Lindsay Powell is the author of several acclaimed books on battles, generalship and warfare. His speciality is the early Roman Empire and, in particular, the lives and times of the notorious extended family of Caesar Augustus. Among his books are two firsts – full-length biographies of Drusus the Elder and of his famous son Germanicus. Historia spoke to Lindsay on the occasion of the publication of his latest book, a groundbreaking assessment of Augustus as Ancient Rome’s supreme military commander.
What is your earliest memory?
For someone who writes factual history I confess I have a very hazy recollection of my earliest memory. I remember long hot summer days at home when I was eight or nine years old.
When and where were you happiest?
I am reminded of Solon who is reported to have said: “call no man happy until he’s dead, but only lucky.” I’m so glad to be alive, and to be so lucky! One thing I have learned is that happiness derives from doing things you enjoy. For me that means sharing time in the company of my partner, family, close friends or fellow historians – be it through travel, a dinner, or a reunion. One of the recent times I particularly enjoyed was visiting the Israel Museum in 2016: I was there to view a special exhibition and to meet curator David Mevorah as part of my research into Hadrian and Bar Kokhba. Equipped with my digital recorder, camera and note pad, I was treated like a VIP. Interviewing David and visiting the collection in Jerusalem was so much fun. My research turned into an article for Ancient Warfare magazine, the book Bar Kokhba War and a blog for Osprey Publishing, and a new title I am writing right now for Pen and Sword Books.
What keeps you awake at night?
What concerns me is the short-term future of the world. Brexit, the degradation of public discourse, growing poverty among some communities, the repression of freedoms, the threat of cyberterrorism, not to mention climate change, all make for a very uncertain future. It’s difficult to see a consensus forming around solutions to these man-made challenges that the majority will find acceptable, without squashing the rights of the minority. But as President John F Kennedy said in 1963: “Our problems are man-made — therefore, they can be solved by man.”
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
It has to be Marcus Agrippa. My researches show that effective leaders need loyal and talented deputies who can get things done. Agrippa was a multi-faceted man. As a military historian I appreciate his consummate skills as a general. He was a brilliant military strategist and tactician – after all he defeated Sextus Pompeius at sea at Mylae and Naulochus in 36 BCE and, most famously, Antonius and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE. I love architecture and art. Agrippa was a commissioner and overseer of great public works projects – repairing the great sewers and aqueducts in Rome, constructing the first Pantheon and an integrated baths complex, as well as laying down parks and other structures on the Campus Martius. He was curious about how things worked and the world around him, just as I am. He kept meticulous records on the operational details of the water transportation system in Rome, no doubt for checking on the efficiency of his direct labour organisation and maintenance crews. He was a well-travelled individual, like me. Putting those insights to good use, Augustus commissioned him to make a map of the whole world, which was displayed on the wall of a large building for all to see; the Orbis Terrarum became a tourist attraction (Pliny the Elder saw it and commented on it in his Natural History). I also truly value my close friends. Remarkably Agrippa could have usurped Augustus’s position at almost any time, but never did – nor does It appear was he ever tempted. He married Augustus’s only daughter, Julia. He even gave up his own sons by her for his best friend to adopt. That’s an extraordinary – perhaps a unique – kind of friendship. How to account for that is something I explore in my biography Marcus Agrippa: Right-Hand Man of Caesar Augustus.
Who are your heroes in real life?
Of course, there’s the great Winston Spencer Churchill, a truly remarkable figure of the 20th century. Yet I look at the inspiring examples of the many ‘little people’ who do heroic things in exceptional circumstances – like the passengers who fought to overcome the terrorists on United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11, or the cave divers who recently rescued the kids stuck in the caves in Thailand; it’s hard not to tear up recalling their acts of selfless courage.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
During a career fair at high school when I was in my early teens I met a chap from BBC Cymru Wales. I recall that my dad (who was an engineer by training) thought I was interested in working behind the camera in a technical support role. I had a different idea; I wanted to be in front of the camera. I don’t yet have my own show, but I have since appeared on History Channel!
What’s the worst job you’ve done?
I shall interpret the question to mean the job I most disliked. I was a strategic business planning manager for a year. I actually enjoyed gathering, analysing and interpreting business information and thinking in big picture, strategic terms, but the job involved a lot of filling-in boxes on templates. Rather than letting the data tell the story I was having to make the data fit a predetermined story. It was not much fun.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I consider my greatest achievement to be making a successful life for myself in the USA. Born in Wales, as a comprehensive-school educated boy from Cardiff I never imagined that I’d live in the States, let alone for as many years as I have. Indeed, I learned languages at school and university fully anticipating I’d be living on mainland Europe; but an opportunity arose for me to move to Austin, Texas and I grasped it with both hands. The USA is a country that promises success if you work hard. I came here fully intending to do so and the reward I now enjoy is living my own ‘American Dream’. I became a US citizen in 2012.
Where is your favourite historical place?
I really can’t pick one single place! I have several favourites – different sites for different reasons. They include: Jerusalem; Chedworth Roman villa; British Museum; Rome (of course); Pompeii; Vindolanda close by Hadrian’s Wall – and, while I remember, the Alamo in San Antonio (well, I do live in Texas).
Which book changed your life?
Without hesitation I would say the book that changed my life was Peter Connolly’s The Roman Army (Macdonald Education, 1975). I got a copy for Christmas. I was studying Latin at school at the time and Peter’s exquisitely detailed reconstructions brought the whole Roman era to life for me. A few years later I was able to join the Ermine Street Guard and make and wear arms and armour of the type depicted in the book. It is still in print to inspire a new generation of curious minds.
What is your greatest pleasure?
My greatest pleasure is turning an idea for a book into a real thing. There is a special joy writers experience when, for the first time, they hold in their hands their newly published book. They have nursed it from conceiving the idea, pitching it to a commissioning editor, negotiating the agreement, then researching, writing and editing it, as well as collaborating with map makers, illustrators and subject matter experts.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“I find it interesting that…”
What is your greatest regret?
I am really fortunate to be able to say that I do not have any ‘greatest regrets’. If I had a chance to go back and do something different in my life, however, that would be to have started writing – and getting published – much earlier.
What talent would you most like to have?
I’d like the ability to speak many languages fluently – especially Latin, Greek and Hebrew!
Who would play you in a film of your life?
Patrick Stewart or Mark Strong would be outstanding actors to play me.
If you could go back in time, where would you go?
That’s a tough one – there are so many moments. If I must choose one it would be Rome over the week of 31 May-3 June 17 BCE during the centennial festival when the Ludi Saeculares (or Century Games) were revived. A hundred and more years had passed since the last such event and it was ten years since the victor of Actium and Alexandria had reached a political and military accord with the senate, earning him the name Augustus for his moderation. Over those several days and nights a “spectacle, such as they had never witnessed and never would again” (according to an ancient writer) took place. Following ritual sacrifices, a choir sang a poem – which still survives – especially composed by Horace on the exceptionalism of the Roman people and their optimism for the future. The great and good gathered, many of them men, like Marcus Agrippa, who had helped Augustus to gain and hold on to power in the senate house and on the battlefield. It would be the chance to meet the individuals I profile in my latest book, Augustus at War: The Struggle for the Pax Augusta.
Where would you most like to be right now?
At home with my partner in England.
What is your most treasured possession?
If a pet can be considered a possession, then Leo my cat is the one I treasure most. He’s a Russian Blue with a deep grey coat of fur and amber-coloured eyes. He’s very affectionate and fun, but typical of cats, independent, inscrutable and contrarian. As the maxim goes, “dogs have owners; cats have staff”. I’m definitely staff.
What musicians are currently on your playlist?
I enjoy an eclectic mix of classical music and smooth jazz. Among the classical composers are Michael Praetorius, Georg Händel, Wolfgang Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Jean Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Philip Glass and Karl Jenkins. Among the smooth jazz artists I like are Marc Antoine, David Benoit, Chris Botti, Brian Culberston and Peter White. I can happily switch from Götterdämmerung to Another Long Night Out to the Jupiter Symphony without it jarring.
What is your motto?
“Make it count.”
What would your superpower be?
I’d like to fly like Superman: that ability would come in very handy when I need to research historic sites around the world and to take photos for my books on a whim. I would have to overcome my fear of heights first, however.
Jean-Luc Picard, captain of USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I love that he’s a strong, decisive, compassionate, yet flawed, leader.
What is top of your bucket list?
I should like to visit the pyramids on the Giza Plateau and the (opening soon) Grand Egyptian Museum (I wrote a news story about it in the latest Ancient History magazine).
Tell us something not many people know about you.
I have written a novel set in the age of Caesar Augustus, but never submitted it to a literary agent or publisher.
Photos supplied by the author