Chapter 7

The Fall of the House of Germanicus

Sons and Daughters

The years immediately following Germanicus’ death were critical for his family. In 20 CE, Nero Iulius Caesar (plate 11) marked his official declaration of manhood on his fifteenth birthday.¹ Tiberius proposed that he be fast-tracked through the cursus honorum, with an exemption from the requirement for service on the board of junior magistrates (vigintiviri), citing the exceptions that Augustus had made for him and his brother Drusus, and suggesting that he start as quaestor, five years before the stipulated time. The sacred position of pontiff was also awarded to him at that time. These were conspicuous honours, indeed, to be heaped onto such young shoulders. On the first day in his elevated positions, as he entered the Forum in his official capacity, a cash donative was distributed to the plebs, who were overjoyed to witness the eldest son of Germanicus reach manhood and begin his public career so auspiciously. To bind the families closer, Nero was married to Drusus the Younger’s daughter, Iulia.

Following in his brother Nero’s footsteps, in 22 CE, Drusus Iulius Caesar completed his ceremony of manhood and was inscribed in the official rolls as a citizen, and donned his toga virilis. All the honours previously accorded by consent of the Senate to his elder brother were now granted to him.² The mood between leading members of the family was amiable and fraternal. During the discussion in the Senate House, Tiberius praised his own son Drusus the Younger for showing the same kindly manner he himself displayed towards the young sons of Germanicus. Drusus would grow up to be a very different man from his elder brother, Nero. He was impetuous, had a wild temper, and harboured a lust for power, which led to frequent fights between the siblings. It was partly explained by jealousy, borne of his belief that his mother really preferred Nero to himself.³

The youngest of the boys, Caius ‘Caligula’ – who disliked the nickname, but liked his praenomen even less – was still at school. He lived with his mother and was the darling of the family; but, already, there were disturbing rumours of his odd behaviour. One of these was that he habitually committed incest with his under-age sisters, while still himself a minor. On one occasion, when staying at his grandmother’s house, Antonia found him lying naked in bed with Iulia Drusilla. Despite the efforts of Agrippina and Antonia, the absence of a father-figure left the impressionable boy vulnerable to a life of indiscipline and self-indulgent behaviour.

Germanicus’ daughters enjoyed rather mixed fortunes. Agrippina the Younger inherited her mother’s beauty along with her strong personality, but earned a reputation for ruthlessness, ambitiousness and domineering behaviour. Into her young teens, she lived with her mother. Tacitus reports that he found a copy of Agrippina’s personal memoirs, which were not widely circulated, but whose contents revealed all the secret goings-on in lurid detail, as the fortunes of her family changed. In 28 CE, on her thirteenth birthday, Agrippina was betrothed to her paternal second cousin, Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus, the son of the former governor of Germania. The Domitii were an old and respected Roman patrician family. Through his mother, Antonia the Elder (sister of Germanicus’ mother), Domitius was a great-nephew of Augustus, first cousin to Claudius, and thus second cousin to Agrippina and Caligula. He was a man of considerable means, but had a reputation for being extravagant, haughty and excessively cruel. The couple divided their time between the up-market resort town of Antium and Rome.

Her sister Iulia Drusilla was brought up under the supervision of her mother. Her reputation was tarnished, however, by the rumours of improper relations with her brother Caius. In 33, at the age of seventeen, she was married to L. Cassius Longinus, a respected friend of Tiberius, who had served as consul three years earlier.

Iulia Livilla shared her older sisters’ company at home as a child. She was betrothed to P. Quinctilius Varus, son of the ill-fated governor of Germania province. However, he was prosecuted for treason in 27 and the marriage did not proceed. Five years later, she married M. Vinicius, a mild-mannered but talented orator from a small town outside Rome, who rose to be consul in 30 and served with L. Cassius Longinus.

Agrippina the Elder devoted herself to raising her children, just as Germanicus would have wanted. She jealously championed their cause, both in private and in public. The mass of the Roman population still remembered her affectionately as the grand-daughter of Augustus, the devoted wife of Germanicus, and the glory of her country.¹ To the reigning princeps, however, she came to be perceived as an irritation. A catalytic event, which permanently damaged her reputation in Tiberius’ eyes, was the obdurate stance she took in supporting her cousin Claudia Pulchra in a case against her husband, Domitius Afer.¹¹ He had accused his wife of infidelity with another man, and for plotting against Tiberius using poison and sorcery. Agrippina was impetuous by nature, and, while he lived, her husband provided a moderating influence over her. On his deathbed, Germanicus had even warned her to hold her tongue when moved to anger, and for years, she had done precisely that. On the occasion of the trial of her friend, however, and without a thought to the consequences, she burst upon a sacred ritual being conducted by Tiberius as he was offering sacrifice to the Divine Augustus. She accused him of siding with the husband, merely because Pulchra and Agrippina were friends. Tiberius rebuked her sternly with a line chosen from Greek poetry, reminding her that ‘she was not wronged because she was not a queen’.¹² Her friend and her paramour were still found guilty. Tacitus pinpoints this as the pivotal event causing the deterioration in their relationship. Her emotional state did not help. As the years passed, she had gradually come to terms with the loss of Germanicus, but she could no longer bear the loneliness widowhood imposed on her.¹³ Unfortunately for her, Tiberius did not respond well to irrational demands. When she pleaded in a hysterical state – Tacitus states that she was with suffering some kind of sickness at the time – with Tiberius to find her a husband, he avoided the request by leaving the room without giving her an answer. Some said he feared that, should she marry again, the pair could become political rivals in opposition to him.

Indeed, there was already talk of an emerging opposition to Tiberius, calling itself the partium Agrippinae, ‘the party of Agrippina’.¹ Sensitive to the rumours, Tiberius became increasingly wary of his daughter-in-law. In this frame of mind, her seemingly innocent remarks could be misconstrued. In 24 CE, during a prayer ceremony, the pontiffs offered prayers for Tiberius’ health, but added the names of Germanicus’ sons Nero and Drusus.¹ Their motives, asserts Tacitus, were sycophantic rather than inspired by love, but, learning after the event about the addition of his grandsons’ names, Tiberius summoned the pontiffs and demanded to know if Agrippina had put them up to it. They flatly denied the accusation, but the princeps nevertheless rebuked them, even the ones who were related to him or were prominent individuals.

While he lived, Germanicus provided a counterbalance to the princeps, through his respect and awe of him.¹ ‘Tiberius changed so much after the death of Germanicus’, Dio writes, ‘that, whereas previously he had been highly praised, he now caused even greater amazement’.¹ In the early years of his principate, he busied himself with the work of state, taking little time off.¹ He ruled diligently and fairly, and did not exceed his powers, using the courts to settle disputes with private citizens like everyone else.¹ In time, however, he came to rely more and more on the willing assistance of his Praetorian Cohort commander. His extraordinary rise to prominence would see the final demise of Germanicus’ surviving sons – all except one.

The son of Seius Strabo, prefect of Egypt in the early teens CE, L. Aelius Seianus was born in the small Etruscan town of Vulsinii into an equestrian family.² He rose through the ranks to become praefectus of the Praetorian Cohorts. He ingratiated himself to C. Caesar and quickly gained the trust and confidence of Tiberius. He was a tough and ruthless soldier, but one able to feign humility when the situation called for it. Perhaps it was these qualities which appealed to the princeps, himself a soldier, who felt able to speak openly and freely with Seianus in a way he could not with others. Driving Seianus may have been a lust for power, though his true motive is not known and he carefully hid it behind a mischievous and hypocritical mind. He gradually won the confidence of prominent senators through the high praise of Tiberius, who referred to him as ‘the partner of his toils’ (socium laborum).²¹ Soon, statues were being erected to the man in the fora, the theatres, and even the headquarters buildings of the legionary bases around the empire. One of his most consequential decisions was to bring all the Cohortes Praetoriae, up to that time scattered across Italy, into a single, purpose-built base camp located in Rome.²² He exploited the proximity of the Praetorians to his advantage. A natural networker, he took great pains to get to know key officers and men, and earned their trust and loyalty.

Blocking his rise to ultimate power, however, were Tiberius’ sons and grandsons.²³ First and foremost of these was Drusus the Younger. Tiberius’ own son was the one man who would stand up to his upstart rival from Tuscany.² In a casual dispute, the irascible and hot-tempered Drusus retorted by punching Seianus in the face. Never one to forgive or forget a slight, to avenge himself, Seianus ingratiated himself with Drusus’ wife Livilla and, not long after, was sharing her bed while her husband was away. He had no particular love for the woman, but anyway convinced her of his intention to marry her, seducing her into his scheme to share power with him – and involving her in a plot to kill Drusus. To show he meant what he said, he divorced Apicata, his wife and the mother of his three children. The second obstacle to power was Seianus’ class. He was a member of the ordo equester and not a patrician, which meant he did not have the social and political status to succeed the princeps. Marriage to Livilla was one way he could raise himself up and join the patriciate.

With the consent of the Senate, in 22 CE, Drusus the Younger was granted the tribunician power.² Germanicus had never received it, perhaps on account of his age. At 35, Drusus was about the same age as Tiberius when Augustus had granted him this importantpower.² Drusus was now the second most powerful man in Rome, but he was not being marked out as heir apparent. Indeed, his role seems to have been one of guardian to the sons of Germanicus, who were the true heirs of Tiberius, in keeping with Augustus’ wish to see their father rule.² Again, Tiberius was following precedent, when Augustus had appointed him as guardian of Caius and Lucius twenty-five years earlier. Yet, even as Seianus pretended to be an upright official of state and a loyal servant of the princeps, his mind turned to how he could eliminate this obstacle to his ambitions.² Tacitus suggests that he chose a slow-acting poison, the effects of which could be interpreted as death by natural causes.² To administer the poison, a eunuch by the name of Lygdus waschosen.³ The assassin carried out the plan exactly according to instructions. The toxins gradually took hold of Drusus and he succumbed to a long drawn-out sickness. The doctor apparently failed to diagnose poisoning. Drusus finally died on 14 September 23 CE. Tiberius was distraught by the loss of his son, but, when faced by grieving consuls at a meeting of the Senate, he reminded them of the decorum required of their office, and recovered his composure. The same civil and military honours earlier granted to Germanicus were now accorded Drusus the Younger, augmented by several new ones.³¹ The general population, by whom Drusus had never been truly loved, observed the formalities of grieving, but did no more.³² If there was an investigation into the cause of his death, it was either inconclusive or deliberately suppressed by Seianus. The murderers were not pursued. Tiberius believed the cause of death was disease due to his bad lifestyle.³³ For the moment, Seianus had got away with murder.

Yet, if he thought Drusus’ removal would advance his cause, Seianus was to be disappointed. Two years after her husband’s death, Livilla, now enthralled by her gutsy paramour, insisted that Seianus marry her and, obligingly, he petitioned Tiberius for permission to do so.³ The princeps asked for time to consider the request, and then, to Seianus’ great disappointment, declined it.³ At issue was his social class, which, as a man of the equestrian order, was lower than Livilla’s. It must then have been clear to the pretender to the throne – if, indeed, that is what he aspired to be – that, short of assassinating Tiberius, he would never attain supreme power. Unthwarted, however, Seianus connived to increase his power and influence by other means. His chosen weapon was access. Much of Rome’s political business was done during the early morning salutatio, at which friends and petitioners greeted their patron and asked for help.³ Every day, crowds gathered outside the princeps’ house for the call Caesarem iam salutari! – ‘Caesar is receiving callers!’ – and lists of visitors were published. To be denied an audience was considered ominous. Who compiled the list had considerable influence. Seianus now assumed that role, isolating Tiberius from visitors and lobbyists, and permitting him to meet only those who did not threaten his interests. Growing more confident in his position, Seianus now encouraged Tiberius to move from Rome to a less public place.³ Tiberius, now of a mind to retire, agreed. At first he relocated to Campania, but crowds of people from the local towns gathered every day, hoping to catch a glance of their emperor.³ Tiberius issued an edict, warning the people not to disturb him, and posted soldiers around and about to enforce it. It was to no avail and, finally, he retreated across the 3-mile wide strait off the coast of Surrentum and retired to the island of Capreae (Capri). There he built an immense palace consisting of twelve houses upon a crag overlooking the Bay of Naples.³ Seianus now had what he wanted. Tiberius’ absence from Rome meant that he could exclusively control who had access to the emperor and what he could know about affairs in the city. All written correspondence, too, would have to pass through his hands.

Without their guardian, Tiberius made new arrangements for the care of the two eldest sons of Germanicus. Before he left Rome, when speaking of Drusus the Younger’s death to the Senate, Tiberius is reported as having said:

Senators, when these boys lost their father, I committed them to their uncle, and begged him, though he had children of his own, to cherish and rear them as his own offspring, and train them for himself and for posterity. Drusus is now lost to us, and I turn my prayers to you, and before heaven and your country I adjure you to receive into your care and guidance the great-grandsons of Augustus, descendants of a most noble ancestry. So fulfill your duty and mine. To you, Nero and Drusus, these senators are as fathers. Such is your birth that your prosperity and adversity must alike affect the State.⁴⁰

The boys became more prominent public figures. Nero Iulius Caesar Germanicus was seen as a trusted and empathetic figure. On the occasion of successful impeachment, for abusing their positions, of the procurator of Asia, Lucilius Capito, and his predecessor C. Silanus, the provincials responded gratefully by erecting a temple to Tiberius, the Augusta and the Senate. On the Asian cities’ behalf, Nero spoke in praise of the senators’ support. The senators’ response was affectionate, motivated in part by their fond memory of Germanicus, and many saw in the young man’s face and heard in his voice his illustrious father’s.¹ ‘The youth, too, had a modesty and a grace of person worthy of a prince’, writes Tacitus, adding ominously, ‘the more charming because of his peril from the notorious enmity of Seianus’.²

Victims of Seianus

Increasingly, a personal connection with Germanicus or Agrippina became a liability. Seianus launched attacks on C. Silius and T. Sabinus.³ Silius had been Germanicus’ commander and went on to see over seven years’ active service on campaign in Germania, winning a triumph for his victories. He boasted that his legions were more loyal than the other commanders’, whose men seemed inclined to mutiny – a claim hardly designed to instill confidence in an already suspicious-minded Tiberius. Silius’ wife, Sosia Galla, was a close friend of Agrippina. Silius was prosecuted on trumped-up charges of complicity in a rebellion and of extortion, and a treason case was brought before the Senate.⁴⁴ Silius denied his accusers their entertainment, when he took his own life. Sosia was banished and part of her property confiscated.⁴⁵

In 28 CE, Sabinus was dragged off to jail, merely because of his friendship with Germanicus. Even as Seianus’ agents made life uncomfortable for Agrippina and her children, Sabinus remained a loyal friend – one of the few left, by that time – by frequently visiting them at their home and accompanying them in public.⁴⁶ He was tricked by one of the Praetorian Cohort commander’s agents, a man named Latinius Latiaris, into believing that he was a trusted companion and confidant, though, all the while, his criticisms of Seianus and Tiberius were meticulously recorded and relayed back. Finally, Latiaris arranged for certain senators to hide in the attic of what Sabinus had been lulled into believing was a safe place where he could speak his mind freely.⁴⁷ To his horror, his words came back to haunt him when Tiberius addressed the people in his New Year’s letter and accused Sabinus of plotting against him.⁴⁸ The man was hauled off for execution. The princeps wrote to thank the people for having brought an enemy of the Roman state to justice, adding that he lived in constant fear of his life from the treachery of foes – a coded reference to Agrippina and Nero. Agrippina’s nephew Asinius Gallus then submitted a motion in the Senate that Tiberius should reveal what he knew, but Seianus intervened to pacify him and, for the moment, nothing was disclosed.⁴⁹ By then, even trouble caused by barbarians on Rome’s frontiers did not worry the Senate as much as the fear they had of Seianus.⁵⁰ Germanicus’ old general, Seius Tubero, was also dragged before the courts despite his poor health, but was acquitted.¹

Seianus’ machinations against Agrippina increased in intensity and cruelty. Through his agents who were in Agrippina’s confidence, he convinced her that she would be murdered by poison, and that, when dining with Tiberius, she should avoid eating at histable.² Unable to disguise her abject fear at a family dinner, one evening, she ate nothing. Tiberius noticed her demeanour and offered her fruit with his own hand. Now even more suspicious, she passed the fruit directly to one of her slaves. Bemused but annoyed by the slight, Tiberius turned to his mother reclining next to him and whispered that no one should be surprised if he meted out harsh punishment to someone who implied that he was a poisoner. A rumour also circulated at the time that there was a plan to kill Agrippina, and that Tiberius would act in secret to carry out the deed, which only heightened her anxiety.

Her sons, too, found themselves the focus of attention from Seianus’ wicked intentions. Nero, in particular, as next in succession to Tiberius, was the subject of false accusations. His youth and natural modesty, but lack of experience of the real world, made him susceptible to accepting guidance from men acting with ulterior motives.³ They urged him to speak up and display his self-confidence. Though not motivated by ambition, Nero would occasionally make ill-considered comments, which Seianus’ spies dutifully reported, then took out of context and exaggerated, to implicate the young man in conspiracies.⁵⁴ They tried to embarrass and belittle him in public. One agent of Seianus would avoid meeting him; another, having exchanged greetings, would suddenly turn away; others would open a conversation, then suddenly break it off; while others would laugh at him from a distance. It mattered not whether Nero spoke or remained silent: all his reactions were noted and deemed suspicious, and implicated him in one imaginary crime or another. His wife revealed to her mother Livilla how he lay awake at night and talked, and she promptly passed along the information to Seianus.

His brother Drusus had since become ensnared in Seianus’ web of intrigue.⁵⁵ Tiberius’s first minister cynically engineered a rift between mother and brother, promising Drusus the throne if he would assist him in bringing down Nero. Drusus seemed amenable to the offer; but he was naïve if he thought that Seianus was acting out of any love for him. Even his wife was complicit in his downfall. Drusus had married Aemilia Lepida, the great-granddaughter of L. Sulla and Cn. Pompeius, and daughter of M. Aemilius Lepidus, his second cousin.⁵⁶ Lepidus was an independent-minded senator who had defended Calpurnius Piso at his trial, and rejected the emperor’s offer of the governorship of Africa in 21 CE. The marriage was fraught from the outset and she pursued her husband with endless accusations.⁵⁷ In 36, she was accused of having committed adultery with a slave, and, rather than subject herself to the humiliation of a public trial, she took her own life. Perhaps as a result of her accusations, Drusus was declared a public enemy.⁵⁸

Emboldened by his powerful place in society, and with the princeps safely away in his island palace, growing ever more suspicious of his daughter-in-law and her eldest son, Seianus now openly taunted Agrippina and Nero.⁵⁹ Wherever they went, Seianus’ soldiers followed them. Every word they spoke was recorded. Every person they met was reported. Agents paid by Seianus urged them to flee Rome and seek sanctuary with the army of Germania. When they entered the crowded Forum, they were mockingly advised to embrace the statue of the Divine Augustus and appeal to the people and Senate for protection. Mother and son bravely tried to shrug off these malicious taunts, but, having ignored them, they were then accused of considering acting upon them. Rome hadbecome unbearable. For a while in 27 CE, she retreated to her luxury villa in the seaside town of Herculaneum (Ercolaneo) in Campania, but even there she was kept under guard during her stay.⁶⁰ Adding to the pressure on Agrippina, she was cruelly separated from her son. In 29, Nero was declared a public enemy, taken into custody, and imprisoned on the island of Pontia (Ponza).¹There, he was constantly threatened with torture, but, four years after his arrest and before being subjected to the final horrors of the noose and hooks, he committed suicide.²

In 28 CE, Tiberius agreed that Germanicus’ daughter Agrippina could marry.³ The man chosen was Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus, son of the man who had taken Rome’s army beyond the Elbe River. The choice was significant and quite deliberate. By marrying into the old Domitii family, Tiberius could claim a connection as great-nephew to Augustus through Domitius’ grandmother Octavia. Meanwhile, relations between her mother and Livia had never been easy. Tacitus reports

Feminine animosities increased the tension as Livia had a stepmother’s irritable dislike of Agrippina, whose own temper was not without a hint of fire, though purity of mind and wifely devotion kept her rebellious spirit on the side of righteousness.⁶⁴

However, while she was alive, Agrippina came to no physical harm. That was about to change. The following year, Livia died a natural death on Capri, aged 87.⁶⁵ At her simple funeral, Germanicus’ youngest son Caius – now 17 years old and still not yet having officially reached manhood – delivered the panegyric from the Rostra in the Forum Romanum, his first public speech in the city.⁶⁶ Tiberius made excuses and did not attend in person and overruled many of the posthumous honours the Senate voted her.⁶⁷ While Tiberius’ mother lived, Seianus had felt constrained to keep his real intentions hidden.⁶⁸ Now that she was dead, the full force of his wickedness was unleashed against the House of Germanicus.⁶⁹ A letter was delivered to the Senate – believed to have been held back while Livia was alive – containing words pointedly directed against Agrippina and Nero. It accused them not of the grave crime of treason against the Roman State, but absurdly charged Agrippina of using insolent language and having a defiant spirit, and Nero of having unnatural passions and behaving in a profligate manner. The conscript fathers, now in awestruck terror of Tiberius’ favourite, proceeded to debate the matter in the House. One senator, Iunius Rusticus, moved that trivial matters often led to greater crimes and that the fall of the House of Germanicus ‘might one day move the old man’s remorse’.⁷⁰ Word of the proceedings spread outside into the Forum, and ordinary people gathered hot-temperedly outside the curia carrying images of Germanicus’ wife and eldest son. They shouted their blessings upon the emperor, mingled with cries that the letter was a forgery and that it was not Tiberius’ wish to see his daughter-in-law and her son implicated in a plot to bring him down. Tensions rose. Inside the building, the Senate continued to debate the matter, while outside, the people carried on their protest. The two sides finally did not come to blows. Not long after, copies of speeches – probably works of fiction – making various allegations against Seianus were circulated.¹ Word of them reached Tiberius. Sensing trouble, he published an edict, in which he repeated his censure of Agrippina and Nero, but he also reprimanded the Roman people, stating that his dignity had been violated, and insisted that he alone should be permitted to rule on thematter.² The Senate responded immediately with a statement that they were prepared to exact vengeance, but they were held back in acting upon it by the princeps’ strong hand. A stalemate had been reached. Nothing more ensued.

For Germanicus’ wife and children, these were extremely dangerous times. With his brother Nero out of the way, Seianus now sought to bring down Drusus, until recently a compliant puppet in his mischievous schemes. Seianus filed charges that the young man had had illicit relations with the wives of all the leading men of Rome with promises to marry them, and, over the ensuing pillow talk, had learned what their husbands thought and said, with an intention to blackmail them.³ Tiberius ordered Drusus to Rome, but there was a short-lived rumour – apparently spread, among others, by Tiberius’ freedmen – that Drusus Caesar had fled to the Cycladic Islands and had then been seen on the Greek mainland.⁷⁴ He was intercepted, but was reported as having escaped custody and was intent on travelling to Egypt or Syria to lead the army of his father. Rallying to his cause were young men who believed in a better future and, together, they momentarily enjoyed wide popular support. But Seianus’ agents quickly found out about of his scheme. A cat-and-mouse chase ensued, as he crossed the Aegean Islands, landed at Piraeus, sailed on to Corinth, and traversed the narrow Isthmus to arrive at Nikopolis, where he was finally caught and questioned by men sent by the governor of Achaea, Poppaeus Sabinus. The man they interviewed professed to be the son of M. Silanus, and, without more proof to confirm he was not who he claimed to be, he was released. Sabinus sent a report on to Tiberius.⁷⁵ Wherever Drusus actually was the whole time, it was to be his last dalliance with freedom. He was declared a public enemy, arrested, dragged back to Rome, and locked up in a room in the princeps’ house on the Palatinus.⁷⁶

In 30 CE, Tiberius finally consented for Seianus to marry Livilla – sister of Germanicus – and, in so doing, to become his son-in-law, as well as making him a patrician in the process.⁷⁷ Since Drusus the Younger’s death, Seianus had become Tiberius’ most trusted confidant and partner in running the affairs of state.⁷⁸ The men of the Praetorian Cohorts still loved him.⁷⁹ The Senate, too, had fallen under his spell. During the course of the following year, however, Seianus’ fortunes changed dramatically. The surviving accounts are somewhat confused about the reason why. In Tiberius’ own sketchy autobiography, which Suetonius had access to seven decades later, he offers another reason when he writes, ‘I have punished Seianus, because I have found him bent upon the destruction of the children of my son Germanicus’ – a testament to the popular affection which his adopted son and family still had, and its usefulness as a cover for extreme action.⁸⁰ It was a blatantly revisionist view of history. The imperial biographer did not believe the claim, for, as he pointed out, Tiberius had, himself, already put one of Germanicus’ boys to death.¹ Tacitus is silent on the matter. Valerius Maximus, the contemporary apologist for Tiberius, cites a plot to commit parricide and to overthrow theprinceps.² Inscriptions surviving from the time indicate that the officially-sanctioned version of events was that Seianus was planning to assassinate Tiberius.³Juvenal also repeated the claim, in one of his Satires.⁸⁴ In modern times, however, some doubt has been cast on this explanation. Seianus had much to lose by removing Tiberius. His power base was relatively weak, as he had neither status in law, nor the support of the aristocracy, the people, or the legions – he no longer even had direct control of the Praetorian Cohorts, as they were now under the command of Naevius Sertorius Macro.⁸⁵ Seianus demonstrably had soft power, standing at the centre of a network of informers motivated by favours and fears: everyone seeking advancement illuminated his world with reports of everything the emperor and their friends did and said, while Seianus kept the princeps on his island home completely in the dark.⁸⁶ One possibility is that Seianus was actually plotting against Germanicus’ youngest son, Caligula, as part of the broader plan to remove Agrippina’s children. His scheme may actually have worked, had it not been for the alertness of a senior member of the imperial family. Germanicus’ mother, Antonia, seems to have detected a conspiracy of some kind, and wrote a letter to Tiberius aboutit.⁸⁷ He still held the wife of his deceased brother in the highest esteem. Perhaps, as a direct response to receiving the letter, Tiberius requested the 19-year-old Caligula join him in Capreae from the start of September 30 CE.⁸⁸ Tiberius was evidently now deeply suspicious of his partner and of his motives. He may have come to realize, just before it was too late, that Seianus was not so much devoted to him as to promoting his own agenda. Cassius Dio suggests that Tiberius now actively set out to ensnare his prime minister, using the enticement of the consulship to trick him into thinking that he was ‘Sharer of my Cares’, and the use of the affectionate form of address in letters and pronouncements as ‘my Seianus’.⁸⁹ On 1 January 31 CE, Seianus was sworn in as consul jointly with Tiberius Caesar, his fifth time in this role.⁹⁰ Seianus had now risen to the highest public office: his birthday was publicly celebrated, his gilded statues received offerings, and people referred to him as ‘Tiberius’ colleague’.¹ All he lacked to make him the princeps’equal was the tribunician power, and, perhaps to lull him into a false sense of security, Tiberius even encouraged a rumour that this honour was being planned for him.² His fall would be all the more spectacular for it.

Caligula’s career had since begun in earnest. Tiberius appointed him to the priesthood and indicated that the young man would become his successor.³ As fast as doors opened for Germanicus’ youngest surviving son, Seianus’ options were suddenly closing. There were already clues that Tiberius was withdrawing his favour from his first minister. As often as his dispatches praised Seianus, he wrote others criticizing him.⁹⁴ Certain of his friends were honoured, while others were disgraced. Seianus grew increasingly concerned at these confusing signals. Dio suggests that he might have considered fomenting rebellion among the army, since it was likely that the soldiers would obey him, but he soon realized how dangerous that strategy was, when he saw how genuinely pleased the Roman people were at the words of praise directed at Caligula, ‘out of reverence for the memory of Germanicus, his father’.⁹⁵ Men who had once supported Seianus now began deserting him and clustered around the new rising star of Tiberius’ grandson.

When Seianus asked the princeps for permission to visit him in Capreae, Tiberius declined, ordering him to stay in Rome and advising that he would be travelling to the city in person soon.⁹⁶ It was a ploy to keep him in Rome while he planned his demise. The story of Seianus’ downfall is preserved by Dio and reads like a climax to a modern thriller. Arriving unannounced on a dark mid-October night in Rome, the newly appointed praefectus praetorio, Sertorius Macro, explained the princeps’ plan to Memmius Regulus (the other one of the two consuls, still loyal to Tiberius) and Graecinius Laco (commander of the night watch).⁹⁷ At dawn next morning, Macro went to the Palatinus, where he found Seianus and alerted him to expect the award of tribunician power and to attend that day’s session of the Senate to receive it; the importance of the day was emphasized by reports that a shooting star had been seen.⁹⁸ The conscript fathers were meeting at the Temple of Apollo on the Hill and Seianus raced inside.⁹⁹ The trap was set. Leaving the night watch guarding the temple under the command of Laco, Macro then went to the Praetorian Camp, where he revealed his new authority, promised bonuses for their loyalty, and stayed to ensure that they stayed out of trouble as the events of the day unfolded.¹⁰⁰In the temple, Tiberius’ seal was broken and the letter was read out.¹¹ Seianus’ face beamed as he imagined his great future. His supporters among the conscript fathers cheered him in anticipation of the honour about to be granted him. The letter began innocuously enough, but, as the reading proceeded, there was censure of his conduct, two senators were singled out for criticism, and finally, instructions were issued that Seianus must be kept under guard. Then, formal charges were read out. The trap was sprung. Realizing the danger they now faced by being seen with him, his supporters slipped out of the temple. The praetors and tribunes now surrounded Seianus to prevent him from sneaking away. Regulus then requested Seianus to step forward.¹² At first, he did not appear to understand. ‘Seianus, come here!’ he demanded, raising his voice. It was only after the third time that Tiberius’ former favourite replied, ‘me? you are calling me?’ Laco now stood by his side. As the senators booed him, he was escorted out of the building and down into the Mamertine Prison in the Forum Romanum.¹³ As word spread of his downfall, the common people pelted him and jeered him, venting their frustrations at the man whose agents had abused them over years of terror. At a secret meeting of the Senate in the Temple of Concord, just feet away from the jail, he was condemned to death. On 18 October 31 CE, Seianus suffered a traitor’s death: strangulation with a cord and the disgrace of having his body tossed down the Gemonian Steps.¹⁰⁴ His children were also executed – his young daughter having been raped first, so that she would not die a virgin – before being thrown down the Steps.¹⁰⁵ His wife Apicata was spared, but learning about her childrens’ fates, she composed a letter with a statement concerning the truth about the death of Drusus the Younger directed at Livilla, sent it to Tiberius, then took her own life.¹⁰⁶ The revelation of Seianus’ and Livilla’s culpability for Drusus’ murder by poison exasperated and tormented him until the last days of his life.¹⁰⁷

Seianus having been eliminated, Agrippina and her surviving sons hoped for better times. Rumours circulated that there might even be a reconciliation between daughter-in-law, grandson and Tiberius – but the bitter old man’s hatred of them still raged.¹⁰⁸Drusus, still in confinement in 33 CE, suffered terribly. It was reported that, after eight days of continuously being fed the most meagre prison-grade rations, he resorted to chewing on the stuffing of his mattress.¹⁰⁹ He was driven nearly mad by regular beatings at the hand of the sadistic centurion, Attius, assigned to ensure that he did not escape. Before the year was over, he was dead. It was a tragic end to the career of a man once seen as Germanicus reborn. According to accounts available to Tacitus, one version told of how, in the event of Seianus attempting a coup d’état, Macro was to immediately release Drusus from house arrest and put him at the head of the Roman people, to lead a popular counter-revolution.¹¹ The coup did not take place, however, and the young man was never called upon to save the state. Instead, he died miserably and ignominiously through starvation, alone in a room on the Palatinus. Even death would not free him. Tiberius was intent on defaming his grandson’s memory. The Senate was subjected to a daily reading of the tediously mundane details of Drusus’ harassed life, even of his most intimate and rambling mutterings, carefully extracted from household slaves and reported by the men who guarded his prison room, looking for evidence of treasonous thoughts.¹¹¹The Senate, which had once been enamoured of the young man, now feigned horror at what it heard about his treasonous comments from the steady stream of unedited gossip, but was equally awestruck by Tiberius’ willingness to expose his own kin in this wretched way. The revelation that a son of Germanicus had met such a miserable end, nevertheless, led to an outpouring of popular grief among the common folk.

Agrippina was now, herself, arrested on a charge of attempting to flee and taking refuge, and she was banished to Pandataria (Ventotene) – the same bleak, rocky island to which the elder Iulia had been banished by her father, Augustus.¹¹² She reproached Tiberius for it, but his response was to order the centurion guarding her to beat her – so brutally, in fact, Suetonius records that she lost one eye.¹¹³ Unbowed and unbroken, the proud mother of Germanicus’ children vowed to starve herself to death, but the duty guard had orders to force-feed her: she must be made to live and suffer. In the end, her wish was fulfilled and she died of starvation on 18 October 33.¹¹ When news of the loss of the bold-spirited grand-daughter of Augustus and loyal wife of Germanicus reached Rome, the populace plunged once again into mourning. Away on his island home, Tiberius showed neither sympathy nor remorse. For him, the irritating thorn in his side had been plucked out. Perhaps to salve his conscience, or to deflect criticism levelled at him, he alleged that she had had sexual relations with Asinius Gallus, a man he deeply despised because he had married his former wife, Vipsania Agrippina, the only woman he ever truly loved.¹¹ The truth of it was never proved, but the allegation was a calculated slur on her good name. Tiberius also observed that the day she died, by an uncanny coincidence, was the second anniversary of the execution of Seianus, and he noted that he had shown her clemency by not insisting that she suffer the same public humiliation as his former firstminister.¹¹ The Senate passed a vote of thanks in favour of the princeps and decreed that this ill-omened day of double deaths should be marked in perpetuity, and golden offerings were to be given to Iupiter Capitolinus to propitiate him. Shortly after, Plancina (the wife of Piso implicated in Germanicus’ murder and who had been subject of various criminal charges, herself) took her own life.¹¹

After Agrippina’s death, Caligula and his sisters were taken into the care of their grandmother, Antonia. That year, Tiberius finally decided upon the men Agrippina’s daughters could take as husbands.¹¹ His chosen fiancées for them were conservative but respectable men. Drusilla was now married to L. Cassius Longinus, a man from an old but honourable plebeian clan. Iulia was given the hand of M. Vinicius, a respectable man from an up-and-coming family from the provinces. In a letter to the Senate, Tiberius actually complimented the young men. Caligula married Iunia Claudia, daughter of M. Silanus, a man known for having learned how to disguise a fierce temper.¹¹ Caligula was now the last remaining male heir of the House of Germanicus. The lonely princeps had taken a liking to the young man, even over his other grandson Tiberius (Gemellus). By now, Tiberius had lost interest in affairs of state.¹² He appointed Caligula quaestor in 33 and promised to advance him through the cursus honorum five years earlier than the stipulated age, as had been done for his father and brothers.¹²¹ The following year, he announced that Caligula and Gemellus would be his joint heirs, with equal shares of his estate.¹²² He never returned to Rome, preferring the comforts of his luxurious island home or his private estates on the mainland in Campania.¹²³ There were scandalous rumours that the emperor indulged in dark perversions, which involved cavorting with sexual athletes (spintriae) and young boys, humiliating guests at drinking parties, and gloating over summary executions.¹² While staying at the Villa of Lucullus, he was taken ill.¹² Tiberius died on 16 March 37, aged 78. He had reigned for twenty-three years. He may have died a quite natural death, but soon there were rumours that Caligula was somehow involved – by administering a slow wasting poison, or denying him food during his convalescence, or suffocating him with a pillow.¹² For many, it mattered not: they were just glad that the long tyranny of Tiberius was finally over.¹²

The New Germanicus

The Senate hailed Caligula as the new princeps on 18 March and, ten days later, he entered Rome to a hero’s welcome. With the arrival of the young C. Caesar, there was great optimism that a bright new era had begun. ‘On account of his connection to Germanicus’, writes Suetonius, ‘the fondness with which they remembered his father and the pity they felt for the terrible fate of his family, the people of the Roman Empire had high hopes for their new princeps‘.¹² The 24-year-old began his reign by leading the funeral of Tiberius on 3 April. It was a magnificent occasion and Caligula personally delivered the eulogy, bringing many onlookers to tears with his rhetoric – a talent inherited from his expert father.¹² Tiberius’s body was ceremonially burned and his ashes were deposited in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Presenting the will of his predecessor to the Senate, Caligula declared it null and void – thereby cutting his cousin Gemellus off from his inheritance – on the basis that Tiberius had not been of sound mind and body at the time he wroteit.¹³ Nevertheless, he respected Tiberius’ wishes with regard to the other benefactors, not only paying bonuses to the army and the night watch, but to actors and gladiators too, and gained popularity by doing so.¹³¹ A year later, Gemellus was dead.

Caligula hurried off to Pandataria and Pontia to gather up the neglected ashes of his mother and brother Nero. Almost a decade had passed since her ignominious death. According to Suetonius’ account, Caligula turned the occasion of his return into a major spectacle. He arrived at Ostia aboard a bireme, displaying a banner flag (vexillum) flying from the stern, and cruised up the Tiber to Rome. Disembarking at the quayside along the Campus Martius at midday, when the crowds were at their largest, the casket containing Agrippina’s ashes was placed on two biers, and carried ceremoniously upon the shoulders of the city’s most illustrious men and members of the equestrian order to the Mausoleum of Augustus.¹³² With his own hands, Caligula placed her casket in the nîche beside her beloved Germanicus’. On the large, plain slab – which is now on view in the Tabularium al Campidoglio, Rome – were carved in beautifully formed letters, the obituary:







He authorized sacrifices to be made to his mother’s memory each year in the Circus Maximus, paying for a carriage to bear her imago and tour the chariot racetrack at the start of sporting events.¹³

Tapping into the deep vein of good will still felt towards his father, Caligula was keen to emphasize his filial connection. He renamed September the month of Germanicus – significant, because it immediately followed the month named after Augustus (fig.10).¹³ He issued gold and silver coins (plate 35), which the more affluent members of society used to settle their accounts, showing his own profile with a laurel wreath on the obverse and his father’s unadorned head on the reverse.¹³ In the lower denomination bronze or copper aes, which shoppers and soldiers used to buy their daily snacks and draughts of wine at the thermopolia or market stalls, Caligula’s moneyers at the Temple of Iuno Moneta in Rome produced a coin (plate 37) with a profile of Germanicus gazing out to the left.¹³ He is boldly presented as a confident, vigorous and youthful man. Surrounding his exquisitely engraved portrait with its strong facial features, finely detailed hair and muscular neck, the inscription reads



Figure 10. An extremely rare inscription showing the name Germanicus in use for the month of September following an edict by Caligula. The date ‘17 days before the Kalends of Germanicus’ is 16 September.

Here is a Roman in the finest tradition with the best of family connections.

The most dramatic coin issued with the consent of the Senate by the mint in Rome for Caligula in honour of his father, however, was a large medallion-like bronze dupondius (plate 36), weighing over 15g(0.53 ounces.).¹³ Likely minted in the year of the twentieth anniversary of Germanicus’ triumph of May 17 CE, it shows him standing in a finely-decorated triumphator’s four-horse chariot on the obverse, while the reverse bears an image of Germanicus advancing to the left in the full regalia of an imperator, with his right arm outstretched (fig. 7, plate 36).¹³ His left arm supports a legionary aquila and the full figure of the military commander stands between the inscription


While it did not show the new princeps’ head or name, no one could be left in any doubt that Caligula – a man completely lacking any military credentials, but whose very name was given to him by the soldiers of the Rhine army – was descended from a true Roman hero, who restored the nation’s honour in the forests of barbaricum.

In the east, where Germanicus had been a popular imperial supervisor, cities minted their own commemorative coins. In Asia, one leading city minted a silver drachm showing the diademed head of Augustus on one side and Germanicus’ profile – complete with stubble – on the other.¹¹ The officials of Smyrna in Ionia issued a low denomination piece showing the draped bust of Agrippina facing her bare-headed husband, with their son’s profile on the obverse.¹² Across the sea on the island of Crete, the duoviri Dossennus Pulcher and Varius at Knossos issued a bronze coin showing Caligula’s head on one side and Germanicus’ on the other.¹³ Not to be outdone, the nearby town of Gortyn minted its own coin showing the laureate head of Caligula on the ‘heads’ side and his father’s on the ‘tails’.¹⁴⁴

To the surviving members of his family, Caligula was remarkably respectful. In the same year he assumed the throne, he made Germanicus’ brother Claudius a suffect consul to serve alongside himself.¹⁴⁵ He conducted himself in the most dutiful manner towards his sisters, but paid particular respects to his grandmother Antonia, in whose care he had been brought up for part of his life.¹⁴⁶ He saluted her as Augusta – the title formerly granted to Livia Drusilla – and appointed her to be priestess of Augustus. He also granted to her and his three sisters all the privileges of the Vestal Virgins.

His reign started well enough, but it did not last.¹⁴⁷ The pressure of living as a favourite in the household of his manic-depressive Uncle Tiberius, perhaps witnessing terrible things a child should never see, had apparently affected him psychologically.¹⁴⁸ Then, quite suddenly, he fell ill. People held their breath and prayed for his swift recovery. After his convalescence, he emerged a different man – headaches tormented him and he believed that he was now a god to rival Jove.

His grandmother, the Augusta Antonia, was now 73 years old, and she had been Drusus the Elder’s widow for forty-six of those. Though honoured by her grandson, she witnessed the monster he had become.¹⁴⁹ She had been widowed early, outlived her son Germanicus, and witnessed the death of her rogue daughter Livilla. Her sole surviving son, Claudius, was a disappointment to her. In September or October 37 CE, she finally passed away. Rumour had it that Caligula did not attend the funeral, preferring to watch the flames consume her body from the comfort of his tricliniumwhile he dined.¹⁵⁰

Many saw Caligula’s erratic behaviour as insanity.¹¹ There were summary arrests, confiscations, exiles and executions. Caligula never fitted the mould of his grandfather or father as a soldier, but military operations were carried out under his auspices. There was a successful march into Germania, apparently as far as the territory of the Suebi, in 39 or 40 CE, imitating what his father had done after the infamous mutinies of the Rhine army.¹² It was while in Germania Superior that he exacted revenge for the events of twenty-six years earlier:

Before he left the province, he formed a design of the most horrid cruelty to massacre the legions which had mutinied upon the death of Augustus, for seizing and detaining his father, Germanicus, their commander, and himself, then an infant, in the camp. Though he was with great difficulty dissuaded from this rash attempt, yet neither the most urgent entreaties nor representations could prevent him from persisting in the design of decimating these legions. Accordingly, he ordered them to assemble unarmed, without so much as their swords, and then surrounded them with armed horse. But finding that many of them, suspecting that violence was intended, were making off to arm in their own defence, he quitted the assembly as fast as he could, and immediately marched for Rome, bending now all his fury against the Senate, whom he publicly threatened, to divert the general attention from the clamour excited by his disgraceful conduct.¹³

That same year, there was a farcical attempt at an invasion of Britannia, in which the troops allegedly picked up sea-shells from a Gallic beach and claimed them as trophies of war against the sea god Neptunus.¹⁵⁴ In the mockery of a triumph that followed, Gauls were dressed up as Germanic warriors in a display which convinced no one.¹⁵⁵ The reign of terror was too much even for members of the Praetorian Cohorts, the wing of the army which derived many exclusive privileges from its princeps. Cassius Chaerea, a former centurion who had served under Germanicus and since been promoted as a tribune of the Praetorians, felt that he had been routinely humiliated over particular words Caligula chose as passwords for the watch, and led a plot to murder him.¹⁵⁶ On 24 January 41 CE, the assassins struck. Germanicus’ youngest son, once the darling of the soldiers, fell to the ground bleeding to death, slain by an officer of his own élite bodyguard.¹⁵⁷ When the population learned of the news, they were at first too terrified to believe it, fearing that it was a trick to expose traitors.

The assassins were thorough in extinguishing the bloodline of Caligula. They also slew his wife, Milonia Caesonia, and smashed their only child’s head against a wall, killing her instantly.¹⁵⁸

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