The Sons of Caesar: Imperial Rome’s First Dynasty
© 2006 Philip Matyszak
296 pages, 16 pages of plates.
Most of my Roman reading has been set in the late Republic, although as a western student of history I have a working knowledge of the Roman empire. Even so, the amount of emperors I can name is somewhat limited, as is my sense of where they fit in on the timescale — with some exceptions. For instance, I didn’t know Nero was closely related to emperor Augustus, nor did I know how quickly he rose to the office. For me, The Sons of Caesar was an edifying read, nicely written and very informing. It corrected my ignorance of the early imperial period while telling an interesting story in and of itself.
Matyszak begins the book with statement that republics do not become empires overnight, and the empire that westerners think of is no exception. Although the system that would eventually emerge from the Republic’s death would be vastly different, Matyszak maintains that the early imperials simply co-opted elements of the old Republic, with each successive generation seeing more liberties taken. By the end of the first dynasty, the “last remnants of the old Republic [had] been swept away.” According to Matyszak, the transition between Republic and Empire happening nicely within the bounds of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and those six emperors (Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero) are the topic of the work. He starts the book by analyzing the character of the old Republic, showing how what we might think of corruption was really just the normal affairs of the late republic. He shows too how it could be manipulated.
The first chapter on Caesar is nearly an introduction by itself, as Caesar — despite his claims to “Dictator for Life” — is more republican than any of his successors, and his rule does not last for very long. Soon he is assassinated, and Matyszak devotes attention to the war between Mark Antony and Octavius for the throne. The chapters do not blend right into one another: each emperor gets his own, but when it ends at his death, Matyszak chooses to begin the next chapter by telling the story of the successor’s career up to that point before he actually becomes emperor. Matyszak keeps himself grounded in primary sources, being careful to avoid taking some of the early Roman historians seriously, as some of them liked to gossip. This is a well-done narrative, definitely one of the better popular histories I’ve read.