Lindsay Powell, Germanicus (Albright)

Lindsay Powell


(Pen & Sword, 2016) 374 pp. $24.95


According to the author, this is the first modern biography of Germanicus, one of the more notable members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman Emperors, whose controversial early death and the promise of his life led him to be among the most mourned of missed opportunities for Roman emperors. The author is well-equipped to write about such a subject given the fact that he has written several well-regarded books about early Roman history such as Marcus Agrippa:  Right-Hand Man of Caesar Augustus and Eager For Glory:  The Untold Story Of Drusus The Elder, Conqueror Of Germania, both of which were published by the same publisher. Having written a full-length work on Drusus the elder, it would make sense that he would write a book about his son Germanicus. Given the wide familiarity of the author with the relevant historiography of the period and afterward concerning his subject, something this book amply demonstrates, this book is an example of the right book being written by the right person.

In terms of its contents, this book has a lot to offer. Readers will likely enjoy the authors attention to contextual elements that make a text like this one easier to understand, as the book begins with a lengthy introductory section that includes several pages of family trees that place Germanicus within the context of Rome’s late Republican and early imperial elites. After all, Germanicus’ two grandfathers, Augustus and Marcus Antonius, squared off against each other at the decisive battle of Actium, and it is hard to have more illustrious Roman parentage than that. Throughout the book there are numerous maps that show the travels and battles of Germanicus, which are far wider than his name would indicate. The book also shows a strong attention to art, as it shows coins, paintings, and reproductions of interest to the student in the life and times of Germanicus, as well as some statuary that shows him at different times of life. The artwork shown also demonstrates that Germanicus and his military exploits in Germany were long remembered and celebrated by artists of the last few centuries, and that it is only relatively recently that he has been largely forgotten by literate society.

Concerning the text itself, this book rewards close reading. As might be expected from a book whose full title is: Germanicus:  The Magnificent Life And Mysterious Death Of Rome’s Most Popular General, the author takes a large-scale approach to his subject. The author begins by looking at the life and early death of Drusus The Elder, Germanicus’ father. After that the author looks at various stages of the early life of Germanicus, including his first steps to glory as a member of the Roman elite given a speedy trip through the early offices of the early Roman empire, including success in a lengthy war against some Pannonian rebels. After that the author spends some time in showing how Germanicus was able to deal successfully with a major mutiny among the soldiers in Germany and then successfully recover Roman glory there after the disaster of Teutoburg Forest in several campaigns.  At this point the author discusses in some detail Germanicus’ travels and difficulties in the Eastern part of the Empire, where he illegally traveled to Egypt and struggled to deal with a prickly Syrian governor Piso on the negative side but on the positive side gained several major diplomatic triumphs in Thrace, Cappadocia, Armenia, and Parthia without the use of force. The death of Germanicus in his mid 30’s and the aftermath of that death and the fall of his house in the next generations take up the next two chapters, which show how Tiberius and Gaius (Caligula) in particular suffered from the loss of Germanicus and his virtuous leadership in the Roman imperial family.  The last two chapters discuss the Germanicus tradition within art and literature and give a fair and sober-minded assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Germanicus’ character and achievements before closing with an Appendix showing the Senate Degrees granting honors to Germanicus, a glossary, and various indices, notes, and a bibliography.

It should be particularly noted that this is a book that requires at least some comfort with Latin in order to get the most out of its material. Here is an example of the author’s prose from a page taken at random:  “What came to be known as the Tropaeum Drusi was regarded as a highly significant landmark, and its location was recorded by Ptolemy in his Geographica, written a hundred years later, at the co-ordinates latitude 33 degrees 45’, longitude 52 degrees 45’.  Various modern attempts have been made to identify its precise location, with Dresden or Magdeburg currently the leading contenders. In his description of the structure visited by Germanicus, Tacitus uses the phrase aram Druso, ‘Drusus’ altar’, rather than tropaeum (101).” Those readers who are able to grapple with the text of this book and the author’s frequent allusions to Latin words and phrases and his critical attitudes towards certain writers like Tacitus will find much to enjoy and appreciate in this account.

This book ought to appeal particularly to university educated readers of history with an interest in the history of the early Roman Republic and at least a basic familiarity or interest in the classics of literature of the time. Throughout the book as a whole the author shows himself well in command of the sources, capable of weighing the biases and coming to his own stoutly defended conclusions about Germanicus and Tiberius and others. The author shows himself to be skeptical of extreme claims and well-prepared to give everyone their proper due, and while this book is largely favorable towards its subject, it is by no means an uncritical hagiography.

Overall, this book is a critical biography for readers who are capable of providing their own critical perspective as well as their own sincere appreciation of the author’s encyclopedic knowledge of his subject and its context. This is the sort of book that makes one want to seek out the author’s previous works and pay attention for future works to gain a further understanding of the world of early imperial Rome, its rich and complicated characters as well as its laws, customs, political and military ways, and religious traditions, all of which shine through in this book.

Nathan Albright
Norwich University

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