By late January A.D. 20, word that the fleet carrying Agrippina and the ashes of Germanicus was soon to arrive in southern Italy had reached Rome. All of Italy was still in mourning for Germanicus. Not even the Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn in late December, had lifted the gloom. Normally the Saturnalia, forerunner of the later Christian Christmas celebrations, was a time for gift-giving, a time when slaves were given special privileges, and when all Romans could legally gamble on things other than chariot races, for four festive days. (The festival was later increased to five and then seven days.) But this year there had been no reason for joy.
Since the death of Germanicus the Senate had voted one honor after another for the late prince of Rome. An official song was ordered to celebrate his exploits. Chairs of state were to be dedicated to him wherever members of the Augustales priesthood, of which he’d been a member, served temples to the deified emperor Augustus throughout the empire. An ivory bust of Germanicus was now to be carried at the head of the commencement procession every time festival games and races were held at the circus. Triumphal arches were to be erected to him in stone and inscribed with his achievements—one was to be sited at Rome; another on the bank of the Rhine where he had served with such distinction; a third on Mount Amanus in Syria, the province where he had died. A cenotaph was to be built in his honor at Antioch, on the very spot in the Forum where his body had been cremated. A tall earth mound dedicated to him was to be raised at Daphne, where he had breathed his last breath.
Following the lead of the Senate, other honors to Germanicus were created in Rome and across the empire by the grieving Roman people. The Equestrians, the Roman order of knights, decided that in every drama theater in every city and town around the empire where rows of seats were reserved for them, these seats, previously called “the juniors,” were now to be known as “Germanicus’s benches.” And countless statues were voted to Germanicus in cities and towns the length and breadth of the empire. Tacitus was to say that many of the honors initiated in Germanicus’s memory would still be in place in his day, seventy-five years later.¹
Yet honors could not bring Germanicus back, and the angry determination of the population to see their hero avenged had not abated. But first the people wished to pay their final respects. Agrippina had asked that the fleet carrying her, and Germanicus’s ashes, pause for several days at the Greek island of Corfu. This was designed to give Agrippina time to compose her mind, says Tacitus. Germanicus’s widow was, he said, “wild with grief.”² The pause also allowed time for people in their tens of thousands to gather at the southern port of Brundisium, today’s Brindisi.
Among those who flocked to Brindisi were Agrippina’s intimate friends and most of the senior military officers who had served under Germanicus. One of those officers would have been Albinovanus Pedo, who, as a prefect, or young colonel, had served as deputy commander of cavalry during Germanicus’s German campaigns. A talented writer of verse and a friend of the famous poet Ovid, Pedo would write an epic poem about Germanicus’s exploits that would quickly become a best seller. Only a fragment of Pedo’s epic, describing one of the campaigns against Hermann, has survived. Also marching down from Rome came two cohorts, or companies, of the elite Praetorian Guard. These two thousand guardsmen had been ordered by Tiberius to escort his adopted son’s remains back to the capital.
When February arrived, so did the remains of Germanicus. At Brindisi, word quickly spread that Agrippina’s fleet had been seen on the horizon. People rushed to vantage points. They crowded onto boats in the harbor, filled open windows, lined the city walls, and perched on rooftops. Each asked the other whether they should remain respectfully silent when Germanicus’s ashes were carried ashore, or whether they should give voice to their emotions—their grief, their anger, their pity for Agrippina and her children. Normally when Roman warships came into port, the paid freedmen who made up their crews waved, smiled, and called to those on the shore. But not today. Not a smile or a wave was to be seen or a word heard as the war galleys came slowly into the harbor to the steady, monotonous beat of their timekeepers’ hammers and the slow rise and fall of their dripping oars. The members of the huge crowd made not a single sound, almost as if it would have been sacrilegious to speak.
In this eerie silence, the flagship tied up in the military section of the Brindisi dockyard, which was shaped like a deer’s antlers. A crowd of sad-faced passengers appeared at the flagship’s rail. A gangplank was quickly put in place by scurrying deckhands, and the passengers formed up at the head of the gangway. Without delay, down the gangway came the young widow Agrippina, dressed in mourning black. For many in the crowd, this was their first sighting of the famous wife of Germanicus, daughter of Agrippa and granddaughter of Augustus. While not tall, she possessed a neat figure. She had a boyish face, with large eyes and a small, pert mouth just like her father. Her fashionable hairdo, labored over by her personal hairdressing staff before her ship docked, featured the elaborate use of curling tongs for the front and top; more hair trailed down the back of her neck in a braided ponytail.
Today, Agrippina was looking pale as, clutching her husband’s funeral urn and with her eyes fixed on the ground, she walked down the gangway. According to Tacitus, two of her children accompanied her as she landed at Brindisi.³ One was her youngest child, Julia Livilla. Born on the island of Lesbos when her parents had been on their way to the East, Julia was now two and a half years of age.
Suetonius says that the other child was Caligula,⁴ who was now a seven-year-old. Suetonius is the only classical author who says that Caligula went to Syria with his parents. Artists down through the centuries have picked up on this reference and painted Caligula into the story of Germanicus’s death—Nicolas Poussin in his 1627 The Death of Germanicus, and Benjamin West in his 1768 Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, for example. Twentieth-century British novelist Robert Graves, in his influential 1934 novel I, Claudius, also mirrored Suetonius’s reference and suggested in his novel that Caligula was in Syria with his parents and was an evil child who had something to do with his father’s death.⁵
There is no other evidence that Caligula did in fact go to the East with his mother and father. Tacitus, who provides by far the most detailed account of Germanicus’s life and death, makes absolutely no reference to Caligula being in Syria. It is quite probable that Suetonius was in error—in the same stanza that he speaks of Caligula being in the East with his parents, he says that after his mother was removed from his life, years later, Caligula went to live with his great-grandmother Livia. But Livia was dead by that time. So if he could be wrong in one thing, he was probably wrong in this.
If Caligula’s parents followed their previous policy of always keeping their then youngest with them, the second child coming off the ship at Brindisi would have been three-year-old Drusilla. Not that it matters. Even if Caligula was that second child with Agrippina as she came off the ship, there is absolutely nothing to connect the boy in any way with the murder of Germanicus in Syria. And all classical references to Caligula in his childhood paint him as an adorable child loved by everyone, from the emperor Augustus down to the lowliest legionary. It would be years later, under the influence of Tiberius, that Caligula would find the vices that changed his ways and polluted his reputation.
The sight of Agrippina carrying Germanicus’s ashes as she stepped onto the stone jetty, says Tacitus, generated a groan from those watching. Then the sight of Agrippina’s black-clad female attendants following after her with tears streaming from their red eyes brokered a general explosion of grief. Tears flowed from the eyes of complete strangers to the family, just as they did from those of relatives of Germanicus and Agrippina. Men and women were equal in their mournful cries. Never, said Tacitus, had the country known a universal grief like it.⁶
Also on board one of the ships that had come from Syria was the prisoner Martina, the arrested sorceress and maker of poisons. She was quietly, discreetly placed in a safe house at Brindisi, heavily guarded by staff of Germanicus and Agrippina. There, it was intended, she would stay until it was time to bring her up to the capital to testify at a murder trial.
Within days, the funeral procession set off from Brindisi for Rome. Germanicus’s twelve lictors, his official attendants as a former consul, led the way. Each carried the fasces, the standard of a Roman judge comprising a bundle of whipping rods surrounding an ax, symbol of a judge’s power to order both punishment and execution. Now each fasces was reversed, as a symbol of mourning. Next in the cortege came the two Praetorian Guard standard-bearers, wearing their lion capes and carrying their silver hand standards bare, without the usual consecrated ribbons, again as a sign of mourning. In two lines, two thousand grim-faced Italian-born Praetorian guardsmen followed, fully armed with shields and javelins. The troops both led and flanked the funeral bier, a wooden platform onto which was fastened the funeral urn. In rotation, the bier was carried on the shoulders of the two tribunes and twenty centurions of the two Praetorian cohorts. Agrippina, her children, her kinfolk, her attendants, and the friends of Germanicus walked behind the platform that bore the prince’s ashes.
This journey on foot across half of Italy could have been avoided. Agrippina could have docked at Ostia, the port of Rome, at the mouth of the Tiber River, and transferred to small craft for the last stage of the journey up the river to the capital. But Agrippina had deliberately landed at Italy’s southernmost port. It was her intention to walk all the way to Rome with her husband’s remains, covering hundreds of miles, as a political statement. She was determined to stoke public anger at the death of Germanicus with every step. At slow walking pace, then, the solemn funeral cortege set out from Brindisi and made its way along the Appian Way, a long, straight, stone-paved military highway, heading north toward Rome through the regions of Calabria, Apulia, and Campania.
At every population center they encountered, the population lined the road. Men and women wore black mourning clothes; members of the Equestrian Order wore their state robes. The magistrates of every town had been ordered by Tiberius to honor Germanicus, and as the prince’s remains passed by, they burned vestments and incense and conducted funeral rites at the roadside. From towns off the route came a flood of residents and official deputations to crowd crossroads, build temporary altars, and pay their respects. As the public shed tears and wailed in their grief, priests from each town sacrificed animals to Germanicus’s memory.
Day after day the procession made its slow, painful progress, stopping at various towns overnight before setting off again the next day at dawn. It took weeks for the procession to reach Tarracina, today’s Terracina, then a low-lying town surrounded by marshes, forty miles southwest of Rome. Here it was met by a vast crowd from Rome headed by Rome’s most senior office-bearers, the two current consuls, Marcus Valerius and Gaius Aurelius. With the consuls came Germanicus’s biological brother, twenty-eight-year-old Claudius, who, with his clubfoot and stammer, was considered something of a fool, and Germanicus’s thirty-one-year-old cousin and adoptive brother, Drusus, who was now Tiberius’s heir apparent. In the brothers’ care came Germanicus’s four remaining children—the eldest, fifteen-year-old Nero Germanicus, as well as thirteen-year-old Drusus Germanicus and four-year-old Agrippina the Younger, plus either Caligula or Drusilla, depending on which version of who went east with their parents we accept. Here at Terracina, at last, a tearful Agrippina and all six of her children were reunited for the first time in almost three years.
A vast number of people thronged the road, says Tacitus, with everyone in tears. But, he added, this was genuine public sorrow—this astonishing outpouring of grief wasn’t just for effect to impress the emperor. Just the contrary—it was Tacitus’s belief that “everyone knew that Tiberius could barely hide his joy at the death of Germanicus.”⁷ This public display was directed as much against Tiberius as it was for the late prince.
The last time that Germanicus had returned to Rome had been following his victories in Germany. According to Suetonius, on that occasion most of the population of the city had flooded north for twenty miles to meet him, and each of the cohorts of the Praetorian Guard had gone out to greet him and escort him home, despite orders that only two of the then nine cohorts were to do so.⁸ Now, in the second half of February A.D. 20, only the ashes and bones of Germanicus were coming home.
As for the emperor himself and his mother, they were now conspicuous by their absence. Their faces were not seen, in the city or outside it. This was because “Tiberius and Livia were thoroughly pleased at the death of Germanicus,” says Cassius Dio,⁹supporting Tacitus’s view. Tacitus was to conjecture that Tiberius and Livia either felt it below their dignity to mourn openly, or feared that their hypocrisy would become apparent if they were to appear in public and pretend to be grief-stricken when they were not.¹⁰In contrast, almost three decades earlier, in 9 B.C., the then emperor Augustus had personally gone many miles out of Rome in the middle of winter to meet the body of Drusus Caesar (Drusus the Elder), the brother of Tiberius and father of Germanicus, when it was returned to Rome from Germany, even though Drusus was only Augustus’s stepson.¹¹
Surprisingly, to many, Antonia, the mother of Germanicus, did not make an appearance either as her son’s remains neared the capital. Tacitus was to speculate that perhaps she was ill at the time. “But I can more easily believe,” he was to write, “that Tiberius and Livia, who didn’t leave the Palatium [the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill at Rome], kept her inside with them.” He was of the opinion that they did this to make it look as if their sorrow was equal to that of Antonia’s, so that the grandmother and uncle of the deceased prince would be thought to be following his mother’s example by staying home.¹² Antonia would later show herself to be a very feisty and independent woman, but she would always obey the emperor. Were he to command her to stay at the palace with his mother and himself rather than go out to meet Germanicus’s funeral cortege, she would have done so.
Followed by thousands of people, the cortege moved on from Terracina, continuing along the Appian Way at the slow march. Several days later, in the last week of February, the procession entered Rome via the Appian Gate. Here, at the capital, the entire populace was, says Suetonius, “still stunned and distressed” by Germanicus’s death.¹³ On the evening of the following day, Germanicus’s simple funeral took place on the Campus Martius, the Field of Mars, beside the Tiber River on the northern outskirts of Rome. The city streets thronged with people who crushed out the northern gates to attend the funeral in groups representing all the traditional voting tribes of Rome. The Field of Mars was ablaze with burning torches, and the roadways on the campus were lined by all the cohorts of the Praetorian Guard and the German Guard, the emperor’s bodyguard, each man fully armed with shield and javelin; inside the city proper they were only permitted to bear swords.
People were heard to exclaim repeatedly, “The commonwealth is ruined! No hope remains for us!”¹⁴
Of Tiberius, still there was no sign, but he would have had many a spy in the crowd, and they would report back to the Palatium with tales of the outpourings of grief and the popular sentiments they heard expressed. Tiberius would have been particularly concerned to hear that men spoke out in favor of Germanicus’s widow. Many were describing Agrippina as the glory of Rome because she was the sole surviving descendant of Augustus and the last connection with the golden Augustan era. Looking up to heaven, people prayed to the gods that Agrippina and her children would continue to be safe and would outlive their enemies.¹⁵
On Tiberius’s orders, there was no official state funeral; Germanicus was to receive none of the pomp and circumstance that would have involved. At the state funeral of his father, Drusus the Elder, two hundred eulogies had been delivered. For Germanicus, there was not a single eulogy, not even a statue of the deceased carried before the bier, as was the usual practice with a Roman funeral. And people resented it. It was clear to the man in the street that Tiberius was deliberately trying to play down the importance of his adopted son’s death. It was well remembered that in October, when the Senate had proposed a giant golden shield to the memory of Germanicus, a typical tribute to great Roman authors, in recognition of Germanicus’s poetical works and plays, Tiberius had vetoed it, saying that such an honor was too much.
In the dark of night, at the massive, circular Mausoleum of Augustus on the Field of Mars, the urn containing the remains of Germanicus was reverently placed beside that of the emperor Augustus. As Agrippina and her children returned to the palace of Germanicus on the Palatine Hill, calls for justice and revenge rang around the streets of Rome.
Tiberius heard those calls, and also heard the criticisms leveled at him for failing to give Germanicus a state funeral.
The day after Germanicus’s remains had been interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus, Tiberius issued a new proclamation from his palace on the hill. This time, Tiberius told the Roman people that while many a famous Roman had died in the service of his country before, no death was the subject of more passionate regret than that of Germanicus. But the observances for Germanicus that were being carried out in the humble homes of ordinary people did not befit a prince of the imperial family, said the emperor. Enough tears had been shed, he said. It was time to move on, just as Rome had moved on and left behind its grief following the death of Julius Caesar’s only daughter, and following the death of other grandchildren of Augustus. Often in the past, said Tiberius, the Roman people had endured the defeat of its armies, the death of generals, the extinction of noble families. And endure they must again. “Princes are mortal; the State is everlasting,” said the proclamation.¹⁶
Tiberius told Romans that they must now get back to living their lives, must enjoy the annual spectacles of the Matronalia, the festival dedicated to the “Great Goddess” Juno, principal deity of Roman women, which was due to begin on March 1. Tiberius declared that with the coming of the Matronalia, people should begin again to enjoy themselves.¹⁷ The law courts, suspended for many weeks due to the death of Germanicus, now reopened, and business resumed. But no amount of proclamations or festive diversions could take the public mind off the desire to punish Germanicus’s murderer. There was by now, says Tacitus, universal eagerness to exact vengeance on Piso.¹⁸