The incredible news that Germanicus Caesar was dead swept throughout the ancient world. “His death,” Jewish historian Josephus was to say, “was lamented by all men everywhere.” This was not the kind of fake sorrow produced to flatter rulers, Josephus added, but the real thing. “Everybody grieved at his death, as if they had lost someone close to them.”¹
Suetonius says that barbarian nations that were at war with Rome immediately made peace, “as if a personal tragedy had afflicted the entire world.” Some foreign princes, he said, even went so far as to shave their own beards and their wives’ heads to show their extreme grief. In Parthia, Rome’s traditional enemy in the East, King Artabanus canceled his banquets and his royal hunt to observe a period of mourning for a man he had feared yet respected.² Josephus was to say that Germanicus was a man the Parthian ruler had come to admire, after being affected, like so many other foreign sovereigns who had met him in the East, by the graceful and gracious way in which Germanicus had received him when the pair had conferred and sealed a peace treaty beside the Euphrates River two years before.³
The most violent reaction to the prince’s death occurred at Rome. Once the news reached the capital, the population erupted. Suetonius wrote that tens of thousands of people stoned temples and upset altars because their prayers for Germanicus had been ignored. Running riot, people threw statues of their household gods into the street and, incredibly, refused to acknowledge their newly born children.⁴ The emperor Tiberius tried to calm the situation by issuing official proclamations, but neither edicts nor official expressions of grief could console the people.⁵ It became clear that the general public would not be easily reconciled to the idea that the prince they had idolized had been taken from them. Many Romans were baying for blood.
It was the Roman custom to swiftly cremate the bodies of the dead. This was supposed to take place outside the walls of a city or town, as funeral rites were said to pollute the dwelling places of the living. The ashes and bones of the deceased were then interred in cemeteries or in roadside tombs, beyond city walls. Once before, this convention had been flouted for political purposes. Prior to the cremation of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., his body had been displayed in the Forum at Rome by Germanicus’s grandfather Mark Antony, to show off Caesar’s stab wounds and his bloodied clothing and so inflame the people against his assassins.
Now Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina, herself a descendant of the Caesars, used an identical tactic. She had the corpse of Germanicus carried in solemn procession along the long, straight east-west axis road from Daphne to Antioch. The road, lined at that time by grand villas, was crowded all the way into Antioch by a grieving population. Antioch was then a great metropolis with as many as six hundred thousand residents, which ranked it third among the cities of the empire after Rome and Alexandria. Today barely a trace remains of Antioch. In October A.D. 19, the entire shocked population of Antioch, Roman citizens, slaves, and foreigners alike, and people from many nearby towns and villages thronged the city streets to see the cortege of Germanicus Caesar pass by.
In the Forum of Antioch, where a sea of closely packed, silent mourners stood to honor the prince, Agrippina displayed the naked body of Germanicus on a funeral pyre for the entire world to see. Countless thousands filed past the corpse. “That poison was the cause of his death” was revealed by the condition of his body, says Cassius Dio.⁶ Tacitus was to write that there were conflicting accounts of the state of the body, that those who pitied Germanicus and suspected Governor Piso of his murder positively testified that the body showed signs of poisoning, while those who were inclined toward Piso claimed it displayed no such signs.⁷
Others were more certain. Suetonius was to write, “Because of the dark stains covering his body and the foam on his lips, poison was suspected.” He added, theatrically, that after the cremation of Germanicus his heart was found intact among his bones. Suetonius was also to comment that a heart filled with poison could not, according to superstition, in which the Romans were steeped, be destroyed by fire.⁸ So prone to exaggeration and sensationalizing was Suetonius in his biographies of the Caesars that if he lived in our era, he would probably write pulp fiction or TV soap operas. His claims about the state of Germanicus’s body can be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, most classical authors were convinced that Germanicus had been poisoned and that Governor Piso had been involved. “His life was taken away by the poison given to him by Piso” declared Josephus, writing several decades after the event.⁹
The preponderance of evidence points to poison having been used to kill Germanicus, and that there was at least one telltale sign of it. Suetonius’s supposed foam on the lips, and the talk of the heart that survived the flames, are without doubt his inventions. But often, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, as the Romans were the first to say. Most of the plant poisons mentioned in the previous chapter leave no visible external signs. But one particular plant poison, a poison readily available in the Middle East, does leave its mark on the skin.
The skin of a person who dies after ingesting this poison goes blue. In fact, the lips can go particularly blue. This bluish skin discoloration, called cyanosis, is the result of a lack of oxygen in the blood caused by this poison in the system, and this could account for Suetonius’s reference to dark stains covering the body of Germanicus. The poison in question is belladonna. In addition to cyanosis, belladonna’s predeath symptoms include dryness of the skin, dryness in the mouth and throat, difficulty swallowing, flushing of the face, nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, and coma followed by death.¹⁰
It is difficult to imagine Agrippina displaying the naked body of Germanicus, a shocking thing in itself by both ancient and modern standards, merely to emphasize the fact that he was dead. With his dying words, Germanicus had called on his wife and his friends to avenge him in a trial at Rome. His body was soon consumed by the flames of the funeral pyre, but the memory of his unnatural bluish skin would remain. Almost certainly, Germanicus did exhibit cyanosis, and this very public cremation in the center of Antioch, in defiance of one of the most sacred of Roman customs, which required that cremations take place outside the city, was Agrippina’s way of making sure that no one could dispute the fact once his corpse, and the evidence, had been destroyed.
While Agrippina made plans with her husband’s redheaded young chief of staff, his quaestor, Publius Suillius Rufus, to return to Rome with Germanicus’s ashes and charred bones as soon as possible, to deposit them in the Mausoleum of Augustus beside those of the late emperor, members of Germanicus’s entourage turned their attention to more immediate matters. It was agreed that a new governor of Syria should be appointed from among them at once, someone who would ensure order in the province and supervise a murder investigation. There was a contest for the job between the two most senior of the late general’s friends, Vibius Marsus and Gnaeus Sentius. Both were former consuls, and both were in their forties. After some debate Marsus yielded to Sentius as the better qualified. Sentius would remain in Syria as acting governor, until the emperor either confirmed his appointment or sent a replacement from Rome. Marsus would return to Rome with Agrippina and the remainder of Germanicus’s associates.
But before Agrippina’s party set off back to the capital, there was detective work to be done. Once Sentius had taken on the role of propraetor, two other generals among Germanicus’s friends then in Syria both immediately took it on themselves to investigate the crime, assemble evidence, and prepare an indictment against Governor Piso for a murder prosecution at Rome. One of these investigators was Publius Vitellius, who had held the rank of legate, the equivalent of a modern brigadier general, and commanded the 2nd Augusta Legion during Germanicus’s campaigns in Germany. The other was a former praetor, or major general, Quintus Veranius, whom Germanicus had appointed governor of Cappadocia and who had come hurrying down to Syria at the first news of Germanicus’s illness. Playing the role of investigators now, Vitellius and Veranius questioned the staff at the governor’s palace at Antioch and those at Germanicus’s palace at Daphne. They quickly established that Governor Piso’s wife, Plancina, had made a suspicious friend in the province, a woman named Martina, who had a reputation as a sorceress and maker of poisons. At the request of Vitellius and Veranius, Acting Governor Sentius had Martina located and arrested.
Meanwhile, the former governor Piso and his wife, Plancina, had halted their little fleet at the Greek island of Cos to await news of the state of Germanicus’s health. When centurions loyal to Piso began arriving by ship, informing the couple that Germanicus was dead, Piso and his wife were overjoyed. Piso made offerings of thanks at the local temples. Plancina, meanwhile, had been wearing black in mourning for the recent death of her sister. Now she threw off her mourning gowns and wore bright, colorful garments in celebration of the death of the prince.
The centurions who came to Cos urged Piso to return to Syria and reclaim the governorship of the province, implying that the legions of the Syria-Judea garrison, the 3rd Gallica, 4th Scythica, 6th Ferrata, 10th, and 12th Fulminata, would support him. But Marcus, Piso’s son and quaestor, or chief aide, advised him to return to Rome at once. Unlike his father, Marcus Piso appreciated how enormously popular Germanicus was with the Roman people, and how angry they would be at the news of his death. What was more, he had not approved of the way his parents had acted toward the prince.
Tacitus was to describe a conversation that now took place on Cos between Marcus Piso and his father. “So far,” Marcus told Piso Sr., “you haven’t done anything that would suggest that you are guilty of murder. And vague rumors are nothing to worry about. Perhaps your confrontation with Germanicus deserves public detestation, but it doesn’t deserve your punishment. But if you return to Syria, and Sentius resists you with force, it will mean that you have launched into civil war. In that case, you won’t retain the support of the centurions or the soldiers, who will be powerfully influenced by the memory of their general [Germanicus] and their deep-rooted affection for the Caesar family.”¹¹
On the other hand, a member of Piso’s party, Piso’s friend the senator and former general Domitius Celer, argued that the emperor had appointed Piso, not Sentius, to govern Syria, and Piso should return and take control of the legions there now that Germanicus was out of the way. “Should we hurry to reach Italy at the same time as the ashes of Germanicus,” said Celer, “only to permit you to be rushed to ruin, unheard and undefended, as a result of the wailings of Agrippina and the gossip of an ignorant mob?” He added a telling reminder: “You have on your side the complicity of Livia [the emperor’s mother] and the favor of the emperor himself, even if it is secret.”¹²
Piso, who wanted above all to regain his governorship and the power that went with it, embraced Celer’s view. He quickly wrote a letter to the emperor at Rome in which he accused the now dead Germanicus of luxury and arrogance. Piso wrote to Tiberius that he was going to retake command of the legions in Syria in the same spirit of loyalty to Tiberius as when he had previously held it. Piso sent Celer ahead in a speedy, triple-banked war galley of the Roman navy that had brought centurions to him. Celer was told to take the fast but dangerous direct route across the open sea. Once he reached Syria he was to take charge of the legionary troops in the province and bring them to meet Piso when he landed. As Celer departed on his mission, Piso turned his fleet around and headed back toward Syria via the slow but safe route used by merchant shipping, which followed the Turkish coastline. The usual practice for sailing ships of the day, “coasting” allowed sailing ships to duck into safe anchorages should storms or pirates threaten, rather than be caught on the open sea.
The legions in Syria had just gone into their various winter bases throughout the province—as Rome’s legions throughout the empire did every year in the third week of October—and would not ordinarily come out of them again until the following spring, so Piso’s envoy Domitius Celer knew precisely where to find them. Celer believed that of all the units in the province, the 6th Ferrata Legion would be the most likely to swing its allegiance behind Piso, possibly because several of its centurions were particularly loyal to Piso and had been among those who had come to Piso at Cos. Landing at Laodicea, Syria’s principal port, west of Antioch, Celer set off for the base of the 6th at Raphinaea, on the Euphrates in southeastern Syria. But the commander of the 6th, General Pacuvius, was expecting just such an attempt by Piso to win over the loyalty of his troops, and, remaining loyal to the memory of Germanicus, the general arrested Celer as soon as he appeared on the scene.
Piso’s fleet, in the meantime, was coasting around southern Turkey, heading back east. En route, it was intercepted by the westbound fleet carrying Agrippina and the ashes of Germanicus to Rome. Aboard the ships of both fleets, men rushed to arms and prepared for battle. As the fleets came together, both sides held their fire but not their tongues, hurling insults rather than missiles at each other across the waves. Now Vibius Marsus, seniormost officer on Agrippina’s flagship, called out to Piso, “You are going the wrong way, Gnaeus Piso. You must go to Rome, and defend yourself there.”¹³
“I’ll be there,” Piso yelled back with a laugh in his voice, “as soon as the praetor who tries poisoning cases fixes a date for the trial.” Roman law provided that a citizen accused of a crime be brought to trial at Rome before one of fifteen current praetors, the senior judges of Rome. Just as there were praetors for crimes such as extortion, bribery, and treason, there was also a praetor de sicariis et veneficus who heard cases where defendants were accused of murder “by blade and poison.” But Piso was sailing away from Rome and a trial before a praetor, not toward it.
The two fleets separated. Agrippina and her supporters continued on for Italy. Piso’s ships plowed on east a little longer, before Piso came ashore in southern Anatolia, which was then the Roman province of Cilicia, west of Syria. There he occupied the clifftop Cilician fortress of Celenderis and began making preparations for war. To create the foundation of an army, he sent messengers to Rome’s allied potentates in the East such as the king of Nabataea and the king of Emesa, and to Rome’s regional governors, ordering them to send him troops.
Against his better judgment, Piso’s son Marcus was now actively engaged on his father’s behalf. Roman conscripts marching through Cilicia bound for Syria to join the 4th Scythica Legion and the 6th Ferrata, both of which would be undergoing their twenty-year discharge and reenlistment in the new year, were intercepted by the young quaestor and ordered to join Piso’s force. Piso armed his hundreds of slaves with farm implements—sickles and hay forks—and welcomed deserters from the legions in Syria who had come up to Cilicia in the hope of financial rewards from the wealthy ex-governor. Only one local commander, the governor of Cilicia, obeyed Piso’s summons—a unit of Cilician-based auxiliary light infantry arrived, bringing Piso’s motley force to some five thousand men. Piso would need these men if he was to regain control of Syria. A letter was brought by courier from General Sentius, acting governor of Syria, informing Piso of the arrest of his friend Celer by the commander of the 6th Ferrata Legion, and warning Piso not to make any further attempts to interfere with the legions of the region.
Word had soon reached Antioch that Piso had locked himself away at Celenderis, and as the year was drawing to a close, General Sentius assembled a task force at the port of Laodicea. Soon after, Sentius and his task force arrived off Celenderis in a fleet of ships. Sentius landed with the officers most loyal to the memory of Germanicus plus General Pacuvius’s 6th Ferrata Legion and cohorts from several other of the legions based in Syria. Once ashore, Sentius lined up his ten-thousand-man army at the bottom of the slope below the Celenderis fortress. In response, Piso brought out his ad hoc army and lined his men up on the rocky heights looking down at Sentius’s troops. Sentius’s legionaries were hardened professional soldiers, many of them veterans of close to twenty years’ service, and all of them were heavily armed—legionaries were actually called “heavy infantry” in their own day because of their weighty armor and array of weapons. Piso’s pitiful, hastily thrown-together force was an army in name only, with little armor among them, and only light weaponry.
Piso addressed his men, urging them to hold their ground, assuring them that Sentius lied if he said that Piso had murdered Germanicus, and also assuring them that the legionaries on the other side would soon flock to his banner, for only recently they had been calling him the “father of the legions.” He then addressed Sentius’s army, its men standing rock solid and eerily silent behind curved shields emblazoned with the charging bull symbols of their units. Piso called down to individual soldiers of the 6th Ferrata and 10th legions by name, promising them rich rewards if they changed sides. When a standard-bearer of the 6th ran from the lines with his silver open-hand standard held aloft and climbed the hill to join Piso’s force, General Sentius acted quickly to prevent any further defections.
On the general’s order, the trumpets of the legions and horns of reserve auxiliary units sounded “Charge.” With a cheer, Sentius’s troops rushed forward. Piso’s men had neither heart nor hope, and, seeing the wave of legionaries coming determinedly up the slope toward them, they turned and fled back into the fortress. Piso had no choice but to join them. As Sentius’s men re-formed in their ranks and files on the landward side of the fortress, the general gave new orders. Scaling ladders were sent for, and the bravest volunteers from among the cohorts were chosen to mount them in a full-scale attack on the walls of Celenderis.
Artillery was also ordered up from the rear—every legion was equipped with fifty rapid-firing Scorpion catapults, which fired large metal-tipped “bolts,” or spears, for antipersonnel use, and ten heavy stone-throwing catapults for battering down emplacements and pulverizing flesh and bone. As the artillery was positioned, plenty of ammunition was loaded onto pack mules and brought up from the beach where Sentius’s force had landed—arrows, rounded stones the size of baseballs and bowling balls, and firebrands dipped in tar.
Seeing these earnest preparations going on below his ramparts, seeing the determination of the legions to obey Sentius’s orders, and seeing the fearful looks on the faces of the men around him, Piso at last appreciated the folly of resistance. Encouraged by his son, begrudgingly he now called down to Sentius and sought peace terms. He asked to be allowed to remain in the fortress if his men surrendered their arms, while envoys were sent to Rome to seek the emperor’s decision on who should govern Syria. But Sentius refused. All he would allow Piso was a few ships for his family and himself and some of their attendants, and only then on condition that Piso gave his word to return to Rome at once to face charges.
Piso, who had done his cause absolutely no good by his obstinate and doomed attempt to regain power here, and had only made himself appear all the more guilty of complicity in the death of Germanicus, was forced to accept the humbling surrender terms. Piso and his wife and son boarded the offered ships for a somber voyage home.