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5.0 out of 5 stars The competitive glory-hunter, 16 Sep 2012
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This review is from: The Sword of Rome: Marcus Claudius Marcellus (Hardcover)
This is a biography of Marcus Claudius Marcellus, one of the most successful Roman aristocrats. He is little known nowadays, largely because his considerable fame among the Romans at the time got eclipsed by the victories of his near contemporary - Scipio Africanus - who conquered Spain, decisively beat Hannibal in Africa, and put an end to the Second Punic war against Hannibal and Carthage.

The book has many merits. The first of these is to describe the environment in which Roman aristocrats competed for fame and glory and to show how Marcellus, in his time, was more successful than almost all of his contemporaries. The competition for honours, and for the consulship in particular - what was to become the "cursus honorum" a bit later on - was fierce but Marcellus got himself elected five times. He was perhaps even more successful as a Roman politician than as a general. He built himself a reputation as a brilliant general and an archetype of Roman martial virtues. He was especially efficient in getting the most recognition (today we would say publicity and kudos) from his heroics and his not inconsiderable military achievements despite the political opposition of his rivals. This was largely achieved through his willingness to twist Roman traditions to his advantages, allowing him, in one instance, to celebrate one of his achievements twice when refused a full triumph. In other words, he was a competitive, but very successful, glory-hunter. Although the author sometimes seems to have some sympathy for his subject, I did not manage to share it, possibly because Marcellus appeared to me as a bit of a scheeming self-centered politician ready to do just about anything for glory, including putting himself in harsms' way.

The other merit of this book is to show that Marcellus was personally brave, possibly even rash at times, very conscious about his public image and his reputation, but a competent rather than an outstanding general. He did win against the Gauls in North Italy, but others had also and the decisive victory had been won before his. He did finally take Syracuse, but only after his attempt to take it by storm had been bloodily repulsed, only by treachery and only after many months. A Carthaginian army was destroyed against him, but this was not of his making but because of disease. Finally, his claim to have won against Hannibal was largely what we would call nowadays a piece of political spin. He did win a small engagement in Campania before going to Sicily, although Hannibal broke of the fight because he had little to gain for it and did not want to fully commit limited resource. After his campaign in Sicily, he was in fact beaten by Hannibal, although not decisively, something that he seems to have taken trouble to minimize but which the author manages to demonstrate by carefully analysing the sources.

Finally, he got himself killed in an ambush. While one of our main sources for his career, Polybius, does seek to belittle his achievements and did have the Cornelii, who were political rivals of Marcellus, as patrons, the whole episode in which Marcellus lost his life does not show him up well. He was rash and imprudent, deciding to reconnoitre in person a nearby hill while knowing that Hannibal's Numid light cavalry was nearby. He also brought the other consul with him, thereby exposing the entire Roman high command. Finally, his escort seems to have been inadequate or too small, since it was surrounded and the Romans had no other alternative than to cut their way through or die in the attempt. Against Hannibal, a master of tricks and ambushes that the Romans had been fighting for about ten years by then, he should have known better and paid for the mistake with his life.

Interestingly, and as the author shows so well, what would be considered as the blunder of a rash and imprudent commander did not stop him from becoming a quasi-legend for latter Roman generations. Cicero, Titus Livius and Plutarque all saw him as the epitome of the "Roman hero" and of the "traditional" Roman virtues. These moralizing tones, which make it sometimes difficult to reconstitute what really happened, came at a time such virtues has either been compromised as the competition between Roman aristocrats become a fight for supreme power (Cicero), or at a time when one of these aristocratic clans (the Emperor and his family) had already become supreme.

This is a superb and a very highly recommended book.
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