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Not Quite As Advertised
on May 1, 2012
Anyone who has put much time into studying Roman Britain or the provincial history of the Roman Empire should be familiar with the name of Petellius Cerialis, one of Rome's busier generals in the late First Century AD. I was somewhat disappointed by this book in the sense that it is not much about Cerialis, being more a history of the role of Roman generals in the early Empire. This is not to say that it is not an interesting or useful book - it is just not quite what the title says. Matyszak does not as far as I know misrepresent any facts of Cerialis's life - the major problem is is that we simply don't KNOW very much about Cerialis (or about many other prominent men in the early Empire who weren't Emperors). Historians like Tacitus and Suetonius (although I regard the latter as more of a gossip columnist than a historian) mention generals like Cerialis in passing and may give a cursory account of their actions where they affected imperial policy. But after all, their primary goal was to explain to their readers what had been happening in the city of Rome itself and only more generally in the provinces, what the Emperors did and how this affected the Roman people. If provincial histories focused on Roman Britain and Roman Germania that might have given us more information were written, they have not survived. Add to that the fact that the preeminent Roman historian whose work DID survive (at least in major part), Cornelius Tacitus, saw Cerialis as a rival of his beloved father-in-law Julius Agricola and snidely downgrades him whenever possible, and you have a general who accomplished a lot but of whom it is almost impossible to write a decent biography.
Where Matyszak scores high is in writing a more general overview of the office of general under the early emperors (roughly from Augustus to Domition). Emperors did not take the army into the field themselves very often (the only emperor between Augustus and Vespasian to have any props as a general was Tiberius), since they had to keep a sharp eye on the boiling political cauldron of Rome, so they needed reliable generals. But this had its drawbacks - a general who was too popular could be a threat to the emperor's own position, the reason why after Augustus, emperors seldom trusted their own family memebers with important commands. In the later Empire, of course, this became a source of chronic instability, with any general who won a few victories seeing himself (or being seen by his troops) as a potential replacement for the current ruler.
Matyszak reaches his peak in his description of the Civil War that started in 68 with the overthrow of Nero and saw three ephemeral emporors in a year before Vespasian was able to get things back under control. Whole books have been written about the year 69 AD alone, and it is to the author's credit that he gives one of the most succinct, clear and in places dryly humorous accounts of that chaotic event that I have ever read. Sadly, as Matyszak notes, once Cerialis had finished cleaning up the situation in Britain after the revolt of the Brigantes at the end of the Civil War, he almost disappears from history. A "Petillius Rufus" listed as consul in 83 may have been our man, but if it was him, what he did in between and afterwards, and when and how he died, are historical mysteries. It would not be true to say that Petellius Cerialis still awaits a definitive biography - Matyzsak has done about as well as anyone can with the material available. But unless new sources turn up, much of the life of this important Roman commander will continue to be unknown. `