TITLE: Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
AUTHOR: Tom Holland
DATE PUBLISHED: 2015
Dynasty is the early history of the Julio-Claudian line of the Roman emperors retold as a story. This book starts off where Rubicon ended. This is a narrative history that seeks to entertain the reader and provide a story of what happened. For me, it did not succeed with either endeavour. I don’t know much more about the “what happened” than I had before reading this book (i.e. a succession of Roman Emperors that waged war on whom ever stuck their fancy and had a fancy for despotism and murdering anyone they felt like). Nor was I entertained – I was bored and finished reading the book just to get it off my bedside table.
Holland does not attempt to put forth new scholarly conclusions, nor does he offer much analyses of complex events. This narrative relies almost exclusively on textual evidence in Roman literature and history, with casually inserted quotes from primary textual sources without bothering to explain their source, context or (on occasion) their relevance.
The potential storyline is strong, but Holland’s delivery manages to be weak. The writing is tedious, ponderous, overly-flowery with a disjointed and distant narrative that manages to be more selective gossip and sensationalism than actual history. It doesn’t help that in a 500+ page book there are only 7 incredibly long-winded chapters, which all have mafia related headings. The author spends a ridiculous amount of ink on each emperor’s sexual proclivities and random insertions of far too much graphic sexual detail of what the author professes to be the values of the rest of the Roman citizens at the time. He rather gleefully “spices” up the narrative of these salacious details with foul and vulgar language (apparently big boys like their potty humour too), which jarred with the tone of the rest of the text. Apparently, Holland is under the impression that popular history books need to be excessively graphic, crude and vulgar to be interesting to readers.
The book is also rather limited in scope, dealing only with the Julio-Claudians and their enemies (i.e. upper-class associates and relatives), thus excluding almost entirely the everyday lives of ordinary Romans, any changes in the Roman economy, trade, and climate, and also excludes anything related to material culture unless it involves monuments relevant to the Julio-Claudians.
This book couldn’t decide whether it was supposed to be a popular history book (with footnotes and bibliography) or a work of historical fiction. Despite the inclusion of a timeline, maps and family trees, this book came across as a messy hodgepodge of people with vaguely similar names (apparently ancient Romans lacked imagination when naming their children!), who are in some way related to each other, doing various despicable deeds to each other. Talk about a dysfunctional, psychopathic family!