This is a very interesting book about one of the less well known members of Augustus' generals: his stepson Drusus the Elder. One commentator wondered why he was not better known, at least in our times. In addition to the loss of almost all contemporary sources (most of the ones we have are written at least a hundred years after the facts), Drusus never became Emperor, unlike his stepfather Augustus (who, technically, was "Princeps", not Emperor) his brother Tiberius, or his son Claudius. In addition, he died young and his claim to fame as the "Conqueror of Germania" was somewhat overshadowed by Varus' disaster (the Teutoburg battle where 3 legions were lost) and his eldest son's achievements that won him the title of "Germanicus" some 20 years latter.
I had mixed feelings after having finished this book. As other commentators have mentioned, Lindsay Powell has tried to make much with little. This can be seen as a quality - the ability to write a whole story although there is not much detail about his character in the sources - but also a defect because the book includes a lot of padding to make up for the lack of specific details about Drusus' achievements. Having said that, the book is meticulously researched, makes very good use of archeology and offers several fascinating glimpses into this early period when what we know as the Roman Empire was starting to be established. One of these is to show that, after Actium, whole areas needed to be pacified (Northern Spain), conquered (Northern Alps - Rhetia, Illyria and Noricum), or administered (the Gauls) and that Octavius/Augustus and Rome had their work cut out to do so. Another, less original, insight, is to show how much Octavius/Augustus relied on Agrippa and never quite managed to replace him by a single figure once his right-hand man died.
I do, however, have a few problems with this book. Minor, but irritating, issues include poor editing and misleading references, although the maps that are provided are generally very helpful and allow to follow each of Drusus' and Tiberius' campaigns. More questionable, however, are the author's views that portray Drusus into a Roman hero, the epitome of Roman virtues and the Conqueror of Germania. Here, it seems that Powell has chosen to believe the Roman propaganda that comes across even through the second hand sources that remain (a bit like believing Alexander the Great's propaganda and that of his Successors as it permeates through the sources). There are several problems with this:
- It seems like Drusus was in fact OVER eager for glory. He over extended himself at least twice during his campaigns in Germania and was lucky to avoid the fate that would be that of P. Quinctilus Varrus' a few years latter in supposedly conquered Germania. In other words, this was a huge mistake for someone portrayed as a "fine general", and he did it twice, not once, and almost got destroyed on one of the occasions. The author seems to have chosen to gloss over this: Drusus was perhaps lucky, but rash and his eargerness for glory could easily have lead to disaster in Germany
- Another interesting point that could be either propaganda or recklessness is Drusus' "heroïc" behaviour of slaying ennemy chiefs single handed. Interestingly, while the author mentions this and tells us how this stems back to the beginning of Rome, he cannot give us a single name of a chieftain slain by Drusus, simply because the sources do not provide any such name. Granted, as mentioned before, all we have left are second-hand sources, so that the names of some small chieftain of a "barbarian" Germanic clan may easily have been dropped. However, the omission could also mean that this was a piece of "spin" to portray Drusus as the "Roman Hero".
If you take a more cynical view to Drusus' achievements and behaviours, then the picture of the super "Roman hero" becomes one of an ambitious, over eager young man in a hurry. The author hints at this several times, but unfortunately fails to discuss this issue at length.
The last point here is whether Drusus had "noble intentions" or whether he was an ambitious, competitive and self-serving young man that was driving to position himself as the successor of Octavius/Augustus. The author tends to believe that the former was true, but does not make the case that demonstrates his view. I wonder whether the latter is not more likely.
The author has somehow avoided an ackward but interesting discussion is about Drusus' alleged "Republican" opinions (handing the power back to the Senate) and the reactions that these views drew from Octavius/Augustus and Tiberius. Drusus' alleged opinions, which would be shared by his son the Emperor Claudius latter on, could just as well have been a ploy to get support from the main senatorial factions. If this was the case, then his behaviour would have bordered on treason and it is not at all surprising that Tiberius would have handed the incriminating letter that Drusus wrote to him to Augustus, especially since the latter seemed to see Drusus as some kind of "wonder boy" who could do no wrong and who outshone his more ponderous but more reliable brother. Lindsay Powell insists on Tiberius being jealous of his brother. While there may be truth about this, Tiberius also deeply loved his brother and would not have travelled hundreds of miles at breackneck speed to see him on his death bed if this had not been the case (he didn't really need to, unless the travel was seen as necessary to secure the loyalty of the legions). The point here is that Tiberius, while possibly jealous, must also have been torn between the love of his brother and his duty (and seeking the affection, love and recognition of Augustus). If anyone knew about Drusus' ambitions and self-serving behaviors, and how far he could go to reach his goals, it would have been Tiberius.
As for the two last sections of the book, I found that the "return home" was simply too long - it makes up about 20% of the book. Drusus' achievements were also presented in a much too favorable way and perhaps even somewhat overblown.
He certainly did play a major role in conquering the Alps. However, the author does not really assess how much can be ascribed to him and how much credit is due to Tiberius. Also, one could wonder as to whether Tiberius was initially meant to attack jointly from the West while Drusus invaded from the South East or whether Tiberius was brought in to help out his younger brother who had got himself into trouble and was having a thougher time than expected.
Moreover, I find the title of the book that portrays Drusus the Elder as the Conqueror of Germania to be exagerated or even a bit misleading. This was, of course, how imperial roman propaganda portrayed him (just like Julius Caesar portrayed himself as conqueror of Britannia or Germany), although he was never granted the title of "Germanicus", unlike his son (who was also served by good propaganda that overemphasized his real achievements!). However, the author should perhaps have know better. While Drusus did reach the Elbe, use innovative strategies such as his seaborn invasion, raid deeply into Germania and set up a number of forts on the other side of the Rhine, the following years would show that this did not necessarily equate to "conquest". In my view, the topic as to whether Germany was really conquered by Drusus' death and, if so, to what extent, could have been discussed in much more length.
Including some or all of these discussions would have significantly alleviated the author's need for "padding". The book nevertheless makes for a good and a very interesting read, but it could have been significantly better...