Author Lindsay Powell took some out of his busy schedule to talk to us about the challenges of writing a biography of a general of the ancient world.
Marcus Agrippa’s name is inscribed on one of the most iconic buildings to survive from Ancient Rome, the Pantheon. Once he was Rome’s most famous military commander. Yet his story is largely unknown to most people today. He was the admiral who defeated Marcus Antonius and Queen Cleopatra at Actium off the coast of Greece. He was the field general who squashed rebellions in Gaul, in the western Balkans, the Crimea and Spain. He was only the second Roman commander after Julius Caesar to lead an army across the Rhine into Germania. Many times he could have challenged the emperor and seized power for himself. Yet he did not. In fact, he actively helped Caesar Augustus, not only to gain, but to hold on to power. Perplexing historians for centuries has been the question ‘Why?’ When I discovered to my great surprise that the story of this remarkable and multifaceted man had not been told for almost 80 years I decided I just had to.
It quickly transpired that it would be quite a challenge. Modern biographers usually have a wide range of resources to work from: diaries, letters, memoranda, speeches, newspaper articles and, in more recent times, audio-visual materials. For the biographer of personalities of the ancient world the sources are often scarce or fragmentary. Like many of his contemporaries, Agrippa wrote a personal memoir, but it is entirely lost. Fortunately enough material survives in other forms for us to piece together the man and his crucial role in his times. Roman historians mention him in their sweeping narratives; coins, busts and statues give us a good idea of what he looked like; inscriptions help us trace his movements by land and sea – and he was constantly on the go.
Having written biographies of great Roman generals before this one I was prepared for the task ahead. What emerged from my close study of the material over two years was a man of deep passions, a restless energy and, above all, an unswerving loyalty to his friend, Imperator Caesar Augustus Divi filius. His friend – whom he had first met as a teenager – was the heir to the name and legacy of the man murdered on the Ides of March 44 BC, Julius Caesar. Agrippa would serve him loyally for the rest of his life.
Agrippa likely saw military service in his late teens, certainly in his early 20s, and quickly developed a skill for field command. By his twenty-fifth birthday he was leading legions into battle in western Gaul. For crushing a native rebellion there, and also dealing with a threat from Germanic tribes, he was awarded a triumph, the highest military award afforded to a Roman commander. Amazingly he refused it. It would not be the first time. He never once celebrated the three triumphs granted in his lifetime, instead preferring simpler honors. His response was in complete contrast to the other generals of his day who craved the trappings of recognition, and it marked Agrippa out as different. Humility is an important aspect of his complex personality.
There was no military school, no Annapolis or West Point, for ancient Roman commanders. Skills were acquired on the job. Agrippa developed remarkable organizational skills early in his career. He understood that preparation is key to winning in war. In the vicious sea campaign against Sextus Pompeius of 37-36 BC Agrippa was given command of the fleet of Caesar’s heir. But first he had to build one. To train the tens of thousands of oarsman and marines he created a facility, joining two inland lakes by a canal, and a harbor of hydraulic concrete in the Bay of Pozzuoli – all in under a year. The towns of Italy supplied basic ships which were delivered to the facility and then outfitted with a range of military equipment, some of his own design. The following year Agrippa led his crews to victory at Mylae and Naulochus off the coast of Sicily. The lessons he learned from those battles he would take to Actium five years later.
Off the battlefield Agrippa displayed a knack for diplomacy, politics, and building. There’s a tantalizing suggestion that he conducted secret negotiations with the Parthians in the East that led to a major and durable peace treaty with them. He was a close friend of Herod the Great of Judaea and traveled with him through Asia Minor. (His impartial treatment the Jews is commented upon by Josephus). In Rome he unleashed a series of massive building projects, including the original Pantheon, which pushed construction techniques to their limits and awed his countrymen for centuries.
A strange thing happens when a biographer reaches the point when his subject dies. I suddenly felt a sense of loss, as though a dear friend had departed. When I tweeted this emotion best-selling historian Tom Holland replied that he could totally relate. By the time I finished the book I had grown very fond of him. I was in good company, of course. Augustus was a very good judge of men. In Agrippa he found a man to match his ambition and vision, and the means to realize them. Were it not for his faithful deputy, Augustus might never have become emperor and the history of the Roman Empire might have taken a very different course. That alone is reason enough to try and understand the ‘BFF’ of the first emperor of Rome; and as for the reason why Agrippa was always loyal to him you’ll have to read the book to find out.
Lindsay Powell is a historian and writer. He is a columnist for Ancient Warfare and his articles have appeared in Military Heritage, Strategy and Tactics and other magazines. His books include Eager for Glory (2011) and Germanicus (2013), both available from Casemate. He divides his time between Austin, Texas and Wokingham England. Find out more at www.Lindsay-Powell.com