So: what was it like, spending in excess of four hundred pages in the company of the mighty, world-conquering Caesars? You may judge for yourself….
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 very archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts. Monsters such as we find in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius seem sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set: Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools; Caligula, lamenting that the 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. For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything. Murderous matriarchs, incestuous powercouples, downtrodden beta males who nevertheless end up wielding powers of life and death: all these staples of recent dramas are to be found in the sources for the period. The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.
Celebrity, admittedly. But notoriety might be closer to the mark.
Here’s the genealogy of the Caesars:
In Holland’s telling, Julius Caesar was indeed as dangerously ambitious as Brutus claimed. He was a genuine threat to the Republic. But perhaps the Republic was doomed anyway. Aside from subduing the Gauls – no small feat – Caesar’s greatest gift to the Roman people was his appointment of his great-nephew Octavius as his heir.
(The names will drive you crazy, if nothing else does first.)
Augustus was a reasonably good ruler and, by our standards anyway, a reasonably decent man. And his wife Livia was one of the more powerful, memorable, and upright female presences in Roman history.
She was the mother of the emperor Tiberius, paternal grandmother of the emperor Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.
from the Wikipedia entry
Alas, from here it was downhill all the way. Tiberius, successor to Augustus, seemed worthy at his reign’s outset, but he became increasingly erratic, finally withdrawing to his estate on the cliffs of the Isle of Capri, high above the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sorrento. Here he indulged in grotesque orgies far from the prying eyes of Roman citizens. (But of course. tales of what was going on eventually reached the capital, a place where people indulged lavishly in rumor mongering and gossip.)
The following are pictures taken by me in Italy in 2009:
As we circled the island, our guide first told us about Tiberius; then he pointed to some jagged rocks sticking straight up out of the water. There, he said, is where the Sirens lured ships to their doom:
Next comes Caligula, great-grandson of Augustus.
Next up: Claudius:
Ever since his childhood, …Caligula had displayed a taste for dressing up. Capri, that wonderland of stage sets, enabled him to give it free rein. Wigs and costumes of every kind were his to try on, and opportunities to participate in pornographic floor-shows freely granted. Tiberius was happy to indulge his great-nephew. He knew what he was leaving the Roman people in the form of their favourite – and he had ceased to care. ‘I am rearing them a viper.’
Up until now, my knowledge of Claudius derived exclusively from the TV series I Claudius, in which Sir Derek Jacoby so memorably portrayed the seemingly hapless ruler.
Somehow I remember Claudius as being a better man than he seems to be in Tom Holland’s telling. Oh, but he was positively saintly compared to his successor, the incredibly loathsome
Nero had a wife, Poppaea Sabina, whom he adored and whom he had obtained for himself by putting her husband, his closest friend, out of the way. (oh – and Nero himself had also been married, too poor, dull Octavia; she, too, was got rid of.)
As ambitious as she was glamorous, the radiance of Poppaea’s charisma exemplified everything that Nero most admired in a woman. Even the colour of her hair, neither blonde nor brunette, marked her out as eye-catching: praised by Nero as ‘amber-coloured’, it was soon setting the trend for fashion victims across the city.
But the beautiful and vainglorious Poppaea Sabina made a fatal mistake: she nagged the ruler of the known world, thus committing the unforgivable sin of discomfiting him.. Never mind that she was heavily pregnant with their child; Nero kicked and beat her to death. No sooner had he done this than he was filled with remorse. The kingdom was scoured looking for another who was just like her. The closest he could get to achieving that goal was embodied in the person of a young boy whom he called Sporus. Nero joyfully took possession of this prize: “…it was as though his dead wife had been restored to him. So completely did he imagine himself to be gazing on her face again, caressing her cheeks and taking her in his arms, that Poppaea seemed to him redeemed from the grave.” But the youth needed to be kept smooth cheeked and beardless forever. How to prevent the onset of puberty? There was only one way: Sporus was castrated.
Meanwhile, Nero’s mother had moved heaven and earth to make sure he attained Rome’s highest office.
How was she ultimately rewarded?
Nero and Agrippina had spent an harmonious evening at a villa he was then occupying on the Bay of Naples. Then , as a gesture of filial devotion, he presented his mother with the gift of a yacht.
Greatly affectionate, he gave her the place of honour next to himself, and talked with her until the early hours. By now, with night lying velvet over the Bay, it was too dark for her to take a litter back home; and so Nero, informing his mother that her new yacht was docked outside, escorted her down to the marina. There he embraced and kissed her. ‘For you I live,’ he whispered, ‘and it is thanks to you that I rule.’ A long, last look into her eyes – and then he bade her farewell. The yacht slipped its moorings. It glided out into the night. Lights twinkled on the shore, illumining the curve of ‘the loveliest bay in the world’ while stars blazed silver overhead. Oars beat, timbers creaked, voices murmured on the deck. Otherwise, all was calm.
Then abruptly the roof fell in.
By some brilliant luck – read helpful fishermen who happened to be nearby – and her own native strength and resourcefulness, Agrippina was able to attain land and return, bleeding but alive, to her villa. But her good fortune was short lived; Nero was not through with her yet:
A column of armed men came galloping down the road. The crowds outside were roughly dispersed; soldiers surrounded the villa, then forced their way in. They found Caesar’s mother in a dimly lit room, attended by a single slave. Agrippina confronted them boldly, but her insistence that Nero could not possibly have meant them to kill her was silenced when one of the men coshed her on the head. Dazed but still conscious, Agrippina looked up to see a centurion drawing his sword. At this, rather than protest any further, she determined to die as who she was: the daughter of Germanicus and the descendant of a long line of heroes. ‘Strike my belly,’ she commanded, pointing to her womb. Then she fell beneath the hailstorm of her assassins’ swords.
As for the famous fire of 64 AD that Nero supposedly waited out while playing the fiddle, that’s a slightly erroneous legend. He didn’t play the fiddle; he played the lyre. And he played the lyre so he could accompany his singing performances. Nero sang everywhere and anywhere there was a stage – or not – and an audience. He entered innumerable vocal competitions and naturally enough was awarded first prize in every one of them.
Down through history, unconfirmed rumors have held that Nero himself torched the city. The accusation was made during his own lifetime. He in turn blamed the Christians, thus initiating their persecution.
Soon it became clear that Rome had had quite enough of this particular despot:
‘Murderer of mother and wife, a driver of chariots, a performer on the public stage, an arsonist.’ 70 The list of charges was long. Few in the upper echelons of Roman society doubted that Nero, if permitted to live, would add to it. To kill a Caesar was, of course, a fearsome thing; but by early 65, enough were convinced of its necessity to start plotting Nero’s liquidation.
The deed was finally accomplished in 68 AD. Knowing his death at the hands of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard was imminent, Nero took his own life.
‘What an artist perishes with me.’ So Nero, with his customary lack of modesty, had declared as he steeled himself to commit suicide. He had not exaggerated. He had indeed been an artist – he and his predecessors too. Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius: each, in his own way, had succeeded in fashioning out of his rule of the world a legend that would for ever afterwards mark the House of Caesar as something eerie and more than mortal. Painted in blood and gold, its record would never cease to haunt the Roman people as a thing of mingled wonder and horror. If not necessarily divine, then it had at any rate become immortal.
Thank you, Tom Holland, for this book. You are a terrific storyteller, and this was one wild and totally engrossing ride.
A number of fiction titles, some read by me and some not, kept entering my thoughts as I was reading Dynasty. Not all of them were directly related to the specific time frame covered in this book, but they did deal with some aspect of ancient Rome.
These I have not read but have long known of and hope to get to some day:
These were the first two books to appear in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mystery series. I’ve read nearly all of them and recommend them most highly. (Later titles actually go back in time – see the link provided above.)
I read this novel when it first came out in 1988 and loved it. Benita Kane Jaro, who lives in this area, came into the Central Library shortly after I’d finished her novel, and we had a chance to chat. I’ve always meant to go back and read the two subsequent books in her Ancient Rome Trilogy – The Lock and The Door in the Wall. I’m delighted that that Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers are keeping these works in print. (The Key, newly purchased, is currently on my night stand.)
Finally, there is this: once read, never to be forgotten: . Marguerite Yourcenour’s masterpiece, decades in the making, was first published in France in 1951. It is not a fast read; rather, it is slow, majestic, and deeply rewarding.
This passage is quoted in Wikipedia:
Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle our soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy. …Nailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross, I have learned some secrets of life which are now dimmed in my memory by the operation of that same law which ordained that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph passed, forgets his glory.
Tom Holland’s translation of The Histories of Herodotus came out in 2014. It’s a regular doorstop of a tome, so this reader is both grateful and admiring. I’ve long wanted to read Herodotus on the Egyptians, and I believe Holland’s lively prose reworking will facilitate this goal:
After the meal at any party where the hosts are well-to-do, a man carries round the likeness of a corpse in a coffin, carved out of a block of wood and painted to look as lifelike as possible, which in size can be anything between one and two cubits. Showing it to each guest in turn, he says: ‘Look on this carefully as you drink and enjoy yourself, for as it is now, so will you be when you are dead.’ Such is the practice at any drinking-party.
Well, not exactly a laugh a minute, those Egyptians – at least, in this particular setting.
Let’s conclude with The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. If you don’t have the time to hear the entire symphonic poem, then go forward to 15:25 on the drag bar and listen to the final section, “The Pines of the Appian Way.” This is the most heaven-storming music imaginable. If you ever have the chance to hear it performed live – drop everything and go!
The Pines of the Appian Way is a representation of dawn on the great military road leading into Rome. Respighi recalls the past glories of the Roman Republic. The legions approach to the sound of trumpets, where possible in the form of ancient Roman buccine, instruments best imitated by the modern flügelhorn, and the Consul, elected leader of the Republic, advances, as the sun rises, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.
From the Naxos site