Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, Tom Holland

If last year my historical obsession was with World War I, I think this year it is definitely ancient Rome. Already reviewing SPRQ this year, I have Holland’s “Rubicon” on the docket along with another book about Roman Military Generals. While SPRQ dealt with a very vast view of Roman history and society, Dynasty is much more selective. SPRQ spanned about 700 years while Dynasty is less than 150. Zooming in on this important period is necessary to understanding my other interests in biblical theology. This book deals with the Julio-Claudian Dynasty in Rome which lasted from 27 BC to 98 AD. This period lies right in the time of Jesus and the Apostles. In fact, much of the persecution the early Christian Church faced was from Nero, the last member of the dynasty.

The line starts with Octavius Caesar, later renamed Augustus. The period of history up to Octavius’ reign is important to understanding what he was able to accomplish, most importantly was that of abolishing the Republic. After 2 civil wars, the Romans were set aback by the final blow against Julius Caesar who was killed during the infamous, “Ides of March.” Octavius was adopted by Mark Antony (pronounced An-Ton-E) where he, Antony, and Marcus Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate that sought to take down Julius’ killers. Octavius sent Lepidus to exile while Antony committed suicide, leaving Octavius as consul of Rome. Enacting emergency powers to round up the rest of his opposition, reserved for certain situations, Octavius was endowed with incredible military power he used to end the civil war and restore peace to Rome. However, he did not give up his power. Rather, he transformed the once grand Republic into the Roman Empire, a critical turning point in the history of Rome. With his ascension, he changed his named to Augustus and deemed himself Imperator Caesar divi filius, “Commander Caesar, son of the deified one”; a living god on earth.

Tiberius Caesar ruled next in the line of Caesar’s. Among his accomplishments were the imposition of Roman rule over the peoples of Germania.

Tiberius’ adopted son, Caligula, was the next Caesar. If Tiberius was often known as a recluse, Caligula was the exact opposite. Tiberius left the throne with nearly 3 billion sestertii in the treasury. Caligula was fond of the games and used the treasury to host a series of domestic reforms that included bonuses Tiberius had promised to Roman soldiers, extravagant prizes at certain events, abolished certain taxes, made a land bridge out of boats from Naples to a neighboring island, began various construction projects including revamping the temple to Augustus and the aqueduct system, and gave out money for houses that burnt down. In a few years, the funds were almost exhausted and Caligula tried desperately to earn money. He accused certain high society members of treason to gain their property. He sold lives for auction at the gladiatorial games. In light of his power hungry nature, he made many enemies which led to his demise. While enjoying festivities of the day before departing for Alexandria, he was accosted by the Pretorian guard who proceeded to murder him.

Caligula was succeeded by Claudius. His achievements included the submission of Britannia.

Claudius was succeeded by Nero, probably the most ruthless of all of the Juli0-Claudian Emperors. Of note was the great Roman fire that Nero blamed on the Christians. Huge sections of Rome were burned down during the course of the fire, allowing Nero to rebuild to his own desires. What is of concern is this book does not adequately explain that it was probably the work of Nero himself, and not the Christians whom Nero blamed the fires on. Intense persecution did proceed on the early Church because of Nero’s allegations. But Nero was also a fine musician and competed in the Olympic Games in Greece. Nero lost power when a coup was staged against him. He was declared a public enemy to the Empire. He escaped the clutches of the military but committed suicide, ending the dynasty.

Holland’s book reads like a novel in some parts. Others are particularly dry. I thought this was a pretty good book in regards to the others that I’ve read/are reading. What I didn’t appreciate was the sometimes excessive focus on the sexuality of the Roman Emperors. There are sections that will make you cringe more than once about their particular sexual deviancies. But what it also demonstrates is what happens to a society when they let moral boundaries collapse. In the Republic, both homosexuality and pedophilia were looked down upon with much distaste. In the Empire, these previously taboo practices were taken up with some force. It gives credence to the Apostle Paul’s writing in Romans 1, “For this reason, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. For even their women exchange natural relations for those which are contrary to nature. And likewise the men gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.”

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