Rome’s Greatest Defeat by Adrian Murdoch

Book Review by Chris Heaton

While Adrian Murdoch author of the recently published (June, 2006) Rome’s Greatest Defeat, may be a recent arrival as a published historian, perhaps more importantly he is also a journalist. Using a literary skill set perhaps not always available to the typical historian, he has delivered a refreshing account, not only of the events surrounding the book’s title, but of ancient history in general. This is history told from the perspective of a journalist: who, what, why, when and how are examined with journalistic integrity and in-depth review. From the reconstruction of both the written accounts and archaeological data surrounding the battle itself, to the personalities that shaped the events at hand and the political ramifications of the outcome, upon Rome and ancient Germania, as well as modern Germany and Europe, Mr. Murdoch has written a compelling feature.

Murdoch quickly offers that his work is intended for either the lay audience, or history enthusiasts who might not have an in depth familiarity with the circumstances at hand. His style is easy and engaging, lacking the occasional pretentiousness associated with historical academia. While he may be correct that it will be initially more appealing to a general audience than one of scholarly credentials, dismissing it out of hand for this same reason would be a terrible mistake. The reader must acknowledge the depth and scope of this offering, drawn from all available ancient sources and seamlessly merged with up to date modern archaeology. There will clearly be little new to offer regarding ancient source history of the events in question, but rarely will you be treated to a such a well organized and concise collection of these sources (which are fully attributed throughout) along with the impact of recent archaeology. Whether you have a passing interest in ancient history or are intimately familiar with perhaps one of history’s most influential battles, this book should not be overlooked.

Murdoch dedicates the first half of the book to the battle and more interestingly to the players involved (as the historical accounts of the actual battle are sketchy at best, a review of personalities naturally makes a greater impact). The standard cast of characters is included, from imperial family members Augustus, Tiberius and Germanicus to the great scapegoat Publius Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor of Germania who led 3 Roman legions to their ultimate destruction. However, it is the Germanic iconic hero Arminius who receives the greatest attention.

In addition to a historical review of Arminius, the Cherusci chieftan who betrayed the trust of Varus in order to perpetuate a great Germanic victory, Murdoch explores the political impact that these events played on both ancient and modern European history. While it should be understood that the battle of Teutoburg Forest did not result in any semblance of a unified Germany in ancient times (and in fact, Arminius ultimately met his demise as a result of inter-tribal politics and continuing conflict with Roman allies), it did provide a point of origin for Germanic historic pride when such historical works as those of Tacitus and Paterculus were rediscovered a millennium and a half later.

The second half of “Rome’s Greatest Defeat” is dedicated to this grass-roots move of German nationalism based on the influence of Arminius and his victory over Rome. Murdoch weaves the reader through a fascinating account of the rise of nationalism in the 16th century and the unification of the German state in the 19th, culminating ultimately with National Socialism in the 20th. Perhaps this portion of the book might be more appropriately titled as “Arminius and the Origin of Germany” rather than “Rome’s Greatest Defeat” but this is not a knock on the title or its content. Rather this is an indication that within the 256 pages the reader is exposed to two separate yet entirely codependent subjects.

However, there is one distraction in the author’s style that must be noted. There are several references to modern British historical events as comparison pieces that attempt to offer the reader, a reader without an ancient understanding, an equivalent to put an event in context. Additionally some of these events may be obscure for non-British readers, but this is not ultimately the issue... and Mr. Murdoch is British after all. While these comparisons attempt to give the lay person a political understanding of ancient events, ultimately such comparisons of ancient and modern political structures often require deeper analysis of socio-political affairs, in the context of their own time frame, than can truly be provided in the manner presented.

Regardless, Mr. Murdoch set out to correct a glaring lack of publications (especially from an English language perspective) on the subject at hand and has done so admirably. “Rome’s Greatest Defeat” is well researched and the author’s understanding of the subject is clear. Despite the author’s admitted target of a non specialist audience, Romanophiles and experts alike would be remiss to avoid this quality display of historical study. Harkening back to Mr. Murdoch’s journalistic background, this is a well developed front page “extra” story and one should definitely “read all about it!”

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