From the Observer 6 September 2015
Writers have always conscripted the Caesars to fight their battles. In 1934, Robert Graves turned Claudius into a liberal surrounded by tyrannical monsters, not so different from the tyrants who surrounded Graves in the 1930s. During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Gore Vidal assailed Americans’ belief that monogamous heterosexuality was “normal” by showing them that the Roman emperors abused men and women, boys and girls with bisexual abandon. Contemporaries did indeed regard Claudius as an eccentric because he only wanted to sleep with women. But as the defining feature of tyrants is their tyranny, Claudius’s readiness to execute opponents for real and imagined treasons is more striking than his taste in concubines.
Modern academic historians can be as blind. They live in well-ordered, democratic societies and work in liberal institutions. When they are presented with the horrific ancient accounts of the early Caesars, they blench at the tales of murder and madness and wonder whether men who ruled a peaceful and prosperous empire were so different from, if not their vice-chancellors, then at least their presidents and prime ministers. They worry about sources, which are usually prejudiced, and always incomplete. When they read Seneca saying of Caligula that “nature has produced him to demonstrate how far unlimited vice can go when combined with absolute power”, academic caution stops them trusting him.
Their unwillingness to believe that absolute power corrupts absolutely echoes the historians of late Victorian Britain. Britain’s imperialists abandoned the Enlightenment belief that we should admire the free, or rather partially free, republic and damn the empire. As Britain’s own empire encircled the globe, its servants saw the Romans as gentlemen in togas, who had brought the benefits of civilisation to benighted natives, as they were doing. Lord Cromer, the controller-general of Egypt in the 1870s, said that the British notion of imperialism, “as we understand, and as the Romans, with many notable differences, understood the term”, was in essence the same.
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. Romans turned the emperors from Augustus to Nero into gods when they were alive and condemned them as demons when they were dead. Neither the praise nor the blame may be trustworthy. Having registered the doubts, however, Holland takes the accounts of the god-emperors’ cruelties seriously.
That all ancient historians, with the exception of Tacitus, believed that Nero was behind the fire that destroyed much of Rome does not mean we can say that Nero organised arson. The charges against him are not proved, a verdict that is “more than damning enough”, as Holland says. But that so many Romans thought Nero capable of torching Rome is a historical fact in itself. It wasn’t unreasonable to believe that an emperor, who had murdered his mother and wife, was capable of anything.
Holland, who I have known for several years, does not just tell the story of the reign of the Julio-Claudian family. 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.
Augustus, a coward on a battlefield and a teenage terrorist, who wiped out all opposition, brings peace after the civil wars that destroyed the republic, although as Seneca said: “I am reluctant to call mercy what was really the exhaustion of cruelty.” The ability of the ancient world’s supreme propagandist to mask his imperial power behind the facade of republican government was matched by his hypocrisy. The man who had destroyed all who crossed him, ended by posing as Rome’s Big Daddy: a benevolent if intrusive father of the nation “who chided, guided and loved the Roman people”.
If anyone could resist the corruptions of power, his successor seemed to have the self-control. Tiberius was an experienced general, who disdained court flatterers. After a few years as a god, however, he was organising purges and engaging in orgies with the children of the elite so obscene that even a historian as dedicated to truth-telling as Holland can’t quite bring himself to describe them in full. Caligula was “one of the few people from ancient history to be as familiar to pornographers as classicists”, Claudius may have been murdered as he murdered so many others, and Nero was so insufferable half the empire rose against him.
Underneath the narrative is the story of how politics finds new outlets. The Romans destroyed every republic in the Mediterranean until there was only one republic left to destroy: their own. In the republic’s final decades, ambitious patricians no longer competed for office, but used the resources of empire to raise armies to fight each other. Augustus stopped the civil wars and Holland never allows you to forget that many accepted dictatorship as the price of peace, not that they had a choice in the matter. Few wanted the republic back. When Tiberius offered to restore power to the consuls, senators thought with good reason that he would kill them if they took him at his word. (As it was, he killed many of them anyway.)
As alternative sources of power dried up, conflict passed from the battlefield to the family. All the Julio-Claudians were dead by the time of Nero’s death, more often than not at the hands of their own relatives. When they went, the plebeian commander Vespasian made his move. The son of a provincial official, who had no connection to the imperial family, he ordered his legions into Italy and revealed that for all the talk of their augustness and divinity, Roman emperors were what they had always been: military dictators.
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