Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

Posted: April 14, 2016 by Arushi in Book Review
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Dynasty continues Rubicon‘s story, opening where that book ended: with the murder of Julius Caesar. This is the period of the first and perhaps greatest Roman Emperors and it’s a colorful story of rule and ruination, running from the rise of Augustus through to the death of Nero. Holland’s expansive history also has distinct shades of I Claudius, with five wonderfully vivid (and in three cases, thoroughly depraved) Emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero—featured, along with numerous fascinating secondary characters. Intrigue, murder, naked ambition and treachery, greed, gluttony, lust, incest, pageantry, decadence—the tale of these five Caesars continues to cast a mesmerizing spell across the millennia.

Dynasty starts with a bit of information on the rise and fall of Julius Caesar (which was needed for me, since I have not read Rubicon yet.). It then takes us on a tour with Octavius as he first avenges Caesar, and then goes on to become the Princeps of Rome. He then consolidated the Roman Empire as well as his own dynasty. Four emperors followed him from the August family: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. This book is a history of their lives, and that of Rome.

I have seen the show Rome and I truly loved it. Dynasty has a touch of that since it allows for the minute details to bring that time to life in front of me. Also, Rome only covers Augustus’ rise to power, not anything thereafter. His very name, Augustus, was given to him as a title by the Romans, as a sign of their acceptance and appreciation of his near divinity and greatness. But he is only the first of five to be covered in this book.

As a history, this book is great. I stayed hooked to the very end. There are a lot of details, and simply put, it feels, as if the Rome of that time has been brought to life. That being said, I truly hated some parts of this history. It was my disgust at some of the actions of those in power 2000 years ago, that made me think even the most violent of stories today, are far less cruel. Absolute power does corrupt absolutely and I think the biggest example is Caligula. Not that the others were any better, but he truly enjoyed cruelty and used it with a precision that even now to me is scary in its intensity. The rest were no better, and murder by itself was just not an effective enough punishment. It was the way that death came about that truly showed the depth of their (take your pick – all five were brutal to their enemies – who may include family members) creativity in exacting punishment.

When I had heard a lecture on The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, I had wondered if it could really be true. Had we evolved enough to leave behind even a smidgen of our bloodlust. Dynasty has confirmed this notion for me. Never had I read of such brutality being enacted in real life. And yet, it was celebrated, for after all, to not celebrate anything done by an Emperor of Rome, might just mark one for death.

There is more to this book, of course, but somehow political maneuvering, even as intricate as that of the Julio-Claudians, loses its charm with the multiple murder plots and intermarriages. This is a good book to read, especially to learn that maybe, while we are still flawed, we have also come very very far from what we used to be.


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