Friday, 31 January 2014

Imperial General: The Remarkable Career of Petellius Cerialis - Philip Matyszak

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in Ancient Warfare Magazine. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the magazine. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact: Dirk van Gorp (  Website for the Magazine is:‎

Title: Imperial General: The Remarkable Career of Petellius Cerialis
Author: Philip Matyszak
ISBN: 978-1-848841-192
Pages: 188
Illustrations: 15 B/W, 3 maps
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishing

                There are a number of historical figures that are readily recognizable to the modern day reader; Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Alexander the Great all fall into this category. Petellius Cerialis is not one of them; however, he lived during one of the most unstable and exciting times of the Roman Empire and was in the right place at the right time to play a crucial, albeit understated, role in its eventual successful outcome. Records found from the Roman period in question provide historians with a plethora of information relating to the life and work of Cerialis. It is very unique to have this degree of detail relating to a historical figure and the author, Matyszak, has done an admirable job of bringing the character to life.

                In order to place the narrative in context Matyszak has structured his book in such a way that the reader is able to appreciate the political, societal, historical and economic factors that led up to the events within which Cerialis played such a central role. His ability to highlight and explain key aspects of Roman history and society (for example the emphasis/high regard placed upon the successful military/politician) is central to the accessibility of this book to the population at large. His writing is both clear and direct which makes for an entertaining and engaging read. Matyszak style is also hallmarked by his ability to weave seamlessly between the strategic (ie Roman empire at large) picture with the tactical level. This is particularly beneficial due to the degree of complexity involved with the year 69 AD “The Year of the Four Emperors”. 

He also personalizes the narrative with a dry somewhat cynical wit. An outstanding example of this was his reference to a conversation between the senator Seneca and the Emperor Nero as the latter was descending into isolation and paranoia. In a classic example of understatement Seneca advises Nero: “no matter how many you kill, you can’t kill your successor”. The author salts his book with numerous examples of this style of commentary.

Another worthy achievement of Matyszak’s work is the manner in which he provides ancillary information to the reader that adds depth to the storyline. Thus, when he discusses the engagements between Roman and ‘Barbarians’ he outlines how the Romans ensured local/tactical superiority through their fighting style versus that of the adversary. Due to the German/Celtic style of fighting (primarily utilizing a five foot slashing sword) they required greater individual room for maneuver than the Romans with their stabbing swords (the gladius). Therefore, the Romans were able to maintain a frontage superiority of 5 soldiers to 3. Also, the title Imperial General refers to the change in dynamic between the Roman Generals of the Republic who would strive for personal advancement to Consul of the Senate through military success, and the Generals of the Empire who’s success was focused on gaining Imperial favour.

The complexity of the relationship between the Army and the political arm of the Roman administration and the degree of which the Army had come to see itself as the final arbiter of who would become (and remain) the Emperor is a major theme throughout Matyszak’s book. Cerialis’ challenge and response, as an Imperial General, when faced with disgruntled Rhine Legions in Gaul and the demoralized Legions in Britain is a fascinating study of leadership under adverse conditions. Once Matyszak has painted the ‘big hand/small map’ picture, he is able to focus his attention on the career of Cerialis. His deep involvement in the initial response to the rebellion of Boudica in Britain and in the re-establishment of central command to the Rhine legions were both highlights of Cerialis’ career. Through his focus on Cerialis, the author provides a riveting, in-depth analysis of the tangled relationships that existed between Rome and her Generals.
This book is an extremely readable analysis of Rome during a period of instability and internal strife. Matyszak has done a commendable job at unraveling the complexities of this period and highlighting the role of Cerialis in the success and re-establishment of stability within the Empire. Anyone, professional historian, those with a casual interest in Roman Imperial intrigue or those looking for an interesting read will all be satisfied with this book. I certainly was.   

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