Tiberius may have feared Germanicus while he was alive, but he now embraced Germanicus’s sons. As if to destroy the persistent rumor that he had hated Germanicus and had been behind his death, following the Piso trial Tiberius appointed his own son, Drusus the Younger, to be the guardian of Nero Germanicus, Drusus Germanicus, and Caligula. And shortly after, when the eldest, Nero, came of age at the end of his fifteenth year, Tiberius commended him to the Senate and asked that the same privileges that had been granted to him as a young man also be granted to the son of Germanicus.
When young Nero Germanicus entered the Roman Forum for the first time wearing his gown of manhood at age sixteen, Tiberius had a gratuity distributed to every citizen at Rome in celebration of the occasion. The people rejoiced, said Tacitus, “at seeing the son of Germanicus now grown to manhood.”¹ In this same year, with Tiberius’s full blessing, sixteen-year-old Nero Germanicus was married to his cousin Julia, daughter of his uncle Drusus the Younger from the latter’s first marriage. Nero’s engagement to the daughter of Germanicus’s friend Creticus Silanus had apparently been terminated by the emperor. The young man’s bride, Julia, was barely a teenager—Roman women could legally become engaged at twelve and marry at thirteen—yet she was already a widow. The following year, Tiberius also commended Germanicus’s second son, Drusus Germanicus, to the Senate when he came of age. On the face of it, the children of Germanicus were being embraced by the emperor, and this helped soothe the anger of the Roman people over the death of Germanicus.
The children of Germanicus continued to be raised by their mother, Agrippina, at the Palatine palace of Germanicus. She herself was greatly honored and respected by the Roman people, but it was clear that she was not popular with either the emperor or his mother. It was equally clear that despite the fact that the emperor officially continued to honor the memory of Germanicus, any friend of Germanicus now had to watch his step. Even a careless word or two could cost you your life, as, in December A.D. 21, twenty months after the Piso trial, a poet was to discover.
As that year of A.D. 21 was ending, a prosecution was brought in the Senate against the knight Gaius Lutorius Priscus. He was a poet of some renown who, the previous year, had written a poem in praise of Germanicus that was immediately and immensely popular with the public. Like the Germanicus poem written by Pedo, this poem became a best seller. Privately, the last thing Tiberius would have wanted was more hero worship of Germanicus. But publicly, in recognition of the popularity of the poem, the emperor had given Lutorius Priscus a reward in gold. In the fall of A.D. 21, when Tiberius’s son and heir, Drusus the Younger, suddenly fell gravely ill, Priscus wrote a poem on the assumption that Drusus would die, eulogizing him, in the hope that in the event of the prince’s death this new poem might be published and make another great profit for him and enhance his reputation, just as his poem to Germanicus had done. With Drusus still very much alive, Priscus unwisely read the unpublished poem to a gathering of noble ladies at the house of the senator Publius Petronius. An informer told Sejanus about this poetry reading.
When the poet was arraigned in the Senate on a charge of treason—for having anticipated and sought to profit from the death of the prince—most of the ladies who had been present at the reading were frightened into giving evidence against him. Only the hostess on that occasion, Petronius’s mother-in-law, Vitellia, a member of the Vitellius family, close friends of Germanicus, refused to testify against the poet. She claimed that she hadn’t heard a single word of the offending poem. Despite this, the unfortunate Lutorius Priscus was found guilty. A consul-elect proposed the death penalty, but Marcus Lepidus, one of the defense advocates in the Piso case, proposed instead that the poet be banished from Italy, with all his property confiscated by the state. Lepidus was supported by just one other former consul, for it became clear to the senators—perhaps via a message from the Praetorian prefect—that the emperor wanted the poet severely dealt with. Sentenced to death, Lutorius Priscus was dragged to the city prison, which sat on the Street of the Banker just around the corner from the Forum, and there he was executed by the Praetorian Guard, that same day.
When Tiberius learned of this sentence and rushed execution, he wrote to the Senate, praising the senators for their loyalty. But, he said, he considered the poet’s punishment hasty and extreme, and he praised Lepidus for the milder measure he had proposed. In light of this, the Senate passed a motion that in the future their decrees would be registered at the Roman Treasury and acted on only after nine days had passed, giving the emperor time to veto or reduce any punishment. Yet there had been another lesson learned here as well. The original poem in praise of Germanicus would not have gone down well at the Palatium, and while the public airing of this latest poem about Drusus the Younger had been premature and unwise, the rush by senators to punish the poet would be seen to have more to do with censuring the man’s poem about Germanicus than that about Drusus.
As it happened, Drusus the Younger recovered from his illness, but he was not destined to live much longer. Praetorian prefect Sejanus had made Drusus’s wife, Germanicus’s sister, Livilla, his secret mistress. They conducted their lovemaking sessions with the complicity of Livilla’s doctor and friend Eudemus; she would go to the doctor’s house on the pretext of a medical examination, and there she would secretly rendezvous with Sejanus. To prove to Livilla that he was serious about her, Sejanus now divorced his wife, Apicata, the mother of his three children. But it appears that he continued to maintain a close if discreet relationship with Apicata, for she would be privy to his subsequent plans and schemes.
Livilla was so besotted with Sejanus, and so determined to make him her husband, that she actively plotted with him to murder her own husband, Drusus the Younger. Even though Drusus was unaware of this affair, he became increasingly jealous of Sejanus, complaining about this “stranger” who was “invited to help govern” while he, the emperor’s son, was perfectly capable of fulfilling the same role.² Inevitably getting into an argument with the Praetorian commander in public, Drusus punched him in the face. Sejanus could not retaliate with a counterpunch—that, against the prince, would have been construed as a treasonous act. But Sejanus would have his revenge in another way, on another day.
In early A.D. 23, just as Germanicus’s second son, Drusus Germanicus, was coming of age and being presented to the Senate by Tiberius, his uncle Drusus the Younger began to feel unwell. It would emerge, years later, that Sejanus bribed Drusus’s most trusted freedman, a handsome young eunuch named Lygdus, to poison his master. Drusus had been seriously ill two years earlier, so this gave Sejanus the idea of poisoning him gradually, over a long time, so it would appear to be another natural illness. Over a period of months, then, Lygdus used a poison that left no telltale signs, adding it to his master’s wine at dinner.
As the weeks passed, Drusus became increasingly stricken by what appeared to be a mystery illness. Drusus’s doctor, Livilla’s accomplice Eudemus, was unable to diagnose or treat this illness, and in September A.D. 23 Drusus the Younger, like his adoptive brother, Germanicus, died, murdered by poison. At the time, it was thought that Drusus had died from natural causes. It would be another eight years before the fact that Drusus had been poisoned, and by whom, would come to light. Obviously, the poison used in his case was not belladonna. The poison used to kill Drusus left no trace.
Tiberius seemed strangely unaffected by the death of his biological son and heir, which now brought the sons of Germanicus to the fore: Nero Germanicus, Drusus Germanicus, and Caligula now superseded the infant sons of Drusus in the line of succession, with Nero Germanicus now becoming Tiberius’s heir apparent. The emperor went to the Senate shortly after the death of Drusus. The two current consuls removed themselves from the curile chairs to ordinary benches as a mark of respect, and Tiberius addressed the solemn House. He told the gathered senators that while some senators might condemn him for appearing before them when many who mourned could not even bring themselves to emerge from their homes to see the light of day, he sought the consolation of the whole country for his loss. He then requested that the Senate summon the elder children of Germanicus to help console him and the House in their shared grief. So the consuls hurried away to the nearby palace of Germanicus and returned with Nero Germanicus, who was approaching eighteen, and Drusus Germanicus, who had just turned sixteen.
Tiberius took Germanicus’s sons by the hand and said, “Senators, when these boys lost their father, I committed them to their uncle and, although he had children of his own, I implored him to love and raise them as his own.” He sighed, and cast his eyes around the House. “Drusus is now lost to us, so I turn my prayers to you, Senators, and before heaven and the nation I ask you to accept into your guidance and care the great-grandsons of Augustus, descendants of a noble ancestry. Fulfill your duty, and mine.” Then he turned to the two youths. “Nero and Drusus, these senators must now be your fathers. Your blood is such that your prosperity and adversity must both affect that of the state.”³
In death Drusus the Younger received similar honors to those accorded Germanicus following his death, but in addition he received a state funeral. Tiberius himself delivered a funeral oration to Drusus, from the Rostra in the Forum and before thousands of sad-faced Romans. Yet, says Tacitus, this was mostly an appearance of sorrow by the public—“Inwardly they were overjoyed by the prospect of a brightening future for the family of Germanicus.”⁴ This resurgence of notoriety for the children of Germanicus, “whose succession to the throne was now certain”⁵ with the death of their uncle, gave new hope to their widowed mother, Agrippina, whose driving ambition for her sons to ascend the throne was poorly concealed, according to Tacitus.⁶ It also spurred Sejanus to set out to destroy the house of Germanicus and clear the way to the throne for himself.
With Drusus the Younger out of the way, Sejanus set in motion a long-term plan to destroy Agrippina and her sons, Nero Germanicus, Drusus Germanicus, and Caligula. Because there were three boys to be eliminated, and because the staff who surrounded them proved to be incorruptible and totally loyal to the family of Germanicus, Sejanus decided that rather than try to employ poison to destroy their bodies he would poison minds instead.⁷ The process would take considerably longer than belladonna or hemlock, but it could be just as effective if Sejanus was prepared to be patient. And as Sejanus was to demonstrate, patience was a quality he had in great abundance. He was aided, unwittingly, by Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina.
No one could argue that Agrippina wasn’t proud and affected. When she was still a teenager, her grandfather Augustus had written to her, in a letter in which he had praised her intelligence, to caution her: “Please take great care to avoid affectation in writing ortalking.”⁸ While Germanicus was alive, he had kept Agrippina’s pride in check. As Germanicus revealed on his deathbed, he knew that Agrippina possessed a dangerous pride; it lurked just beneath the surface. Now, with Germanicus gone, Agrippina’s pride had swollen into what her critics perceived to be an arrogant and “imperious disposition.”⁹
Sejanus set out to use that arrogance against her. He began by having his lover, Livilla, Agrippina’s sister-in-law, whisper in the ear of Livia, the emperor’s mother, to inflame the old woman’s longtime hatred of Agrippina. Sejanus’s objective was to prompt influential old Livia into warning Tiberius that Agrippina possessed a “dream of empire.”¹⁰ Sejanus also used others to whisper accusations about Agrippina to the emperor’s mother. At the same time, he encouraged Agrippina’s friends to speak openly about her proud spirit. The poisoning of minds had begun.
Germanicus’s eldest son, Nero Germanicus, was meanwhile impressing all who came in contact with him. Like his younger brothers, Drusus Germanicus and Caligula, he was a handsome boy; all bore a striking physical resemblance to both their father and their maternal grandfather, Marcus Agrippa. Young Nero was also displaying the modesty and grace worthy of a prince, and when on one occasion Tiberius sent him to the Senate to deliver a speech of thanks on his behalf, the youngster enjoyed the warm regards of the senators. They, said Tacitus, “with memories of Germanicus fresh in their minds, imagined that it was his face they saw and his voice they heard.”¹¹ Sejanus was able to use this projection of the sons of Germanicus by Tiberius against his family when on New Year’s Day, A.D. 24, the pontiffs, the chief priests, added prayers for the health of young Nero Germanicus and Drusus Germanicus to those traditionally offered for the emperor on January 1.
No doubt spurred on by Sejanus, Tiberius angrily called the priests to the Palatium to explain why they had done this. Sejanus would have pointed out that January 1 was the day on which the men of the legions throughout the empire traditionally swore an oath of allegiance to the emperor for the year ahead, and connecting the two youths to prayers for the emperor on that day could be considered seditious. Tiberius demanded to know of the priests whether they had added the boys to the prayers at the request of Agrippina, or under threat from her. The priests—some of them Agrippina’s relatives; others, friends of Germanicus—flatly denied that Agrippina had anything to do with it. Tacitus believed that with a wave of pro-Germanicus sentiment then permeating Roman life, the priests had done it to flatter Tiberius, who seemed, outwardly, to be promoting the sons of the dead hero; but the priests’ sycophancy had backfired on them, and on Agrippina and her sons. While Tiberius only mildly rebuked the priests, it is clear that he did not believe their protestations. This episode would have been enough to convince him that the rumors he was hearing from his mother about Agrippina’s ambitions for her sons had some basis in fact.
Sejanus now openly warned Tiberius against Agrippina. He would have reminded the emperor that Agrippina had long harbored “a masculine desire for power.” Back in A.D. 14, when one of Germanicus’s armies had failed to return from Germany on schedule from the latest incursion across the Rhine, which had involved a complex threepronged attack, Agrippina, waiting at the military staging camp at Vetera, today’s Xanten in Holland, had boldly crossed the temporary bridge of boats that Germanicus had thrown across the Rhine River, taking just two-year-old Caligula and her female servants with her.
With Germanicus himself deep inside northern Germany at the head of another army, there, on the far side of the Rhine, his wife had maintained a vigil at the bridge and waited for the overdue troops to return. When officers at Xanten had begun to panic, fearing that the Germans had wiped out the missing army, and issued orders to destroy the bridge to prevent the Germans from using it, Agrippina had refused to permit the destruction of the bridge. There, on the far bank, she had remained, certain that the missing Roman army would return, and determined not to give up on them. As it happened, that army, led by General Aulus Caecina, one of Germanicus’s subordinates, had been ambushed by Hermann in Germany and was locked in a desperate battle, the Battle of Long Bridges.
Caecina’s four legions fought their way out, after several days and nights of desperate struggle during which Caecina had come close to losing to Hermann. When General Caecina’s army finally returned to the Rhine bridge, bloodied, battered, hungry, without their baggage train, and carrying their many wounded on temporary stretchers, Agrippina, with little Caligula at her side, had proudly welcomed the troops back. She had praised and thanked the exhausted soldiers as they passed, and handed out bandages, food, and gifts of money— acting more like a general than a general’s wife.
At the time, Sejanus, who was just settling into the post of sole Praetorian commander, had “inflamed and aggravated” Tiberius’s suspicions of Agrippina. Even back then, Tacitus was to say, Sejanus had a “complete understanding of Tiberius’s character,” and knew how to manipulate him. Says Tacitus, Sejanus played on the then new emperor’s prejudices and fears, sowing the seeds of future distrust. Sejanus had declared that this sort of activity at the Rhine bridge was not a woman’s work. In Sejanus’s opinion, Agrippina had wanted to cement the loyalty of the legions.¹² As indeed she had. Back then, her ambitions had been for her husband. Now, in the wake of the death of Germanicus, her ambitions were for her sons.
“There are those who call themselves ‘the party of Agrippina’,” Sejanus was quoted as saying in A.D. 24 following the New Year’s Day prayers incident. “Unless they are checked, there will be more of this sort of incident,”¹³ Sejanus suggested that the solution would be to persecute one or two of the more outspoken leaders among Agrippina’s backers, and Tiberius gave him a free hand to pursue that course.
The men targeted by Sejanus were all former friends or clients of Germanicus. In Roman society, every wealthy, well-placed man acted as patron to a select group of less wealthy and well-placed men, including their relatives, who were called the patron’s “clients.” In return for a client’s loyalty, support, and inside information, a patron would aim to help the client and his family, providing helpful introductions and recommending them for official appointments, often also giving them financial assistance. Even after the death of Germanicus, many of his former clients continued to maintain the client-patron relationship with his widow, out of respect for her and for the memory of Germanicus. This was the so-called party of Agrippina.
Sejanus, for his demonstration against the party of Agrippina, now carefully chose two victims. One was Gaius Silius, a consul in A.D. 13 who had been an able, brave, and loyal lieutenant general under Germanicus during his swashbuckling German campaigns of A.D. 14–16. Silius had remained on the Rhine until A.D. 21, very successfully commanding the four legions of Rome’s Army of the Upper Rhine at Mainz for a total of seven years. General Silius had returned to Rome heaped with honors, including the award of a Triumph by the Senate for putting down a brief revolt in Gaul led by a Gallic noble, Julius Sacrovir. Sejanus knew that if Silius were to be brought down, the dust from his fall would send all but the most courageous or foolhardy supporters of Agrippina scurrying for cover.
The other victim of Sejanus’s intrigue was to be a Roman knight, Titius Sabinus. The firm friendship of General Silius and Titus Sabinus with Germanicus would be fatal to both men, Tacitus would say.¹⁴
There was another reason for targeting General Silius: his wife, Sosia Galla, was a very close personal friend of Agrippina, and had been for years. As Sejanus knew, the destruction of both husband and wife would doubly wound Agrippina, so the campaign against Silius and his wife was the first to be launched. In the Senate, Silius was charged by the current consul, Varro, with treason. The accusation specified that Silius had been complicit in the Sacrovir Revolt, the rebellion by several Gallic tribes that Silius had actually bloodily put down with two of his Rhine legions, and for which he had been awarded his Triumph by a grateful Senate. He was also charged with embezzling funds from the provincial government in Gaul. At the same time, Sosia was charged with unseemly conduct.
When Silius’s trial began in the Senate, the general refused to either offer a plea or to defend himself. He knew why he was being prosecuted, and knew who was behind it. He had been heard to remark that had he not kept his legions steadfastly loyal to Tiberius, despite the scandalous murder of Germanicus, Tiberius would not have kept his throne, and this was the price he was paying for his loyalty. When he did speak now, it was to hint at the identity of the person who was pressing for his destruction: Sejanus. Faced with false witnesses swearing that he had stolen money from the Gallic provincials, and foreseeing an inevitable verdict, General Silius went home on the evening following the first day of his trial, took a knife, opened his veins, and bled to death overnight.
The next day, on the recommendation of the consul, the Senate voted to confiscate all Silius’s property. Tacitus was to remark that no one suggested using the general’s estate to repay to the provincial treasury the money he had supposedly embezzled from theGauls.¹⁵ And, in fact, not a single Gaul petitioned for the money’s return— because it had never been stolen; this had been a trumped-up charge. On the motion of Marcus Lepidus, one of Piso’s defense counsels in the Germanicus murder trial, Silius’s wife, Sosia, was exiled, losing all her property, a fourth of which went to those who had prosecuted her, with the balance going to her children.
The comprehensive destruction of Silius and his wife, previously one of Rome’s most respected couples, because of their connections with Germanicus and Agrippina, sent shock waves through the Roman aristocracy. To protect themselves, many friends of Germanicus now broke off contact with his widow—among them Vitellius, Veranius, and Servaeus, the prosecutors at Piso’s trial. But the second man secretly marked by Sejanus to be made an example of, Titius Sabinus, continued to defiantly visit Agrippina and her children at their Palatine palace and accompany them when they went out in public. A Roman woman of the upper classes could only venture out in public in the company of a male chaperone, normally her husband. A spinster or a widow had to secure a chaperone to go out her door. Had Sabinus not filled that role for Agrippina, she would have been isolated inside the family home, which would have well suited Sejanus and Tiberius.
Flushed with victory over the destruction of Silius and Sosia, Sejanus turned to his next victim, Sabinus. But this time, Sejanus struck problems. Despite intense inquiries, there was no scandal in Sabinus’s background, no crime that Sabinus could be accused of, and his staff proved too loyal to be bribed into inventing charges against him. So Sejanus set his mind to patiently await a chance to one day trap the marked man, and looked for fresh victims in his campaign against the friends of the family of Germanicus. With Tiberius’s strong support, Sejanus now went after Germanicus’s loyal former quaestor, Publius Suillius Rufus.
Redheaded Suillius was charged in the Senate with having accepted a bribe in a recent case in which he had sat as magistrate. In this instance it proved easy enough to buy false evidence, and witnesses promptly came forward to testify to Suillius’s guilt. He was duly convicted, but received a mild sentence—he was to be expelled from Italy—for many in the Senate knew that Suillius was being targeted by the Palatium for his connection with Germanicus and his family, and there was considerable sympathy for him. But Tiberius sent a letter to the Senate containing a strongly worded reference to Suillius and his conviction. Tiberius declared that Suillius must be banished to some remote island in punishment for his crime. Uniquely, the emperor then required all senators to take an oath that they would vote for just such a punishment for Suillius as a state necessity. The Senate so voted, and Suillius was banished.
As the Praetorian commander’s power continued to grow, senators realized that the only path to senior appointments, including that of the consulate, was through Sejanus. His own uncle, Junius Blaesus, had been appointed to the lucrative post of governor of Africa, the best-paid of all the governorships of the senatorial provinces, while all other appointments went to men who pleased Sejanus and who served him. Having gained the emperor’s total confidence, and urged on by his lover, Livilla, sister of Germanicus and widow of Drusus the Younger, Sejanus decided that he should now join the imperial family. He wrote a letter to Tiberius seeking the emperor’s permission to marry Livilla, even though he was not of high rank. Apart from the supposed glory of an alliance between the emperor’s niece and himself, Sejanus wrote that such a marriage would secure his own family against the “unjust displeasure” of Agrippina.¹⁶
Tiberius replied with a letter full of praise for Sejanus. But in tactful language, he declined to give the marriage his approval. As for Agrippina’s enmity toward Sejanus, Tiberius suggested that it would blaze even more fiercely if Livilla were to marry Sejanus. Such a marriage would only split the house of the Caesars into two factions, he said. He claimed to have other plans for strengthening the ties between Sejanus and himself, plans he would not disclose, hinting that when the time was right he would propose to the Senate that Sejanus become a consul.¹⁷ The implication was that Tiberius was content to allow Sejanus to do his dirty work for him but was not prepared to allow this man of comparatively low rank to marry into the imperial family. Sejanus could have been expected to have been enraged by this response, but he showed no outward signs of it. Instead, he continued to prepare his own path toward the throne while appearing to be Tiberius’s most faithful servant.
That path continued to be over the bodies of the friends and relatives of Germanicus and Agrippina. Sejanus’s next target was Agrippina’s cousin Claudia Pulchra, who was particularly close to Agrippina. Claudia was charged with adultery and with having attempted to assassinate the emperor using poison and sorcery. This attack on a kinswoman stirred Agrippina into action. Up till now she had borne Germanicus’s deathbed instructions in mind and tried not to provoke Tiberius. But in the wake of the banishment of her good friend Sosia, the general’s wife, and now this attack on her cousin Claudia, Agrippina could see a new phase in Sejanus’s campaign against her opening. Agrippina snapped, and went stomping up the Palatine hill to the Palatium. The emperor’s servants were powerless to stop Agrippina as she stormed through the imperial palace looking for Tiberius. She found him making an animal sacrifice in front of a statue of Augustus, who had been deified by the Roman Senate as a god.
“How can the same man who makes sacrifices to the Divine Augustus persecute his memory at the same time?” railed Agrippina. She pointed to the statue of Augustus, declaring that it didn’t contain the spirit of Augustus. “Here is the spirit of Augustus!” she declared, patting her own chest. Agrippina, Augustus’s last surviving grandchild, did not stop there. She could see that she herself was in danger, she said, for the prosecution against her cousin Claudia was a pretext. “The only reason for her destruction is her friendship with me. In her foolishness she forgot that Sosia was ruined for the same reason!”¹⁸
A ruffled Tiberius turned on Agrippina with uncharacteristic fervor, lambasting her with a piece of Greek verse: “I have not wronged you, because you are not a queen!”¹⁹
Chastened by this reminder that she had neither position nor power and had better watch her step, Agrippina returned to her palace, and awaited the outcome of her cousin’s trial. Inevitably, Claudia and her lover were found guilty and condemned to death. Soon after this, Agrippina fell ill. Even while she was in the grip of a fever, Tiberius came down from the Palatium to pay her a visit. He found his daughter-in-law on her sickbed. Agrippina, nearing the end of her emotional tether, only had to look at his face to burst into tears, for they both knew that Tiberius, through Sejanus, was progressively and deliberately destroying the security net of friends and relatives that surrounded her. Silently she wept, long and hard. All the while, the emperor sat looking at her with his notoriously inscrutable expression.
Finally, Agrippina found words. “I beg you to relieve my loneliness,” she said. “Provide me with a new husband. I am still young enough for marriage. That is the only solace of a virtuous woman. There are plenty of Roman citizens who wouldn’t refuse to make the wife and children of Germanicus their own.”²⁰ Tiberius left Agrippina’s bedchamber without denying or agreeing to her request to remarry.
Once Agrippina had recovered from her illness, several men came to her to warn her not to eat with the emperor, as poison was being prepared for her. Shortly after, she received a formal invitation to be the emperor’s guest at a dinner at the palace. Nervously, she went to the dinner, and took the place allocated to her, reclining on one side of Tiberius while her old enemy the emperor’s octogenarian mother, Livia, reclined on the other. Unbeknownst to the emperor, Sejanus had sent the men to Agrippina with the warning to be wary of poisoning, and had then suggested to Tiberius that he invite Agrippina to dinner to show his magnanimity toward her.
There was no poison, but since the poisoning of her husband and the removal of so many close friends and relatives by one means or another, Agrippina was by now so fearful for her own life, a fear exacerbated by the warning she had received just prior to the dinner invitation, that she was in dread of eating anything from the emperor’s table. Neither was she a good actress, and the strain soon showed on her face. After a while Tiberius noticed that his daughter-in-law had not relaxed like everyone else at the dinner. He also noted that she had failed to eat or drink a thing all night.
Tiberius began to think that Agrippina suspected him of trying to poison her. So to test her, he praised the apples being placed on the table in front of them as the last of the meal’s many courses, then took one from the bowl and handed it to Agrippina, recommending it. He then pretended to become involved in conversation with his mother, but out of the corner of his eye he watched as Agrippina beckoned to one of her female servants. When the girl knelt by her mistress, Agrippina slipped the apple to her, and Tiberius saw her do it. Tiberius didn’t say a word about this to Agrippina, but instead leaned closer to his mother and said, so that others could hear, “No one should be surprised if I decide on harsh treatment for those who believe that I would poison them.”²¹
Agrippina returned to her palace. She never again received an invitation to dine with the emperor, and became more and more paranoid as a rumor reached her ears that Tiberius was plotting to murder her in some secret way, a way that could not be connected to him. Again, Sejanus was behind the rumor.
Having cleverly managed to firmly cement mutual distrust in the minds of Agrippina and the emperor, Sejanus next convinced Tiberius to spend more time away from Rome. The chosen place of semiretirement was the island of Capri, near Naples. Augustus had originally acquired the island from the city of Naples as an imperial vacation place, and Tiberius subsequently extended the facilities there to twelve palaces spread around its rocky, mountainous heights. Encouraged by Sejanus, the increasingly unhealthy Tiberius withdrew there with just his servants; his German Guard bodyguards under the command of their prefect, Naevius Sertorius Macro; Sejanus; one senator; one knight; and a number of Greek freedmen.
With Tiberius now completely out of touch with what was happening in the outside world, receiving all his news via Sejanus, the Praetorian Guard commander was able to step up his campaign against the family of Germanicus. He next set in motion a plot to destroy the immediate heir to the throne, Germanicus’s son Nero Germanicus. Sejanus began by inserting spies into Nero’s entourage, who reported everything the young man said or did. Even Nero’s own teenage wife, Julia, would pass on pillow talk. And, most diabolically of all, Sejanus began to win the confidence of Drusus Germanicus, the second son of Germanicus, who was jealous of the fact that his elder brother, Nero, was their mother’s favorite. To encourage Drusus’s betrayal of his own brother, Sejanus reminded the boy that with Nero out of the way, he, Drusus Germanicus, would become the new heir apparent and the next emperor of Rome. Slowly but surely, Sejanus built a wedge between Drusus and his elder brother, and prepared the stage for Nero’s downfall.
At the same time, Sejanus continued to work against the family of Germanicus on other fronts. The plan to destroy Agrippina’s loyal attendant the knight Titius Sabinus, originally conceived by Sejanus when the general Silius and his wife, Sosia, had been eliminated, had been brewing for some time. Once he began something, Sejanus never relented, and eventually a cunning plan for the ruination of Sabinus came together. In the summer of A.D. 27, four ex-praetors in Sejanus’s confidence agreed to combine to bring Sabinus down, with one of their number, Latinius Latiaris, volunteering to act as the bait in the trap.
Latiaris one day drew the victim Sabinus into conversation in the street, discreetly saying that he admired Sabinus for remaining loyal to Agrippina, and speaking admiringly of Germanicus. Sabinus burst into tears. Thinking he had found an ally, Sabinus let his guard down and spoke his mind, criticizing Sejanus and Tiberius. Over the next few months Latiaris began to regularly call on Sabinus at his home, where he would talk about his personal problems and encourage Sabinus to do the same. Then, meeting Sabinus in the street one December day, as if by chance, he invited him back to his house.
There, in a particular room of his house, Latiaris talked about the way Sejanus and Tiberius had persecuted the family and friends of Germanicus, and speculated on what future crimes the emperor and his Praetorian Guard commander might commit. Sabinus again unburdened his soul, saying what he really felt about the emperor and Sejanus and their systematic destruction of the house of Germanicus. Sabinus went home later that day not knowing that the three other senators involved in the plot had, prior to his arrival at the house of Latiaris, crawled into the space between ceiling and roof above the room where Latiaris had taken Sabinus for their “secret” chat. There they had lain throughout, taking in every seditious word uttered by Sabinus below.
On January 1, the first session of the Senate for A.D. 28 took place. As was the usual practice, the consul read aloud a letter from the emperor to the House. Following the normal New Year’s Day greetings and commendations, Tiberius’s letter then announced that he had received written testimony from three senators who swore that they had overheard Sabinus utter seditious comments about the emperor in the house of Latiaris. The letter also claimed that several freedmen on the emperor’s staff had testified that Sabinus had attempted to bribe them with a view to assassinating Tiberius. The letter ended with Tiberius calling on the Senate to punish Sabinus to the full extent of the law. The presiding consul then proposed that Sabinus be convicted of treason. The vote of the Senate was a formality. Sabinus was convicted. The House’s sentence was death. It was all over in minutes.
Soldiers of the Praetorian Guard immediately marched to Sabinus’s home and arrested him. A canvas hood was thrown over his head, his hands were chained behind his back, and a rope halter was placed tightly around his neck. Sabinus was dragged through the streets to the city prison, as people fearfully scattered from the soldiers’ path. As he went, Sabinus yelled, “This is how the year is now inaugurated, with victims slain to Sejanus!”²² The nine-day waiting period was ignored, on Sejanus’s assurance that it was the emperor’s will. At the prison, Sabinus was immediately strangled with a garrote.
Sabinus’s naked body was taken to the nearby top of the Gemonian Stairs, from where it was ceremonially tossed down the steps, the traditional fate of traitors. A huge iron hook was then passed through his corpse, which was hauled through the streets to the bank of the Tiber River before being tossed into the water. This was another traditional aspect of the fate of a convicted traitor. No one was permitted to rescue the body for burial or cremation. It was even a crime to cry for an executed traitor. Cassius Dio tells the story that Sabinus’s pet dog followed the arrested man to the prison, where it waited loyally outside in the Street of the Banker. When Sabinus’s body was finally thrown into the river, says Dio, the dog jumped in after it, to share its master’s fate.²³
Tiberius now sent the Senate a letter in which he thanked the honorable members for so swiftly punishing the traitor Sabinus, “a bitter enemy of the state.” But his life was still an anxious one, Tiberius added, for he continued to fear the treachery of certain nameless foes. There could be no question, Tacitus was to write, that this comment was aimed at Nero Germanicus and his mother, Agrippina.²⁴
Still, Agrippina had not yet been totally abandoned. She had a distinguished brother-in-law, Asinius Gallus, a consul in 8 B.C., who had married Agrippina’s half-sister Vipsania. Gallus had no love for Tiberius, and the feeling was mutual—Vipsania had been Tiberius’s first wife; Tiberius had loved her passionately, and possibly still did. Augustus had forced Tiberius to divorce Vipsania in favor of a doomed political marriage to his daughter, Julia, after the death of her first husband, Agrippina’s famous father, Marcus Agrippa. Years later, when Tiberius had come across Vipsania in the street, he’d burst into tears at the sight of her. Early in Tiberius’s reign, in the Senate, Gallus had proven a very wily opponent of the new emperor, but since the rise of Sejanus he had not bothered to attend the House. It took the plight of his sister-in-law Agrippina to bring him back into public affairs. Taking his seat in the Senate once more following the execution of Sabinus, Gallus made a call for the emperor to disclose his fears about traitors and treachery so that the Senate could remove those fears for him.
This was a very clever way of calling Sejanus’s bluff. Gallus was saying that Tiberius must either lay specific accusations against Agrippina and her son Nero Germanicus before the House, or cease this campaign of innuendo against them. Tacitus says that Tiberius was incensed by this challenge, and was all for making a rare appearance in the Senate and engaging in a verbal joust with his old opponent Gallus. But according to Tacitus, Sejanus held the emperor back; Sejanus knew that he could not yet produce evidence, much less solid witnesses, to prove that the wife and son of the revered Germanicus were plotting the overthrow of Tiberius. Evidence might be concocted against others, but with so much residual popular goodwill for the family of Germanicus, it would take an ironclad case to exterminate Agrippina and her son without creating an uprising of the Roman people. Revenge on Gallus, Sejanus now proposed, would keep for a later time. So Gallus’s challenge went unanswered, and no charges were laid against Agrippina or her son. Agrippina continued to exist under the weight of Palatium suspicion, yet without the opportunity to defend herself in a public forum.
Shortly after this, Julia, daughter of Augustus, mother of Agrippina, and Tiberius’s estranged wife, died in exile in southern Italy. Unusually for the times, she died of natural causes. She had been made an exile by her father, Augustus, twenty years before, for brazenly debauched behavior that had scandalized the emperor. At first kept a prisoner on an island, Julia had later been transferred to the Italian mainland, where she had lived out the rest of her life under guard in a rural backwater, but was made reasonably comfortable through funding provided by, of all people, her stepmother, Livia. Agrippina had not been able to see her mother in all that time, although she may well not have had any desire to do so, for her mother’s selfish personality and thoughtless acts had not made her an endearing parent.
To keep up the public impression that he had no quarrel with Agrippina or her children, Tiberius now gave the hand in marriage of Agrippina’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Agrippina the Younger, to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a prominent member of a leading family that had supplied Rome with many a general and consul. More importantly, Ahenobarbus had the blood of the Caesars flowing through his veins. Following the example set by Augustus, this marriage, arranged by Tiberius, was another political union of cousins, if somewhat distant cousins. Octavia, sister of the emperor Augustus, had been Ahenobarbus’s grandmother, just as she had been Germanicus’s grandmother. This was not a match made in heaven. Ahenobarbus was in his thirties and old enough to be young Agrippina’s father. He was also a notoriously cruel and vindictive man who was infamous for deliberately running down a child in the street while driving his chariot, and getting away with it. Nine years after the wedding, the marriage of Agrippina the Younger and Domitius Ahenobarbus would produce a son, Lucius, their only child.
One of Agrippina the Elder’s most bitter enemies finally departed the scene in A.D. 29, the year following the marriage of her daughter. Livia, Tiberius’s venal eighty-six-year-old mother and a suspect in the murder of Germanicus, died of old age. Tiberius gave his mother a state funeral, and sent sixteen-year-old Caligula, Germanicus’s third son, to read the funeral oration. But Tiberius himself failed to attend, and he vetoed many honors proposed for his mother, whom he’d grown to detest. But Agrippina would have little time to celebrate Livia’s demise; the tide of fortune was about to turn against her.
A letter from Tiberius was read to the Senate just days after Livia’s remains had joined those of Augustus and Germanicus in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Tacitus was to say it was believed that the letter had been written some time before, but had been held back until now at the intercession of Livia,²⁵ who must have feared it would provoke riots against Tiberius. Now that Livia was dead, the explosive document had been sent to the Senate. In the letter, which was now read to the House by a consul, Tiberius complained of Agrippina’s defiant nature and insolent tongue. He didn’t dare to invent any false charge against her, but he wasn’t so delicate when it came to her eldest son. Meek and mild Nero Germanicus, seen as the mirror of his revered father, Germanicus, by many, was accused of “unnatural” sexual passions. Tacitus records that when this letter was read to the senators, there was panic-stricken silence in the Senate House.²⁶ Most senators could not believe that Tiberius was at last publicly attacking the wife and son of Germanicus.
Several senators who had been primed for this event by Sejanus now demanded a debate about the contents of the letter, and a former consul made a savage speech against Agrippina and Nero Germanicus. But the other former consuls and magistrates held their tongues. They were perplexed, because Tiberius had failed to make any specific allegations about mother or son. Some senators were prepared to vote for whatever Tiberius wanted, but many others wavered. Junius Rusticus, a favorite of Tiberius who had been given the job of registering Senate debates, and a man who had never before shown any courage, says Tacitus, now attached himself to the waverers.²⁷ Rusticus came to his feet and warned the current consuls not to enter the debate, suggesting that the emperor might one day rue the fall of the house of Germanicus, if that were to occur. Many a head around the Senate benches nodded.
Meanwhile, word had quickly escaped the chamber that Agrippina and Nero Germanicus were under verbal attack, and, as if to back up Rusticus, a huge crowd swelled around the Senate House, with thousands of people milling discontentedly. Some protesters carried busts of Agrippina and her eldest boy, and there were shouts from others that the emperor’s letter had to be a forgery, that Tiberius could not possibly have authored such a heinous attack on the family of Germanicus. Fearful of creating a riot or a revolution, the Senate adjourned without further debate.
The next day, forged letters in the names of ex-consuls were circulated in the city, all deprecating Sejanus. The general suspicion was that Sejanus was behind this attack on Agrippina and Nero Germanicus in the emperor’s name. Sejanus was quick to counter, declaring that in failing to act on the content of Tiberius’s letter the previous day the Senate had ignored the emperor’s problems with Agrippina and Nero Germanicus. Tiberius swiftly issued an edict in which he repeated his complaints against Agrippina and her eldest son and went on to reprimand the people of Rome for their riotous behavior.
At the same time, Tiberius wrote to the Senate, declaring that the imperial dignity had been damaged by the senators’ failure to act. In language more forceful than he had ever used before, Tiberius now declared that he would reserve the right to make the decision about the fate of Agrippina and Nero Germanicus. Suddenly afraid, a majority of senators hastily passed a motion—the Hoúse was prepared to exact vengeance on the emperor’s behalf, they said, but it found itself constrained on this occasion by the strong hand of the emperor himself.
Agrippina and Nero Germanicus had been thrown to the Palatium dogs.