TOP 100 REVIEWERon 20 October 2013
After writing a book on Drusus the Elder (Germanicus' father), Lindsay Powell has just published a book on the somewhat better known son. Both books have a lot in common, although this one is longer and more detailed, largely because we know more about Germanicus than about his father. Both were portrayed as war heroes and "wonder boys", chiefly because of their victorious expeditions in Germany. Both were dashing and somewhat rash. Both died young. While the father died accidentally, the son seems to have been poisoned, as he himself believed.
There were however quite a few differences between them. Germanicus Iulius Caesar, as he became named (his initial name was Nero Claudius Drusus, was heavily influenced by his father's glory and reputation. As the book shows art times, the son used the same tactics and strategies as the father had in Germany. Times had changed, however. While the father had set off to conquer and pacify "Germania Magna", the son was in fact conducting retaliatory expeditions against the tribes that had a hand in the destruction of Varus' legions. Also, the son seems to have lived to be a bit older than his father and had the time to be sent to the East as a king of "viceroy" to govern and settle a number of disputes.
Germanicus, the grandson of Marcus Antonius the triumvir through his mother (Antonia), is also known for his family life and in particular his association and love match with Aggripina the Elder, the daughter of Agrippa (Augustus' right hand man when he was still only Octavian) and of Iulia, and his large family. His uncle was Tiberius. His brother became the Emperor Claudius who succeeded his son nicknamed "Caligula" during his youth by the legions on the Rhine. He became Augustus' darling since he seemed to be the incarnation of everything that Augustus wanted his new regime and its Princeps to look like.
All this, and much more, is shown and told by Lindsay Powell in this book with a luxury of details and an overabundance of footnotes (often some two hundred per chapter!). The genealogical trees are, for instance, particularly useful to understand the various relationships. Both men and women often had the same names as their parents and they tended to intermarry, making it even more confusing at times. Also useful are the maps and the colour photos of coins and places.
I had, however, two kinds of problems with this book, and these were quite similar with the ones I had had with the author's previous book on Germanicus' father. One is about form and the other, perhaps a bit more serious, is about substance. Both are related to - and seem to be the consequences of - the author's enthusiasm for his topic (at least this is the impression I got).
The problem about form is that the author comes up with multiple digressions about a whole range of topics while telling the story. For instance, each and every step of Germanicus' career is the occasion for the author to start explaining what the various positions that he occupied meant, their origins and how they had evolved. This is, for instance, the case for the consulship but also for the various religious priesthoods that were bestowed on Germanicus. Depending on your point of view, and perhaps also on how much you already know about Rome and its institutions, you may consider this to be either a wonderful bonus ("two books in one", as another reviewer stated for the book on Drusus) or, on the contrary, unnecessary padding that slows the book down and makes it harder to read. To be frank, I had both impressions, at different times.
The problem with the substance is that the story is essentially a very biased one, with the author essentially taking for granted that Germanicus was both the war hero and the wonder boy that he was portrayed to be. The Romans certainly believed it and so did the Roman sources. Was he really such a "superhero" and "wonder boy", and, if so, to what extent? Given the Romans talent for propaganda, a discussion of these questions would have been worthwhile, rather than taking for granted what all of the sources have to say about the "wonder boy". Also, the author does show that the Germanic campaigns of the young general were both high risk and rather costly in all respect, starting with Roman lives. So the track record is not exactly perfect but the author, even in his assessment section right at the end, never really gets such a discussion going, although he skirts around it a couple of times.
Another topic that might disappoint some, but where I believe the author was both prudent and, contrary to the point above, quite impartial and careful not to jump to conclusions and speculate, is Germanicus' death. Here again, Lindsay Powell tells the facts as we know them through the sources. The author does a rather good job in exonerating both Tiberius and his mother Livia from any responsibility in the hero's death. This is done essentially by showing that despite insinuations (and those from Tacitus have been particularly damaging for Tiberius' reputation), neither seem to have had any real reason to get rid of the "wonder boy". However, this essentially leaves the problem unsolved: who murdered him, or did he die of some disease? We will never know for sure.
Four solid stars for a book that is well-worth reading.