Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland
The Julio-Claudian emperors are a subject of much historical research because they are some of the most memorable of Roman emperors, especially in a critical era for Rome's transition from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy in all but name. You have Augustus, the first princeps and forger of the imperial system and excessive legislator of morality. The melancholy Tiberius who aspired to Roman virtues but spent his last years in orgiastic decadence in an island pleasure palace. Caligula, widely depicted as insane and so known for his depravity in his own time that his own bodyguards assassinated him. The epileptic Claudius, the man who did not desire to be emperor but proved capable at the job and organized the conquest of Britain. And finally Nero, a publicly avowed matricide who built an enormous pleasure palace on the burned ruins of Rome. There is an insane amount of sex, violence, and human drama which makes the Julio-Claudians almost irresistible to popular histories, academic histories, and even popular media in a variety of forms.
The biggest problem in analyzing these emperors is that the histories are inherently biased one way or the other. If written during the lifetimes of the emperors, they are of course highly salutary because the emperors did not take criticism very well and were prone to showy treason trials when frustrated. Or the histories were sponsored by the emperors, such as the Res Gestae Divi Augusti which was basically one long list of ''Awesome things done by me, Augustus. Also I'm a god now.'' However once the emperors were safely dead, especially unpopular ones such as Caligula or Nero, historians wrote scathing calumnies, which may be based on some grains of truth but many historians accept may also be greatly exaggerated. The challenge is of course finding the path of truth within the varying accounts we have from the time period.
And Holland admits this challenge from the get-go, however I found myself wondering if Holland was trying a little too hard to rehabilitate the ''bad'' emperors, especially Caligula and Nero. I think it got to the point Holland was protesting a bit too much. On the one hand, I felt he was a lot more even with his treatment of Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius. Those three have the best reputations but each of them come with their own problems. Augustus became obsessed with sexual morality and passed strict laws regarding adultery and promoted a culture of informants within the capital. Tiberius was a competent soldier and administrator but in his later years simply could not be bothered with running the empire and engaged in orgiastic excesses. Holland also argues that Tiberius knew full well what sort of person Caligula was and encouraged Caligula's own excesses. And Claudius's conquest of Britain may not have been as profitable as he had hoped.
But my biggest concern is with Caligula and Nero. Those two are definitely the most infamous of the Julio-Claudians and have very bad reputations. But I feel like this may be well deserved. From Holland's own account both emperors did not seem terribly interested in actually running the empire and just enjoyed the benefits of being in power. Both spent lavishly on games and entertainment for the masses and enjoyed shocking ''proper'' Roman society, especially the senatorial aristocracy. And to me, Holland seems to argue that all of Caligula and Nero's scandals and escapades aren't acts of madness so much as playful tweaks of the nose of Roman society. Enormous practical jokes if you will. And while I can understand breaking with convention, appointing your horse consul is definitely not a practical joke.
So, to provide some explanation for people who may not know Roman history, the consuls were like the co-presidents of Rome. There were two of them, elected for a one-year turn, and they were in charge of the government. Under Augustus power began being shifted away from the senate, the consuls, and the various other offices of the Republic and concentrated in the princeps, or ''first citizen''. Romans basically had this huge aversion to kings and monarchy so while Augustus was effectively acting as a monarch for Rome, he maintained a polite fiction that he was merely the ''first among equals'' of the senate and definitely not a king. So the consuls might symbolically still be the most important office in Rome, but much of the power has been transferred to the princeps.
All right, so why would anyone appoint a horse consul? This is one of the more famous incidents in Caligula's reign and has traditionally been ascribed to madness. Only an obviously insane person would name a horse consul. Holland argues that this was not an act of insanity, but rather a calculated move by Caligula to irritate the Senate. Frankly I'm not sure which one is worse. If it's an act of insanity it merely means excessive inbreeding put a psychopath on the throne of the nascent Roman Empire. But if it was truly a calculated move then it means Caligula was deliberately destroying the polite fiction that the princeps was not a monarch, despite now being a hereditary title with increasing power, and alienating the weakened but still influential Senate. In the case of Nero, Holland goes into detail of Nero's tour of Greece and participation in a number of competitions, including the Olympics, where regardless of his actual performance he was always awarded first place. (It's good to be the princeps.) This was a long and protracted tour and while it may have boosted Nero's popularity with the lower classes, it left a lack of a guiding hand at the helm of state for Rome and eventually led to rebellion by numerous generals.
I think this book is interesting and informative, but I think Holland goes to too great an extent to rehabilitate Caligula and Nero. They may not have been the cackling melodramatic villains that they're often depicted as in histories, both academic and popular, but I think we would be justified in saying they weren't terribly good emperors either. The corruption by power affected all the Julio-Claudians to some extent, even venerable Augustus, and many other men who became imperator. But I think that corruption of power is most obvious in Caligula and Nero and to try and rehabilitate them as pretty okay, fun-loving guys is to stretch alternate historical interpretation to its utmost limits. Overall it's okay, but as I said, the author doth protest too much.