Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 5
The Death of Germanicus

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IN the following year Tiberius was consul for the third time, Germanicus for the second. The latter assumed office at Nicopolis in the province of Achaia, which he had reached along the Adriatic coast after visiting his brother Drusus, then stationed in Dalmatia. Since both the Adriatic and the Ionian seas had been stormy, he spent a few days at Nicopolis overhauling the fleet. He employed this opportunity to visit the gulf famous for the victory of Actium, and its spoils dedicated by Augustus, and Antony’s camp. The place brought memories of his ancestors, for (as I have pointed out) he was the grand-nephew of Augustus, and the grandson of Antony. Here his imagination could re-enact mighty triumphs and mighty tragedies.

Then he visited Athens, contenting himself with one official attendant, out of regard for our treaty of alliance with that ancient city. The Greeks received him with highly elaborate compliments, and flattery all the more impressive for their emphasis on the bygone deeds and words of their own compatriots. Next, after crossing by way of Euboea to Lesbos (where Agrippina gave birth to her last child Julia Livilla), he skirted the coast of the Asian province, and after calling at the Thracian ports of Perinthus and Byzantium passed into the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. He visited famous historical sites enthusiastically. He also worked to rehabilitate these provinces, exhausted as they were from internal disputes and misgovernment. On the way back, he tried to visit the religious centre of Samothrace,1 but northerly winds drove him off. However, he inspected Troy’s venerable reminders of fortune’s vicissitudes and Rome’s origins. Then, coasting again along the Asian province, he put in at Colophon, to consult the oracle of Apollo at Clarus. Here there is no priestess, as at Delphi, but a male priest, chosen from certain families (usually from Miletus). He is told the number and names (only) of his consultants, and then descends into a cave, drinks water from a sacred spring, and – though generally illiterate and ignorant of metre – produces a set of verses on whatever subject the visitor has in mind. Rumour had it that the oracle of Clarus (in the cryptic fashion of oracles) foretold Germanicus’ early death.

Cnaeus Calpurnius Piso was in a hurry to execute his designs. His impact on the Athenians was alarmingly violent. In a speech savagely attacking them, he criticized Germanicus (without naming him) for excessive compliments, incompatible with Roman dignity, to a people whom he called Athenians no longer (since successive catastrophes had exterminated them), but the dregs of the earth: allies of Mithridates VI of Pontus against Sulla,1 of Antony against the divine Augustus. And he even brought up ancient accusations – their failures against Macedonia and oppression of their own countrymen. He had personal reasons also for his hostility. For they had refused to release a certain Theophilus whom the Athenian High Court had condemned for forgery.

Then a quick sea-journey by a short cut through the Cyclades brought him to Germanicus at the island of Rhodes. Though aware of Piso’s attacks on him, Germanicus behaved so forgivingly that when a storm was driving Piso on to the rocks – so that his death could have been put down to accident – Germanicus sent warships to rescue his enemy. However, Piso was not mollified. Grudging even a single day’s delay, he left Germanicus and went on.

On reaching the army in Syria he was lavish with gifts, bribes, and favours even to the humblest soldiers. He replaced company-commanders of long service, and the stricter among the colonels, by his own dependants and bad characters. He allowed the camp to become slack, the towns disorderly, and the men to wander in undisciplined fashion round the countryside. The demoralization was so bad that he was popularly called ‘father of the army’. And Plancina went beyond feminine respectability by attending cavalry exercises – and insulting Agrippina and Germanicus. Yet some even of the better soldiers were misguided enough to support her, because of secret rumours that the emperor’s approval was not lacking.

Germanicus knew what was happening. But his more urgent concern was to reach Armenia first. The national character and geographical position of that country have long been equally equivocal. It shares an extensive frontier with Roman provinces. It also stretches as far as Media Atropatene. So it is between the two great empires of Rome and Parthia – and often opposed to them, since the Armenians hate Rome and are jealous of Parthia. At this moment they were kingless, Vonones having been turned out. Popular feeling – among high and low alike – favoured Zeno, the son of King Polemo I of Pontus, because he had copied Armenian customs and clothes since earliest childhood: he loved hunting and feasting and other barbarian pastimes. So at a great gathering in the city of Artaxata, with the agreement of the aristocracy, Germanicus crowned him king. The Armenians paid him homage and acclaimed him as King Artaxias III, after the city. Cappadocia, on the other hand, was converted into an imperial province with Quintus Veranius (I) as governor. To make Roman rule seem the preferable alternative, certain of its royal taxes were diminished. Commagene was annexed to the province of Syria, and put under Quintus Servaeus. So Germanicus had solved every eastern question.

Yet his satisfaction was ruined by Piso’s arrogance. Germanicus had ordered him to conduct part of the Roman army to Armenia, or send it with his son. Piso had done neither. Finally, at the winter quarters of the tenth brigade at Cyrrhus, they met. Their features were carefully composed, Piso’s to show no fear, Germanicus not to seem menacing. He was, as I have said, a kind-hearted man. But his friends knew how to work up ill-feeling, and piled up a variety of exaggerated facts and hostile fictions against Piso, Plancina, and their sons. A few friends were present at their meeting. Germanicus spoke first, with ill-concealed indignation. Piso apologized – insolently. They parted in undeclared enmity. Subsequently, Piso rarely sat on Germanicus’ dais, and, when he did, he looked sullen and critical. At a banquet given by the dependent king of the Nabataei,1 when heavy gold crowns were presented to Germanicus and Agrippina and lighter ones to Piso and the others, Piso was heard to say that the guest of honour was son of a Roman emperor, not of a Parthian king. He pushed his own crown aside, with a prolonged denunciation of extravagance. This was irritating for Germanicus. But he endured it.

A deputation now came to him from the Parthian king Artabanus III. Its mission was to recall the friendship and alliance between the two empires, and to request a renewal of pledges. The king would pay Germanicus the compliment of coming to the bank of the Euphrates. But meanwhile he asked that Vonones should not be kept in Syria, from which, at short range, his agents were inciting tribal chieftains to disloyalty. Germanicus answered with courtesy about the alliance between Rome and Parthia, and with becoming modesty as regards the king’s visit and politeness to himself. Vonones was moved to the Cilician coastal town of Pompeiopolis. This was not just because of Artabanus’ request. It was also a rebuff to Piso, whose friend Vonones had made himself by numerous attentions and gifts to Plancina.

While Germanicus was spending the summer in various provinces, Drusus distinguished himself by inducing the Germans to fight among themselves; and he thereby put an end to the already broken Maroboduus. Among the Gotones there was a young German nobleman called Catualda who had been expelled by Maroboduus, and now, seeing him in difficulties, was eager for revenge. Invading Marcomannic territory with a strong force, Catualda bribed the leading men to co-operate, and broke into the palace and adjoining fort. There he found old Suebian loot. There, too, were business-men and camp-followers from the Roman provinces. They had been induced first by a trade agreement, then by hopes of making more money, to migrate from their various homes to enemy territory. Finally they had forgotten their own country.

Maroboduus, completely deserted, was obliged to appeal to the emperor’s mercy. Crossing the Danube – at the point where it borders on the province of Noricum – he wrote to Tiberius. His tone was not that of a refugee or petitioner, but reminiscent of his former greatness. When he had been a powerful monarch, he said, and many nations had made approaches to him, he had preferred the friendship of Rome. The emperor answered that he should have a secure and honourable home in Italy as long as he stayed there, and if it became advantageous for him to leave Italy he could go as freely as he had come. In the senate, however, he asserted that Maroboduus had been more dangerous than Philip had been to Athens, or Pyrrhus and Antiochus III to Rome. The speech has survived. It emphasizes the king’s power, the ferocity of his subject peoples, Italy’s peril from so near an enemy – and the emperor’s skill in eliminating him.

Maroboduus was kept at Ravenna, and whenever the Suebi became disorderly they were threatened with his restoration. But for eighteen years he never left Italy, growing old, his reputation dimmed by excessive fondness for life. Catualda’s fate and refuge were similar. Overthrown shortly afterwards by the Hermunduri under Vibilius, he was admitted inside the empire and lodged at Forum Julii, a Roman settlement in Narbonese Gaul. The native followers of the two princes were not allowed to inhabit and disturb peaceful provinces: they were settled beyond the Danube between the rivers Morava and Váh and a king, Vannius from the Quadi, was provided for them.

News now arrived of Germanicus’ coronation of Artaxias III. The senate voted that Germanicus and Drusus should receive ovations on entering the city. Moreover, arches bearing their statues were erected on either side of the temple of Mars the Avenger.

Tiberius was happier to have secured peace by prudent negotiation than if he had fought a victorious war. So now he used the same diplomatic methods with Rhescuporis, king of Thrace. On the death of the previous king, Rhoemetalces I, who had controlled the whole country, Augustus had divided it between his brother Rhescuporis and his son Cotys IV. The partition gave Cotys the cultivated parts, the towns, and the vicinity of the Greek cities, while Rhescuporis got a wild, savage land with hostile neighbours. The kings’ characters were similarly contrasted, the former being attractive and civilized, and the latter grim, ambitious, and an unwilling partner. At first, however, there was ostensible harmony. But soon Rhescuporis began to encroach and annex territory allotted to Cotys, meeting resistance with force. He proceeded tentatively during the lifetime of Augustus, who had created the two kingdoms and might (Rhescuporis feared) punish disrespect. But when he heard of the change of ruler he provoked war, by infiltrating bandit groups and demolishing forts.

Tiberius, whose greatest horror was an upset arrangement, sent a staff-officer to tell the kings to keep the peace. Cotys at once dismissed the force which he had mobilized. Rhescuporis, pretending to be reasonable, requested a conference at which disputed matters could be settled verbally. Place and time were soon fixed, and agreement was reached. Concessions were readily made, for Cotys was good-natured – and Rhescuporis treacherous. He gave a banquet, ostensibly to ratify the treaty; and when the festivities and drinking had continued far into the night, Cotys, off his guard, was imprisoned.

As soon as Cotys realized the trick, he appealed to the sacred right of kings, to the gods their family shared, to the laws of hospitality. But Rhescuporis now possessed all Thrace. He wrote to Tiberius alleging that there had been a plot against himself, but that he had forestalled its instigator. Meanwhile, on the excuse of a tribal campaign against the Bastarnae and Scythians, he reinforced his infantry and cavalry. Tiberius replied gently that, if he had acted in good faith, he need not worry since he was not culpable; but neither he himself nor the senate would judge the rights and wrongs of the case until they heard it. So Rhescuporis must give up Cotys, come to Rome, and relinquish to others the unpopular task of criminal investigation.

The emperor’s letter was sent to Thrace by Latinius Pandusa, imperial governor of Moesia, together with a force to take over Cotys. Rage and fear battled in Rhescuporis’ mind. Finally he thought it better to be charged with a crime committed than a crime attempted, and ordered Cotys to be killed, alleging suicide. Tiberius’ policy however, once fixed, remained unmodified. Pandusa (whom Rhescuporis had accused of hostile bias) died, and his successor in Moesia was Lucius Pomponius Flaccus, an old soldier whose close friendship with the king made it easy to trap him. Flaccus crossed into Thrace, and by large promises induced Rhescuporis (who had hesitated, when he considered his offences) to enter the Roman lines.

A strong guard was attached to him, ostensibly as a courtesy. Its colonels and company-commanders advised and coaxed him. As Thrace receded, their surveillance became increasingly apparent, until at last he saw, as they conducted him into Rome, that there was no choice. He was accused in the senate by the widow of Cotys, and exiled from his kingdom. Thrace was divided between his son Rhoemetalces II, who was known to have opposed his father’s policy, and the children of Cotys. Since, however, these last were not of age, a former praetor, Titus Trebellenus Rufus, was to act as their regent. (In the same way, at an earlier epoch, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (I) had been sent to Egypt to look after the children of Ptolemy IV Philopator.) Rhescuporis was deported to Alexandria, where he was killed while attempting (so it was said) to escape.

In the following year (the consuls were Marcus Junius Silanus Torquatus and Lucius Norbanus Balbus) Germanicus went to Egypt to look at the antiquities. His ostensible object, however, was the country’s welfare; by opening the public granaries he lowered the price of corn. His behaviour was generally popular. He walked about without guards, in sandalled feet and Greek clothes, imitating Scipio Africanus, who is said to have done likewise in Sicily though the Second Punic War was still raging.

Tiberius criticized Germanicus mildly for his clothes and deportment, but reprimanded him severely for infringing a ruling of Augustus by entering Alexandria without the emperor’s permission. For one of the unspoken principles of Augustus’ domination had been the exclusion of senators and knights from Egypt without his leave. He had thereby isolated Egypt, to minimize the threat from any hostile power which, however weak itself and however powerful its opponents, might by holding that country – with its key-positions1 by land and sea – starve Italy.

Germanicus, still unaware that his expedition was frowned upon, visited the nearest of the Nile mouths, which is sacred to Hercules; the inhabitants say that others of comparable prowess later took his name, but that its original bearer came from their country. Germanicus then proceeded upstream, starting from Canopus, founded by the Spartans to commemorate the burial there of the steersman Canopus when Menelaus, returning to Greece, had been driven off his course on to the Libyan coast. Next Germanicus inspected the imposing remains of ancient Thebes. On its massive masonry, in Egyptian writing, are testimonies to ancient splendour. One of the older priests, requested to interpret the native tongue, told how the country had once possessed 700,000 men of military age, with whom King Rameses II had made his conquests. The tribute-list of the subject lands (they were Libya, Ethiopia, Media, Persia, Bactria, and Scythia; his empire had also included Syria, Armenia, and its neighbour Cappadocia, and had extended to the Bithynian and Lycian coasts) could be read – the weight of gold and silver was recorded, and the numbers of weapons and horses, the temple-offerings of ivory and spices, the quantities of corn and other materials contributed by every country: revenues as impressive as those exacted nowadays by Parthian compulsion or Roman imperial organization.

Germanicus was interested in other remarkable sights, too, particularly the stone statue of Memnon which gives out the sound of a voice when the sun’s rays strike it; the pyramids, mountainous monuments of royal competition and wealth, erected on drifting and almost pathless sands; artificial lakes to receive the Nile’s overflow;1 and elsewhere gorges and depths unplumbed. He came to Elephantine and Syene, once the frontier-posts of the Roman Empire, which now, however, extends to the Red Sea.2

At about this time Vonones, whose deportation to Cilicia has been mentioned, bribed his guards with a view to escaping, via Armenia, to the lands of the Albani and Heniochi and to a Scythian tribal chieftain who was related to him. Under the pretence that he was going hunting, he moved inland, aiming for the trackless woods. With a fast horse he made quick time to the river Ceyhan. But on the news of his escape the local inhabitants had destroyed its bridges, and the river was unfordable. So he was arrested on the bank, by a cavalry colonel, Vibius Pronto. Soon afterwards a reservist called Remmius stabbed him to death – ostensibly in a fit of anger, but the man’s former position as the king’s chief guard increased suspicions that he had connived at the escape and had murdered Vonones to avoid detection.

On leaving Egypt Germanicus learnt that all his orders to divisional commanders and cities had been cancelled or reversed. Between him and Piso there were violent reciprocal denunciations. Then Piso decided to leave Syria. But Germanicus fell ill, and so Piso stayed on. When news came that the prince was better and vows offered for his recovery were being paid, Piso sent his attendants to disperse the rejoicing crowds of Antioch, with their sacrificial victims and apparatus. Then he left for Seleucia Pieria, to await the outcome of Germanicus’ illness. He had a relapse – aggravated by his belief that Piso had poisoned him. Examination of the floor and walls of his bedroom revealed the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, lead tablets inscribed with the patient’s name, charred and bloody ashes, and other malignant objects which are supposed to consign souls to the powers of the tomb. At the same time agents of Piso were accused of spying on the sickbed.

Germanicus, alarmed and angry, reflected that if his own house was besieged and his enemies were actually watching as he died, the prospects of his unhappy wife and babies were gloomy. Apparently poisoning was too slow; Piso was evidently impatient to monopolize the province and its garrison. But Germanicus felt he was not so feeble as all that – the murderer should not have his reward. He wrote to Piso renouncing his friendship, and it is usually believed that he ordered him out of the province. Piso now delayed no longer, and sailed. But he went slowly, so as to reduce the return journey in case Germanicus died and Syria became accessible again.

For a time Germanicus’ condition was encouraging. But then he lost strength, and death became imminent. As his friends stood round him, he spoke to them. ‘Even if I were dying a natural death’, he said, ‘I should have a legitimate grudge against the gods for prematurely parting me, at this young age, from my parents, children, and country. But it is the wickedness of Piso and Plancina that have cut me off. I ask you to take my last requests to your heart. Tell my father and brother of the harrowing afflictions and ruinous conspiracies which have brought my wretched life to this miserable close. My relatives, those who shared my prospects, even those who envied me in my life, will lament that the once flourishing survivor of many campaigns has fallen to a woman’s treachery!

‘You will have the opportunity to protest to the senate and to invoke the law. The chief duty of a friend is not to walk behind the corpse pointlessly grieving, but to remember his desires and carry out his instructions. Even strangers will mourn Germanicus. But if it was I that you loved, and not my rank, you must avenge me! Show Rome my wife – the divine Augustus’ granddaughter. Call the roll of our six children. Sympathy will go to the accusers. Any tale of criminal instructions given to Piso will seem unbelievable or, if believed, unforgivable.’

His friends touched the dying man’s right hand, and swore to perish rather than leave him unavenged. Turning to his wife, Germanicus begged her – by her memories of himself and by their children – to forget her pride, submit to cruel fortune, and, back in Rome, to avoid provoking those stronger than herself by competing for their power. That was his public utterance. Privately he said more – warning her of danger (so it was said) from Tiberius. Soon afterwards he died.

The province and surrounding peoples grieved greatly. Foreign countries and kings mourned his friendliness to allies and forgiveness to enemies. Both his looks and his words had inspired respect. Yet this dignity and grandeur, befitting his lofty rank, had been unaccompanied by any arrogance or jealousy. At his funeral there was no procession of statues. But there were abundant eulogies and reminiscences of his fine character. Some felt that his appearance, short life, and manner of death (like its locality) recalled Alexander the Great. Both were handsome, both died soon after thirty, both succumbed to the treachery of compatriots in a foreign land. But Germanicus, it was added, was kind to his friends, modest in his pleasures, a man with one wife and legitimate children. Though not so rash as Alexander, he was no less of a warrior. Only, after defeating the Germans many times, he had not been allowed to complete their subjection. If he had been in sole control, with royal power and title, he would have equalled Alexander in military renown as easily as he outdid him in clemency, self-control, and every other good quality.

Before cremation the body of Germanicus was exposed in the main square of Antioch, which was to be its resting-place. It is uncertain if the body showed signs of poisoning. People came to opposite conclusions according to their preconceived suspicions, inspired by sympathy for Germanicus or support for Piso.

The other senior officials, generals and senators present now discussed who should govern Syria. The only two who pressed their claims were Gaius Vibius Marsus and Cnaeus Sentius Saturninus. Between them, competition was prolonged. Finally, as Sentius was the older and more insistent, Vibius withdrew. Publius Vitellius, Quintus Veranius (I) and others began preparing charges and indictments against Piso and Plancina as though the trial was already on. At their demand, Sentius dispatched to Rome a woman called Martina who was notorious in the province as a poisoner: Plancina was very fond of her.

Agrippina, exhausted by grief and unwell, but impatient of anything that postponed revenge, took ship with Germanicus’ ashes and her children. Everyone was sorry for this very great lady, splendidly married hitherto, accustomed to attracting the gaze of respectful and admiring crowds. Now, she clasped to her bosom the remains of the dead. The prospects of vengeance were dubious, her own future perilous, her fertility accursed – for it only multiplied hostages to fortune.

Meanwhile Piso heard at Cos that Germanicus was dead. Temples were visited, victims sacrificed, in an orgy of celebration. His own extravagant pleasure was eclipsed by that of Plancina, who chose this moment to exchange her mourning (for the death of a sister) for festive clothes. Company-commanders flocked in from Syria, urging that the Roman garrison was for Piso and that he should reoccupy the province, improperly taken from him and now masterless. He took counsel what to do. His son Marcus recommended a speedy return to Rome, since so far he had done nothing irremediable – unconfirmed suspicions or empty rumours were nothing to be frightened of. ‘Your quarrel with Germanicus’, said Marcus, ‘may earn you unpopularity, but not punishment. Besides, your enemies have satisfied themselves, by annexing your province. Return to Syria, on the other hand, means civil war, if Sentius resists. And you can expect no lasting support from company-commanders and soldiers. They still vividly remember their commanding officer, and their dominant emotion is a profound attachment to the Caesars.’

But one of Piso’s closest friends, Domitius Celer, opposed this advice. ‘Use your opportunity’, he said. ‘You, not Sentius, were made imperial governor of Syria, with its insignia, its jurisdiction, and its garrison. In event of opposition, the man with the post of governor (not to speak of private instructions) is pre-eminently entitled to take up arms. Besides, it is advisable to give rumours time to fade; when indignation is fresh it often overwhelms even the innocent. But if you keep and strengthen the army, chance might take an unforeseen favourable turn. Why hasten to reach Rome at the same instant as Germanicus’ ashes? If you do, the weeping Agrippina and the witless crowd will bring you down at once on hearsay, your defence unheard. You have the Augusta’s complicity, the emperor’s sympathy – secretly. No one is so delighted by Germanicus’ death as its most ostentatious mourners.’

Piso, naturally impetuous, was easily converted to this course. He wrote to Tiberius accusing Germanicus of extravagance and haughtiness, and asserting that he himself had been expelled to leave the way clear for a rebellion, and that he had now resumed his command as loyally as he had held it before. He put Domitius Celer on board a warship with instructions to proceed to Syria across the open sea, avoiding the coasts and islands. Deserters, streaming in, were organized in units; and weapons were distributed to camp-followers.

Piso crossed to the mainland and intercepted a force of recruits on its way to Syria. He also wrote requesting the Cilician princelings to send him reinforcements. His son Marcus, though he had advised against war, helped actively in its preparations. As they coasted along Lycia and Pamphylia they met the ships taking Agrippina to Italy. The meeting was hostile, and both squadrons prepared to fight. But mutual fears limited them to recriminations. A message from Gaius Vibius Marsus urged Piso to return home to plead his cause. Piso sarcastically replied that he would attend when the praetor in charge of poisoning cases notified accused and accusers of a date.

Meanwhile Domitius had landed at the Syrian city of Laodicea. He made for the winter camp of the sixth brigade which seemed to him the likeliest for his rebellious designs. But he was forestalled by its commander Pacuvius. Sentius wrote informing Piso of this and warning him to keep subversive agents away from the army, and war away from the province. Then, collecting together all whom he knew to cherish Germanicus’ memory or dislike his enemies, and emphasizing that this was a forcible attack on the emperor’s majesty, he took personal command of a strong force, ready for battle.

Piso’s project had started badly. However, he took the safest course in the circumstances by seizing a fortified Cilician town, Celenderis. The Cilician chiefs had sent troops. By adding deserters, the recently intercepted recruits, and his and Plancina’s slaves, Piso had brought them to the strength of a division. He insisted to them that he, the emperor’s governor, was kept out of the province the emperor had given him – not by the army (he was returning at its invitation), but by Sentius, whose slanders were a cloak for personal ill-will. ‘Stand in line’, he said, ‘and the soldiers will not fight, when they see Piso whom they themselves formerly called “Father” If right is what matters, my cause will prevail – and if it comes to force, too, it is not a weak one!’

Then Piso drew up his troops in front of the city’s fortifications, at the top of a precipitous hill bounded on the other sides by the sea. Against him were old soldiers in regular units, backed by reserves. Piso’s position was favourable; but his men, unlike the good troops on the other side, were dispirited and unhopeful, with rustic or makeshift weapons. When the battle started, suspense only lasted while the Roman battalions were clambering up to level ground. Then the Cilicians fled and shut themselves into the fortress. Meanwhile Piso tried to attack the fleet which was lying close by – but without success. Returning, he stood on the walls and beat his breast, calling on individuals by name with offers of reward. These incitements to mutiny had the effect of bringing over the colour-sergeant of the sixth brigade with his Eagle.

But then Sentius ordered the trumpets and bugles to sound. At his command a mound was thrown up, ladders planted and mounted by chosen men supported by a rain of spears, stones, and firebrands from the engines. Finally Piso’s stubbornness gave way. He pleaded to be allowed to stay in the fortress if he gave up his arms, while the verdict on the Syrian governorship was referred to the emperor. These terms were refused. All that was granted to him was a naval escort and safe conduct home.

At Rome, when the news of Germanicus’ illness spread, with all the sinister exaggerations customary for distant events, there was grief and indignation. So this then, it was angrily said, was why he had been dismissed to a remote country, and Piso given the governorship. This had been the purpose of the Augusta’s private talks with Plancina. So it was true what older men said about Nero Drusus, that rulers do not like affability in their sons! Germanicus and Nero Drusus had been struck down precisely because they had planned to give Romans back their freedom, with equal rights for everyone.

This sort of talk was greatly aggravated by the news of Germanicus’ death. Without awaiting an official edict or senatorial decree, all business was suspended, the courts emptied, houses shut. There was universal silence and sorrow – no organized display or outward tokens of mourning, but profound, heartfelt grief. Some business-men who had left Syria while Germanicus was still alive happened to come with a more hopeful report of his progress. It was immediately believed and repeated at every chance encounter, and the uncritical hearers spread it again, with joyful embellishments. Crowds ran through the city and broke open temple doors. Night encouraged credulity, and assertions waxed readier in the dark. Tiberius left the false rumours uncontradicted, for time to dispose of. Then, disillusioned, the people were all the more sorrowful – as though they had lost Germanicus a second time.

He was decreed every honour which love or ingenuity could devise. His name was introduced into the Salian hymn: curule chairs, crowned by oak-wreaths, were to be placed in his honour among the seats of the Brotherhood of Augustus; his statue in ivory was to head the processions at the Circus Games; his posts of priest of Augustus and augur were to be filled by members of the Julian family only. The knights of Rome gave the name ‘Germanicus’ to the block of seats, in the theatre, which had been called the ‘junior block’; and they laid down that on 15th July every year his likeness should head their parade.1 There were to be arches at Rome, on the Rhine bank, and on Mount Amanus in Syria, with inscriptions recording his deeds and his death for his country. Antioch, where he had been cremated, was to have a sepulchre: Epidaphne, where he died, a funeral monument. His statues and cult-centres were almost innumerable. It was also proposed to place a huge golden medallion-portrait among the busts of the great orators. But Tiberius announced that he himself would dedicate one of the usual sort – like the rest – since opulence was no criterion of eloquence and it was compliment enough to be ranked with the classic writers. A good many of these honours are still paid, but some were discontinued, at once or in course of time.

While the mourning was still fresh, Germanicus’ sister Livilla – the wife of Drusus – gave birth to twin sons. This happy event, rare even in ordinary homes, gratified the emperor so much that he could not resist boasting to the senate that twins had never been born to so distinguished a Roman father before. He extracted material for self-congratulation from everything – even accidents! But among the people even this, at such a time, was unwelcome. The increase in Drusus’ family seemed a further blow to that of Germanicus.

In the same year the senate passed stringent decrees against female immorality. The granddaughters, daughters, and wives of Roman gentlemen were debarred from prostitution. A woman called Vistilia, belonging to a family that had held the praetorship, had advertised her availability to the aediles, in accordance with the custom of our ancestors who believed that an immoral woman would be sufficiently punished by this shameful declaration. Her husband Titidius Labeo was also requested to state why, when his wife was obviously guilty, he had refrained from enforcing the statutory penalty. He alleged, however, that the sixty days allowed him for consultation had not expired. It was therefore decided to take action regarding the woman only, and she was deported to the island of Seriphos.

Another discussion concerned the expulsion of Egyptian and Jewish rites. The senate decreed that four thousand adult ex-slaves tainted with those superstitions should be transported to Sardinia to suppress banditry there. If the unhealthy climate killed them, the loss would be small. The rest, unless they repudiated their unholy practices by a given date, must leave Italy.

The emperor reported that a priestess of Vesta had to be chosen in place of Occia, whose saintly priesthood had lasted fifty-seven years. He thanked Fonteius Agrippa and Comicius Pollio for the patriotic rivalry with which they had offered their daughters. The choice fell on Pollio’s child, the reputation of Agrippa’s family having suffered from his divorce. However, Tiberius consoled the rejected girl by a dowry of a million sesterces.

There was popular agitation against the terrible expense of corn. Tiberius fixed the sale price and promised a subsidy of two sesterces a bushel for dealers. But he still rejected the title ‘Father of his Country’, which was not offered him again because of this. He also severely reproved people who spoke of his occupations as ‘divine’ and himself as ‘master’. So the paths of speech were narrow and slippery. For though the emperor dreaded freedom, he detested flattery.

I find from the writings of contemporary senators that a letter was read in the senate from a chieftain of the Chatti named Adgandestrius, offering to kill Arminius if poison were sent him for the job. The reported answer was that Romans take vengeance on their enemies, not by underhand tricks, but by open force of arms. By this elevated sentiment Tiberius invited comparison with generals of old who had forbidden, and disclosed, the plan to poison King Pyrrhus. However, the Roman evacuation of Germany and the fall of Maroboduus had induced Arminius to aim at kingship. But his freedom-loving compatriots forcibly resisted. The fortunes of the fight fluctuated, but finally Arminius succumbed to treachery from his relations.

He was unmistakably the liberator of Germany. Challenger of Rome – not in its infancy, like kings and commanders before him, but at the height of its power – he had fought undecided battles, and never lost a war. He had ruled for twelve of his thirty-seven years. To this day the tribes sing of him. Yet Greek historians ignore him, reserving their admiration for Greece. We Romans, too, underestimate him, since in our devotion to antiquity we neglect modern history.

Agrippina pressed on with her journey over the wintry sea. When she reached the island of Corcyra, opposite the Calabrian coast, she paused for a few days to calm herself. Her misery was unendurable. Meanwhile, at the news of her approach, people flocked to Brundusium, the nearest and safest port of disembarkation. Close friends came, and many officers who had served under Germanicus; also many strangers from towns nearby, some to pay duty to the emperor, others (more numerous) imitating them. As soon as her squadron was seen out to sea, huge sorrowing crowds filled the harbours and shallows, walls, house-tops – every vantage point.

They wondered whether they ought to receive her landing in silence or with some utterance. As they still hesitated about the appropriate course, the fleet gradually came nearer. There was none of the usual brisk rowing, but every deliberate sign of grief. Agrippina, with her two children, stepped off the ship, her eyes lowered, the urn of death in her hands. Her companions were worn out by prolonged grieving; so the sorrow of the fresh mourners who now met her was more demonstrative. Otherwise everyone’s feelings were indistinguishable; the cries of men and women, relatives and strangers, blended in a single universal groan.

Tiberius had sent two battalions of the Guard, and had ordered the officials of Calabria, Apulia and Campania to pay their last respects to his adoptive son. So, as his ashes were borne on the shoulders of colonels and company-commanders, preceded by unadorned standards and reversed axes, at each successive settlement – in proportion to its wealth – the populace clothed in black and the knights in purple-striped tunics burnt garments, spices, and other funeral offerings. Even people from towns far away came to meet the procession, offering sacrifices and erecting altars to the dead man’s soul, and showing their grief by tears and lamentations.

Drusus came out to Tarracina with Germanicus’ brother Claudius and those of his children who had been at Rome. The consuls Marcus Valerius Messalla Messallinus (II) and Marcus Aurelius Cotta Maximus Messallinus had now begun their term of office, and they, the senate, and a great part of the population thronged the roadside in scattered groups, weeping as their hearts moved them. There was no flattery of the emperor in this. Indeed everyone knew that Tiberius could scarcely conceal his delight at the death of Germanicus.

He and the Augusta made no public appearance. Either they considered open mourning beneath their dignity, or they feared that the public gaze would detect insincerity on their faces. I cannot discover in histories or official journals1 that Germanicus’ mother Antonia (II) played a prominent part in these happenings, although the names not only of Agrippina, Drusus and Claudius, but of all his other blood-relations as well are recorded. Ill-health may have prevented her. Or perhaps she was too overcome by grief to endure visible evidence of her bereavement. But it seems to me more plausible that Tiberius and the Augusta, who remained at home, kept her there too, so that the dead man’s grandmother and uncle might seem, by staying indoors, only to be following the mother’s example, and grieving no less than she.

On the day when the remains were conducted to the Mausoleum of Augustus there was a desolate silence – rent only by wailing. The streets were full, the Field of Mars ablaze with torches. Everyone – armed soldiers, officials without their insignia, the people organized in their tribes – reiterated that Rome was done for, all hope gone. In the readiness and openness of their talk, they seemed to forget their rulers. But what upset Tiberius most was the popular enthusiasm for Agrippina. The glory of her country, they called her – the only true descendant of Augustus, the unmatched model of traditional behaviour. Gazing to heaven, they prayed that her children might live to survive their enemies.

Some people missed the pageantry of a state funeral. How different, they said, had been the magnificent rites devoted by Augustus to Germanicus’ father, Nero Drusus! In deepest winter the emperor had gone to Ticinum, and had not left the body until it entered Rome. Statues of Claudii and Livii had surrounded the bier. Nero Drusus had been mourned in the Roman Forum, praised from its dais – every honour ever thought of, ancient or modern, had been his. Yet Germanicus had not even received the honours due to any nobleman. Certainly, he had died so far from Rome that his body had to be cremated unceremoniously in a foreign land. ‘But if due marks of respect were thus at first fortuitously denied him, they should be all the more numerous later. His brother1 went only one day’s journey to meet him. Even the gate was too far for his uncle! What had happened to the traditional customs? The image at the head of the bier, the formal poems of eulogy, the panegyrics – the tears, which at least simulated sorrow?’

Tiberius heard of all this. Then, to silence the widespread talk, he issued the following statement. ‘Many famous Romans have died for their country. But none has ever been so ardently lamented before. That seems admirable to all, myself included – provided that moderation is observed. For the conduct of ordinary households or communities is not appropriate for rulers or an imperial people. Tearful mourning was a proper consolation in the first throes of grief. But now be calm again. Remember how Julius Caesar, when he lost his only daughter, and Augustus, when he lost his grandsons, hid their sorrow – not to mention Rome’s courageous endurance (on earlier occasions) of the loss of armies, the deaths of generals, the total destruction of great families. Rulers die; the country lives for ever. So return to your ordinary occupations – and since the Megalesian Games2 are nearly due, to your pleasures.’

So business started again. People went back to work; and Drusus left for the armies of Illyricum. Everyone looked forward to retribution for Piso. It was widely complained that he was insolently and treasonably loitering in pleasure trips round Asia and Achaia, and meanwhile suppressing the proofs of his crimes. For it had become known that the notorious poisoner Martina (sent to Rome, as I have mentioned, by Cnaeus Sentius Saturninus) had suddenly died at Brundusium; and that, although her body bore no signs of suicide, poison had been found hidden in a knot of her hair.

Meanwhile Piso sent his son Marcus ahead to Rome with soothing messages for the emperor. He himself visited Drusus, from whom he hoped to find gratitude for the removal of a rival rather than estrangement because of a brother’s death. Tiberius, to show his open mind, received Piso’s son courteously, with the presents customarily given to young noblemen. Drusus said to Piso that, if the rumours were accurate, his own fury would be greater than anybody’s – but that he prayed they were false and baseless, and that Germanicus’ death would ruin no one. This was said openly; Drusus avoided a private interview. It was generally believed that his answer, which displayed an old man’s diplomacy foreign to his youthful affability and directness, was prompted by Tiberius.

Piso crossed the Adriatic, left his ships at Ancona, and caught up a brigade marching from Pannonia to Rome on its way to join the army in Africa. Gossip stressed that he persistently brought himself to the troops’ attention during the march from Narnia. But then, to avoid suspicion – or perhaps because frightened men change their plans – he embarked on the Nera, and subsequently the Tiber, and increased his unpopularity by landing beside the imperial Mausoleum. It was a busy time of day and the river-bank was crowded. But Piso with a large escort of dependants, and Plancina surrounded by women, went on their way with cheerful expressions. Moreover, his house, which overlooked the Forum, was festively decorated; and a dinnerparty followed. In that crowded area nothing was private – and indignation mounted.

On the next day Lucius Fulcinius Trio applied to the consuls for leave to accuse Piso.1 Germanicus’ staff, led by Publius Vitellius and Quintus Veranius (I), objected that Trio had nothing to do with the matter, but that they themselves were available – not as accusers, but as witnesses to the facts, and bearers of Germanicus’ instructions. Trio waived his proposal to prosecute on this charge, but obtained authority to attack Piso’s previous career. The emperor was then asked to take over the inquiry. The accused was not sorry. He anticipated malevolence among senators and others, but believed that Tiberius had the strength to ignore gossip and was also immobilized by his mother’s complicity. Besides, he argued, it was easier for a single judge to distinguish truth from defamation: numbers encourage prejudice and hostile emotion.

Tiberius was fully aware of the problems of the investigation and of the malignant rumours about himself. So, after listening – with the help of a few close friends – to the accusations and pleas of defence, he referred the whole case to the senate. (At this stage Drusus returned from Illyricum and entered the city, postponing the ovation decreed him by the senate for the suppression of Maroboduus and his other achievements in the summer before last.) Men asked by Piso to defend him – Lucius Arruntius, Publius Vinicius, Gaius Asinius Gallus, Marcus Claudius Marcellus Aeserninus, and Sextus Pompeius (II) – declined on various pretexts. But he received support from Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (IV), Lucius Calpurnius Piso (I), and Livineius Regulus (I). The whole of Rome was excitedly asking: would Germanicus’ friends keep their word? What was Piso’s defence? Would Tiberius succeed in repressing his feelings? Never had there been so much intense public interest, and so much private criticism and unspoken suspicion of the emperor.

On the day of the senate’s meeting the emperor spoke with studied moderation. ‘Cnaeus Piso’, he said, ‘was my father’s friend and governor, and I myself, with the senate’s approval, made him Germanicus’ helper in his eastern duties. It must be decided objectively whether, having upset the prince by disobedience and quarrelsomeness, he rejoiced at his death, or whether he murdered him. For if he has exceeded his position, failed in respect to his senior, and exulted in his death – and my sorrow – men I will renounce his friendship and close my doors against him, but not use a ruler’s power to avenge personal wrongs. If, however, there is proof of murder, a crime which would require vengeance whatever the victim’s rank, it will be your duty to give proper satisfaction to the children of Germanicus and to us his parents.

‘You must also consider these questions. Did Piso incite his troops to mutiny and rebellion? Did he bribe them to support him? Did he make war to recover the province? Or are these lies spread and elaborated by the accusers? Their excessive vigour has given me cause for irritation. For to strip the body and expose it to the stares of the public, thus encouraging – among foreigners – the report that he was poisoned, served no good purpose since this question is still undecided, and the subject of inquiry.

‘I grieve for my son, and always shall. But I offer the accused every opportunity of producing evidence which may establish his innocence or Germanicus’ unfairness, if there was any. And I implore you not to regard charges as proofs because my personal grief is involved. Those whose blood-relationship or loyalty to Piso have made them his defenders should help him in his peril with all the eloquence and industry they possess; and I urge the accusers to be no less industrious and determined. I propose that Germanicus should be placed outside the law in one respect only: the investigation of his death is being conducted by the senate in its House and not by judges in a law court. Let similar restraint mark the rest of the case, regardless of the tears of Drusus or my own sorrow – or slanders invented against us.’

It was decided to allow the prosecution two days and then – after an interval of six days – the defence three. Lucius Fulcinius Trio opened with an ancient, pointless story of corruption and extortion during Piso’s Spanish governorship. Proofs of this would not damage the accused if he refuted the recent charges, and likewise its disproof would not exonerate him if he were convicted of the graver offences. Then Quintus Servaeus, Quintus Veranius, and Publius Vitellius spoke, all earnestly and Vitellius brilliantly. They alleged that Piso, hating Germanicus and hankering after rebellion, had allowed the troops to become undisciplined and overbearing to the provincials, corrupting them into calling him, as the riff-raff did, ‘father of the army’. Against every good man, on the other hand, he had borne malice – and particularly against the staff and friends of Germanicus. Finally, they continued, he had killed Germanicus by spells and poison. Then, after his and Plancina’s evil rites and sacrifices, he had made war on the State, and had to be defeated before he could be prosecuted.

Under every head except one the defence faltered. Bribery of the troops, abandonment of the province to every rascal, and insults against the commander, was undeniable. The poisoning charge alone was refuted. No conviction was carried by the story of the accusers that, at a party of Germanicus, Piso, his neighbour at dinner, had himself put poison into his food. It seemed fantastic that he should have attempted this, with many people looking on – including another man’s slaves – and under Germanicus’ own eyes. Piso offered his own slaves for torture and demanded that the waiters should be tortured too.

But for various reasons the judges were implacable – Tiberius because he had made war on the province, the senate because it remained unconvinced that Germanicus had died naturally.1 Both the emperor and Piso refused to produce private correspondence. Outside the senate-house the crowd were shouting that, if the senate spared him, they would lynch him. They dragged statues of him to the Gemonian Steps2 and began to destroy them; but on the emperor’s orders they were saved and put back. Piso was set in a litter and escorted home by a colonel of the Guard, whose role was variously interpreted as protector of his life or supervisor of his execution.

Plancina was equally loathed, but she had more influence. So it was doubted how far Tiberius could act against her. As long as Piso’s fate was uncertain, she swore she would share whatever happened to him, and if necessary die with him. But the Augusta’s private appeals secured her pardon. Thereafter she gradually dissociated herself from her husband, and treated her defence separately.

Piso saw that this was a fatal sign, and hesitated whether to continue the struggle. Finally, pressed by his sons, he steeled himself to enter the senate again. Renewed charges, hostile cries from senators, relentless enmity everywhere, he endured. But what horrified him most was the sight of Tiberius, pitiless, passionless, adamantly closed to any human feeling. Piso was carried home. He wrote a brief note – ostensibly preparation for the next day’s defence – and handed it, sealed, to an ex-slave. Then he performed his usual toilet. Late at night, when his wife had left the bedroom, he ordered the door to be shut. At dawn he was found with his throat cut. A sword lay on the floor.

I remember hearing older men speak of a document often seen in Piso’s hands. He never made it known. But his friends insisted that it contained a letter from Tiberius with instructions relating to Germanicus. If, they alleged, Piso had not been deceived by insincere promises from Sejanus, he had intended to disclose this to the senate – thereby convicting the emperor. Moreover, his death, according to this story, was not by his own hand, but by an assassin’s. I cannot vouch for either version. But I have felt bound to repeat this account given by people who were still alive when I was young.

In the senate Tiberius wore a sad expression. The manner of Piso’s death, he complained, was calculated to discredit him. He repeatedly interrogated Marcus Piso concerning his father’s behaviour during that last day and night. Apart from a few indiscretions, the young man answered prudently. Tiberius then read aloud a memorandum written by Piso, of which this was the gist:

‘Conspiracy among my enemies, and the odium caused by a lying charge, have ruined me. There is no place for my guiltless honesty. But I call heaven to witness, Caesar, that I have always been loyal to you, and dutiful to your mother. I beg you both to protect my children. Cnaeus has not shared my doings, good or bad, since he has been in Rome all this time. Marcus urged me not to return to Syria. How I wish I had given way to my young son, rather than he to his old father! I pray, therefore, all the more earnestly that he, who is innocent, should not be punished for my mistakes. By my forty-five years of loyalty, by our joint consulship, I, whom your parent the divine Augustus favoured, whom you yourself befriended, beg you to spare my unlucky son. It is the last thing I shall ask.’ Of Plancina nothing was said.

Tiberius exonerated Marcus from the charge of civil war, pointing out that the son could not have disobeyed his father’s orders. He also expressed pity for this great family and for the terrible end, merited or otherwise, of Piso himself. On behalf of Plancina he made a deplorable and embarrassed appeal, pleading his mother’s entreaties. All decent people were, in private, increasingly violent critics of the Augusta – a grandmother who was apparently entitled to see and talk to her grandson’s murderess, and rescue her from the senate. The feel­ing was that Germanicus alone had been refused the rights which every citizen possesses by law. ‘His mourners were Publius Vitellius and Quintus Veranius’, people said, ‘and meanwhile the Augusta and the emperor were protecting Plancina. Now, no doubt, it is Agrippina’s turn, and her children’s, to suffer from Plancina’s wiles and poisons, so satisfactorily tested! And so this fine grandmother and uncle will have their fill of the unhappy family’s blood.’

Two days were spent on the sham investigation of Plancina. Tiberius encouraged Piso’s sons to defend their mother. But accusers and witnesses competed in their attacks, and no one answered. People felt sorry for her rather than hostile. The consul Marcus Aurelius Cotta Maximus Messallinus was asked to speak first (for when the emperor presided, it was his custom to include officials among those called upon for their views). The consul’s proposal was that Piso’s name could be deleted from the calendar; that half his property should be confiscated and the other half allowed to his son Cnaeus, who should change his first name; that Marcus Piso should be deprived of his rank and sent away for ten years, with a subsidy of five million sesterces; and that owing to the Augusta’s pleas Plancina should be pardoned.

The emperor reduced the proposed penalties in various respects. He would not have Piso’s name removed from the calendar, when it still contained the names of Antony, who had made war on his country, and his son Iullus Antonius, who had outraged Augustus’ family. Tiberius excused Marcus from degradation and allowed him his father’s property. For, as I have often mentioned, he was no miser, and now his shame at Plancina’s acquittal increased his leniency. Similarly, he rejected proposals by Marcus Valerius Messalla Messallinus (I) and Aulus Caecina Severus for a golden statue in the temple of Mars the Avenger, and an Altar of Vengeance, on the grounds that such monuments were appropriate for foreign victories but that domestic disasters were occasions for silent mourning.

The former of these proposals had added that Tiberius, the Augusta, Antonia (II), Agrippina, and Drusus should be thanked for avenging Germanicus. Claudius was left out; and it was only when Lucius Nonius Asprenas publicly asked whether the omission was deliberate that his name was included. The more I think about history, ancient or modern, the more ironical all human affairs seem. In public opinion, expectation, and esteem no one appeared a less likely candidate for the throne than the man for whom destiny was secretly reserving it.

Some days later, Tiberius recommended the senate to admit Publius Vitellius, Quintus Veranius, and Quintus Servaeus to the Pontifical Order. He also promised to back Lucius Fulcinius Trio for office, but warned him not to ruin his eloquence by excessive forcefulness. So the avenging of Germanicus ended. Contradictory rumours have raged around it among contemporaries and later generations alike. Important events are obscure. Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of error are magnified by time.

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