Dynasty is my fourth Tom Holland book, so can get the point that I like this writing. His Rubicon is my favorite contemporary book about Ancient Rome, and Dynasty is sort-of the sequel – the chronicle of Rome of Augustus, Tiberius and the rest of the Julio-Claudians. I liked it, and here are some of my highlights, verbatim from the book:
On the Emperor Coinage
Within Augustus’s own lifetime, no living citizen had ever appeared on a Roman coin; but no sooner had he seized control of the world than his face was being minted everywhere, stamped on gold, and silver, and bronze. ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ Even an itinerant street-preacher in the wilds of Galilee, holding up a coin and demanding to know whose face it portrayed, could be confident of the answer: ‘Caesar’s’
Caligula, resentful of his brilliance, had only narrowly been dissuaded from having him put to death; Claudius, offended by his adulterous affair with one of Caligula’s sisters, had banished him to Corsica; Agrippina, looking for someone to rein in the vicious instincts of her son, had appointed him Nero’s tutor
Virtus, the quality of a vir, was the ultimate Roman ideal, that lustrous fusion of energy and courage which the Romans themselves identified as their chiefest strength.
On the Roman Phoenix After the Punic Wars
Her armies had delivered a knockout blow to the one power that had presumed to rival her for the title: a metropolis of merchant-princes on the coast of North Africa by the name of Carthage. Rome’s victory had been an epochal triumph. The death struggle between the two cities had lasted, on and off, for over sixty years. In that time, war had reached the gates of Rome herself. Italy had been soaked in blood. ‘The convulsive turmoil of the conflict had brought the whole world to shake.’ Ultimately, though, after a trial that would have seen any other people suing desperately for terms, the victors had emerged so battle-hardened as to seem forged of iron. Small surprise, then, that even the heirs of Alexander the Great should have found the legions impossible to withstand.
‘Our emotions are governed by our minds.’ So the ambassadors of one defeated king were sternly informed. ‘These never alter – no matter what fortune may bring us. Just as adversity has never brought us low, so have we never been puffed up by success.’9
On the Roman System
It enabled the blaze of an individual citizen’s longing for honour, his determination to test body and spirit in the crucible of adversity and emerge from every ordeal triumphant, to coexist with an iron sense of discipline. The consequences of this, for the Republic’s neighbours, were invariably devastating
No one became a senator, still less a consul, by right of birth. Even a Claudian had to win election.
On Augustus’ Smarts
So it was, throughout, that he renewed his efforts to cast himself as the defender of all that was noblest and best in the inheritance of the Roman people: ‘the man who had given back to them their laws and rights’. Any lingering traces of the terrorist he had once been, and of the criminality for which he had been notorious, were systematically erased. All unconstitutional measures enacted during the dark days of the proscriptions and the civil wars were solemnly rescinded; free elections to magistracies restored; eighty silver statues of himself, the height of upstart vulgarity, melted down. In their place, Imperator Caesar accepted no honour ‘inconsistent with the customs of our ancestors’. The man who in the early days of his career had sanctioned the murder of senators now sat in honour at their head. Gratefully, he received from them the venerable title once worn by Scipio Africanus: Princeps Senatus – ‘First Man of the Senate’
It is discipline, strict military discipline, that is the surest guardian of Roman power
Tiberius had never had much interest in flaunting. The virtues he prized were altogether more antique ones, the attributes of the Roman people at their most heroic and upstanding: duty, determination, self-discipline.
Tiberius was a masterly orator, endowed with tremendous qualities of sarcasm and dignity, of irony and power, the effect of his presence on those intimidated by his greatness was only to make them shrink all the more
Such was its wealth, after all, that it had effectively bankrolled Antony’s bid for world domination – a detail that no Caesar was ever likely to forget. Augustus, for all his boast that he had ‘added Egypt to the empire of the Roman people’, had kept such a vice-like grip upon the new province that it had ranked, in practice, as his own personal fiefdom – a display of neurosis that Tiberius had naturally made sure to emulate.
When Caligula, reclining at a banquet with the two consuls, suddenly chuckled to himself, murmuring that with a nod he could have both their throats cut on the spot, he was playing mind games with the entire aristocracy. ‘Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.’
Caligula, as ever, knew precisely how to wound.
On Roman Infrastructure
The thought of blowing treasure on some flashy but useless monument, in the manner of a pharaoh, could not have been more alien to the dictates of his city. Centuries on, it remained a proud boast of the Roman people that their most impressive structures, unlike those of foreign despots, were thoroughly practical in their purpose. ‘Far better them than some pointless pyramid’.
So revolted by incest were the Roman people that it ranked alongside treason as one of only two charges that admitted the evidence of tortured slaves
‘It is not arms which constitute the surest safeguard of power, but the ability to bestow favors.’ So Seneca, with the perspective provided by distance, had observed from his exile on Corsica.
Nero had a particular talent for judging the mood on the street. Unlike most senators, whose prejudices against the plebs sordida were rarely bred of personal experience, he was familiar with the seamiest reaches of the city. As a young man, he and Otho had often gone slumming together. Disguised as slaves, they had drunk, pilfered and brawled their way through the reddest of red-light districts.