Imperial General: The Remarkable Career Of Petellius Cerialis by Philip Matyszak

Book Review by Caldrail

Who was Petellius Cerialis? Certainly not a household name, nor one that anyone outside of academic circles would have heard of. The Romans themselves wrote no stories about him, and aside from the odd mention in the sources we have left, he would seem a very insignificant character.

Cerialis was however an important man in very significant times. From Rome's legendary origins in 753BC to the eventual destruction of the Roman state by Islamic Turks in the fifteenth century, it is only the two extraordinary centuries which saw the Republic conquered by Rome's first imperial dynasty who then destroyed themselves for the love of wealth and power that define our ideas of what Rome was. Compared to those incredible charismatic attention-grabbing characters, what chance did one more legionary commander have of being remembered?

As it happens, some of them had careers that we can still trace among the struggles that surrounded them. One such person was Petellius Cerialis. He, more than any of the others, has become the focus of Philip Matyszak's latest book, Imperial General. The stated aims of this book are to outline the military career of Cerialis, to describe the tumultuous events which he experienced, and to understand exactly what an imperial general was. It is remarkable that we can do that. Our sources tell us virtually nothing about individual soldiers or their deeds, and even those with the responsibility to lead them barely get a mention.

To properly understand an animal, one must know the environment in which it lives. For that reason then we read about more than one commander of Rome's legions, discovering what sort of people they were, what sort of lives they led, how they were always at the mercy of murderous intrigue, always at risk of becoming the centre of intrigue themselves. A man who survives a dangerous period of history can do so either by dominating those around him, or by avoiding unwanted attention. Is it any wonder the Roman general who lasts the course is a surprisingly shy beast?

There is a part of me that remains frustrated and disappointed by this book. That happens to be no real fault of the author, for obscure and enigmatic Romans aren't easy to study in detail compared to the likes of those we can name without a second thought two thousand years after they died. Yet having read the book, I want to know more about Cerialis. There are little clues to his life that make him such an endearing character. As interesting as this account is, there is so much left unsaid. Even Cerialis himself simply disappears from the historical record without trace.

The last third of the book is devoted to extensive footnotes. Here the reader can check the author's sources and find inspiration for further study. There are plenty of black and white photographs to enliven the reading with some visual aids. The author writes in a style that is clear and erudite without being totally dry. His attempt to humanize the individual behind the faceless legions largely succeeds. The reader will garner a better sense of the individual soldier's contribution to Western Civilization.

Contained within Imperial General is a nice summary of military politics in the Principate with a more personal angle than usual. You're left in no doubt of the hazards of seeking senior positions, or how easily legions chose their affiliations and loyalties. Where this book succeeds in more than any other aspect is making very clear the delicate and potentially lethal balance between politician and soldier. As if the risks they took on the battlefield were not enough, it seems their lives were inherently risky by virtue of their status.

As we've come to expect from Philip Matyszak you will find a well written and observant account of the life and times of Petellius Cerialis. Not a triumph perhaps, but deserving of an ovation.

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