrote about them at face value" approach, I thought Holland was overly interested in what specifically might have been the daily routine of the orgies at Capri, so much so that he out-Herods the sources in lurid speculation. (I myself think that Tiberius probably spent his time on Capri reading and living quietly, and I have better reason, since that's what he's known to have done with his free time elsewhere.)
    I look at this as a problem, since once you've accepted an assumption as true it affects all your subsequent reasoning. For example, take these three known facts about Caligula: for the first year of his reign he was widely praised as a temperate, reasonable person who took his duties seriously and made a large number of excellent policy decisions that everyone approved of. Then he got so sick he almost died. After that he was universally reviled as a monster of cruelty and treated the Senate and Rome generally like dirt.
    The most reasonable explanation, most modern historians think (I agree, for what that's worth) is that Caligula suffered some sort of brain damage from his fever and became progressively more insane as time went on. Holland, though, to fit his narrative, constructs a psychodrama where the young Caligula was so scarred by witnessing the incredible sexual excesses at orgies in his youth (here Holland digresses to give a picture of what those orgies must have been like, drawn unapologetically from his imagination) that his mind was permanently twisted, and his good behavior in his first year on the throne is explained as Caligula slowly gathering the courage to behave as he wanted to. It's a good story but it's bad history.

    1. Your last sentence describes my reaction to the book as a whole. It seemed clear to me that Holland got so wrapped up in the juicy bits that those became their own raison d'etre. It's fun to read; it's just not terribly informative, because you can't take any of the information at face value.