This book is a knockout, a severe blow to the brain and to the gut, having arrived at a time when Europeans and Americans have been thinking hard about the social and economic forces that can unhinge republics. Safeguarding the vulnerable structures that allow large and complex societies to live with a modicum of inner peace becomes harder as groups and individuals within it become more entitled and exploitative. A functioning republic requires self-discipline and commitment to the common good; where self-discipline fails, discipline must be enforced by the powers of the republic.

This truism, belabored by political moralists of varied stripes from Cicero to Machiavelli to Gibbon, may be too obvious to merit reiterating. But just what happens when civic thinking goes to the dogs, and political safeguards fail, is driven home by this riveting account of the devolution of the Roman Republic into the violent cinematic mess we call the Roman Empire.

This is not to imply that the Roman Republic was a mild civitas of woolly sheep. The Roman nobles were a pack of wolves, hunting as allies when it was useful and then turning on each other, as their wolf-raised ancestors Romulus and Remus had done, when the time had come to kill those who stood in the way of preeminence and vast possessions. Needless to say, the most persuasive victors, notably Gaius Julius Caesar and his adopted son Gaius Octavius (later Emperor Augustus), committed their bloody deeds to safeguard the republic. But saving it meant transforming it into a functioning top-to-bottom system that controlled the voracious appetites of its men and women.

Among the many intriguing vignettes here is a description of the lupercalia, one of the oldest of the many adrenaline-fueled festivals in the Roman calendar. In 44 b.c. Marc Antony, just over 40 years old, was one of the oiled men, girded only with a loincloth of goatskin, who stood at the mouth of a cave where the she-wolf had nursed the twins, waiting for the signal for the luperci to begin their race through Rome, whipping half-naked women along their way with goat thongs to encourage pregnancies and prevent stillbirths. Marc Antony had a job to do. On the rostra, the old speaker’s platform in front of the senate house, Caesar, recently appointed dictator for life, was waiting for him in the purple toga of the old kings. Stepping up to the rostra, Marc Antony held out to him "that ultimate symbol of monarchy, a diadem entwined with laurel. A few desultory rounds of applause greeted the gesture; otherwise all was leaden silence. Then Caesar, after a pause, pushed the diadem away—and the Forum echoed to tumultuous cheering."

By declining the diadem, Caesar had pulled back from the brink. But it didn't help him much: By "laying claim to a perpetual dictatorship, and putting his fellow senators so utterly in the shade," Holland explains, Caesar "had signed his own death warrant." Exactly a month later, he was knifed to death in the senate and his murder unleashed another violent civil war from which Marc Antony and Octavian emerged victorious after the bloodbath at Philippi in 42 b.c.

They split the empire: Marc An-tony headed east; Octavian returned to Rome, now faced with the task of settling 50,000 battle-hardened veterans each on a plot of land. Expropriation was "the order of the day"; all resist-ance was brutally crushed. Only after this final internal clobbering were the Romans ready to let go of the Republic and allow Octavian's gradual ascension to the position of princeps. Holland narrates the subsequent rise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. After the calculating strategists Augustus and Tiberius, it netted Caligula, pulled Claudius out from behind a curtain, and exhausted itself in Nero. Holland's psychological portraits, written with the mind of a novelist, attempt to create the feel of being alive in Rome and dizzied by the awareness of having absolute power.

Narrative history is what Holland calls his works, and they are best enjoyed by readers already familiar with Rome's history and political structure because Holland's pace is relentless, pounding the reader with event after event, coursing through the bedrooms, sewers, and bloodbaths of Rome with breathless intensity. It's all great fun for the initiated, even if Holland's saturated British style with its excursions into the colloquial ("By 32 b.c., the young Caesar was ready at last to go for broke") calls too much attention to itself and becomes a bit tiring. We begin to find it obtrusive, too.

Still, Holland's sweeping command of his material is ravishing, and the deftness with which he weaves apt or juicy lines by Rome's greatest writers into the flow of his storytelling is among the many pleasures of Dynasty. Holland naturally excels at narrative highpoints. But it is in his portrait of Augustus—his gradual change from callow youth and hopeless general, who lay sick in bed during the battle at Philippi, to brilliant strategist of social and political pacification, who understood that social peace depended on abundant water, clean sewers, safe streets, and replenished granaries—where Holland excels. Ovid grew up during the Pax Augusta, detested life in the countryside, adored the city, and became the "authentic voice of Roman metrosexuality." At a time when laws were passed that criminalized adultery—forcing Augustus to send his daughter Julia into exile and her daughter, likewise, 10 years later—Ovid wrote a guide to the arts of love. For a decade he was thumbing his nose at the princeps. But in 8 a.d., Augustus summoned the poet, interviewed him, and decided his fate: Exile to Tomis on the Black Sea. "Ovid," writes Holland, "exiled to a 'frontier zone just recently and precariously brought under the rule of law', was having his metrosexual nose rubbed by the Princeps in a brutal fact."

There could be no arts of peace without a mastery of war. It was not, in the final reckoning, good drains or gleaming temples, let alone a taste for poetry, that distinguished a civilized man from a savage, but steel: the steel it took to stand shield to shield in a line of battle, and then advance.

Gaius Octavian, like many nobles, had experienced this as a young man; Ovid had not. Now the princeps made sure that, at the outermost limit of the empire, the poet would crave what he had ridiculed: "It is discipline, strict military discipline, that is the surest guardian of Roman power," wrote the rhetorical hack Valerius Maximus. In Tomis, Ovid wished for more Roman discipline. That was his punishment.

Susanne Klingenstein is the author, most recently, of a biography of the Yiddish writer Mendele Moykher Sforim.