The Memory of Germanicus
Caligula’s death left a dangerous vacuum at the apex of Roman society. Soldiers stormed through the houses of the imperial family hunting for the murderers. What they found was the timid and terrified figure of Caligula’s uncle. Rather than slaying him, the soldiers decided that he should now be their princeps.¹ Germanicus’ brother, the lame and stammering Ti. Claudius Nero, unexpectedly found himself ruler of the Roman world.² Presented with a man they had often considered a fool to replace another they had considered insane, the Senate at first resisted.³ When the Praetorian Cohorts demonstrated their support of Claudius, the Senate finally relented.⁴ As with his nephew before him, he lacked credibility in the eyes of the Senate and the people, but in particular, the army of Rome. The reluctant princeps Claudius needed to quickly gain their confidence, to avoid meeting the same fate as his deeply flawed predecessor. His fraternal relationship to Germanicus certainly helped, and Suetonius notes that Claudius took every opportunity of honouring his brother.⁵ On a trip to Neapolis (Naples), he attended a drama contest and brought out a Greek comedy in honour of his brother – by which he probably means one of the several comedies Germanicus penned.⁶ The so-called Gemma Claudia (plate 23), a five-layer sardonyx cameo, made in around 49 CE and now in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna which may have been commissioned by a member of the imperial family, appears to show Claudius and his wife Agrippina the Younger, facing Germanicus and his wife Agrippina the Elder.⁷ He also issued coins to emphasize the connection. The mint produced large quantities of the low-value copper or bronze aes, the ancient equivalent of small change, which closely replicated the style struck by Caligula five years earlier, except in one detail.⁸ Curiously, the portrait on the obverse (plate 38) faces right: it is as though Claudius’ coin-makers felt compelled to engrave an all-new style bust. Furthermore, compared with the portrait engraved by Caligula’s moneyers, the Claudian Germanicus is a noticeably bulkier, less athletic figure – visually more like Claudius, in fact. Yet it was truly to his father, Nero Claudius Drusus – the first Germanicus – that he looked for an endorsement.⁹ In a society that championed paternal virtues, Caligula had proved the value of exploiting the connection to his father, and Claudius copied the idea. Nevertheless, there was benefit to him in setting his own story in a wider context, by promoting the entire imperial family. An altar at Ravenna features just such an example: the frieze appears to show the figures of Antonia, Drusus, Germanicus, Livia and the Divine Augustus. Drusus wears the panoply of a commander, but Germanicus is shown clad in a toga, stripped to the waist exactly like the figure of Augustus, sporting the same exquisite musculature.¹⁰ The intention was clearly to make Germanicus appear god-like to the provincial onlooker.¹¹
Claudius initially gave the name Germanicus to his son from his fateful marriage to Valeria Messalina, but, following his invasion of Britain, two years later he renamed him Britannicus.¹² Claudius surprised everyone when he married his brother’s daughter Agrippina the Younger and adopted her son by Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus, renaming him Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus.¹³ Thus, the knotty branches of Germanicus’ family tree entwined, such that his grandson by adoption was now destined to becomeprinceps jointly with his nephew Britannicus. In the meantime, Claudius tried and had executed the daughters of Drusus the Younger and Germanicus – both called Iulia – on unsupported charges, and denied them the right to a defence.¹⁴ Claudius himself died in 54 CE – possibly by poisoning – and Britannicus’ life ended tragically months later, just one day before his fourteenth birthday.¹⁵ Nero was sole ruler, Agrippina’s ambition having been a large factor in securing the throne for him. Nero privately schemed to remove her from his life, but it would be no easy task. The daughter of Germanicus was clever and popular. When his advisor Seneca the Younger proposed to approach the military to carry out the assassination, his colleague Sex. Afranius Burrus suggested that they would flinch from carrying out the order, because of their loyalty to the memory of her father (memoria Germanici).¹⁶ Agrippina the Younger eventually died – under mysterious circumstances – in 59 CE at the age of 43.¹⁷ Her life’s work had been in vain, for his twelve-year reign turned out to be an epic failure.¹⁸ Nero’s only child, Claudia Augusta, died three months after birth and when he committed suicide on 9 June 68 CE – after being declared a public enemy by decree of the Senate – the direct bloodline of Germanicusended.¹⁹
The men who immediately followed Nero – Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian – were keen to distance themselves from the dynasty of Augustus. It was the Flavian emperor Titus who finally re-evoked the glories of the Julio-Claudian past, in a series of ‘restoration’ coins, which began to appear from 79 or 80 CE. One of these great Romans was Germanicus Caesar, highlighting the fact that, even sixty years after his death, the man still had a reputation worth celebrating. The engraver of the new coin chose, as his model, the aes of Caligula’s time with the left-facing Germanicus.²⁰ He reproduced the same physical features – the confident gaze, the hair grown long at the back, and the muscular neck – and even the inscription of the original. It is only on the reverse that the name of Titus is discreetly revealed.
Enjoying the patronage of the Flavian emperors in the 70s and 80s CE, Josephus began work on his encyclopaedic Antiquities of the Jews (Antiquitates Iudaicae). In writing the history of his own people, he faithfully reported on Germanicus’ activities in the region. He was able to refer to other earlier accounts describing the Roman’s life, and cited the widely-held belief that Germanicus had been poisoned.²¹ None of these earlier accounts survives.
A few years earlier, Pliny the Elder, who had served with the Roman army across the Rhine, published his twenty volume History of the German Wars (Bellorum Germaniae), the catalyst for which, he later related to his nephew, was a visit by the ghost of Nero Claudius Drusus, who implored him to save his name from oblivion. This was an account of ‘all the wars we have waged against the Germans’, and would probably have covered Germanicus’ campaigns of 14–16 CE.²² Sadly, none of it survives. We know it was one of the sources that his friend Cornelius Tacitus consulted in composing his own Annals of Rome from the Death of the Divine Augustus (Ab Excessu Divi Augusti), because he acknowledges referring to it.²³ Of all the extant accounts, it is Tacitus’ Annals that presents the most in-depth political and military history of Germanicus’ life. He covers the period of the mutiny of the Rhine army, the campaigns in Germania Magna, his travels around Greece, Asia Minor, the near East and Egypt, the final tragic hours of his premature life, the emotional aftermath that saw Agrippina bring his ashes to Rome, and the trial of Piso. It was published during the confident and tolerant reign of Trajan (98–117 CE), whom the Romans called optimus – ‘best’ – and the book enjoyed great acclaim while the author lived. Its popularity thereafter waned, and it was only temporarily restored when the Emperor Tacitus (275–276 CE) – who claimed to be connected by direct lineage to Rome’s greatest historian – issued an order to make copies to save it from neglect (incuria). By the sixth century, Tacitus’ fame had sunk even further into obscurity, as evidenced by Cassiodorus, who made reference in his own work merely to ‘a certain Cornelius’.²⁴ Nevertheless, it was Tacitus’ account of events of the early principate that would come to dominate the historical and artistic portraits of Germanicus painted in the post-Roman period.
Tacitus’ near contemporary, Suetonius Tranquillus, prefaced his biography of Caligula in the Lives of the Caesars (De Vita Caesarum) with an account of the life of his father.²⁵ It is the most complete of the surviving accounts, in that it follows the arc of Germanicus’ life from birth to death – albeit cursorily – and reveals the attractive personality of the man. By pairing father and son, Suetonius dramatically contrasted the life of a worthy man against that of a young wastrel. His influential book was published during the reign of Hadrian (117–138 CE) and it continued in circulation well into the fourth century, when other authors used it as a model to produce biographies of the later Roman emperors.
Writing in the 190s and 200s CE, Cassius Dio presented Germanicus as a central figure in Books 56 and 57 of his annalistic panorama of 1,400 years of Roman history. Dio introduced Germanicus in the context of the ‘Wars of the Batos’, followed him back to Rome, and thence to Germania, to put down the mutiny and avenge the blot of humiliation at Teutoburg, recalling an omen that ‘doubtless had a bearing’ on his fate, and briefly covered the trial of Calpurnius Piso.²⁶ His monumental history in eighty books remained influential and was copied and abridged by various individuals as late as the twelfth century.²⁷
While historians preserved accounts of Germanicus’ deeds and achievements, popular legend and state occasions also kept alive the memory of the young Caesar. Tacitus could recall, from his youth, stories told by elders about the letter Calpurnius Piso allegedly clutched in his hand during his trial, and inferred that it contained instructions from Tiberius to his deputy to rid him of Germanicus.²⁸ Commenting on the distinctions created for Germanicus immediately following the news of his death, Tacitus writes that ‘many of these honours still remain’ (i.e. in the early second century CE), though he qualifies his statement by adding, ‘some were at once dropped, or became obsolete with time’.²⁹ Yet, well into the reign of Severus Alexander (222–235 CE) – fully two centuries after his death – military units were still required to observe that, ‘9 days before the Kalends of June’, public prayers should be held for the birthday of Germanicus Caesar.³⁰
After the Roman Empire collapsed, its books were preserved by the monks of western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. Within them, the name of Germanicus Caesar survived. Word by word, line by line, the monks copied entire manuscripts. By this means, theAratus Phaenomena ascribed to Germanicus was saved. The earliest known ‘modern’ copies date to the ninth century, but the poem gained in popularity only in the fifteen, when printed editions appeared in 1474, by Benincontrius in Bologna, and in 1488, by Pisanus in Venice.³¹ The poem has been in print almost continuously since then and it can still be found, with a little effort, in a French translation by A. Le Boeuffle and in English by D.B. Gain.³² It is an impressive achievement, considering that Augustus’ own Res Gestae only first appeared – incomplete – in an edition by the Dutch scholar Buysbecche, following his visit to the Sultan Soliman at Amasia in Asia Minor in 1555, at the request of Ferdinand II.³³ Other than his own and Germanicus’, no other works penned by Augustus’ family members have come down to us.
Copies of Tacitus’ Annals also survived – strangely, in two parts. One portion, dating to the ninth century, was copied in Fulda in Germany. It contained books 1–6 (covering the life of Germanicus) and acquired the name ‘First Medicean’.³⁴ The other part, containing the remaining ten books of the Annals (called the ‘Second Medicean’), were copied in the eleventh century, in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Casino in Italy. Some 600 years later, Pope Leo X (1475–1521) purchased the First Medicean and brought it to the Vatican, where, with his blessing, the printed edition of books 1–6 of the Annals appeared in 1515.³⁵ Initially, it was seen as a dull chronicle, compared to the popular works of Cicero and Livy, then in wide circulation, which were considered to be uplifting reading; but Tacitus enjoyed a surge of public interest from the later part of the sixteenth century. At a time when the Roman Catholic Church preached absolutism and the Inquisition held sway, many free thinkers saw in Tacitus a fellow champion of liberty, no more so than in northern Europe. His book covering the early principate, and the life and death of Germanicus, became a source of material for an extraordinary group of painters, sculptors, dramatists, composers, and authors over the next four centuries, who told and retold what came to be known as the ‘Germanicus Tradition’.
Germanicus’ patriotism and moral virtue provided grand themes for poems and plays. Among the earliest productions of modern times, Edmé Boursault (1638–1701) staged his Germanicus: tragédie at the Théâtre du Marais, in a performance by Comédiens du Roi on 25 May 1673, which earned the approval of the great French dramatist Jean Racine (1639–1699).³⁶ Another tragedy of Germanicus was written in 1694 by Jacques Pradon (1632–1698) – a playwright supported by Pierre Corneille – which intentionally mocked his rival Racine.³⁷ Across the Channel in England, in 1731, Thomas Cooke wrote Germanicus: A tragedy in verse, but it was, apparently, never performed on stage.³⁸ An unnamed ‘Gentleman of the University of Oxford’ had better luck with his ownGermanicus: a tragedy, seeing his work make it into print in 1775.³⁹ In the Netherlands, Lucretia Wilhelmina Merk Van Winter (1721–1789) published her magnum opus about the Roman commander and published it in Amsterdam in 1779, care of Pieter Meijer.⁴⁰Assisted by her husband, she was the first Dutch woman to write epic poems, and she set the great story of Germanicus’ campaigns across the Rhine, which included his relationship with the Batavians, in 10,350 lines of Dutch verse, set in rhyming couplets. Compared to her earlier David (1768), it was a modest success, partly on account of its more severe and cold style, but it gained a readership beyond the Low Countries when it was reprinted in a French translation in 1787 as Germanicus, Poème En Seize Chants.⁴¹Indeed, it may have inspired Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766–1834) to write his Germanicus, Tragédie En Cinq Actes Et En Vers in 1817. His play became famous for the lines
On craint, quand on connaît le peuple et ses caprices,
Les vertus d’un rival tout autant que ses vices.⁴²
The bloody French Revolution was then still recent history, and, at the first performance of Germanicus, a disturbance broke out on the parterre outside, which threatened serious political complications for its playwright. Arnault went into exile for two years.
Later, in 1869, against the backdrop of the French Second Empire and the Imperial Bonapartist regime of Napoléon III, Charles-Ernest Beulé (1826–1874) published Le Sang de Germanicus. It was a florid biography of the House of Germanicus, spanning the lives of his parents down to the last days of Nero. Beulé attempted to understand how the seemingly noblest and most excellent of parents – Drusus and Antonia, Germanicus and Agrippina – could produce such disreputable and immoral children. In his introduction, he proposes that, ‘in decadent times, virtue itself is only a beginning of easement and popularity becomes a poison that turns against the homeland’.⁴³ In his conclusion, he imagines Augustus and Livia bemoaning the dynasty they have bequeathed to the world. Germanicus and Agrippina turn their heads in dismay as they contemplate Nero, saying ‘we dreamed of omnipotence for the happiness of the world, and the world exhausted, debased, degraded by the monstrous power, will he curse forever the blood ofGermanicus?’⁴⁴ In Beulé’s France meanwhile, confidence in the imperial régime vanished as the country was gripped with strikes and civil disturbances, and suffered international reverses. Perhaps Le Sang de Germanicus was less a treatise on the Roman imperial family than it was a warning from history about the dangers of dynastic power and the ‘Napoléonic Idea’.
The Roman hero’s life was also set to music. In Vienna, at the turn of the eighteenth century, a serenata was composed for the Habsburg Archduke Joseph. Described as a handsome man with blue eyes and blond hair, as well as forward-looking and a reformer, he was destined to become the future Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I, King of the Romans. Perhaps performed under the title Il Trionfo (or Il Sogno) di Germanico, it set an Italian libretto based on Tacitus’ Annales to a richly orchestrated score comprising of arias and recitatives for six voices with an opening sinfonia.⁴⁵ At face value, the piece with its languid melodies told of the triumphal return of Germanicus to Rome in 16 CE after campaigning in Germania, but seen as an allegory it celebrated the young prince’s victorious arrival back from the successful Siege of Landau in the Palatinate in 1704. Georg Friedrich Handel (1685–1759) has been proposed as the serenata’s composer, but the attribution is doubted by many and the names of both the musical talent and the librettist remainobscure.⁴⁶
At almost the same time in Germany the aspiring 23-year-old composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) took on a new commission. Shortly after marrying the pastor of Regensburg, the poetess Christine Dorothea Lachs (c.1672–1716?) wrote a libretto in German to her own opera entitledGermanicus: Oper in drei Akten. Her fictional story of love, lust and political intrigue set in Ara Ubiorum and among the German forests, is very loosely based on historical truth after the events of 15 CE. Telemann composed the score for an orchestra comprising trumpet, two horns, two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two violins, viola and basso continuo. In 1704, he completed an overture, forty-one arias, and recitatives for a cast that included Agrippina, Arminius, the boy Caligula, Florus, Germanicus, and Segestes. The opera was first staged at the Leipziger Oper, proved popular with audiences also in Hamburg two years later, and was revised in 1710. During his prolific musical career, Telemann wrote scores for some fifty operas, andGermanicus was eventually forgotten and lost. Remarkably, the overture and arias were rediscovered in a Frankfurt archive in the twenty-first century and given a modern première at the Bachfest Leipzig on 11 June 2007, in a performance by the SächsischesBarockorchester.⁴⁷ One of Telemann’s very earliest works, it reveals, even then, his talent for colourful instrumentation and the stylistic influence of his contemporary Mr Handel. The aria sung by Agrippina, Komm o Schlaf, und laß mein Leid, ‘Come, o sleep, and let my cares’, with its sweet melody sustained by two flutes amid glowing orchestration, has since gained a popularity of its own, independent of the opera.
Among the first painters to find inspiration in Germanicus’ story was the Flemish protestant Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). In 1614, he painted Agrippina and Germanicus, a pair of portraits with an almost cameo-like quality.⁴⁸ Indeed, Rubens was a collector of antiquities, and numbered engraved gems among his collection. He intended to illustrate a publication of these items but did not complete the project. Germanicus’ profile, with his aquiline nose, arched brows and rounded chin, differs from extant Roman busts or coins, and may have been styled after one of the pieces in his collection he believed to be the commander. He returned to Germanicus twelve years later. His painting, The Glorification of Germanicus of 1626, is a large-scale reproduction of the Gemma Tiberiana, which was actually discovered by his friend Nicolas-Claude de Peiresc, in the sacristy of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, six years earlier.⁴⁹ The modern master Rubens faithfully reproduced in oils the detail of the original Roman sardonyx cameo, engraved by an unknown master of the ancient world.
Two years later, a young French painter called Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) created his first masterpiece (plate 41) entitled La Mort de Germanicus.⁵⁰ He was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini in Rome to recreate the scene of Germanicus’ death in Epidaphne, as related in Tacitus’ Annals.⁵¹ The painting, which may have been a companion to La Continence de Scipion (The Continence of Scipio), presents, in rich gold, blue, brown and ochre coloured oils, the powerful themes of death, suffering, injustice, grief, loyalty and revenge. Poussin shows the Roman commander just after he expires for the last time. The vigorous Germanicus is now a gaunt figure, his pale, lifeless head turned to the side, away from the viewer. His deputies and soldiers stand around the foot of the bed, silently contemplating the pathos of the moment. One man – likely Sentius – standing in the centre of the painting, dressed in cuirass and pteryges, looks straight at Agrippina and, with his arm raised, appears to be taking command of the situation. Agrippina covers her face with a handkerchief in grief, while a calm, boyish Caligula clutches her hand, seeming not to understand that his father has just died. Composed like the decorative carving on an ancient sarcophagus, it is baroque in its emotional intensity and rich flowing gowns, but neo-classical in its architectural setting and sparse staging. It was an instant hit and became the model for historical death-bed scenes, studied and imitated by many artists in France, Germany and Italy – among them ‘the Dutch Poussin’ Gerard de Lairesse (1675–1680), Pierre Mignard (1720), Friedrich Heinrich Füger (1795) and Theodore Gericault (1811).⁵²
In England, the sculptor Thomas Banks (1735–1805) carved a white marble bas-relief entitled Death of Germanicus in 1773–1774 to evoke the dignified solemnity of a family grieving.⁵³ Lying on the ground, his athletic naked body and disproportionately long legs reveal nothing of his sickness. Mourners and soldiers huddle around him. Their grief is controlled. Agrippina sits in a chair behind him, lovingly supporting her husband’s neck, while two young children try to hug her in consolation.
The aftermath of Germanicus’ death and the story of Agrippina’s unswerving loyalty to his memory also became a favorite subject of artists. In response to a commission by Robert Hay Drummond (1711–1776), Archbishop of York, the American-born Benjamin West (1738–1820) paintedAgrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (plate 42), first as a preparatory painting on paper in 1766, before completing the finished canvas around 1768.⁵⁴ West interpreted the mournful scene described byTacitus.⁵⁵ Against the dramatic architectural backdrop of the port at Brundisium, the figures of Agrippina, her son Caligula, daughter Agrippina the Younger, and servants walk along the quayside. They stand out from the shadow cast by a colonnaded temple portico on account of their white gowns, which cover the heads of the adults. Leading the group, Agrippina clutches the urn containing Germanicus’ ashes. The ships, which have brought them from Antiocheia, are berthed on the right, while a crowd of mourners – soldiers, citizens, young and old – look on with sad eyes from the left. The painting is neo-classical in its treatment of the subject, sublimating the intense emotions of the characters and using subdued colours, unfussy architectural features and subtle lighting, to illuminate a key moment in history. The painting deeply impressed King George III, who granted West lifelong patronage, and he became a painter to the royal court – that, despite the Pennsylvania-born artist’s undisguised American patriotism.
The subject appealed to Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798), who began work on his interpretation in 1765. He took seven years to complete the Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus.⁵⁶ In his painting, Hamilton focuses on the central figure of Agrippina holding the urn close to her breast. In contrast to West’s sombre colours, Hamilton uses bright primary colours. Agrippina wears a scarlet tunic partially covered by a dark blue, almost grey stola. She stands calmly, head bowed, while two young children in front of here are keen to move on. Behind her, a young Agrippina is stepping lively up on to the quayside. She wears a golden yellow tunic, the effect of which is almost to draw the eye away from the central figure of Agrippina, her mother. Balance is restored by a seated figure on the left wearing clothing in both yellow and red. A soldier holding an eagle standard leans forward precariously trying to hold back the throng of mourners in the background.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) reimagined the same occasion in a way that only he could. His painting (plate 43), grandly titled Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. The Triumphal Bridge and Palace of the Caesars restored, was first exhibited in 1839.⁵⁷ The painting is classic Turner. He moves the action from Brundisium to Rome and presents the city as a fantastical backdrop of arches, columns, temples and towers. The palest shades of yellow blend mistily on the horizon, obscuring buildings on the Palatinus (or Capitolinus) Hill. The pale yellow hues grow progressively deeper and richer as they reach the bridge over the Tiber in the middle distance, turning to gold and amber as they move into the foreground. A massing crowd of people board a flotilla of boats and begin to set off from the left bank across the wide, mirror-like surface of the river towards the small, isolated figures of Agrippina, her children and servants on the other side. Dark shadows cast by walls in black and brown emphasize the bright but diminutive figures who are mostly faceless – perhaps a metaphor for life transcending death. Germanicus’ urn is nowhere to be seen, yet he is the entire reason for the occasion.
By Turner’s time, the Age of the Industrial Revolution was already transforming Britain.⁵⁸ Rising purchasing power among the burgeoning consumer middle class, who wished to appear educated and of discerning taste to their friends, created a demand for decorative ornaments, modelled after finds from the classical world. The entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood saw potential sales in Germanicus-themed home decorations, adding a bust of the young Caesar (fig. 1) ‘about 16 inches high’ to a collection of pieces purchased from Oliver and Hoskins, and an intaglio polished to ‘have exactly the effect of fine black basaltes or jasper’ in a series of ‘Antique Subjects’, which sold from 1787 and became standard catalogue items.⁵⁹ They sold so well, in fact, that they were still featured in the original catalogue reprinted in 1873. Bizarrely, by this time, the name Germanicus became the de facto name for any statue or bust of a handsome but unidentified young Roman.⁶⁰
On the Continent, the emergence of a nationalist movement in Germany was spurred on by literature telling a new version of history, inspired in part by the heroism of the barbarian who had stood up to, and beaten, Rome. Some 200 years earlier, Martin Luther had cleverly rebranded the Cheruscan prince Arminius into the freedom-fighter Hermann and promoted him as a poster boy for resistance against the Roman Catholic Church. It worked. In the Age of the Enlightenment, German theatre-goers thrilled to staged historical dramas, such as Heinrich von Kleist’s Die Hermannsschlacht (1808/1821) – written after Napoléon Bonaparte’s defeat of the Prussians, and perhaps a thinly disguised call for resistance to the French invader – and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqués’Herrmann (1818).⁶¹ Arminius had defeated Varus, but in Germanicus he found a worthy opponent who had faced him on the battlefield and caused him to withdraw. In 1816, Dr Friedrich Hoffmann published Die Vier Feldzüge des Germanicus, describing the campaigns in which the Roman hunted down the Cheruscan leader. The mania for a broader pro-Germanic treatment of the emerging nationstate spurred Heinrich Luden to publish his influential, patrioric narrative history Geschichte des teutschen Volkes in 1825. Luden cast the Romans as imperialists bent on crushing the free and independent Germanic peoples at any cost. Thus he writes emotively of Germanicus’ first punitive foray across the Rhine after he had quelled the mutiny of the legions:
And even then in those wild people remained so burning a heat, and so overwhelming a desire to draw sword and blood, that Germanicus thought it necessary to conduct these frenzied people across the Rhine into Germany’s peaceful districts, so they could cool their glow, taking their pleasure in the killing of Teutonic people, who under all circumstances the Romans took for enemies.⁶²
Here, Germanicus is portrayed not as the brave Roman commander of history, but as the perpetrator of war crimes in a national foundation myth. However, Germanicus was not always a hate-figure in Germany. In 1826, Wilhelm Huscher published a tragic stageplay that was sympathetic to the man.⁶³ Germanicus: Ein Trauerspiel respun Tacitus’ carefully crafted Latin prose tale of events leading to the death of the Roman commander and the machinations of Piso and Plancina into high German verse. It was an ambitious production with a large cast, numbering among them Tiberius, Livia, Drusus the Younger, Seianus, Sabinus, Silius, Martina, a magician, various soldiers, a veteran, and even a Gallic rider. The campaigns of Gemanicus in Germania Magna spawned several learned works by academics and doctoral theses by their students, each inspired by the story of Arminius/Hermann, the Battle of Teutoburg, and the Roman response – such as Friedrich Hoffmann (1816), Ludwig Reinking (1855), Alfred August Bernhard Breysig (1865 and 1892), Anton Linsmayer (1875), Paul Höfer (1885), Friederich Knoke (1887), Anton Viertel (1901), Gerhard Kessler (1905), and O. Dörrenberg (1909), to cite but a few examples.⁶⁴ In his lectures during the 1880s, the great German classical historian Theodor Mommsen (1818–1903) presented the Arminius-Germanicus conflict story with notable balance and dispassion.⁶⁵
Just as there were historians, like Luden, who were rewriting the prehistory of the emerging nation-state of Germany for a new age, so the themes of bravery, nobility, betrayal and shame occupied the minds of German-speaking painters. In Vienna in 1873, Munich-born Carl Theodor von Piloty (1826–1886) unveiled his great historical painting Thusnelda im Triumphzug des Germanicus (plate 44), after King Ludwig II had originally suggested the idea to him ten years earlier.⁶⁶ It evokes the scene from Tacitus’Annals and Ovid’s Epistula Ex Ponto, describing the events of 26 May 17 CE.⁶⁷ Germanicus is a minor figure in the romantically theatrical painting. He stands in his victor’s chariot adored by the crowds, but he is placed far to the left in the middle distance, almost as a silhouette. The focus is Thusnelda, Arminius’ captured wife, spot-lit in the centre of the composition. Beside her stands her son, Thumelicus, his face seething with anger. Tiberius surveys the scene from on high, scowling. Beside him slouches Thusnelda’s father, Segestes, who cannot even bring himself to look at her. The other Germanic captives are there – Segemundus, handcuffed Cheruscan chieftains, and old Libes the priest, who is dragged by his long white beard by a grinning Roman soldier with no more dignity than the brown bear which precedes him. The buxom blond Thusnelda is presented not just as a tragic heroine, but as a model for the good German woman of all ages. As the art historian at the Neue Pinatotek, Munich, notes, ‘in the eyes of contemporaries, she appeared as a moral example of the German character who proudly confronts her destiny unbroken at the hour of doom’.⁶⁸
History textbooks of the time – English as well as German – often included black and white engravings of these dramatic history paintings. A popular one was Fighting Scene During the Retreat of Germanicus by Ferdinand Leeke (1874–1923).⁶⁹ In this work, Leeke conveys the drama and tumult of an ambush at the edge of a forest, beside a marsh or stream. Germanicus is actually hard to spot: he is the figure on the far left of the picture in the crested helmet on a white horse, desperately waving his sword. It is the heroic standard-bearer who dominates the centre of the composition. In the retreat, he vainly tries to rally his men. Even as he waves the flag standard topped by an eagle, he is attacked by a sword-wielding German, who already has his fist firmly on the wooden staff. Roman soldiers scatter as the German warriors press down upon them. They are overwhelmed, unable to use their superior weapons, their legs are caught among the roots of trees and the long grass, and their escape is hampered by the narrowness of the wooden bridge formed by fallen tree trunks, forcing some to crawl humiliatingly through the swamp.
Germanicus in Our Times
In the twentieth century, there has been a more balanced reappraisal of Germany’s ancient past and the role that Arminius and Germanicus played in it.⁷⁰ It turns out that there were many years of peace amidst the years of war. Field archaeology today has revealed a far more complex picture of interactions between cultures. Germans and Romans traded with each other for goods and slaves. Germans served with the Roman army, travelling to far-away lands. But Germanicus’ association with Germany was one of war. By contrast, his diplomatic achievements in the Near East, which demonstrably avoided war with Rome’s nemesis Parthia, have been largely forgotten or left under-reported.⁷¹ Indeed, in quite recent times, Germanicus has been hidden under the shadows of members of his own extended family. His grandfather Augustus, his father Drusus, his mother Antonia, his uncle and adopted father Tiberius, his brother Claudius, his son Caligula, his grandson Nero, and even his daughter Agrippina, have all been the subjects of biographies and works of fiction. The story of Germanicus’ life and achievements has been overlooked in favour of those of others, who were often considered lesser men even in his own time. The man who evoked admiration and sympathy among ordinary people, historians, and artists for 1,900 years has sadly since gone out of fashion.
Gone he is, yet not completely forgotten. Unsolved crimes and mysteries appeal to readers, and the suggestion of foul play behind Germanicus’ death still inspires modern writers, especially historical novelists writing in English. Germanicus appears as a sympathetic figure in Robert Graves’ best-selling novel I, Claudius (1934), based on Cassius Dio, Suetonius, and Tacitus, with a large dose of poetic licence.⁷² In the excellent BBC television adaptation of the book by Jack Pullman (1976), the actor David Robb portrayed him as a handsome, good-natured ‘golden boy’, naïvely unaware that his family was being systematically murdered by Livia until told so by his brother, before finally being poisoned himself by his own son, Caligula. In Germanicus (2002), Livia is the one who commissions David Wishart’s fictional Roman gumshoe, M. Corvinus, to investigate the death of her grandson in his first case, and he quickly uncovers a web of betrayal and deceit.⁷³ Beyond Britain’s shores, the drama Germanicus by celebrated South African author, poet and intellectual N.P. van Wyk Louw represents one of the high points of Afrikaans dramatic art. Written in 1956, the historical play deals with the issues of heroism, tradition and absolute power told through key events in the life of the Roman general, from the mutiny on the Rhine to his death in Syria. Written in concise verse with deliberate archaisms, it was awarded the Hertzog Prize for Drama in 1960 and continues to be studied by university students in Namibia and South Africa.⁷⁴ In the non-fiction genre, Australian-born Stephen Dando-Collins creatively knits together facts and suppositions to propose how the murder (and he is convinced it was murder by poisoning) of Germanicus led to the fall of Roman Empire in Blood of the Caesars (2008).⁷⁵ As with the ancient writers, even today the boundaries between fact and fiction can become blurred.
Science too has found a place for Rome’s most popular general. On 30 August 1997 an astronomer was observing the night sky at the Osservatorio Astrometrico Santa Lucia Stroncone, the Santa Lucia Stroncone Astronomical Observatory in northern Italy. The scientist, Antonio Vagnozzi, recorded a minor planet with its own satellite in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Provisionally designated ‘1997 QN’ it was later renamed ‘10208 Germanicus’, in honour of the man whose bronze statute was found just 6km (3 miles) away in the city of Terni. For as long as the asteroid circles the solar system, Germanicus will enjoy a kind of celestial immortality. As the Latin translator of Aratos’ astronomical poem, Germanicus would certainly have approved.⁷⁶