Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar

Written by Tom Holland
Review by Gordon O'Sullivan

Dynasty is the story of a century of the Julio-Claudians and a hundred years of their cruelty in the pursuit of ever-expanding political control. The succession of rulers that Julius Caesar spawned, from the First Citizen Augustus to the paranoid Tiberius, through Caligula and Claudius to the openly despotic Nero, left Rome as a monarchy where the military was the source of real power.

Rome during this era was a period soap opera where political and personal gossip merged and flourished and where that gossip could literally kill. Tom Holland has sewn together a narrative of these years that is as pacy and racy as a tabloid news sheet while still clarifying the political consequences of those salacious events. He narrates the founding of Rome, the republic’s final dismemberment, and the religious superstitions which were cover for the appalling brutalities inflicted by and on its ruling elite with élan and clarity. Holland draws parallels with the modern obsession with celebrity but never allows the lurid nature of his Roman tales to overcome his central thesis: how the Julio-Claudians constantly pushed the boundaries of power until they had completely exhausted their candidates and left Rome in the hands of military dictators.