The fall of Imperial Rome has been ascribed to many things.Some say the fall was generated from without, blaming the invasions of the Visigoths, Huns and others from the east, with the fifth-century sacking of Rome by the Vandals serving as a prelude to the final collapse. Others say it had an internal cause during this same period, blaming weak emperors, or overly ambitious and jealous propraetors and generals who rent the empire with civil wars that sapped it of its manpower, wealth, and cohesion for centuries, leaving it incapable of meeting the outside threats.
There are those who blame the rise of Christianity for the fall of Rome. They claim that where veneration of the Roman pantheon had been just one brick in the foundation of Roman life, Christian leaders sought to make the new faith the sole foundation, to the exclusion of the other factors that had previously made Rome great.
Some say that the western half of the empire was doomed from the moment when Constantine turned his back on Rome in the fourth century and made the future Constantinople his capital.
I take the view that the fall began earlier than all of these manifestations. Much earlier. Julius Caesar ignited the imperial period, and Augustus shaped it. In Augustus, Rome was blessed with a leader unique in history. In all things—military, political, commercial, architectural, and artistic—Augustus created the master plan for his successors to follow. He intended that his grandson Germanicus Julius Caesar would be one of those successors, following a brief interlude with Tiberius on the throne, apparently believing that not even Tiberius could do much damage to the foundation he had laid. In Germanicus, Augustus saw himself. An astute young man with immense talent. A learned man with artistic sensibilities. A diplomat who could win over foreign rulers. A soldier of unquestionable bravery and skill. A general of genius who led from the front. These were all qualities that Augustus shared with his grandson. In the early decades of his reign, Augustus personally led the legions of Rome in its wars with external enemies. It would be another hundred years before there was another emperor, Trajan, who did the same. Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero all left the soldiering to underlings. Not even Vespasian or his son Titus, both of them successful generals, took to the field once they were on the throne, and Titus’s successor, Vespasian’s youngest son, Domitian, had neither the experience nor the inclination to pick up a sword.
Like ordinary Romans of the time, Augustus could see greatness in Germanicus. Germanicus would have been, like Augustus, a soldier emperor. But more than that, Germanicus had a quality that set him above even Augustus, and Augustus knew it. Few Roman emperors could genuinely claim to have been loved by the Roman people. Some were admired, some were respected. Many more were loathed, or feared. But even though Titus was much lamented after his short, benevolent reign, not one emperor was loved. Germanicus was loved. As emperor, he would have been unique. Adored by the Roman people and admired by foreigners, Germanicus the soldier, Germanicus the diplomat, Germanicus the charismatic leader would have taken up where Augustus left off.
But with the murder of Germanicus, which in turn touched off a series of unnatural deaths that rent and within fifty years destroyed the Julian family, the Caesar dynasty, the foundation laid by Augustus was irretrievably fractured. Instead of experiencing a continuation of the Augustan golden age and an expansion of Rome’s greatness, with Germanicus gone Rome lurched onto the first stage of the road to ruin. In expectation of seeing a new Germanicus on the throne, Romans welcomed Germanicus’s son, his brother, and his grandson to the throne, and each time were sorely disappointed. The addled Caligula, the female-dominated Claudius, the tortured Nero—none of them was equipped for the task, none of them shared Germanicus’s qualities.
Yes, there was the occasional pause along the declining road. Vespasian briefly applied a brake. Trajan even expanded the empire’s borders, only for them to contract as soon as he died. Marcus Aurelius was a soldier emperor, but he spent most of his reign away from Rome fighting desperately to hold back the invading Germans. Once Marcus had gone, the pressures from both the north and the east proved irresistible, despite brief expansionist interludes under the likes of Septimius Severus.
History has taught us that all empires decline and fall. Would Germanicus, as emperor, have wrought a different outcome for the Roman Empire? There can be no doubt that the emperor Germanicus would have cemented the foundations created by Augustus and built on them. And had Germanicus reached the throne, it is highly unlikely that Caligula, Claudius, or Nero would have become emperor. The family of the Caesars would have continued to reign. Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and their successors all would have remained merely high officials or generals.
What if Germanicus had become emperor? It is one of history’s great what-ifs. Perhaps the Roman Empire of Germanicus would have produced a military or a diplomatic solution that defeated or incorporated the invading hordes. Perhaps the invasion might have been reversed, with Europeans sweeping east under Germanicus’s leadership. Perhaps the Roman Empire would have spread to every continent. And perhaps from China to Australia, Africa to the Americas, we would all be speaking Latin today and naming our sons Germanicus.
With the death of Germanicus and the subsequent demise of the Caesar family, Rome was robbed of its founding dynasty. With the death of Germanicus, Rome was consigned to a future dominated by mostly second-rate rulers sitting on rocky foundations, men who were unable to cope with greedy neighbors battering at its doors.
Rome never again saw the likes of the Caesar dynasty, or the like of Germanicus. And it was all thanks to the myopic and ultimately lethal ambitions of just two people, the murderers of Germanicus Julius Caesar.