After being introduced by the chair Allan Little, Tom Holland stood to talk about his latest book. Dynasty is about the rise and fall of the house of Caesar. Holland starts by saying that it’s always exciting to talk about a new book for the first time (it doesn’t officially launch for another few weeks). He was particularly glad to talk about it with a journalist like Allan Little who has spent a great deal of his career trying to get to the truth of things.
He also feels Edinburgh is an appropriate place to talk about Dynasty given our recent experience with the wild nature of rumour and propaganda, both from official and unofficial sources. Trying to find seeds of truth in scandalous rumour was an integral part of writing Dynasty as wild stories surrounded every one of the Caesars during life and after their death. It wasn’t just the emperors either; their relatives were just as likely to be the subject of salacious gossip.
Holland explains that most of the women of the imperial household were accused of adultery or prostitution. One of the most famous was Messalina, the wife of Claudius, who was said to have challenged the head of the prostitutes’ guild to see who could sleep with the most men in one night. According to the story, Messalina won but the tales went on to claim she would gild her nipples and go into the city at night to work as a prostitute. As a relative of Augustus she had sacred blood and was therefore extremely politically potent. The best way to get rid of these powerful women, or at least decrease their influence, was to accuse them of adultery and let the powerful rumour mill of Rome do a lot of your work. Indeed public obsession with Messalina’s life did bring about her death after rumours emerged that she had married a young aristocrat, Gaius Silius. Claudius then slaughtered her, Gaius and everyone he thought had attended their wedding.
The only imperial woman to escape this particular branch of rumour was Livia, who was eventually promoted to a Goddess. However not even she could escape entirely as many were convinced she spent a lot of time poisoning anyone she viewed as being in the way.
Holland talks of the difficulty of finding the potential truth behind these stories. No one ever quite knew what was going on in the imperial household and the Romans were obsessed with gossip. He observes that they would have loved social media. The walls of buildings were always coated in gossiping graffiti and when a society of that temperament is combined with the nature of things happening behind closed doors in a court it’s no surprise that the rumour mill goes into overdrive.
However when the stories are put in the context of that society and its views, it’s possible to see beneath the gossip veneer and glimpse the possible truth underneath. Part of the public’s obsession with Claudius and Messalina was the dubious way in which he had gained power. He was reliant on bribery and the loyalty of freedmen he had promoted into positions of power. For Roman citizens it was shocking to see freedmen running their city, so naturally they were scrutinised.
Holland reveals that if you look beneath the stories of Messalina and her dramatic end it seems to have been one of these freedmen that orchestrated it. Narcissus viewed Messalina as a threat and it appears that he started, or at least promoted, the rumours about her adventurous sex life. He was the one to send two concubines to tell Claudius of her supposed marriage to Gaius and when Claudius caught up with her Narcissus was there to shout down her attempts to explain. She had a son who would succeed Claudius and had a great deal of influence herself. When her life is looked at in isolation the stories of her marriage to Gaius, and the rumours of a plot that came with it, make little sense. If Narcissus is added to the picture it looks a little clearer.
A similar perspective is possible when examining the apparent madness of Caligula. There were stories that he had wanted to make his horse a consul and after his death these tales were held up as evidence of madness. Holland suggests that the reality is that Caligula simply had a terrifying sense of humour. He constantly wanted to reach over the heads of the officials around him and speak directly to the public. It appears that he told the senate that he could make a horse a consul if he chose. This was both a joke and a reminder of his power; he could take a position they worked tirelessly to attain and give it to anyone or anything. What had begun as political posturing became inflated rumour and after his death there was no one to defend him.
From the way Holland speaks it seems that Dynasty is not just an interesting book about the house of Caesar but a fascinating exploration of the nature of gossip, public perception and the way history is written.