By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Tom Holland
Narrated by: Derek Perkins
Tom Holland writes about “The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar”. One of the great political leaders in history is Julius Caesar. As a warrior in battle and dominating intellect in government,
Julius Caesar plants the seeds of Empire. Through the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, the Roman Empire devolves into a circus of arbitrary use of power, populism, and debauchery. Holland implies only one of these future Caesars match the dexterous skill of the first Caesar; the remainder demonstrate incipient decline. However, it seems a number of strong and influential women play a big role in the rise and fall of the house of Caesar.
The murder of Julius Caesar leads to three years of struggle for control. On one side are supporters of a republic; on another are supporters of totalitarian rule. After Caesar’s death three vie for control of the Roman empire. Surprisingly, the least militarily capable of the three, the adopted son of Caesar, takes control. The new leader of the empire is Octavius who becomes the legendary Augustus.
Holland implies Augustus is less of a warrior and more of a brilliant military and political tactician. Augustus gains fame in the Battle of Actium where Anthony is defeated.
With Anthony’s defeat (Anthony commits suicide), and the exile of Lepidus, Augustus takes the reins of state. To quell the representative faction of the Empire, Octavius restores the Republic under the guise of freedom while inducing the Senate to give him totalitarian control. Augustus reigns for over 40 years within a totalitarian constitutional framework; tempered by a Philosopher King’s actions.
After two divorces, Augustus marries Livia Drusilla, a widow. The marriage creates the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, a combination of the two most famous families in the Empire. In marrying Livia, Augustus becomes husband and heir to Claudian fame and fortune. Augustus also becomes the father-in-law of Livia’s warrior son, Tiberius.
Livia is not only rich and famous. She is a brilliant and tough-minded manipulator of human affairs. Through her influence and support, Augustus maneuvers through the arcana of government policy and public administration. Rome becomes a great City of Empire. Public works and public wealth, largely coming from conquered lands, are spread throughout the Roman City and citizenry. In the process of state expansion and consolidation, Livia grooms her son Tiberius to become the next Emperor of Rome.
Unlike Augustus, Tiberius is a taciturn warrior who rules with an iron fist. Tiberius is no politician. He is a soldier. Though somewhat tempered by Livia’s ministrations, Holland implies Tiberius is feared more than loved by the Romans. To cement Tiberius ascension, he marries Augustus’s daughter from a previous marriage. Through marriage, Tiberius is descendent of both great families, the Caesars and the Claudians. The coupling is a loveless marriage of convenience. It requires Tiberius to divorce his former wife, Agripina, the mother of Caligula. Naturally, Agripina is no fan of Augustus. Agripina, like Livia promotes ascension of her own son to the throne as Tiberius ages and withdraws from Rome.
Caligula is the son of Tiberius’s favorite general who is married to Agripina, a descendant of the Claudian dynasty. Through the machinations of Agripina, Caligula becomes the adopted son of Tiberius. Agripina and all her family are either murdered or exiled by Tiberius before his death. Only Caligula remains in Tiberius’s camp.
Tiberius dies under suspicious circumstances. Because of Tiberius’s stern and taciturn administration, there is rejoicing rather than dismay over his death. It is believed that Caligula participated in the murder of Tiberius to become heir to the throne.
The nature of the Roman Empire takes a decided turn toward abusive totalitarianism after the ascension of Caligula. With little regard for Roman Senators or the idea of a representative republic, Caligula pursues personal power that is alleged to involve a lascivious life style, deadly poisoning of contemporaries, and sadism. Caligula is assassinated, at the age of 28, by the Praetorian Guard. In conspiracy with Roman Senators, the Praetorian Guard stabs Caligula to death. However, the Praetorian Guard were not willing to subject themselves to rule by Republican Senators.
The Praetorian Guard betrays their Senatorial conspirators by placing Claudius on the throne. Claudius is a descendant of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, a great-nephew of Augustus, and a nephew of Tiberius. Claudius, from the age of 9, is raised by his mother because of the death of his father, a general in Tiberius’s army. Claudius, to some historians, is believed to have been feeble minded. However, Claudius is taken under the wing of Livia, the mother of Tiberius.
Through time, maturity, and mentor-ship with Livia, Claudius’s ability begins to improve. He becomes an historian. One presumes the Pretorian Guard felt they could manage Claudius. To many Roman’s surprise, Claudius expands the empire by capturing Britania and introducing new judicial and legislative practices in Rome and its captured territories. A number of public works were initiated by Claudius and he participated in legislation created by the Senate for the Roman territories.
Holland notes that many Roman leaders believe Claudius is easily manipulated by women. He is married 4 times. Some say he has a great temper; that he is apathetic about governing, and appears highly paranoid. The paranoia may be justified in view of Holland’s note that his last wife, Agrippina poisons him.
The last Julio-Claudian emperor is Nero. He is the adopted son of Claudius. Holland implies Agrippina is the woman behind Nero’s ascension. Holland reflects on what may have been an incestuous relationship between mother and son but largely concludes that many of Nero’s bizarre behaviors and general misanthropy are reactions to Agrippina’s domination of her son. Agrippina is a political force in her own right and, to some Romans, the power behind the throne. Nero is a spendthrift who focuses on theatricality rather than practicality. He eschews his mother’s attempts to reduce his profligate spending. Holland indicates that Nero orders the murder of Agrippina twice, and succeeds in his second attempt by ordering a soldier to stab her.
Nero learns much from his mother, including how to poison rivals. As a team, Agrippina and Nero consolidate Roman power. Nero played to the masses by seeking popularity through extravagant events. Nero participated in the Senate but with his own agenda that, at times, led to the slaughter of innocents. He built gymnasiums and theaters to imitate the Greeks. He created festivals and entertainment for the masses. He created his own reality series by staging events that resulted in death rather than a better known phrase –“you’re fired”. Though never definitively proven, he set fire to Rome in order to have a blank slate to rebuild the city. In the end, heavy taxation for Nero’s extravagance fomented revolt. The Roman Senate sentences Nero to a brutal death and as the guards approach his hideaway, he commits suicide.
A listener will draw their own conclusions but women “behind the throne” have much to do with “The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar”.