Title: Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
Author: Tom Holland
Publisher: Anchor Books
Title: SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome
Author: Mary Beard
Publisher: Profile Books
Reviewed by: David Lea
It’s been many years since a good grounding in “the classics” was a prerequisite of being well-educated.
In spite of this, classical history – especially that of ancient Rome – maintains a strong hold on the popular imagination. To add to the already massive body of writing on Roman history, two new works of popular history were published at the end of last year: Tom Holland’s Dynasty and Mary Beard’s SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome. Both authors are well-established writers on ancient history, and Mary Beard is also well known as a broadcaster on radio and TV.
Holland’s first five
Dynasty is the more conventional of the two, with an avowedly narrative form. While Holland weaves into his story much of the context and background of ancient Rome, his focus is firmly on the “House of Caesar” – or, more correctly, the Julio- Claudian dynasty of the first five emperors. The names of these emperors are known even to those with only a limited familiarity with Roman history. First is Augustus, the outright winner of the civil wars that followed the assassination of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. Augustus was the warlord turned world statesman, whose public relations skills enabled him to claim to be the saviour of the old Roman republic even as he took on the powers of a monarch under the title of Princeps (essentially meaning the leading citizen of Rome). Ruling the empire for four decades, Augustus established the structure of imperial rule for the next 200 years; all of his successors included the names of Caesar and Augustus among their titles, and most of them maintained the fiction that the old Roman Republic still existed and was ruled by a senate rather than a single autocrat.
Augustus’s successor, Tiberius, was a highly successful and effective general before he became emperor, but he lacked the charisma and subtlety possessed by his stepfather. Frustrated by the demands of his position, he essentially abdicated much of his power to corrupt and cruel subordinates and retired to the island of Capri. Here, according to contemporary sources – which Holland enthusiastically endorses – the formerly austere and high-minded Tiberius indulged in exotic and debauched sexual fantasies peopled by the sons and daughters of Rome’s elite. The depths of psychopathology and debauchery were then plumbed further by Tiberius’s nephew, 25-year-old Caligula. Unlike his predecessors, Caligula wasn’t concerned in maintaining the myth of the Roman Republic. Says Holland, “Far from veiling his own supremacy, he delighted in flaunting it.” He took every opportunity to mock and humiliate members of the ruling class – even jokingly suggesting that he could appoint his horse as a senator. As in the contemporary sources, Caligula is portrayed by Holland as a sadistic monster who loved to watch people suffer and whose only loyalty and affection was to his sisters.
It was Caligula’s own bodyguards – the Praetorian Guards – who assassinated him and then handed power to his uncle Claudius, who had himself been the subject of Caligula’s mockery. Regarded as a stammering buffoon whom even his mother called “a freak of a man”, Claudius turned out to be a shrewd and effective emperor who surrounded himself with competent subordinates. His successful invasion of the far-off island of Britain even added another province to the Empire.
The apparent stability of Claudius’s rule was followed by that of Nero. Murderer of his mother and of his pregnant wife, Nero is famed for his narcissism and for the devastating fire that destroyed as much as a third of the great city of Rome. Nero used the fire as an opportunity for a massive rebuilding programme – including a grand new palace and gardens, which gobbled up land previously occupied by both rich and poor inhabitants of the city. Unsurprisingly, rumours then spread that Nero had himself instigated the blaze – a verdict that Holland himself is prepared to partially endorse as “not proven – which is, under the circumstances, more than damning enough”.
Although Holland recounts these stories with great zest and drama, his analysis sometimes seems superficial, and while his command of contemporary sources is impressive, his interpretation of them can verge on the credulous.
Dynasty is, of course, concerned only with the great men of early Roman imperial history; there is little discussion of the other inhabitants of this vast empire – many of whom were interested in the imperial family only as a source of lurid gossip. “It mattered little in the provinces who ruled as emperor – just so long as the centre held,” observes Holland.
SPQR: a thorough thematic investigation
If one wonders how the greatest power in the world could be successfully ruled by this group of tyrannical psychopaths, then one needs to turn to Mary Beard’s SPQR. This provides a more sober and measured analysis and narrative, covering a much longer period from the foundation myths of Rome and its transformation from monarchy to republic and then to autocratic rule under the emperors as far as the year CE 212. It is impossible to eschew the “Great Men” approach to history completely, but Beard’s approach is more thematic and less a continuous narrative. While the story of the emperors might be one of ambition, cruelty and venality, Beard stresses the stability and continuity of administration throughout a very diverse empire by a small cadre of resident officials.
Beard is also less sensational and judgemental and much more questioning of the source material. Her style is scholarly, but it is always engaging, peppered with anecdotes of individual personalities and fascinating insights and facts. For example, the modern word “rostrum” comes from the Latin word for the bronze ram on the front of a warship: in the 4th century BCE, the platform for public speakers in the Roman Forum was decorated with the captured rams of enemy warships.
Every history of Rome is confronted with the question of how the Romans – a small tribe living beside a muddy river in the centre of Italy – created one of the longest-lasting empires in world history. Apart from military success, one of the major factors was the way the Romans were able to absorb (and conscript) the peoples whom they conquered. It is therefore fitting that Beard’s chronological coverage concludes in CE 212, when the emperor Caracalla declared every free inhabitant of the empire a full Roman citizen, eroding the distinction between the Romans and the people they had conquered, colonised and ruled.
One of the delights of SPQR is that one can dip into it almost at random and be drawn in by the confident insight and charm of the author. As she says, “This book has been 50 years in the making.” It is a privilege and a pleasure to be able to share in her knowledge and insights accumulated over this time.