Tom Holland is the author of four hugely entertaining bestselling books on ancient and early medieval history. His latest, a sort of sequel to his debut Rubicon, covers the first five Caesars from Augustus to Nero.
Octavius, as Augustus was originally called, appeared as one of the most sinister figures in Holland’s earlier tale, eliminating his uncle Julius Caesar’s enemies with calculated efficiency before turning on Caesar’s friend Marc Antony.
Augustus emerged from Rome’s civil war as the last man standing and, as Holland narrates it, began slowly and expertly dismantling the constitution and installing what was a monarchy in all but name. He was an effective if unlovable ruler who brought order, but his four successors would turn the city into a moral sewer, starting with his stepson Tiberius who grew so paranoid that he spent the last part of his reign as a recluse on an island.
This is in engrossing story about a depraved, incestuous family of tough, vicious women and sadistic, perverted men. But it is also about the decline of political virtue in a great country. Augustus, although an accidental revolutionary, was deeply conservative in his instincts and kept the mask of republicanism glued on even as there was increasingly a smirk behind it. As the role of commander – ’emperor’ – became a permanent and hereditary title so the mask slipped.
Tiberius’s rule would be marked by rivalry between his blood relations and those of his wife, Julia. Two of her grandsons were starved to death, and It might have been better if they had been joined by the youngest, Gaius – or Caligula, as he became known because of the little boots he wore while out with his father on campaign.
Caligula is one of the best-known figures from the ancient world, and with good reason. Catapulted to power in his early 20s, he had grown up amid violence and backstabbing and, on top of a natural sadism and perversity, had a loathing of hypocrisy. Unlike his great-grandfather Augustus, his greatest wish was “to rub the noses of the nobility in their own irrelevance and desuetude”, making their children act out the role of prostitutes on his private island and abolishing reserved seating at the arena, because “it amused him in the extreme” to watch the nobles scrabbling for places with plebs.
There was an undercurrent of social change behind these bizarre spectacles. The old senatorial class were losing power and new men, slaves and foreigners, were taking their place; the senators, with their conservative sexual morality and old-fashioned Roman stoicism, were on the wrong side of history.
Holland is perhaps Britain’s most skilled historical storyteller. He has a rare gift of combining academic respectability with a great knack for narration, and fans of his previous work will certainly not feel let down by the latest offering. With great skill he leads the reader down meandering, curious pathways where, entranced by what they experience, they are then pulled back to the main story with a jolt – often a violent one. He especially enjoys recounting the more monstrous elements of the imperial family, most of all Nero, who replaced his stepfather Claudius in AD54, aged just 16.
Nero, the nephew of Caligula, was a psychopath whose reign of terror would end the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and yet all he ever wanted to be was an actor. When in AD68 he was forced out of power and took his own life, his last words were “Qualis artifex pereo!” – “What an artist dies in me.”
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (30/10/15)
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