Friday, 8 August 2014

Germanicus: The Magnificent Life and Mysterious Death of Rome's Most Popular General - Lindsay Powell

Title: Germanicus: The Magnificent Life
and Mysterious Death of  
Rome's Most Popular General
Author: Lindsay Powell
ISBN: 978-1-78159-120-8
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishing
Pages: 338
Photos/Maps: 44/13

Ancient history is, by its very nature, fickle. Names of great men and women which were on everyone's lips during their lifetimes are forgotten with the passage of time. Ask today about the great men of the Roman Empire and many will say Julius Caesar; press further and they may come up with Augustus or Hadrian, rarely however will people be able to name beyond that. Ask them about the Great Generals of antiquity and they may say Sun Tzu, Atilla the Hun or Pompey followed by silence. That is the curse of many who were masters of their craft in times of old; lack or a loss of records and they are relegated to the dustbin of the past, utterly lost to all but a few. Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, one of the finest Generals and politicians of his day, feted and adored throughout the known world, is one of those men. 

Mr Powell has crafted an excellent biography of the man and his world. I was particularly impressed by the amount of primary source material that he was able to draw upon in the research for his book. No less than 45 unique sources from antiquity were cited or reviewed. It is of course, an occupational limitation when researching ancient figures that there will be a limited amount of sources and an inability to corroborate will become a factor. It then falls to the historian to draw reasonable and balanced conclusions as best he can based upon the information that he has access to. Powell has done this, and clearly acknowledged it when he has, in what I consider to be a fair presentation and interpretation of the facts.

The author opens his work with a series of family tree's and a chronology of the period running from 17 BCE to 20 CE covering the birth and death of Germanicus. These are very beneficial as they set the stage for the reader regarding the family that Germanicus was born into and the environment within which he lived. The period in question covering the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius are thought of generally as a time of the Roman Empire ascendant; and yet there were numerous instances that threatened the stability and very existence of the Empire itself: the mutiny of the Rhine Legions, the destruction of Varus's Legions in Germany and the vicious and ongoing conflict in Illricum. Set against this were the political turmoil of Imperial transition, the heightened sensitivities of Tiberius especially against the popularity and success of Germanicus and the consistent challenge of maintaining positive relations with adjoining states and peoples.

It was throughout this hotbed of history that Germanicus rose to prominence as both a subtle and skilled politician as well as a ruthless and brilliant military commander. Powell breaks his narrative into a series of distinct yet consecutive chapters that trace Germanicus' life and death chronologically. Again this is very helpful for the reader as it sets the subject within the context of the greater world around him in an easily accessible manner. He closes out his storyline with a discussion of how and why Germanicus' family fell within a few years of his death from the pinnacle of Roman society and influence to ignominious disgrace and ruin.

I particularly like Powell's narrative style. It is extremely readable and engaging, providing an educational narrative on a fascinating period of history. The addition of numerous maps and drawings are also very helpful in providing context to the story. The management of an empire as vast and complicated as the Roman would have been a challenge to any modern day leader; remove the benefits of technological advancements and it becomes all the more astounding that Rome was able to thrive and grow at all and is a clear indication of the strength of the Roman administrative system. Powell explains the complexities of this system as he traces the political advancement and education of Germanicus culminating in his being appointed with 'imperium proconsulare' by Tiberius (in effect overseer of the East); responsible directly and second only to the Emperor himself. Throughout, Powell does an admirable job of analyzing the ancient source commentary on these events.

There are many lessons for the modern day commander to be gleaned from the life of Germanicus. His recognition of legitimate grievance amongst the Rhine Legions while punishing those who transgressed the line of discipline may be compared with a similar success by Petain in the First World War with mutinying French soldiers. His knowledge of when to use coercion and when to use diplomacy not only cemented his reputation amongst his soldiers as a commander who did not squander lives but also with his potential opponents who recognized in him both a worthy adversary and a honourable man. His lack of hubris and willingness to focus on whatever task was directed by the Emperor ensured the continued confidence of that Office. 

Germanicus was a soldier and statesman of outstanding ability who set service to Rome above all else. Powell has done an exemplary job at shedding light upon the character and accomplishments of this noteworthy Roman. The book itself is of a very high quality with only a few typesetting issues to mar the presentation. I strongly recommend this work.



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