Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drussus The Elder, Conqueror of Germania

Military biographies tend to be written by the same historic figures over and over again. There are dozens of books devoted to men like Julius Caesar, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, etc. There is a popular interest in such famous personalities, and there are ample resources on which a biographer can base his research. In Eager for Glory Lindsay Powell chronicles the life of an important Roman leader who has been unfairly neglected by history.

Before his accidental death, Drusus the Elder was successfully conquering western Germany. He was stepson of Emperor Augustus, the brother of Emperor Tiberius, father of Emperor Claudius, grandfather of Emperor Caligula, and great-grandfather of Emperor Nero. Had he not died so young, his exploits and family connections would have commanded a prominent place in Roman and world history.

Eager for Glory gathers the scattered evidence of Drusus' life and presents as near a complete story as can be told. The last person to write a biography of Drusus was the Emperor Augustus himself. Sadly, that text was lost to history. There is no surviving autobiography as Caesar has left us, nor are there full accounts written by ancient historians such as Plutarch or Tacitus. Yet, there are some short references to Drusus among ancient writings. Powell pieced these with his deep knowledge of the the Roman military, recent archaeology, and the general history surrounding Drusus' life. The gaps are filled with Powell's own intriguing theories.

The text begins with a discussion of Drusus' early life in the imperial family. As a young adult he enters politics. At age 22 Augustus puts him in command of the Roman operation to conquer the Alps. This was the Bellum Alpinum (aka Bellum Noricum) against the Raeti. I have seen this war briefly mentioned in other Roman military books, so I was very interested to read Powell's detailed account. Those readers unfamiliar with the Roman, Celtic, and German ways of war are supplied with backgrounds on the respective armor, weapons, equipment, tactics, etc. Speaking of armor, Roman history buffs will be interested to see how Powell ties the introduction of segmented armor to Drusus' own legions. After the conquest of the Raetians, Drusus is rewarded with a governorship of Gaul.

Although technically provinces of Rome, the three Gauls are still a fertile land for rebellion. Through clever diplomacy, Drusus diffuses a potential revolt. He then responds militarily to violent incursions from German neighbors. The unstable border encourages Augustus to subdue and assimilate the people East of the Rhine. Powell narrates the daring exploration and long-distance combat of Drusus' Bellum Germanicum. At the book's end we learn of Rome's reaction to Drusus' unexpected death, his (until recently) fading legacy, and an assessment of the man. Eager for Glory is an engaging story of a worthy, yet forgotten Roman commander.

P.S. Other reviewers have grumbled that the figure numbers in the text don't match the photos. This really isn't much of a problem as it is easy to figure out which image his writing refers to.

P.P.S. Powell wrote a related article: "Bella Germaniae: The German Wars of Drusus the Elder and Tiberius" in Ancient Warfare, Special 1, 2009, pp. 10-16.

P.P.P.S. By the end of this year we can expect Powell's next book, a biography of Germanicus. Agrippa comes after that. It's looking to be a nice series of accomplished and overlooked Roman generals.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Knight: The Warrior and World of Chivalry by Robert Jones

I was big into knights when I was like 10-years-old or so. I had a bunch of coloring books and those thin kids' paperbacks about knights and castles. I made drawings of knights making ample use of a silver crayon, one of which has survived to this day (see scan at left).

Seeing the suits of armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was impressive, but a scholarly interest didn't develop until after I left college. After I got my first job I went through a short phase of reading Medieval history books. At lunch break I'd walk down the street to the bookstore and would browse the shelves for new books. Then I got into Roman history, and I left Medieval books behind for another decade.

Last fall I finished reading the current books in G. R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, which reignited my curiosity about knights. It seems pretty clear that Martin researched actual Medieval life, so I decided to look into the real-life story. I started with a general history book on knights, aptly titled Knight: The Warrior and World of Chivalry.

As with most of Osprey Publishing's books it is lavishly illustrated. You won't see any reconstructions painted by modern artists, but every spread displays colorful imagery from period manuscripts, photos of surviving armor, etc. You could describe Knight as a coffee table book, but the text itself is well researched and well written. The author calls upon a wide range of art objects, writings, and archaeological examples to support his points. Performing his duty as a good historian, Jones also includes contradictory evidence.

There are the expected chapters on armor and weapon development, organization, tactics, etc., but I was interested to find that the author delved into the mind of the Medieval knight. We consider his emotions, his beliefs, and how these affected prowess in battle. For instance, I was genuinely surprised to read how faithful to honor knights could be. I knew they were supposed to be chivalrous, but I was impressed to learn of opposing knights refusing to kill each other in battle, hostages agreeing not to attempt escape, and whole cities agreeing to remain "captured" after the invading army leaves.

This book was a good introduction to the military of the Middle Ages. The one criticism I have is that this general overview of European knights focuses primarily on the English. I believe the author is himself English, so it makes sense that the material most accessible to him would be limited to his own language. In any case, it's a good text, and I now see just how historic the world of Games of Thrones really is.

In keeping with my real-life Games of Thrones study, I plan on reading War of the Roses by Alison Weir.