X

THE GERMANICUS EMPEROR

For two years following the death of her great enemy Sejanus, Germanicus’s wife, Agrippina the Elder, still a prisoner on the island of Pandateria, hung on to the hope that Tiberius would end her banishment and allow her to return to Rome and her children. Her son Drusus Germanicus was now also dead. For what reason we don’t know, some time after the execution of Sejanus the order had come to the Palatium from the isle of Capri for the second son of Germanicus to be starved to death in his basement cell. In his last eight days of life, young Drusus had resorted to eating the straw from his mattress. Tiberius even had the daily journal that had recorded Drusus’s life as a prisoner read to a horrified Senate. Senators had to sit through turgid accounts of Drusus Germanicus’s guards tormenting the young man, and of his last, agonizing days.

In a letter to the Senate excusing his destruction of another of the sons of Germanicus, Tiberius claimed that Drusus Germanicus had been intent on “his own family’s ruin” through his association with Sejanus, and had possessed “a spirit that was hostile to thestate.”¹ Yet, in his unpublished memoirs, which Suetonius would find at the Tabularium when he was put in charge of the imperial archives seventy years later, Tiberius would assert that Sejanus had been executed because Tiberius had discovered that he was persecuting the sons of Germanicus. This was nonsense, as Suetonius would point out; with Drusus Germanicus being killed sometime after Sejanus’s removal, the execution of Drusus Germancius was clearly Tiberius’s idea.²

On October 17, A.D. 33, exactly two years to the day since the execution of Sejanus, Agrippina the Elder, widow of Germanicus, died on Pandataria. The official cause of her death was starvation, and the story was circulated that Agrippina had starved herself to death. But Tacitus speculated that this may have been a fiction created by Tiberius to free himself from blame for ordering the execution by starvation of the wife of Germanicus.³ In announcing her death to the Senate in his latest missive, Tiberius claimed that Agrippina had previously had an affair with her brother-in-law Asinius Gallus, the man he had kept imprisoned incommunicado, without contact with a living soul, ever since his attempt to support Agrippina in the Senate. Tiberius had executed Gallus in the wave of executions that followed the downfall of Sejanus. Once Agrippina had learned this, the emperor claimed, she had decided to follow Gallus, and ended her own life.

The death of Agrippina was widely lamented. One senator, a close friend of Tiberius named Cocceius Nerva, became so depressed by the current state of Roman affairs in the wake of her death that he starved himself to death. Even if Tiberius deluded himself into believing that Agrippina had taken her own life and that Nero Germanicus and Drusus Germanicus had perished at the hands of Sejanus, few other people were fooled. Not only was it Romans who knew the truth. Suetonius says that King Artabanus of Parthia now wrote Tiberius a scathing letter in which he accused him of murdering his own immediate family. “Dread of Germanicus,” says Tacitus, had previously made Artabanus compliant to Rome, but following the death of Germanicus he had changed his behavior to one of “insolence to us.” With no dread of Tiberius, Artabanus had put a Parthian king over Armenia on the death of Artaxias, the king installed by Germanicus. Proving himself no Germanicus, Tiberius had failed to counter the loss of Armenia to the Parthians.

Shortly after Agrippina’s death, Plancina, the widow of Gnaeus Piso, who had been accused of complicity in the murder of Germanicus but had escaped punishment after the Piso trial at the intercession of the emperor’s mother, was charged with “notorious” behavior. Details of the charges involved were not recorded. Plancina committed suicide before she could be brought to trial. Now just one of the original suspects in the Germanicus murder case, Tiberius, survived.

Likewise, just one son of Germanicus, Caligula, now remained alive. To the minds of many, Caligula was also in great peril, for with the death of his mother, Agrippina, Tiberius summoned the boy to live with him on Capri. Caligula must have gone there expecting to sooner or later share the fate of his mother and elder brothers, so he set out to please Tiberius in any and every way he could, just to stay alive. Whatever the emperor told him to do or say, Caligula did. Suetonius was to say of Caligula and Tiberius during this period, “Never was there a worse slave, or a worse master.”

At the same time, Caligula began an affair with Ennia Naevia, the wife of Macro, the new Praetorian commander. Some later Roman authors believed that this affair was actually cultivated by Macro to control the young prince, but the Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, who was to meet both Caligula and Macro as a member of an Egyptian Jewish delegation to Rome several years later, was convinced that Macro was “ignorant of the dishonor being done to his marriage bed and to his family.” According to Suetonius, Caligula even promised Ennia that he would marry her, putting the promise in writing. Encouraged by his scheming wife, Macro spoke in Caligula’s favor to Tiberius, even giving a personal guarantee that the young man would be loyal, trustworthy, and obedient. In short, Philo of Alexandria was to write, Macro told Tiberius, on behalf of Caligula, all the sorts of things a person could say on behalf of his brother or his own child.

Tiberius lived on Capri for another four years after the death of Agrippina the Elder, never again setting foot inside Rome, keeping Caligula with him all that time. In March A.D. 37, the now ailing seventy-three-year-old Tiberius left Capri and took up residence nearby on the mainland, at the Marian Villa, built 150 years before by seven-times consul of the Roman Republic Gaius Marius. The villa had later been used by Julius Caesar as his coastal resort. Situated on a promontory near the Misenum naval base, the villa had a commanding view of the Bay of Naples. Tiberius’s small court, including twenty-four-year-old Caligula and Praetorian prefect Macro, accompanied him in this relocation.

The health of Tiberius continued to decline, and on March 13, a visiting friend of the emperor, a freedman named Charicles, who also was a doctor, assured Macro that Tiberius would not live for more than two days. Late in the evening of the fifteenth, the Ides of March, Tiberius, in his bed, appeared to stop breathing. Caligua was congratulated by all at the villa for surviving the despot and succeeding him as emperor. But in the early hours of the following day, word came that Tiberius was sitting up and calling for food. Panic sent men flying in all directions, while a stunned and terrified Caligula was left speechless. Macro, thinking fast, ordered everyone out of the emperor’s bedchamber. Then, says Tacitus, he had Tiberius smothered to death with a pile of clothing.¹ Tiberius, second emperor of Rome, the man at the center of so many allegations concerning the murder of his nephew and adopted son Germanicus, had himself been murdered.

Tiberius’s will made Caligula and his cousin Tiberius Gemellus his joint heirs. Tiberius Gemellus was one of the twin sons of Germanicus’s adoptive brother, Drusus the Younger, and sister, Livilla, born shortly after the death of Germanicus; the other twin had died in infancy. Macro took Tiberius’s will to the Senate and had it annulled; Gaius Caesar—or Caligula, as we know him—was declared Tiberius’s sole heir and the new emperor of Rome. His mother’s ambition, of seeing a son of Germanicus take the throne of Rome, had been achieved, but Agrippina had not lived to see it happen. Caligula ascending the throne, Suetonius was to say, seemed to the Roman people to be like a dream come true. Inspired by “remembrance of Germanicus, and feelings for a family that had been almost wiped out by a succession of murders,” citizens and soldiers alike throughout the empire celebrated the accession of Caligula as Rome’s third emperor.¹¹

Caligula cemented public favor when he took as his name, now that he was emperor, Gaius Caesar Germanicus, a name that honored his father. For the same reason, he changed the name of the month of September to Germanicus, just as the month of Sextillius had previously been renamed July in honor of Julius Caesar. Caligula’s popularity knew no bounds. When he presided over Tiberius’s funeral, the people crowded around him, calling him names like “baby,” “chicken,” and “pet.”¹² That popularity reached stellar heights when, within days of Tiberius’s funeral, Caligula boarded a warship that took him to Pandataria and Ponza. From each island he collected the remains of his mother, Agrippina, and his brother Nero Germanicus. Back at Rome, he ceremonially consigned these remains and those of his other brother, Drusus Germanicus, to the Mausoleum of Augustus, placing their urns alongside that of Germanicus.

Caligula now granted his seventy-three-year-old grandmother Antonia the same honors enjoyed by Tiberius’s mother, including the title Augusta; she was to die six weeks after he became emperor. He also granted special honors to his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Julia. In the Forum, Caligula publicly burned what he said was all written evidence compiled by Tiberius against members of the family of Germanicus and their supporters. He commenced prosecutions against all who had persecuted his mother and brothers. He cancled all prosecutions that had been pending at the time of Tiberius’s death. And he recalled all who had been exiled by Tiberius. Among those to return to Rome as a result of Caligula’s mass pardon was Suillius, his father’s former quaestor. All these measures were hugely popular with the Roman people.

For seven months, Caligula’s reign was marked by reason, reforms, and public rejoicing. He made his overlooked uncle Claudius, brother of Germanicus, his fellow consul for two months, from July 1 that year of A.D. 37, He improved the legal system, extended the Saturnalia to five days, and allowed the publication of banned books. King Artabanus of Parthia even sent overtures of friendship in remembrance of Caligula’s father. It was all good. Then, suddenly, Caligula fell seriously and dangerously ill. A vast throng of anxious Romans crowded around his Palatium on the Palatine Hill and waited for news, day and night. Suetonius would write that some people carried placards volunteering to die instead of Caligula, while others vowed to become gladiators if the gods permitted him to live.¹³

Live Caligula did, but the illness had affected him mentally. Once he recovered, he was a changed man. Suetonius was to describe the new Caligula as “the Monster,”¹ and attributed his change in personality to “brain sickness.”¹ Caligula now declared himself a god. He squandered vast amounts of money on public spectacles. He personally drove in chariot races; in one race, against several senators, he ran over and crushed the leg of Aulus Vitellius, nephew of the late Publius Vitellius, and future emperor. Caligula had his cousin and potential rival Tiberius Gemellus executed by a Praetorian tribune, without charge or trial. He had the throat of his father-in-law, Marcus Silanus, slit with a razor. He executed his close friend Marcus Lepidus, husband of his sister Drusilla. He invited his cousin Ptolemy, king of Mauretania, to Rome, then executed him. He eliminated Macro, the Praetorian commander who had made his reign possible, and Macro’s wife, Ennia. “It is said that the wretched man [Macro] was forced to kill himself,” Philo of Alexandria was to note, “and his wife also experienced the same miserable fate.”¹

Caligula seized other men’s wives, including a bride on her wedding day, and made them his mistresses. He committed incest with all three of his sisters. Suetonius claimed that his grandmother Antonia caught him in bed with his sister Drusilla, and for this he had her poisoned,¹ but as Antonia died very early in Caligula’s reign, when he was going through his “angelic” period, this seems unlikely. A rumor had it that Antonia had actually taken her own life. When Caligula’s sister Drusilla died, some said giving birth to Caligula’s child, he declared her a goddess. Then, in A.D. 39, he accused his other sisters, Agrippina the Younger and Julia, of immoral acts with Drusilla’s late husband Lepidus and others, and banished both sisters to the Pontian Islands—Ponza and Pandataria. In that same year, Caligula married his mistress Caesonia Milonia, a woman considerably older than he who had three children from another marriage. She had wanted to marry him for some time, but he agreed only after she had given birth to his child, a girl, Julia Drusilla.

Caligula fantasized that he was really the son of Augustus and his daughter Julia, not the son of Germanicus and Agrippina, and would fly into a rage if reminded that his grandfather was Marcus Agrippa, a commoner. Any man who was handsome or clever could find himself executed or hauled into an amphitheater to fight for his life, simply because Caligula was jealous of him. An author who displeased him was burned alive on a cross in an arena. In A.D. 39, while attending a session of the Senate during which Lucius Seneca, who was making a name for himself as an orator and lawyer by this time, successfully argued for the acquittal of an accused senator, Caligua was so displeased by Seneca’s elegant oratorial skills—he called him a “textbook orator” and “sand withoutlime”¹ —that he ordered his execution. Seneca was saved only when one or another of Caligula’s mistresses convinced the emperor not to go through with the execution on the grounds that one of Seneca’s long-term illnesses—said to be tuberculosis—would kill him soon enough anyway.

Deciding to invade Britain, Caligula created two new legions to add to the twenty-five already in existence, and in the summer of A.D. 40 assembled a massive army in Gaul. Lining up the legions on the beach near today’s Boulogne, facing the water, he ordered the artillery to bombard the sea, and had the troops collect seashells as war trophies. He awarded himself a Triumph for his so-called victory, and returned to Rome. By January A.D. 41, four months after Caligula’s return from Gaul, his behavior was considered more than erratic; it was insane. And it had to be terminated.

Three separate plots to kill Caligula were now in existence. Conceived by leading men of the state, they had been in the works for many months. Two plots had been put together by senators and one of Caligula’s most senior staff members, the Palatium freedman Callistus. Another was conceived by officers of Caligula’s Praetorian Guard and German Guard. The three plots eventually melded into one, with the tribune Cassius Chaerea of the Praetorian Guard taking the lead. The plotters set down the assassination for January 21, the first day of the four-day Palatine Games in honor of the deified emperor Augustus, and made their preparations.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!