Lindsay Powell                         Historical Detective
LIndsay Powell as Roman
As a serving member of The Ermine Street Guard, 1996.

Speaking at the Local Authors' Day, Reading Library, June 2011. (Photo: Terry Pearce)

Meeting a reader at the launch of Eager for Glory at Waterstone's book shop in Reading, June 2011. (Photo: Terry Pearce)

Signing a book for a customer at Foyle's book shop in London, August 2011.

Signing books at Blackwell's Classics Department in Oxford, August 2011.

Poster for I, Claudius Drusus talk at Wokingham Library, August 2011.

Telling the story of Drusus the Elder at Wokingham Library, August 2011. (Photo: The Wokingham Times)

Meeting author Steven Saylor at BookPeople, Austin, Texas, September 2010.

Meeting author Adrienne Mayor at the Archaeological Institute of America Conference, San Antonio, Texas, January 2011.

Meeting archaeologist Darius Arya at the Archaeological Institute of America Conference, San Antonio, Texas, January 2011.

Meeting author Lindsey Davis at the Classical Association Conference, Durham, June 2011.

Meeting the world's leading expert on Caesar Augustus, Dr Karl Galinsky, in Austin, Texas, May 2013.

What is it about the world of Ancient Rome that captures your imagination – why are you drawn to it?
It’s the appeal of the power and glory, the epic tale of a civilization a thousand years in the making, the way it bound together vastly different communities and peoples in a single world empire, and how it rose and fell. I have spent many years studying the Roman army, visited many of the surviving remains across Europe and the Mediterranean and have assembled a large collection of coins from the period. Perhaps because of it, at a spiritual level, I feel a close affinity with the Romans, particularly of the first century of the Common Era.

How did you start writing?
In 1979, on the urging of my Latin teacher, Eira Lewis, I entered a competition with a submission on the given subject of 'Omens, Oracles and Prophecies in the Roman World' to the Cardiff and District branch of the Classical Association. To my surprise, I won! It was an auspicious start to a writing career. The Ermine Street Guard has also kindly published several of my research papers in their acclaimed journal Exercitus, including that piece on omens, oracles and prophecies. The readership includes eminent archaeologists and historians, and indeed, some scholars have chosen the journal over other titles to publish their findings. Guard members are very well informed on matters Roman and happy to engage in debate on new finds and interpretations, so you can be sure of feedback.
    I have written for Military Heritage and am a regular contributor to Ancient Warfare magazine. For the 2009 Battle of Teutoburg special issue I wrote 'Bella Germaniae', which tells the story of the German Wars of Augustus' stepsons, Drusus the Elder and his brother Tiberius, out of which I wrote the book EAGER FOR GLORY. I have written about warfare and religion and most recently articles on the Battle of Vercellae, and Maiden Castle, as well as reviewing a number of books for the magazine. Being a panelist on the podcast is fun: a group of us from all around the world discusses themes in each issue. They are moderated by editor Josho Brouwers, and produced for us by The History Network.

What themes appeal to you?
Ambition, betrayal, deceit, heroism, revenge, what drives people to make the decisions they take – these are the big themes that make great stories. Roman history is filled with tales of men and women at all levels of society who shaped the destiny of their world motivated by these powerful drives.

Why did you choose to write about Marcus Agrippa?
I was amazed that no one had written a biography of him in English in nearly 80 years. He was Augustus' right-hand man and without him the heir of Julius Caesar might never have succeeded in becoming the emperor. That alone was reason enough to write the book; but look deeper and you find the vexing question of why, when he had the means to do so, did he never challenge Augustus for supreme power? Over three decades he served his friend loyally and selflessly, even giving his own two sons for adoption by the emperor while he was still alive! He was an extraordinary and multi-faceted man. Without his contribution the history of Rome might have taken a very different course. Yet he has always been overshadowed both by Augustus and by his successors. It was time to tell Agrippa's story for a new generation of readers - and what a compelling story it is!

Why did you choose to write about Drusus the Elder?
I was researching the background to the Battle at Teutoburg Forest for a book and it became quickly apparent that Drusus was a big figure in the Roman conquest of Germania. When I tried to find a biography of him I was amazed to find that there wasn’t one. The more I looked into his life story the more it seemed to me he was an important man in Augustus’ reign – yet he’s been almost entirely forgotten. I made it my mission to bring his story to a modern audience. His story is also compelling – I think readers will be surprised when they read the book.

You said Drusus was an important figure. In what ways was he?
That’s a great question. For me there are three reasons.
Firstly, Augustus himself thought he was important. At the state funeral Augustus gave one of two eulogies – his elder brother Tiberius having given the first. In it he said he that he prayed the gods “to make his Caesars like him, and to grant himself as honourable an exit out of this world as they had given him”. (He was referring to the two boys, Caius and Lucius, he adopted from his best friend Agrippa. In his succession plan Augustus was looking to them to take over when he died.) Augustus also wrote a biography – sadly all trace of it has been lost. His peers in the senate commissioned an arch and statues to be erected, but as importantly they coined the honorary title Germanicus which was a first. It put Drusus securely in the élite group of Roman commanders who bore names after the battles they won – think Scipio Africanus, for example. Drusus was a genuine Roman hero. 
    Secondly, he shaped the strategy of Rome’s northwestern frontier for a generation. He was instrumental in bringing the lands we now call Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland into the Roman Empire. He stablised Gaul through a concerted programme of nation building that was key to integrating the 60 tribes of Celts into the Roman way of life. He established the Rhine frontier with a massive build-out of military infrastructure. In fact, many of the main cities along the Rhine today can trace their origins directly back to Drusus. He led the Roman invasion of Germania and the way he did it – the locations of the camps he founded, the deployment of soldiers in the region, the amphibious operations he executed, the alliances he made – was continued well after he died by both his brother and son Germanicus. It is also my contention that without his campaigns in Germany, Claudius would likely have not invaded Britain.
    Thirdly, there’s the dynastic aspect. Drusus was the son of Augustus’ wife Livia Drusilla, and that made him a Claudian, not a Julian. When Gaius and Lucius died, Augustus adopted Tiberius to succeed him. He in turn was made to adopt Germanicus, who was Drusus’ eldest son. The notorious Caligula was Germanicus’ son – that’s to say Drusus’ grandson – and he became emperor after Tiberius. When Caligula was assassinated, Claudius became emperor – and he was Drusus’ youngest son. So you see, the bloodline of the dynasty that followed after Augustus was actually Drusus’.

Was he a likeable man?
Absolutely. All the accounts we have consistently describe him as affable, polite and confident. He was a great believer in Roman tradition and values. He was what we would call a man of action, often taking very great personal risks on the battlefield as I explain in the book. His troops loved him for that and after he died they erected a monument to him. You can still see it in Mainz, Germany.

And Germanicus? What was he like?
He was like his father in many ways - charismatic and fearless, but he was also more emotional. He was extremely popular during his lifetime and his reputation as a good man and a fine commander endured for as long as the Roman Empire lasted. 

What drew you to tell the story of Germanicus?
His is the tale of great potential unfulfilled, of the man marked out by Augustus to be emperor Number Three, but never was. How he got there, how he rose to become a great general, is a compelling human story.
    During his short life he led the Roman army to victory in two great wars - famously defeating Arminius, the German who masterminded the massacre at Teutoburg.
    Then there's the mystery surrounding his death, and the journey from Antioch to Rome of his wife bearing his ashes, which has inspired painters like Poussin, West and Turner to create some of their finest art works.
    And rounding out the appeal is the great trial - some say show trial - of the man accused of his murder, Cn. Calpurnius Piso (memorably played by the late Stratford Johns in the BBC/PBS I, Claudius). 
    Amazingly the story of Germanicus Caesar's life - from birth to death, the aftermath and legacy - has not been covered in a throughly-documented, single volume biography before.

How has being a member of The Ermine Street Guard informed your writing?
The Guard is renowned the world over as the first and still the leading reenactment group for the Roman army of the first century of the Common Era. Through it, I got a very real sense of what it was like to serve with the eagles. It takes stamina and endurance to wear the kit and fight in it. There is a particular sound as the metal plates of the armour chink against metal plates or the clatter of metal of the armour against the wood of the shield while on the march. That tells you the Roman army could never use stealth to approach an enemy – the noise would give them away. Indeed, the Roman army used the noise to intimidate an enemy. The acrid, slightly sweet smell of sweat on metal inside a helmet or the musty dampness of a woollen tunic at the end of a show are distinct and etched in my memory. Warfare stinks! Literally. You really can’t get that from reading a history book!

What do you enjoy reading?
I have a very large library of books. The non-fiction books I particularly enjoy are those written by a new generation of experts who take a multi-disciplinary approach to interpreting the past.
    Not so long ago, archaeologists, biologists, epigraphers, numismatists and historians tended to work in silos and, as an enthusiast for ancient times, it was quite difficult to get a complete view of life centuries ago. Among the books I have read recently are Guy de la Bedoyère’s Eagles Over Britannia, Francis Pryor’s Britain BC, John Manley’s AD43, David Mattingly’s An Imperial Possession and Greg Woolf’s Rome: An Empire's Story. In some purist circles, these multi-disciplinary writers may be considered mavericks; but for the rest of us, they are shedding light on the complexity of lives lived and times lived through before us. We should not forget that the ancient history that has come down to us was written by the people who could write – their subjugated peoples often did not write things down – so the legacy is somewhat one sided. New, interdisciplinary studies are revealing, often in unexpected ways, the perspective of the other side.
    The result is now that the barbarians appear to have been more civilized than we thought, while the Romans were perhaps more barbaric, but overall, our ancestors look to be much more like us, and just as clever. We live in an exciting age of inquiry. Accepted wisdom, traditional interpretations in all walks of science and the arts, are being challenged. The result is a much more balanced and multi-layered view of our common heritage.

Does anything stand out for you? 
In the course of my research, I have been reading the writings of real soldiers, men who have suffered in war. Fortunately for me, there has been a resurgence of interest in the common soldier in recent years, especially accounts of battle by soldiers. These first hand accounts provide an authentic voice in the telling of the history of battle. There's a common thread that runs through the lives of soldiers, even ones separated by time and place. Amid the awfulness of the misery and the gore, the noise and the stench, there's the bond of cameraderie. It's captured in that expression immortalised by William Shapespeare in King Henry V, Act 4, scene 3 - and used by Stephen Ambrose for the title of his best seller - "band of brothers". I was amazed to find when reading Alan Bowman's Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier, that nineteen centuries ago, Roman soldiers in the north western outpost of Vindolanda referred to each other in the same way, as frater - brother.
    Isn't that amazing?

Thank you, Lindsay! 

To learn more about the books and programmes mentioned in the interview, click here
Lindsay Powell Recommends .
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