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Imperial General: The Remarkable Career of Petilius Cerealis Hardcover – 21 Jul 2011
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About the Author
Philip Matyszak is an author and a historian.
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The first chapter is problematic in trying to summarize in less than 20 pages over 500 years of "Roman" generalship from Romulus (without acknowledging that he is more than likely to have been a legendary character) to Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Agrippa. In many cases, the achievements of some of the generals of the Early Republic are limited to a three-to-five line summary. The second chapter is about the First Imperial generals, with summaries of the careers of Drusus (the Elder), Germanicus, Varus and Corbulo, but, oddly enough, Tiberius does not seem to be worth a summary on his own. The third chapter is mainly a summary about the conquest of Britain and the Boudicca rebellion just as much as it is about Petilius Cerialis' "achievements" (how he lost half his legion, and almost his life, in trying single-handed to stop the rebellion).
Part 3, is an account of the Year of the Four Emperors over some 60 pages or about a third of the book. It is a nice and well told summary of the main events with, almost as an aside, a good presentation of the main generals on either side and some interesting glimpses into their characters. However, there is very little on Petilius Cerialis himself because he was trapped in Rome and then hiding in the countryside. He hardly took part in the fighting, except at the very end, with a somewhat failed and unimpressive although gallant cavalry raid on Rome. In fact, the author strongly suggests that the raid may have been more of a show - to show that he tried to save Vespasian's relatives although he knew the attempt was doomed from the beginning. If true, this would have been rather cynical and machiavelic for Cerealis to do.
It is in fact only in part 4 that we really see Cerealis giving the full measure of his not inconsiderable military talents: on the Rhine frontier against the Civilis revolt and as Governor of Britain, where he seemed to have been just as sucessful and was followed by two other prime generals (Frontinus and Julius Agricola).
One last point, where I felt that there could have been more of a discussion was the treatment given by the author to Nero, presented in a very negative way. Although it is extremely difficult to have ANY sympathy for this Emperor, I did feel that the author followed the sources a bit slavishly (they very conveniently heaped all of the blame for anything that went wrong onto Nero). The pressure building up onto Nero, his general sense of insecurity and the sheer mounting paranoïa that his life was under constant threat would be enough to unbalance most people.
All in all, this is an interesting but somewhat disjointed read. In some cases, there is too little, simply because we don't know a lot about Petilius Cerealis to begin with or because the author compressed centuries of Roman generalship into a few pages. In other cases, there is too much narrative with the author not bringing out the salient points as to what this would have meant for Roman generalship, as with the part of the year 69. A somewhat better read on the same topic, in my view, is Adrian Goldsworthy's book "In the name of Rome", a collection of vignettes on some of Rome's greatest generals. However, this book also has its own set of problems...
Matyszak is a very clear writer with an engaging style. He covers the confusing events of AD69 and the rebellion of Civilis with great clarity. I am interested in this period of history but am not an expert. I doubt that there is much known about Petellius Cerialis that is not included in this book. Given this limitation and the enjoyment I derived from reading it I believe it merits a 5 star recommendation.
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