THE first emperors of Ancient Rome have, understandably, been the subject of countless interpretations, moving effortlessly from the pages of history books to various forms of fictionalised entertainment. Yet adaptations, even those that claim to be factually driven, have the tendency to embellish, and sacrifice authenticity for the sake of performance and production. It is rare to find an account as captivating as it is historically accurate, yet in his new account of imperial Rome, bestselling author Tom Holland has managed to do just that.

Dynasty focuses on the Caesars, the first five Roman emperors - Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero – yet Holland also includes a masterful narration of the foundation of Rome, through its momentous period of success to its ‘final bloody expiration.’ A succinct but comprehensive description of the foundation to establishment of the Republic sets the scene for Dynasty’s focus, which begins with the last years of the Republic and Julius Caesar’s disastrous attempt to claim autocratic power over the Roman people. Holland then takes us through the rise of the Caesars; Julius’ adopted son and heir Octavian rose to prominence to become Augustus, the first Roman emperor with a shady past of horrific cruelty, one which he worked so hard to keep hidden with the fashioning of his new persona. A master manipulator, Augustus evaded his enemies long enough to live to the age of 75 and die peacefully in bed, an impressive achievement few subsequent emperors ever equalled. He was succeeded by his stepson Tiberius, an experienced general who was discovered to engage in ‘aberrant and sinister’ perversities so depraved, pornographic, and against traditional Roman principles that the populace of Rome did not hold back from celebration at the event of his death. The new emperor, Caligula, took advantage of the optimistic atmosphere and initially set out to buy popularity with the full treasury he had inherited. Throughout the duration of his short rule, his indulgence only increased, and ultimately was seen by the aristocracy to be mocking them with a ‘lethal and merciless precision.’ He was assassinated in his fourth year of rule. The successive Caesars, Claudius and Nero, are notoriously remembered as murderous mad-men, a long way from the relatively peaceful Augustan days. Claudius’ death, thought to have been instigated by his wife Agrippina, led to Nero’s seizure of power. Though hatred of the new emperor was not entirely universal, any popularity he maintained was not enough to save him, and in 68 AD, he committed suicide upon learning that the Senate had officially declared him a public enemy. So ended the House of Caesar – a legendary dynasty, Holland suggests, that is immortalised as a period of ‘mingled wonder and horror.’

To produce an historical account as mesmerising as the most gripping thriller is a feat that many authors have failed to achieve. Admittedly, Holland’s focus on the Caesars gives him a sensational cast of characters with which to work; personalities that need no exaggeration engaging in behaviours that need no embellishment. Yet Holland carefully crafts a narrative history that is as spectacular as it is scandalous, fascinating as it is relentlessly authentic. He combines his flair for storytelling with his outstanding expertise as a historian, creating an enthralling account, wholly demonstrative of the ‘tyranny and achievement, sadism and glamour, power-lust and celebrity’ of the Caesar dynasty.