Book Review: Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar


by Tom Holland

New York: Anchor Pengiun, 2016. Pp. xxx 482.. Illus., maps, chron., personae, stemma, notes, biblio., index. $17.00 paper. ISBN: 0345806727

Caesar’s Heirs

Holland, a British author who had translated Herodotus, written other works on ancient and medieval history, and even a few novels, follows up his excellent Rubicon (2005) on fall of the Roman Republic and rise of Gaius Julius Caesar, with this account of the imperial dynasty that more or less descended from the assassinated Dictator that would rule for over a century.

Holland begins with the death of Caesar and the almost improbably rise of Octavian, the penniless teenager with a dubious claim as the Dictator’s heir, to contend with the likes of Brutus, Cassius, Marc Antony, and sundry other seemingly better placed rivals to attain mastery of the Roman world, ruling for some 40 years and going down in history as Augustus, the first emperor. Holland then takes us through the reigns of the four men who succeeded Augustus through their ties to the Julians.

We get a relatively sympathetic view of Tiberius, a much maligned but brilliant general who was perhaps genuinely unhappy about holding the imperium. Holland’s picture of Caligula, agrees that he was certainly unbalanced, but also perhaps not as crazy as we’ve been led to believe. Similarly, Holland depicts Claudius as clearly than his contemporaries thought, but perhaps not so accidentally an emperor as tradition has it. Holland’s depiction of the last Julian, Nero, perhaps the most maligned of the clan, may surprise some, for while hardly a paragon of virtue, he comes off as a rather good ruler. 

While arguably much of this is all well trodden ground, dominated by the account of Suetonius as interpreted by Robert Graves, who are often flatly refuted, Holland manages to retell their stories in an interesting, frequently insightful, and at time times very amusing way. A good read for anyone interested in ancient history.


Note: Dynasty is also available in hardcover, e-, and audio-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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