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4.1 out of 5 stars
Imperial General: The Remarkable Career of Petellius Cerialis
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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. `
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on April 20, 2013
This book is more a summary of the Year of the Four Emperors as taken from Tacitus's Histories than about the career of Petellius Cerealis.

The author is more impressed with Cerealis than is Tacitus who finds him too impetuous, especially his disastrous cavalry charge on Rome. His campaign on the Rhine was better but really, a generally who is found in town with his mistress while the enemy steals his boats, does not strike me as an outstanding general. I think Tacitus' opinion of him is more on the mark than the author's I just don't think he is the best example on which to frame his thesis of the Imperial General.

The generals he sites in his introduction, Drusus, Germanicus, Varus etc. (oddly enough Tiberius is omitted) are better examples of Imperial Generals, but alas a lot more had been written about them which is I why I think the author selected Cerealis. Cerealis is an interesting figure in that he was involved in defending Britain against Boudicca, was a relative by marriage of Vespasian, and had a colorful career but he was far from a general in the mold of say Drusus or Germanicus or even Corbulo.

Nevertheless despite these shortcoming, the book does shine in a giving a good account, adapted from Tacitus, of the Year of the Four Emperors. Short of reading the Histories, I don't remember having read such a good account of the turbulent year 69AD. However I found myself far more interested in the machination of Civilis than those of Cerealis in terms of military leaders. A chart of the various legions mentioned and whose side they supported would have been helpful.

All in all if you are interested in Roman Military History this is a decent read but the title does not quite match the contents.
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on January 23, 2016
Great historical insight into the movers and shakers of Imperial entities and Roman generals.
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on December 26, 2014
This is a fine read. The author's writing style is crisp, clean and clear, and studded with humour that is occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. One thing the book highlights is some of sad the irony of British History. It is evident that nothing was learned from how the Romans treated Boudicca and her response, or there would have been no Sepoy Revolt in India.
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on April 16, 2012
Good book which is well written. I recommend it. However, due to the scant references available from this period of history, there are many holes in the history of General Petellius Cerialis.
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on December 16, 2017
The year of the 4 emperors, the Batavian revolt or Roman generals would all be better suited titles for this work. Only a relatively small part of the book is actually dedicated to “the remarkable career of Petellius Cerialis”.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed reading this book. A lot! It is really well written and the author uses all the available resources on this roman general of the first century. The problem is that there are very few sources to document the life of this remarkable character.

You’ll find an evolution of what it meant to be a general in Rome. Not only in the Imperial period but also during the Republic. This comparison is useful to understand the fear that some emperors felt regarding their generals’ popularity, and also the differences in the decision process that generals in those periods had (or lacked).

The first time Cerealis is mentioned is during the revolt of Boudica. He already had the impulsive nature, charging against hideous odds…and in this situation failing miserably. Then comes the largest part of the book: The year of the 4 emperors when our hero spent most of the time…hidden. Let’s be honest, the fact that he was able to evade from Rome and then try the attempted rescue of Vespasian family shows that he was able, foolhardy and very brave…but again, he failed and his prestation in this war was minute.

The Cerealis’ greatest achievement was without any doubt is magnificent work in the Batavian revolt led by Civilis. And that’s the reason why the author delved so deeply in the year of the 4 emperors; it’s impossible to understand this revolt without the adequate framework.

The romantic escapades of this charismatic general also gave him immortal fame (especially during the surprise attacks, when he was literally caught without pants…sorry...tunic, but even so always escaping from serious situations). They are obviously detailed in this book, integrated in the larger context of the revolt and how perilous the situation was due to the fact that most legions at his command were former enemies. Diplomacy and competence led to a successful campaign with many ups and downs, but with the eventual pacification of Batavia and the re-integration of those valuable warriors into the Roman army…and launching Petellius Cerealis to fame and the history books.

Highly recommended.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon March 9, 2012
Review initially posted on on 31st December 2011

This is an interesting book on an ambitious topic: what it meant to be an Imperial General in the first century AD. The author, within some 175 pages (not counting the notes or bibliography) seeks to present what this meant at the time through the career of Petilius Cerealis between about AD 40 to AD 74. The book is mostly well written and engaging, although there are a number of problems, probably mostly because the author seems to have constrained by size requirements.

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...
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on February 18, 2013
A summary of the review on StrategyPage.Com:

'In "Imperial General" Matyszak, among the most prolific and innovative modern classicists (The Enemies of Rome: From Hannibal to Attila the Hun,The Classical Compendium: A Miscellany of Scandalous Gossip, Bawdy Jokes, Peculiar Facts, and Bad Behavior from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, etc.] uses his deep knowledge of Roman history and literature to give us, if not quite a proper biography, certainly a good life and career of Petellius Cerialis (c. A.D. 30->83). This enables him to discuss Boudicca's rebellion in Britain (AD 60-61), the "Year of the Four Emperors" (69), in which Cerialis escaped imprisonment to lead his kinsman Vespasian's cavalry, after which he went on to command in the suppression of the Batavian Rebellion (69-70), and was then a highly successful governor of Britain, and on to at least two consulships before vanishing from the record. While reconstructing the general's career, Matyszak Cerialis' life to cast light on intricacies of Roman political, military, social, and imperial institutions during the early Empire. A book that is entertaining and interesting for the casual reader, and yet highly informative for even the seasoned student of Roman history.'

For the full review, see StrategyPage.Com
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on April 29, 2013
Cerialis is used as a thread that links the author's relating of the events of the Roman republic/empire primarily from the AD 20s to AD 70s. Matyszak relates his interpretations (valid IMO) of events taking place in that period with Cerialius in the background and at times admittedly completely absent from the story. Read this book for great insight into the political and historical customs and maneuverings of the leaders of Rome and its territories in that time period, not as a biography. I appreciate the excellent sourcing and the authors diligence in separating what is documented and what reasoned speculation. Well worth reading for anyone interested in that time period. I would enjoy seeing something from Matyszak further developing and concentrating on the history of Judea and Syria from the roman perspective during that time. Hint...hint...
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on March 9, 2014
Yes, while much of the book was spent on the Year of Four Emperors, I learned lots about what being a citizen of Rome meant and how distorted politics can become as well as how to survive those times. It wasn't easy and Petilius managed the murderous maze. This book gave me a whole new perspective of the Roman Republic and the incoming Empire as well as leading a legion. Great read that was well written for non fiction.
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