Eager for Glory by Lindsay Powell
Book Review by Adrian Murdoch
Drusus the Elder is a shadowy figure. He is either remembered as the good looking Ian Ogilvy in the 1976 BBC television series of Robert Graves’ I Claudius, horsing around in the baths with his brother, George Baker’s Tiberius; or he is associated with the Drususstein, the haphazard-looking commemorative monument in the German city of Mainz.
Neither image does Drusus justice and it come as a shock to realise that Lindsay Powell’s Eager for Glory: The untold story of Drusus the Elder, conqueror of Germany (Pen & Sword Military) is the first full length biography not only of the man who conquered Switzerland and Germany, but was the father and great-grandfather of the emperors Claudius and Nero respectively.
Although young, Drusus Claudius Nero was one of the most decorated and popular commanders of the Roman army. Born in January 38BC and the younger brother of the emperor Tiberius, he was known for his easy going temperament and reliability. “A young man with as much character as human nature is capable of receiving or hard work can develop,” was his reputation with the army according to the Roman writer Vellius Paterculus
Powell gives a solid account of the life and times of Drusus with an enviable lightness of literary touch. More to the point, he pulls off the difficult task of putting Drusus’ career into the context of the political machinations of the early empire.
Where his account truly comes to life is in the military details. Powell clearly understands both the psychology of the Roman soldier and the practical issues of day-to-day life in the military in nuanced detail. To give just one example (and there are many):
“Widely used in Drusus’ time was the so-called ‘Mainz type’ [sword] which was 69cm long and 6 cm wide… It was primarily a stabbing and thrusting weapon intended to puncture the fleshy parts of the body – neck, armpits and abdomen – in the manner of a bayonet, but could be used to slash and fence as required by circumstances.”
Few historians take the time to understand the detailed nature of the weapons from the archaeological record, but then to be able to put that into practical context is wholly admirable.
It is in the account of Drusus’ death in 9BC that Powell strays from the path. After an unfortunate fall from a horse, Drusus’ injury appears to have been infected with gangrene. The second century Greek writer Cassius Dio reports – his account derives from that of Suetonius – the appearance of a gigantic barbarian goddess, Germania personified, predicting doom. “Where are you hurrying to, insatiable Drusus? You are not fated to look on all these lands. Leave! The end of your campaigns and of your life is already at hand”
Powell takes this account at face value and suggests that the dream was the result of Drusus’ unsettled mind. The appearance of messengers from the gods is such an established literary trope not only in the early Roman empire, but all the way through the classical period (take for example the spirit that left the tent of the Emperor Julian in AD363 signifying the failure of his campaign in Persia) that this interpretation is unlikely.
More to the point Powell believes that it was Drusus who decided that enough was enough when the Roman army reached either Dresden or Magdeburg: “Drusus heeded the phantasm’s warning. He ordered the army to pack up and head back to the Rhine,” he writes. Dieter Timpe’s argument that there was dissent among Drusus’ leadership team when the army reached the Elbe surely must be the more plausible reading. And to be fair to Powell he does acknowledge the argument in his footnotes.
The frustration with the life of Drusus, much like that of his son Germanicus, is that they both died much too young. As a result, their lives became idealised to a tremendous degree. Powell’s final chapter, an assessment of Drusus’ life, goes some way to correcting that without detracting from his achievements.
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Drusus always wanted to be remembered. The younger Pliny when describing his uncle’s books mentions his 20-volume history of the German Wars. “In his dream he [Pliny the Elder] saw standing over him the ghost of Drusus Nero, who had triumphed over the greater part of Germany and died there. He committed his memory to my uncle’s care, begging him to save him from the injustice of oblivion.” It is an affecting passage. Pliny the Elder’s account has not survived, but Powell’s has and he has brought Drusus back into focus.