Seneca was a handsome, highly intelligent, charming, and witty young man of twenty when he first met Germanicus and his wife, Agrippina the Elder, at Daphne. Seneca and his uncle the prefect Galerius actually may have arrived at Daphne and introduced themselves to Agrippina before Germanicus arrived from the north after his kingmaking mission to Armenia. Seneca also probably attended later banquets held by Germanicus, such as the banquet for the king of Nabataea at which Piso made such a fool of himself by railing against luxury.
Tacitus does not mention that Agrippina accompanied Germanicus on his trip to Egypt in the summer of A.D. 19, yet many historians believe that she almost certainly went with him to Alexandria, based on the fact that they had been inseparable for years. Certainly there was absolutely no reason for her to stay behind in Syria. And just as Agrippina had visited Actium with Germanicus, to view the site of the famous battle between their grandfathers, it is unlikely that anything would have prevented her from visiting Alexandria, where Antony and Cleopatra had died and where their remains were entombed, and where her grandfather Augustus had finally secured control of the Roman Empire.
It is almost certain, therefore, that Agrippina did travel to Alexandria with Germanicus. But with Tacitus quite adamant that Germanicus went up the Nile alone, without even a single bodyguard, this suggests that Agrippina was forced to wait for her husband at Alexandria, where Seneca would have had the opportunity to spend time in her company. Perhaps, with so much to see in Alexandria, Seneca acted as her guide in the famous city, which he had made his home.
It is probable that the marriage of Germanicus and Agrippina had actually become quite rocky by this stage, and this prompted Germanicus’s solo trip up the exotic Nile. We know from her past and future actions that Agrippina was hugely ambitious, for herself and for her children. She had grown up expecting one of her brothers to succeed Augustus as emperor, and then, with each of them removed from the line of succession, she had seen her husband become the popular favorite to succeed Augustus. When Germanicus, a man of rock-solid morals, had refused to allow his legions to make him emperor instead of Tiberius in A.D. 14, Agrippina must have been livid. How, she would have reasoned, could anyone reject the throne when it was offered to him by the army, and when the Roman people so obviously wanted Germanicus to succeed Augustus?
Not only did this refusal to take the throne involve Germanicus’s own future, it also prevented his sons, Agrippina’s sons, from rising in the line of succession to become emperor after him. And that, to Agrippina’s mind, must have been tantamount to wantonly depriving them of their birthright. For the next five years, proud Agrippina had to suffer the humiliation of bowing and scraping to Tiberius and his mother, the haughty Julia, when she could so easily have been Rome’s empress, with the world bowing and scraping to her. Over the five years subsequent to the events of A.D. 14, Agrippina would have continued to push Germanicus to take the throne and eject Tiberius—if not for his own sake, then to guarantee the succession of their eldest son, Nero Germanicus, who was also Agrippina’s favorite son by later accounts, once the boy was old enough to take the throne. Still Germanicus had steadfastly refused to oppose his “father,” Tiberius. But in holding his moral ground, Germanicus was alienating his greatest ally. Heaven help anyone who stands between a mother and her ambitions for her children.
It is obvious now that, waiting at the governor’s palace at Alexandria while Germanicus frittered away many weeks playing tourist, an unhappy, frustrated Agrippina formed a relationship with Seneca. He offered a sympathetic ear as she complained about her husband’s lack of ambition for the throne and fretted that he was also denying her children their rightful opportunity to one day succeed him as emperor. It is not impossible that Seneca and Agrippina had a tempestuous love affair there at the vast palace of the Ptolemys while Germanicus was away. There is no suggestion in any classical source that Agrippina was ever unfaithful to Germanicus, but judged by her later actions, an adulterous affair with a witty younger man was not out of the question. Seneca would go on to seduce two of Agrippina’s beautiful daughters, and in decaying middle age still would be able to win an attractive young woman as his wife. So, an affair there in Egypt with a bitter and disillusioned Agrippina the Elder cannot be ruled out.
Not that an affair was necessary for what was soon to transpire. It may have been that Seneca and Agrippina merely became close without being physically involved. It could have been a closeness born of ambition on both their parts. And as Agrippina poured out her heart to Seneca about how Germanicus was denying her the future she felt she and her children deserved, the young man had an idea. There was a way to guarantee that her sons became emperor of Rome, even if her husband did not want the throne.
Seneca convinced Agrippina that if her husband were out of the way, then Tiberius’s fear of being dethroned by Germanicus would evaporate and he would accept Germanicus’s sons as his legitimate heirs. Yes, Germanicus’s adoptive brother, Drusus the Younger, Agrippina’s brother-in-law, would become next in line to the throne on Germanicus’s death. But, Seneca would have told Agrippina, his own elder brother Junius Gallio at Rome was very close to Sejanus, and Sejanus was in turn close to Drusus’s wife, who had confided to him that Drusus had no desire for the throne. If Agrippina were to follow his advice, said Seneca, Tiberius would make her sons his heirs.
This scenario, which had Drusus being superseded by Tiberius’s grandsons as heirs to the throne, was not some impossible fantasy. For years, Augustus had groomed his three eldest grandsons—Agrippina’s brothers, Lucius, Gaius, and Postumus—to be his heirs, sidelining Tiberius, his stepson. Only when two of those grandsons were dead and the third was imprisoned on an island had Tiberius come to be considered a legitimate heir by Augustus. In the same way, so Seneca’s argument would have run, Tiberius could be expected to groom his grandsons Nero Germanicus, Drusus Germanicus, and Caligula to eventually replace him. Indeed, this was exactly what would transpire once Germanicus was dead, even while Tiberius’s own son Drusus the Younger was alive.
There also was another scenario that the silver-tongued Seneca would have described for Agrippina. While the first scenario required Agrippina to wait for some years after the death of Germanicus, until Tiberius died, before one of her boys became emperor, this second scenario put Agrippina’s boy Nero Germanicus on the throne within months of his father’s death. That scenario was simple. If Germanicus were to be murdered, the finger of blame could be pointed at Tiberius. Passions could be raised—the passions of the Roman public, and those of the Roman military. The legions on the Rhine still adored Germanicus, and Germanicus’s old friend Silius still commanded the four legions of the Army of the Upper Rhine. Sparked by the accusation that Tiberius had ordered the murder of Germanicus, public anger could create a revolution that could sweep Tiberius from power and install the son of Germanicus in his place—Nero Germanicus was already fifteen years of age; legally, he would achieve manhood at the end of his fifteenth year and could rule as an adult, with his mother’s advice. Through her son, Agrippina could rule the empire.
According to Seneca’s plans, one way or the other, short-term or long-term, Agrippina would have a son in the Palatium. But for the second, much swifter scenario to be realized, it must be plainly obvious to the entire world that Germanicus had been murdered, so the means of securing his death was crucial. It must be clearly a case of homicide, but those responsible must be beyond implication. To achieve this, Germanicus would have to be poisoned. Here, Seneca was at his most cunning. A man whose knowledge seemed boundless in his own time, he knew that many poisons were undetectable—a person killed with one of these appeared to have died from natural causes. To make it obvious that Germanicus had been poisoned, Seneca proposed to use belladonna, a poison with a calling card.
The governor of Syria, Piso, and his haughty wife, Plancina, also played into Seneca’s hands, making themselves ideal and obvious scapegoats. They had gone out of their way to cause difficulties for, and show their dislike of, Germanicus and Agrippina. Seneca would have realized that it would not take much to convince most Romans that this pair had been involved in Germanicus’s poisoning. It would then only remain for gossip and innuendo to do the rest and for the public to accuse Tiberius of putting Piso and Plancina up to Germanicus’s murder. The attitudes and activities of this arrogant couple were gifts for Seneca and played right into his hands.
This, then, was Seneca’s plan, to which Agrippina agreed. Perhaps that agreement came with tears and self-loathing, but it came nonetheless. Some would suggest that Agrippina was much too devoted to Germanicus to even contemplate his murder. Perhaps, when Agrippina and Germanicus were younger and his star was on the rise, that may have been the case. But ambition is a cruel, demanding master. It cannot be denied that Agrippina was driven by ambition, and that following Germanicus’s death she lived for just one thing: to see a son of hers become emperor. And knowing her ambitious nature, which a critical Tacitus said made her more like a man than a woman, she must have become incredibly frustrated that Germanicus would not as much as contemplate taking the throne, when it was his for the taking until the day he died.
The murder plan went forward once Germanicus and Agrippina returned to Syria at the end of the summer of A.D. 19. Using one of his freedmen, Seneca sourced a quantity of belladonna in Alexandria. This would be his apprenticeship in poisons; as Tacitus tells us, by the time of his death he was not only learned on the subject, but also had experience procuring the type of lethal poison used to execute criminals. Agrippina may have traveled back to Daphne with the poison in her baggage, or Seneca may have sent it to her shortly after. Either way, it was not long after Germanicus’s return to Syria, in the early fall, that he fell ill for the first time.
It was Agrippina, someone totally above suspicion, who personally added the poison to Germanicus’s food or drink. After the first dose failed to kill her husband, she gave Germanicus a second, larger, lethal dose, which probably had to be sent to her from Alexandria by Seneca—this would account for the weeks of delay between the first bout of poisoning and the second bout. Of course, while extraordinary precautions were taken against poisoning by those around Germanicus following the first attempt on his life, no one suspected his own apparently devoted wife, and she was able to administer the final dose unnoticed—perhaps the very water she gave him to quench his thirst as he lay in increasing agony was laced with the poison. And then the deed was done: the prince was dead.
While they were together in Alexandria, Seneca would have schooled Agrippina on what she must do to capitalize on Germanicus’s death. She must put his body on public display in Antioch, to highlight the cyanosis. She must conduct his cremated remains back to Rome. She must make a grand entry into Brindisi, first pausing at Corfu to build expectation in Italy before landing in southern Italy. She must lead a funeral cortege all the way from Brindisi to Rome to stoke public grief and anger. It was crafty Seneca who wrote this script for Agrippina’s dramatic return to Rome. Seneca also would have told Agrippina, in a message before she left Syria for Rome, to have her staff kill Martina the poisonmaker before she could absolve Plancina and Piso of the murder in a court of law at the capital. And that was how and why Martina had perished, while being kept under guard at Brindisi, at the hands of Agrippina’s own staff. It is conceivable that Seneca even sent Agrippina more poison to achieve the removal of Martina before she left Syria.
Once Agrippina was back in Italy, with Seneca remaining behind in Egypt, she was on her own. Subsequently alone and without clever Seneca to guide and encourage her, the widow floundered as time went by. As was to be later shown, Agrippina did not even have the guile to cover up her suspicion that the apple offered to her by Tiberius at the Palatium banquet was poisoned.
To the disappointment of both Agrippina and Seneca, Seneca’s second scenario failed to come to pass. Neither the Roman people nor the Rhine legions rose in revolt against Tiberius and dethroned him, despite widespread public unrest following Germanicus’s death. Once Agrippina had returned to Rome and the death of Piso took the heat out of the public demands for vengeance, Agrippina had no choice but to wait for Tiberius to die, with the hope that Seneca’s first scenario would one day come to pass.
Seneca himself waited at Alexandria like a guest locked out of a party. It had been his intention that Agrippina would send for him once there was a revolution that overthrew Tiberius and put Germanicus’s son on the throne. When that revolution failed to eventuate, Seneca, impatient to further his ambitions at Rome with high-level backing, was not prepared to wait for years, as Agrippina must now do. Seneca knew that opportunity, like virginity, can never be regained once it has been lost. The opportunity to profit from his crime still lay before him like an open door. For a man as ambitious, and by now as frustrated, as Seneca, it would have seemed insane not to seize that opportunity.
The door to power via Agrippina may have been closed to Seneca by the outcome of the Piso trial, but he could see another door standing open before him. Seneca would have quite rightly figured that the most influential person at Tiberius’s Palatium was now the Praetorian Guard commander Sejanus. And, potentially, Seneca had access to Sejanus via his brother at Rome, Junius Gallio Jr., whose adoptive father was a friend of Sejanus. It is probable that Seneca decided to send a message to Sejanus at Rome, via his brother Gallio. In that message, Seneca would reveal to Sejanus that he had masterminded the murder of Germanicus. The purpose of this revelation was a hope that he would be called to Rome to be rewarded by the Praetorian commander with an appointment that set him on the road to power and influence.
This was, of course, a very dangerous option. In his later years, a wiser, less impatient Seneca might not have ventured to attempt such a hazardous thing. In those later years, Seneca would himself say of Sejanus, “It became just as dangerous to be a friend of his as it was to cross him.”¹ But the twenty-three-year-old Seneca, dreading the thought of spending his days in obscurity in Egypt, powerless, comparatively poor, and with his talents unrecognized, was prepared to take the gamble. He had, after all, just the previous year risked all by planning and executing the murder of Germanicus Caesar. What was the point, he would have thought, of committing such a heinous but fiendishly clever crime without achieving the goal that had prompted that crime? So close to the prize, and possessed of both the rashness and naïveté of youth, he had to make one last grab for that prize.
Not that he would have failed to weigh the risks against the potential outcome of communicating with Sejanus and revealing his complicity in the murder. Seneca was a dedicated student of Roman law and would later become as famous in his own lifetime for his successful legal defenses at Rome as for his writings and his speeches. As he languished there in Alexandria, he knew that the Roman legal system would actually work in his favor. In the Roman way of doing things, if you were not at Rome you were nowhere. It was as if you did not exist. For example, to be nominated for and elected to office at Rome you had to be physically in Rome. In the same way, if a legal prosecution was to be undertaken against a Roman knight or senator, it had to be at Rome, no matter where the crime had taken place. Letters or written statements from witnesses could not be presented as evidence in trials at Rome; accusations had to be supported by personal testimony. That was why it had been essential that Martina the poisonmaker appear personally at Piso’s murder trial. Witnesses had to appear in court, in Rome, and give voice to their evidence. As long as Seneca remained in Egypt and did not turn up at Rome to accuse Sejanus or anyone else of complicity in or knowledge of the murder of Germanicus, his claim could not be tested in court. Neither could his letter be presented in evidence—against Seneca himself or anyone else. Only if Seneca turned up at Rome and gave personal evidence could he be heard in a Roman court of law.
Seneca sent the message to Sejanus in the late spring or early summer of A.D. 20, after news of the death of Piso and the termination of his murder trial had reached Alexandria. That year’s northward sailing season had begun by that time, and Seneca would have sent a trusted freedman from his own staff to Rome bearing the all-important letter. The freedman would have gone as a paying passenger aboard one of the many Alexandrian grain ships—“round ships,” the Romans called these tubby, sail-powered cargo vessels—that sailed from Egypt to Pozzuoli (Roman Puteuoli) and Ostia on Italy’s western coast every year laden with the grain that kept the capital fed. That freedman carried the sealed letter from his master with instructions to pass it to Gallio, who, once he received it, passed it, sealed still, to Sejanus.
It would appear that Sejanus, on receiving this message from this comparatively unknown young man in Egypt, had not been convinced that he should believe Seneca’s claim. It would have seemed incredible. An obscure twenty-three-year-old knight, the son of a famous rhetorician, suffering from a serious illness, living like an exile in far-off Egypt, now claiming to have been behind the most notorious murder in Rome’s history? Sejanus could not know that he and Seneca would have much in common, that this same Seneca would one day run the Roman Empire as an emperor’s right-hand man, just as Sejanus did, and would even come very close to himself taking the throne, as Sejanus also did.
Sejanus did not give Seneca credit for the murder of Germanicus. Yet, whether or not he believed that Seneca was telling the truth, he certainly did not want him turning up at Rome telling his story. Least of all, Sejanus did not want to be connected with Seneca or his claim, whether it was truthful of not. That connection could be fatal—sufficient to have Sejanus torn limb from limb by a vengeful populace if it ever became public that Seneca had been responsible for the murder of Germanicus and Sejanus was aware of it. In Italy, Seneca could be dangerous to Sejanus, even if, as he no doubt believed, Seneca’s claim was the fabrication of a foolish or deranged mind. In provincial Egypt, on the edge of the empire, Seneca was no threat. Via Seneca’s freedman, Sejanus sent a reply to Seneca in Alexandria—if ever Seneca set foot in Italy, the Praetorian commander would make sure that he did not live to tell his ridiculous story about the murder of Germanicus.
So although Seneca’s brilliantly conceived crime remained a secret, his scheme failed to rapidly advance his career as he had hoped. He was forced to bide his time in Egypt for the next eleven years, in self-imposed exile, in fear of Sejanus should he ever venture to Rome. When, finally, Sejanus’s rule was terminated by his denunciation, overthrow, and execution in A.D. 31, there was no longer any reason for Seneca to stay away from Italy. Without delay, he ended his exile and departed from Alexandria with his aunt, rushing to Rome to start his long-delayed career.
He immediately ingratiated himself with the mother and children of Germanicus, hopeful that Tiberius would now free Agrippina. Her imprisonment had, after all, been engineered by Sejanus, so logic would have suggested that Tiberius would end the exiles for which the now dead man had been responsible. This would allow Seneca to restart his relationship with Agrippina when she returned to Rome and to influence. But while some exiles were recalled to Rome by Tiberius, he did not relent as far as Agrippina was concerned; she remained a prisoner on Pandateria. As time slipped by without any sign of a change of heart from the aged and increasingly vindictive emperor and as Agrippina ran out of hope, taking her own life, Seneca decided to make the most of his connection with the family of Germanicus. Agrippina might not be of any use to him, but Seneca knew that Antonia, Germanicus’s mother, was still close to the emperor, and he used her to open the way to his delayed career. Taking his opportunities as the road to influence appeared before him, he ended up in the beds of Agrippina’s two daughters, Julia and Agrippina the Younger.
Did Suillius, Germanicus’s former quaestor, know that Seneca had an affair with Germanicus’s wife? As previously related, while defending himself in the Senate, Suillius had accused Seneca of polluting the bedchambers of Germanicus’s ladies. This remark was taken at the time, and has been since, to mean that Suillius believed that Seneca had affairs with Julia and Agrippina the Younger. Yet the accusation also could be taken to include Germanicus’s wife, Agrippina the Elder, among those “ladies.” It is possible that Suillius was referring to mother and daughters, but there is no way of knowing for sure.
As for Seneca, if his countless wisdoms and philosophical catch-phrases that have been quoted over and again down through history were all that were known about him, it would be impossible to contemplate that such a man could have been capable of planning and carrying out the murder of Germanicus Caesar. Yet we know so much more about Seneca and the mendacious life he led. As so many commentators have observed down through the ages, Seneca was a man who spectacularly failed to practice what he preached. He spoke against luxury, yet became one of the richest men in Rome. He advocated the concept of share and share alike, but he shared his wealth and power with no one, least of all the common man. He declared gladiatorial contests a barbarity, yet he counseled wars that resulted in thousands of nameless deaths, and he helped Nero engineer the deaths of others—or at the very least looked the other way while Nero did away with them.
It became clear that to secure and maintain power, throughout his career there was no crime from which Seneca would shrink. He himself wrote that the best way to cover up a crime was by committing more crimes. He wrote of the virtues of honesty, yet lived a life of dishonesty, for the pragmatic Seneca operated on the Roman maxim that honesty is praised, then is left to starve. We know that he committed adultery with one and almost certainly two daughters of Germanicus, yet he denied it. We know that he was linked to the murder of Claudius, if only in writing Nero’s first speech as emperor while continuing the lie that Claudius still lived. We know that Seneca counseled the eventual murder of Agrippina the Younger, if he did not actually conceive the plan to kill her. He certainly did not try to save her. We know that he wrote the lying letter from Nero to the Senate in which he claimed that Agrippina had been plotting to kill Nero and that that was why she had herself been killed. And we know that Seneca knew about the plot to murder Nero but said nothing, waiting instead for the deed to be done in the expectation that he himself would be offered the throne by the Praetorians, and denying this, too.
Seneca may have mellowed in his last, retiring years, but for the vast majority of his life he was fueled by a desire for power that, combined with a brilliant mind and great oratorical powers, drove him relentlessly forward toward his objectives of wealth, influence, and notoriety. Emotionally and intellectually, he was perfectly capable of the murder of Germanicus. He had the opportunity and the motive, and he knew about poisons. Coldly and deliberately, Seneca conceived the murder of Germanicus, procured the poison that killed him, and seduced Agrippina into administering it.
Seneca little cared that the murder of Germanicus would set off a fatal domino reaction, acting as catalyst to the murder or unnatural death of numerous other members of the family of Germanicus— Germanicus’s adoptive brother, Drusus the Younger; Germanicus’s sons, Nero Germanicus, Drusus Germanicus, and Caligula; Germanicus’s wife, Agrippina the Elder; Germanicus’s daughters Julia and Agrippina the Younger; Germanicus’s brother, Claudius; and possibly Germanicus’s grandson Nero. It could be argued that none of them would have been murdered, or forced to take their own lives, had Germanicus lived to a ripe old age.
Ironically, Seneca achieved his goals of power and wealth not because he murdered Germanicus but despite the fact that he murdered him. Yet, in the end, the ambition that had driven him to murder was his undoing.
And consider this. The demise of Nero marked the end of the family of the Caesars. Seneca, in murdering Germanicus Caesar, had started the chain of murders or unnatural deaths that eliminated the wife, children, brothers, and grandson of Germanicus, and in doing so terminated the Caesar bloodline. After the Caesars, the Roman Empire descended into chaos, relieved briefly by the emperors Vespasian and Trajan, both of whom added Caesar to their names to give some stature to their reigns. Following Trajan’s death, Hadrian began a contraction of the empire that could not be reversed; the decline once more gathered pace until the fall of Rome became inevitable. Blame for far more than just a single murder can be laid at the feet of Seneca. It can be argued that by murdering Germanicus, Seneca not only had the blood of the Caesars on his hands but also was responsible for causing decades of turmoil from which Rome could never recover, and for sending the Roman Empire down the road to ruin.