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Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar Hardcover – October 20, 2015
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Praise for Dynasty:
"...With his new book, Dynasty, the British historian Tom Holland has crafted a history of early Rome that has all the gripping detail and narrative momentum of a novel. Mr. Holland does not gloss over the holes or uncertainties in his story, but instead uses his knowledge of the period (which starts with the murder of Julius Caesar and concludes with Nero’s suicide in A.D. 68) to place early and sometimes disputed accounts in context, and to give the reader a startlingly visceral sense of the violence and brutality and wretched excess of ancient Rome.
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"This is great material, and Holland does it justice with a chiseled prose style and an eye for the luminous detail.... A graduate of both Cambridge and Oxford, Holland is a master of narrative history. On the strength of Dynasty, he deserves a laurel wreath."
—Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post
"Holland, a classical scholar turned full-time author, has written highly regarded accounts of Roman, Greek, medieval European and early Islamic history and has also translated...the sweeping narrative of Herodotus out of ancient Greek. The canvas of Dynasty is his broadest yet, both in terms of time (he begins well before the Julio-Claudians, to show how they arose) and territory. He keeps his eyes trained on the men and women of the August Family even while following events as widely dispersed as Britain, Germany and North Africa. His ability to operate at small and large scale simultaneously—both domi and fores, in Rome and abroad, as Tacitus put it—is one of his great talents.... Dynasty surely secures his place among the foremost writers of popular history practicing today."
—James Romm, Wall Street Journal
"Holland’s novelistic approach enhances a story that he has not invented. This means that his account is gripping and occasionally eloquent, but sometimes the larger historical setting vanishes as he concentrates on vivid personalities at the expense of the vast empire within which all the domestic horrors were taking place."
—G.W. Bowersock, New York Review of Books
"As for the book I read before I turn the light out, currently it’s Dynasty, by Tom Holland, about the Caesars. It has Holland’s usual novelistic ability to bring a narrative alive, together with his extraordinary command of ancient sources. It’s the sequel to his outstanding Rubicon. It’s fascinating on how, inch by inch, Augustus and his successors surreptitiously turned a republic into an autocracy."
—Matt Ridley, New York Times Book Review, "By the Book"
"Among the many virtues of Tom Holland’s terrific history is that he does not shrink from seeing the Roman emperors for what they were: 'the west’s primal examples of tyranny'. He accepts that tales of their paranoid depravity make historians uneasy.... He knits the history of ancient Rome into his narrative—its founding myths, the fall of the republic, the religious superstitions—with a skill so dextrous you don’t notice the stitching. Dynasty is both a formidable effort to compile what we can know about the ancient world and a sensational story."
—Nick Cohen, The Guardian
"A vivid account of five Roman emperors, emphasizing their vices and vicious behavior with less attention to the vast empire, which continued to prosper despite them."
About the Author
TOM HOLLAND is the author of numerous history books, including Rubicon, Persian Fire, and The Histories, a new translation of Herodotus. He wrote and presented Islam: The Untold Story, a documentary commissioned for Channel 4 in Britain based on his book In the Shadow of the Sword. He lives in London with his wife and two daughters
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Tom Holland's new book, Dynasty, presents a detailed history of the Caesar Dynasty (the Julio-Claudians) and their rise and fall from power. The story is well-told and reads more like a novel than a traditional history book. While the book is not an academic work, it is well researched and Holland is a professional historian. I would recommend to anybody interested in Roman history, ranging from the general reader to the Roman history fanatic.
Dynasty is a direct sequel of Tom Holland's successful and well-written Rubicon-- the story of the fall of the Republic and the rise of Julius Caesar. Holland provides enough background to allow the reader to follow the story without having read Rubicon.
The book also tells the story of the creation of a monarchy that replaced the Roman Republic. Augustus formed a new form of government, built on the wreck of the Republic after many years political violence and civil war, interspersed with periods of relative stability.
The book starts out with an introduction to Roman history, from its foundation to the assassination of Julius Caesar. It provides a lot of good background and allows the reader to jump in without reading Rubicon or its equivalent.
The typical chapter outlines the personality/mental health of each Emperor, his political conflicts in Rome, and his actions and military campaigns. Although the book mostly focuses on Rome and Romans, it does discuss the general state of the empire. Each Emperor receives his chapter.
At the time that Augustus took the undisputed leadership of the state, there was no guarantee that his regime would survive in some form for nearly 500 years in Rome or 1,500 years including the Byzantine Empire (Constantinople). The establishment of this new state set the stage for the monarchies that succeeded the Western Roman Empire.
I felt in my "comfort zone" in the chapter on Augustus. While Holland had many insightful hypotheses about what happened and why it happened, I was quite familiar with the broad outline. This is not surprising given the large number of books (both fiction and non-fiction) dealing with the first Emperor. I positively impressed by the coverage of the later Emperors of the dynasty. Holland provides an excellent history of Tiberius and Caligula, something that is often missing in broader histories of Rome. Likewise his interpretation of the rise of Claudius was quite intriguing and some different from what you might find in I, Claudius.
The book goes into great detail about the various conflicts (battles?) within the Dynasty,. This started with the perhaps prudent of exile of more difficult members, but quickly devolved into murder.
So why four stars? One weakness in the narrative was Holland's use of strong assertions for what is essentially conjecture. For example (chosen more or less at random), in describing Sejanus (Tiberius' deputy in Rome) he states "the prefect could feel confident that all his schemes, all of his maneuverings, all of his ambitious were close to fruition." Perhaps, but different scholars have had different views of the Sejanus affairs. These differences reflect rather different views on the reign of Tiberius.
While these conjectures are certainly possible, they may not be the probable description of the events or interpretations. Holland does not not necessarily take the most scandalous interpretations, mixing different approaches. Holland definitely knows his stuff, but he presents his own views without much discussion of alternatives. If you are you are familiar with Roman history, this will be apparent and don't in any way take away from the book. If you are new to Roman history, just be aware that there are other versions of the story and other interpretations. Caveat Emptor.
I would have also liked a longer epilogue that summed up Holland's thinking about the period. This is a relatively minor criticism.
I would give this book a rating of R, for strong language and mature scenes.
In sum, its not a bad read, but because of its biases it is a bad choice for anyone unfamiliar with the period who wants a general overview of what actually happened.
I find as I get older that what I value in works of history is readability. Almost any historical subject can be written in a way that is dry and draggy or interesting. Holland does a fine job in bringing the subject to life.