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Keeping Up With the Romans – Hits and Myths

By (October 1, 2015) No Comment

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesardynasty
By Tom Holland
Doubleday, 2015

As a preliminary to reading Tom Holland’s new book Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, it’s probably best that we make the acquaintance of the Roman historian Suetonius right away.

His full name was Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, and he was born sometime early in the reign of the emperor Vespasian, around AD 70 or so. He was the son of a well-to-do public official; he was studious and well-educated, and in the reign of the emperor Trajan his friendship with prominent writer and imperial toady Pliny the Younger brought him into the highest palace circles. He became a secretary to Trajan’s successor Hadrian and, at Pliny’s urging, used the vast private imperial trove of letters and documents dating back for decades in order to begin a career as a publishing writer. He wrote dozens of books, and one of those books became an immortal classic: his collection of short biographies of the first twelve Roman emperors, from Julius Caesar through Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Otho, Galba, Vitellius, Vespasian, his son Titus, and finishing up with Domitian. These biographies were written in a straightforward and very readable tone, and although Suetonius had privileged access to original documents, he was very much a writer of his time, filling his accounts with omens, wonders, and endless scandalous gossip. The Lives of the Caesars is utterly irresistible reading, but huge chunks of it bear less relationship to reality than daytime soap operas do.

The end notes to Holland’s Dynasty abound with ancient Roman names, from Seneca to Tacitus to Cassius Dio to Velleius Paterculus, and poets like Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Catullus are cited almost as frequently, usually to insightful effect. Holland likewise lists dozens of modern historians in his Bibliography, from revered older titles by legends like Ronald Syme to well-respected contemporary books like James Romm’s 2014 work on Seneca and Nero. Reading through the book’s critical apparatus, you’d expect a balanced, scholarly account of the pivotal founding family of the Roman Empire. But the text itself yields a very different book, one that’s balanced factually on a foundation of many sources but that’s constructed almost entirely in the spirit of Suetonius.

suetoniustwelvecaesersThis isn’t quite as bad a thing as it might sound. Yes, Suetonius is as addicted to omens and prophecies as any ancient Roman (and quite a few contemporary ones, for that matter – it’s part of the city’s charm), but his acumen as a researcher has often been underestimated, and his skills as a kind of novelist, though embryonic, are remarkably strong. You have only to read a modern ‘update’ of his classic work – say, the one in 1975 by Michael Grant, or the one in 2013 by Matthew Dennison – to see how much can be lost in the process if the new author gets Suetonius’s dramatic flair wrong, or worse, thinks that dramatic flair is superfluous.

Tom Holland obviously understands this, and his book is full of dramatic flair. The Julio-Claudian dynasty that is the subject of his book certainly generated more than its share of such dramatics, ex cathedra stories of poison, adultery, treachery, murder, and incest, a kind of first-century rehearsal for the Borgias of the Renaissance. The warring and whoring of Julius Caesar, the machinations of Augustus’ wife Livia, the debauchery of Augustus’ daughter Julia, the senescent depravities of Tiberius, the mania of Caligula, the pathetic opportunism of stammering old Claudius, the raving insanity of Nero’s rule, and the chaos of the so-called “Year of the Four Emperors,” in which the rulership of Rome passed from one military adventurer to another in quick succession. It was a short century in which the nature of Roman rule changed almost out of recognition from the Republic it had been for centuries and moved in rapid steps toward the kind of absolute hereditary monarchy of Asia. Holland is keenly aware of this seismic shift in power:

Yes, the old rhythms of the political year, the annual cycle of elections and magistracies that once, back in the days of the Republic, had delivered to ambitious Romans the genuine opportunity to sway their city’s fate, still endured – but as a largely irrelevant sideshow. The cockpit of power lay elsewhere now. The world had come to be governed, not in assemblies of the great and the good, but in private chambers. A woman’s whispering in an emperor’s ear, a document discreetly passed to him by a slave: either might have a greater impact than even the most ringing public oration. The implication, for any biographer of the Caesars, was grim but inescapable.

twelvecaesersIt’s only that last line that runs into real trouble, since although a somber scholar might call the task of sifting and assessing historical evidence ‘grim,’ such a scholar must have a very different goal in mind in order to call the retailing of women’s bedtime whispers ‘inescapable.’ It’s entirely possible, with the exact same sources Holland uses, to write a history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that deals in roads, taxes, senatorial reforms, social forces, economic trends, and only very minorly in personalities and pathologies and slaves passing documents in secret. Sensationalizing the cockpit of power isn’t inescapable. Retailing Suetonius isn’t inescapable.

But Tacitus and Seneca notwithstanding, Suetonius is mostly what readers of Dynasty get. “The room which had served the young Octavian as his nursery,” we’re told, in one of innumerable examples, “was subsequently left with such a charge of the supernatural that anyone who tried to sleep in it would be hurled out through the doorway by invisible forces.” The story comes from Suetonius, who at least makes the point of saying that only some people in the region believed, and that it only happened the one time. In connecting a doddering Tiberius with his wicked successor Caligula, Holland writes, “Tiberius was happy to indulge his great-nephew. He knew what he was leaving the Roman people in the form of their favourite – and he had ceased to care. ‘I am rearing them a viper.’” The quote comes only from Suetonius, and considering the fact that it contains one evil character making a telling, spot-on prophecy that will come true about another evil character, it’s an obvious bit of hindsight dramatization. When it comes to Nero, we get the whole floorshow:

Of the many strange sex games with which Nero was reported to have indulged himself, none was more unsettling than one which combined a simulation of criminals being torn to pieces with the nauseating practice of oral sex. Men and women – boys and girls too, according to some reports – had supposedly been bound to stakes; Nero, dressed in the skins of a wild animal, had then been released from a cage and pretended to gnaw at their private parts.

“True or not,” Holland allows, “such rumours had wide currency.” But he wasn’t relating a rumor, was he? In relating this absurdly lurid bit of invention on Suetonius’s part, he uses the word “reported,” and in his note on the section, he repeats it: “For an elucidation of this extraordinary episode, reported by both Suetonius and Cassius Dio, see Champlin (2003), pp. 169-71.” But Suetonius wasn’t reporting anything – he hadn’t been born when Nero was in power. And Cassius Dio wasn’t reporting anything – he was retailing Suetonius, decades after Suetonius wrote his book. Who cares what kind of “elucidation” this Champlin guy performs? The story itself is very, very likely to be a complete fabrication on the part of Suetonius (who was, after all, writing at the pleasure of an entirely new ruling house), and even if it isn’t, there are eighteen more responsible ways for a historian to illustrate Nero’s tyranny than to re-hash such stories for the millionth time.

halcyonsuetoniusLikewise the infamous alleged perversities of the elderly Tiberius, which Holland leeringly recites – swimming-pool boys darting and nibbling between his legs, revolting abuses of babies, etc. – and cites Philo even though all the lurid details actually come from Suetonius, and to what end anyway, other than pointless titillation? This family ruled the Western world’s largest empire for decades, an empire that extensively shaped the history of mankind for the following twenty centuries – that isn’t interesting enough? We need, for the thousandth time, naughty boys in swimming pools?

Holland has a very approachable style (not all dissimilar to that of Suetonius, needless to say), and he’s certainly equal to the task of relating the highs and lows of the Julio-Claudian era. About Publius Quinctilius Varus, for instance, the administrator who famously led three Roman legions into an ambush in the Teutoberg Forest in AD 9, we’re told he showed “impressive competence in the various duties expected of a provincial governor: the provision of internal security; the administration of justice; the screwing of the natives for taxes.” About the emperor Claudius we’re told – non-factually but at least energetically:

He knew too the infinite resources available to him as Caesar, and that there was much that even a man such as himself, old, incapacitated and widely despised as a fool, could do. No matter what, he remained the most powerful man in the world.

The following year, Claudius was determined, would see him demonstrate it once and for all.

And there are numerous atmospheric gestures that, again, take their spirit if not their exact wording from the master. Surely, for instance, if Suetonius had only waited nineteen centuries to be born, he too would have commented on LA’s pollution:

August, 2 BC. The dog days of summer. In the hills beyond Rome, sheep and bullocks sought shelter from the scorching heat wherever they could find it, while men offered sacrifice to cooling springs. In the great city itself, narrow streets sweltered beneath the stench of brown smog.

But in fact, everywhere in Dynasty Holland seems even more credulous than his template. Glowing figures of mystery, phantoms, omens … they crop up all over the book, so often that Holland quite frequently forgets to remind his readers that such things aren’t real (the footnote about the birthplace of Augustus, in which the fact of the fable is presented straight-on and without comment, is much more the norm than the exception). Worse, he sometimes forgets to remind himself; what other reason could there possibly be for astonishing summation like the one he gives us:

Never again … would the Roman people be ruled by emperors touched by the sheer mystique and potency that membership of the August Family had bestowed upon the heirs of Augustus. Nero, taking to the stage, had been right to recognise within himself the quality of myth. All his family had possessed it. The blood in their veins had been touched by the supernatural. The dynast who had healed the wounds of civil war, and planted in the midst of a king-hating people an impregnable and enduring autocracy, was justly reckoned a god. The name of Augustus would remain a sacred one for as long as there were men who wore the title of Caesar.

This might be venerable nonsense, but it’s still nonsense, and it makes Dynasty an intensely puzzling reading experience. If you want these first-century Roman tall tales and character assassinations, there are plenty of editions of Suetonius in print and always will be. If you want a scholarly history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, there are some excellent ones that resist the allure of Suetonius with complete success. If you want a book that somehow combines those two approaches, you won’t get it because it can’t be done. The tall tales make for good reading, and the scholarship makes for good history, but scholarship won’t contain tall tales and tall tales aren’t scholarship. Which leaves Dynasty wandering in a land of gods and monsters, armed with a copy of Ronald Syme but repeatedly taking its readers aside and saying, “Wow, have I got a great story for you …”

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.