Friday, 8 August 2014

Germanicus: The Magnificent Life and Mysterious Death of Rome's Most Popular General - Lindsay Powell

Title: Germanicus: The Magnificent Life
and Mysterious Death of  
Rome's Most Popular General
Author: Lindsay Powell
ISBN: 978-1-78159-120-8
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishing
Pages: 338
Photos/Maps: 44/13

Ancient history is, by its very nature, fickle. Names of great men and women which were on everyone's lips during their lifetimes are forgotten with the passage of time. Ask today about the great men of the Roman Empire and many will say Julius Caesar; press further and they may come up with Augustus or Hadrian, rarely however will people be able to name beyond that. Ask them about the Great Generals of antiquity and they may say Sun Tzu, Atilla the Hun or Pompey followed by silence. That is the curse of many who were masters of their craft in times of old; lack or a loss of records and they are relegated to the dustbin of the past, utterly lost to all but a few. Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, one of the finest Generals and politicians of his day, feted and adored throughout the known world, is one of those men. 

Mr Powell has crafted an excellent biography of the man and his world. I was particularly impressed by the amount of primary source material that he was able to draw upon in the research for his book. No less than 45 unique sources from antiquity were cited or reviewed. It is of course, an occupational limitation when researching ancient figures that there will be a limited amount of sources and an inability to corroborate will become a factor. It then falls to the historian to draw reasonable and balanced conclusions as best he can based upon the information that he has access to. Powell has done this, and clearly acknowledged it when he has, in what I consider to be a fair presentation and interpretation of the facts.

The author opens his work with a series of family tree's and a chronology of the period running from 17 BCE to 20 CE covering the birth and death of Germanicus. These are very beneficial as they set the stage for the reader regarding the family that Germanicus was born into and the environment within which he lived. The period in question covering the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius are thought of generally as a time of the Roman Empire ascendant; and yet there were numerous instances that threatened the stability and very existence of the Empire itself: the mutiny of the Rhine Legions, the destruction of Varus's Legions in Germany and the vicious and ongoing conflict in Illricum. Set against this were the political turmoil of Imperial transition, the heightened sensitivities of Tiberius especially against the popularity and success of Germanicus and the consistent challenge of maintaining positive relations with adjoining states and peoples.

It was throughout this hotbed of history that Germanicus rose to prominence as both a subtle and skilled politician as well as a ruthless and brilliant military commander. Powell breaks his narrative into a series of distinct yet consecutive chapters that trace Germanicus' life and death chronologically. Again this is very helpful for the reader as it sets the subject within the context of the greater world around him in an easily accessible manner. He closes out his storyline with a discussion of how and why Germanicus' family fell within a few years of his death from the pinnacle of Roman society and influence to ignominious disgrace and ruin.

I particularly like Powell's narrative style. It is extremely readable and engaging, providing an educational narrative on a fascinating period of history. The addition of numerous maps and drawings are also very helpful in providing context to the story. The management of an empire as vast and complicated as the Roman would have been a challenge to any modern day leader; remove the benefits of technological advancements and it becomes all the more astounding that Rome was able to thrive and grow at all and is a clear indication of the strength of the Roman administrative system. Powell explains the complexities of this system as he traces the political advancement and education of Germanicus culminating in his being appointed with 'imperium proconsulare' by Tiberius (in effect overseer of the East); responsible directly and second only to the Emperor himself. Throughout, Powell does an admirable job of analyzing the ancient source commentary on these events.

There are many lessons for the modern day commander to be gleaned from the life of Germanicus. His recognition of legitimate grievance amongst the Rhine Legions while punishing those who transgressed the line of discipline may be compared with a similar success by Petain in the First World War with mutinying French soldiers. His knowledge of when to use coercion and when to use diplomacy not only cemented his reputation amongst his soldiers as a commander who did not squander lives but also with his potential opponents who recognized in him both a worthy adversary and a honourable man. His lack of hubris and willingness to focus on whatever task was directed by the Emperor ensured the continued confidence of that Office. 

Germanicus was a soldier and statesman of outstanding ability who set service to Rome above all else. Powell has done an exemplary job at shedding light upon the character and accomplishments of this noteworthy Roman. The book itself is of a very high quality with only a few typesetting issues to mar the presentation. I strongly recommend this work.



On the Precipice - Peter Mezhiritsky

Title: On the Precipice
Author: Peter Mezhiritsky
ISBN: 978-1-909384-95-8
Publisher: Helion and Company
Pages: 399
Photos/Maps: 27/7

This book represents one of the first comprehensive Russian studies of the impact of Stalin's purges upon the psychology and effectiveness of the Soviet military running from the period 1932 to 1941. It is a fascinating subject, little understood by the West, as it touches upon a myriad of subjects:

1. Why did the Leadership of the post-Tsarist Soviet army allow itself to be culled without reaction;

2. What were the underlying causes that drove Stalin to undertake such a draconian course;

3. How was Stalin able to create an environment within which he was able to wipe out his officer class;

4. What impact did Stalin's actions have on countries outside of the Soviet Union;

5. Why did the Red Army stay loyal to Stalin's government; and

6. What impact did Stalin's actions have upon the effectiveness of those leaders of the Red Army that survived the purges?

Any student of military history, international relations and psychology has a rich subject to look at here. At no time in history has the leadership of a nation undertaken such a thorough bloodletting of its professional military class, followed by a devastating war and come out at the end stronger than when it started.

Unfortunately, this book has a number of drawbacks that take away from its enjoyment and utility. Primary amongst these is the writing style of the author. The closest that I can come to relating to it is to compare it to a discussion with an old uncle relating stories of his past after having had a few drinks. He is not completely drunk but is certainly not sober and trying to follow his line of discourse can be challenging in the extreme. Regularly, the author's narrative seems more like a stream of consciousness rather than a structured study. Subjects are brought up but not completely finished before the author is on to a different track. This is both extremely frustrating and confusing.

The book has a number of interesting nuggets of information for those willing to wade through its narrative and the subject is one that is absolutely horrifying and fascinating; however, I would recommend it only for those with time and patience looking for a starting point from which to follow up on the subject of Stalin's purges. This is not the definitive work on the subject and, while the author has made an obvious effort to shed light using Russian primary sources and deserves credit for his undertaking, this is not a book that a typical Western reader would appreciate or easily follow. 



The Deathworld Trilogy - Harry Harrison

Title: The Deathworld Trilogy
Author: Harry Harrison
ISBN: 978-1434450357
Pages: 440
Publisher: Wildside Publishing

All forms of literature can hold lessons for the prospective leader; science fiction is no exception. The work 'The Deathworld Trilogy' is a fascinating study of the human condition under a variety of environments with clear applications to what we see in the real world today. Set in a future universe, it tells the story of a renowned gambler whose personality personifies the concept of 'honour amongst thieves', who is approached by a mysterious group soliciting his help in raising funds for them. The story unfolds with them being revealed as a closed society of perfect warriors living in a city state at war with (literally) the planet around them. The main character, known as Jason DinAlt, is inadvertently thrust into a world of perpetual combat fuelled by hatred of both sides for the other. As an outsider, he brings a perspective that flies directly in the face of the deep seated beliefs held by countless generations that have known no life other than the defence of their city through the perfection of their fighting skills. DinAlt is faced with deep seated mistrust and violent resistance when he begins to question some of the tenants that form the foundation of this society.

I would suggest that this story has parallels in some the main conflicts we see in our world today in regions such as Israel and the Gaza Strip as well as Radical Islam and the West. The book is a thoughtful insightful read that has lessons for those willing to appreciate and accept them.

The follow on book relates the impact of societies upon each other as they come in contact with one another. It explores the fact that the human condition is not sedentary and that exposure to alternatives be they language, tradition or geography is going to have an impact upon the outlook and behaviours of those groups meeting. The benefits of expansion and conquest must be balanced against the outcomes that intimate interaction is going to have regardless of whether they are viewed to be positive or negative.

This speaks to the impact of colonialism, immigration and the advent of such things as the internet upon the societies of the world. It is impossible to prevent change and those that attempt to do so run the risk of alienation and schism. Better to recognize that change is going to occur and to understand that it is not all negative. This has applications in many of the environments of the world but, particularly I would suggest, with regards to the impact of Eastern and Western cultures on each other as they inexorably move closer together with increased interaction.

This trilogy is an excellent and enjoyable read in addition to the lessons that it holds for the people of today. I would recommend it for both its entertainment and educational value.