Consider the public-relations challenges of the Julio-Claudians, the family that dominated a century of Roman politics beginning in 31 B.C. Their power was nearly unlimited, yet its extent could not be acknowledged, for Rome was officially still a republic without a crowned head. The populace, enthralled by the new celebrity-based style of politics, demanded that the members of the family live in the spotlight, yet their management of the state required subterfuge or outright deception. The palace—a place that could not be so termed, for monarchy was officially deemed a barbarous relic—had to be at once the most open and most tightly sealed of Roman dwellings.
Even while the clan tended its image of authority and probity, dark rumors swirled in the streets. Augustus, the founder of the line, largely escaped the gossip mill, but his wife, Livia, was made out to be a scheming murderess and his daughter Julia a nymphomaniac. Tiberius, his stepson and successor, retired to an island retreat on Capri that was reported to be a den of debauchery. Thereafter Roman scandal-mongers feasted on the sadism of Caligula, the weakness of Claudius, and the pathologies of Nero, ranging from stage-struck artistic delusions to homicidal paranoia. The latter trait impelled Nero to destroy all members of the Julio-Claudian line, such that, after Nero’s own downfall, the dynasty came to a crashing end in A.D. 68 and the Flavians came to power.
Nothing could ever seem innocent or natural in a family such as this. Any deaths in its ranks were assumed to have resulted from foul play (and some perhaps did); close bonds between siblings, or between mothers and sons, were seen as incestuous love affairs (and some perhaps were). The “lurid glamour” of the clan, as Tom Holland terms it in “Dynasty,” became enshrined for posterity in the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius,whose tales were spun into the “I, Claudius” novels of Robert Graves and thence into the BBC miniseries. The Julio-Claudians have thereby become, in Mr. Holland’s words, “the very archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts”—with cringe-inducing sexual depravities to boot.
This scandal-laden legacy is a boon to modern storytellers but a vexation to historians. Did Nero really set fire to Rome, then strum his lyre as the city burned? His contemporaries believed he did, and the legend still haunts the modern imagination, but the truth will never be clear. Did Caligula really take his sister Drusilla to bed? If so, only two people knew it, and neither was likely to tell. Histories of the period must navigate such dilemmas, “steering a path between the Scylla of flaccid gullibility and the Charybdis of overly muscle-bound scepticism,” as Mr. Holland writes, invoking a metaphor from the classical world he understands so well.
Mr. Holland has a great talent for giving enough forward drive to his story that readers are swept past such difficulties. In his preface he discusses a notorious question mark: the report that Caligula massed his soldiers on Normandy beaches as though for a crossing of the English Channel, then ordered them merely to collect seashells. “Is it true? Did the soldiers really pick up shells?” he asks, without venturing an answer. By the time he comes to the same episode in the body of the book, the question no longer seems to matter. So much else about Caligula—his casual cruelty, his contempt for the flatteries that his own bullying had elicited—has been so convincingly established that the matter of the seashells, still unresolved, passes by unnoticed.
Ultimately it is not the Caesars’ lusts and manias but their relationship to power and violence that interests Mr. Holland, as it did in his first work of nonfiction, “Rubicon” (2003). His section titles here (“Padrone,” “Cosa Nostra”), and his use of words like “consigliere,” configure the Julio-Claudians as Mob bosses, and more disturbing comparisons (“warlord,” “terrorist”) are suggested. In a more charitable mood he calls them the August Family, a term derived from the title Augustus (“Revered One”), which was taken by the founder of the line. The point of such coinages and analogues is that conventional labels—king, general, dictator—cannot be applied to this bunch. They lived outside the constitution and the law; their struggle for legitimacy and control makes them endlessly compelling and surprisingly sympathetic.
Mr. 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 (less successfully, in my view) 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” offers neither praise nor condemnation of the political system it describes. Like the philosopher Seneca, who wrote in nightmarish tones about Caligula yet exalted Augustus, Mr. Holland draws no general principles about the Roman autocracy but finds a compelling contrast in its “mingling of tyranny and achievement, sadism and glamour, power-lust and celebrity.” Like Seneca, too, Mr. Holland is a consummate wordsmith who delights in verbal chiaroscuro. He writes in one place of the “aureate and superhuman” charisma of Augustus and the “effulgence that haloed” his family; in another, he describes the imperial palace as a place “where monsters of the deep fed on those weaker than themselves and yet were always hungry.”
Mr. Holland in fact takes a strong interest in Seneca, but, surprisingly, holds him to blame for touching off Boudicca’s revolt in Britain (in A.D. 60)—a charge made by only one ancient writer and considered suspect by modern scholars. Mr. Holland very occasionally plays fast and loose with his evidence, but he gets the big things, including the Caesars themselves, very right. “Dynasty” surely secures his place among the foremost writers of popular history practicing today.
—Mr. Romm is the author of “Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero.”