Every government should fire one advisor and appoint one historian. I have remarked on this before, especially when reviewing Christopher Clark's study of the origins of the First World War, 'Sleepwalkers', and noting how Angela Merkel's cabinet famously read it and took a day out to discuss it with the historian directly. It is no wonder that history repeats itself so regularly when decision-makers fail to be reminded of history – that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, “there is nothing new under the sun”.

Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' is the book I have been waiting for. Unforgivably ignorant of the broad sweep of Roman history, the narrative drives on dramatically, and the book is hard to put down – even at the beach. Now I have the five Caesars in some semblance of order in my head: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, with bits of others thrown in. It is a wonderful read of a horrendous story.

But, what it evokes is the sense that some things never change. If Blair and Bush launched a war in Iraq before considering how to win the peace when the big guns stopped firing, they clearly didn't look back to the Caesars. If we take for granted in Europe the seventy years of peaceful coexistence, a reading of history would remind us that empires come and go, that people get bored of peace, that memories are shorter than a couple of generations, that hubris-fuelled violence is never far away. Civilisation is thin – fragile. A century of hard-won pax under Augustus can quickly subside into the cataclysm of a Nero.

So, it is the resonance with the contemporary that makes Tom Holland's book go deep. It is a brilliant read, its funniest line being the observation on the post-matricidal Nero that “Comet or not, there could be no doubting who was the real star” of the subsequent mass crowd-pleasing festivities (p.363).

(I will also remember the recorded wisdom of Claudius to the Senators: “Everything we now believe to be the essence of tradition was a novelty once.” (p.371))

 

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