Chapter 9


Talents and Temperament

Germanicus Iulius Caesar, née Nero Claudius Drusus, had the good fortune to be descended from two distinguished clans and to be adopted into a third that was the most powerful of the time. His genetic heritage equipped him well for his life of public service and his position afforded him many privileges in Rome’s hierarchical society. No idler or spoilt brat, however, he honed his innate talents and leveraged his good nature to contribute his full measure to his nation at an extraordinary period in world history. In short, he was one of Rome’s finest men.

From his Claudian birth father he inherited his honorific war title, which he adopted for his first name. He had hardly known the man, but the long shadow of his father’s reputation reached well into his twenties. In many ways, Nero Claudius Drusus and his son were alike – in their affable personalities, tolerance for taking great personal risks, unswerving loyalty to family and country, but also their intractability and recklessness which led them to near disaster on occasions. The men of gens Claudia had long established a reputation for their spirit of scornful defiance, disdain for the law and hardness of heart. The soldiery and civil population who remembered Drusus with affection transferred their happy sentiment to his son. It might have overawed him and made him arrogant, but Germanicus learned to bear his heritage with humility and leveraged it to good effect during his career. Yet it was only after he had proved himself in Drusus the Elder’s old stomping grounds that Germanicus truly established his own reputation independent of his father’s.

After Germanicus’ father died, his mother played a key role in his upbringing. A woman of great principle and sober temperament, she was loyal to her husband’s memory and was still a ‘one man woman’ (univira) when she died aged 73.¹ She was descended from gens Antonia and was the youngest daughter of triumvir M. Antonius. Germanicus grew up aware of his grandfather’s life and legend and it may have predisposed him to take a personal interest in public speaking and Rome’s eastern dominions – Egypt in particular. Through his grandfather he was related to several important men in Asia Minor, giving him a ready-made political network in the region.

While his bloodlines and family tree gave him many advantages, the world Germanicus grew up in was dominated by the figure of C. Iulius Caesar Augustus and it was ultimately this connection which launched the young man to prominence. Augustus was a ruthless and uncompromising politician with a soft spot for family and tradition – an ancient world Roman mafia-style boss – who used his head to plan and scheme and the brawn of others, like his stepsons, to do the dangerous work. His great project had been to rescue the Res Publica from a generation of destructive civil wars and, under the guise of restoring it, to reform its institutions for the future. While Augustus was neither a king nor an emperor he strived to establish an autocratic dynasty which would follow after him and continue his life’s work as steward of the Pax Romana. Germanicus, like his cousins and nephews, was an unwitting pawn in a great game of succession being played out in the emerging imperial system. In a plan which had taken a quarter century to shape, Caius and Lucius were destined to succeed the princeps. Their premature deaths meant Augustus had to radically rethink it. Augustus saw potential in Germanicus – as indeed he had with his father – but he finally could not bring himself to adopt him for reasons which are unclear, but seem to have been played up by his grandmother Livia Drusilla. Instead he placed Germanicus in the legal care of his primary heir Tiberius, and next in succession with Postumus Agrippa. It brought Germanicus into the powerful and prestigious gens Iulia – and with it a direct connection to the great Caesar – but he would still have to prove himself through deeds, which meant completing service in the military and politics. That was the Roman way.

Germanicus was recognized in his own time as a talented military leader, able to take on increasing responsibility and span of control. He came to the military relatively late for a Roman. At age 21 he was charged by Augustus with forming a unit of irregular troops of citizens and freed slaves for deployment during the emergency in Illyricum. The challenge was to shape a disparate group of men and train them into a battle-ready fighting unit. In its first operational season in 7 CE, the unit proved effective in defeating the Mazaei in the lowlands of Bosnia Herzegovina. It was a singular achievement considering Germanicus had no leadership training for the role he was asked to perform. Having impressed his adoptive father, Germanicus was given greater responsibility and placed in charge of regular legions and cohorts the following year. With them he successfully besieged cities in the valleys and mountains of Croatia. During the campaign he was acclaimed imperator by his troops as a mark of their gratitude to him. After the war he was among the victorious senior commanders honoured with a triumph. Immediately after the disaster at Teutoburg in 9 CE, Germanicus was placed in command of the remaining Rhine army units while Tiberius sought guidance from Augustus. Having won his adoptive father’s confidence, his mentorship under Tiberius continued when he accompanied him on a foray into Germania Magna in 11.

Augustus promoted Germanicus to governor of the Tres Galliae from 13 CE, following in the footsteps of Drusus and Tiberius. During his tenure he put down a rebellion of Gauls, restoring order to the province. As legatus Augusti pro praetore he assumed full responsibility for the army in the two Germanies, representing a third of all Rome’s legionary troops and perhaps the same again in auxiliary cohorts. After Augustus’ death, he acted quickly to face down a mutiny of Roman citizen soldiers in his jurisdiction. He listened to their grievances and dealt with the issues of pay and conditions. With bad feeling lingering in the ranks, he recognized that the need to rebuild unit cohesion was urgent and led them in a punitive raid across the Rhine. The spilling of barbarian blood had the desired effect. The raid became the precursor to a larger mission. It is not clear from the sources whether an invasion was planned before the mutiny or if Germanicus acted opportunistically. It is reasonable to assume that the decision to make war against the Germanic nations was Germanicus’ and that he was the commissioner and architect of the new plan. Invested with imperium maius he had the power to take such actions as necessary to safeguard the borders of his territory. The war was evidently conducted under the auspices of Tiberius despite the advice he had received from Augustus not to expand the boundaries of the empire. The fact that he disregarded that counsel and allowed Germanicus to instigate a new war indicates the level of confidence he had in his son to get the job done. It may be that what began at the outset of the first phase in 14–15 CE as a punitive action or pre-emptive strike – to restore lost honour – had expanded by the second into a campaign of regime change – by capturing or ousting Arminius – or outright conquest. Only at the end of 16 CE did Tiberius intervene to prevent further actions after he decided the investment was too high for the gains achieved and those being promised. Germanicus’ stout resistance to the request shows his commitment to the mission but his final acceptance of the order confirms his loyalty once again to his commander-in-chief and princeps.

For the campaign strategy Germanicus looked to his father’s example, after whom he replicated the amphibious invasion and multi-pronged attacks over land. The required military infrastructure – the forts, fortresses and their supply lines, plus the canal – which facilitated his expedition was already in place to which he added a new fleet of ships. Under his direct command were legates – Anteius, Caecina, Silius, Stertinius and Vitellius – each one a competent and seasoned war fighter hand picked by Augustus or Tiberius, to whom Germanicus delegated specific missions. But the war was nevertheless to prove difficult and the costs of victory high in blood and treasure. The unreliability of their alliance partners – in particular the Angrivarii and Chauci who were friend one season and foes the next – and guerilla warfare tactics of the disparate Germanic nations put the Romans at a disadvantage, especially on the march. Only in the pitched battles did the balance tip in the Romans’ favour, but even at Idistaviso and the Angrivarian Wall Germanicus could still not deliver the final blow which would decisively knock-out his opponent. The German leadership escaped to fight another day, but the encounters do seem to have been enough to deter them from invading Roman territory for several years. Some scholars have dismissed the campaigns as futile punitive expeditions, but if the purpose of the mission was to restore Roman honour and confidence after Teutoburg in that Germanicus succeeded. He had proved Roman forces could still enter the lands across the Rhine at will and that Arminius could be beaten. Furthermore, two of the three eagles lost under Quinctilius Varus were retrieved, Rome’s ally Segestes was rescued, Arminius’ wife and son were captured, and they and several high profile war captives were later exhibited in Germanicus’ triumph in May 17 CE. The decision to continue the war was finally not his to make and Tiberius – as commander-in-chief – decided to suspend operations in the region indefinitely, preferring a doctrine of strategic patience over direct military intervention.

The surviving ancient accounts of the battles Germanicus fought in are too vaguely described to enable us to judge whether his technical skills as a commander – in operational planning, battlefield communications, delivery of force and other aspects – showed flair in comparison to other acclaimed military leaders.² The inevitable favourable comparison between him and Alexander the Great was made at his funeral and he was judged as having the greater score in terms of ‘clemency, self-restraint and in all other virtues’.³His scope for choosing his direct reports was limited as they had been chosen for him by Augustus or Tiberius, but the men in place complemented Germanicus’ skills and he managed them well. His principal leadership attribute was virtus – a Latin word which translates as ‘manliness’, but conveys ‘courage’ and ‘strength’. As defined by Carl von Clausewitz, Germanicus showed both the physical courage to face personal danger and moral courage to accept responsibility for his actions. He led his troops from the front exposing himself to great personal risk, even dramatically removing his helmet at the Battle of the Angrivarian Wall so his men could see him in the midst of the mêlée at a critical moment when he needed to rally them to fight on. Germanicus’ fearless, almost reckless, behaviour on the battlefield was, perhaps, inspired by stories of Drusus the Elder or his distant ancestor Claudius Marcellus, whose zeal to win the rich spoils – spolia opima – stripped from his opponent was well known. There is no evidence to suggest that Germanicus ever succeeded in winning this accolade, but the fact he put himself in the thick of battle won him the respect of his troops who rewarded him with two acclamations.

Determination – a trait Romans understood in terms of firmness of mind (animi firmitas) and perseverance (constantia) – was his other virtue. He revealed this trait when a youngster. Believing his legs to be too slender he worked out by riding his horse to build them up. As an adult, he applied himself to all the projects delegated to him with vigour – which cannot be said of Augustus’ much favoured adopted son C. Caesar who on his first military assignment on the Danube shirked his responsibilities, or Postumus Agrippa who frittered away his time in drinking and gambling. Germanicus proved his commitment to completing his mission in Armenia in 18 CE even when his deputy Calpurnius Piso refused to obey orders and left him without the backing of his army. Germanicus could have balked and declined to go, but he did not hesitate and made the arduous and potentially dangerous trip to Artaxata, putting his duty above all else. His determination was rewarded when he completed the mission without bloodshed and crowned Artaxias III himself. It was rightly regarded by his peers as one of the most important achievements of his career.

Germanicus could be creative and decisive and held his nerve under pressure. The rapidly conceived snatch raid to rescue Segestes was well planned and achieved its objective with no reported losses on the Roman side. Recognizing the danger posed to his infantry by crossing the Weser River without the security of a bridge, he used his cavalry led by Aemilius and Stertinius to create a diversion to enable the crack Batavi units under Chariovalda to drive the main thrust into Arminius’ centre. When the gambit failed, Germanicus quickly pulled his men out to conserve his resouces for more favourable conditions on another day. Germanicus’ swift action also saved a cohort of cavalry from annihilation during an ambush led by Arminius after leaving the cenotaph at Teutoburg.

His bold attitude on the battlefield was tempered by his mild manner off it. Suetonius writes of his ‘unexampled kindliness, and a remarkable desire and capacity for winning men’s regard and inspiring their affection’. Dio ascribes to Germanicus a quality of saintly incorruptibility, saying ‘he was one of the few men of all time who have neither sinned against the fortune allotted to them nor been destroyed by it’. Tacitus highlights Germanicus’ ability to win men’s trust:

he inspired reverence alike by look and voice, and while he maintained the greatness and dignity of the highest rank, he had escaped the hatred that waits on arrogance.

For Germanicus a man’s word was his bond. Loyalty or trustworthiness (fides) was a quality he greatly valued. He demanded it of himself and he expected it from others. He was supremely loyal to his commander-in-chief and when, on the death of Augustus in 14 CE, the Rhine army mutineers proposed Germanicus take power, he adamantly refused and ‘held them to their allegiance’. There were other opportunities when he could have usurped power, but ‘he refused to do so’.

There was, however, a hard edge to Germanicus’ character. He could be a tough negotiator. In his diplomatic dealings with the Parthian king, Artabanus II, he realized the relative strength of his bargaining position and, in a calculated snub, declined an invitation to meet the king in person. As a concession he agreed only to move Vonones so that he would not pose a threat to the king. When famine threatened the population of Alexandria, Germanicus arranged for distributions of grain, but coldly excluded several communities, including the Jews. In grinding down his enemy’s morale and will to fight, he was not above committing acts of cruelty and genocide. The men, women and children of the Marsi were ruthlessly slaughtered in a raid in 14 CE and the following year the Chatti witnessed their capital at Mattium reduced to ashes and the surrounding territory devastated for miles around. He was deaf to the pleas of those Chatti warriors seeking to negotiate terms.

Germanicus made his share of mistakes. During the mutiny of the Rhine legions in 14 CE he thought he could trick his soldiers into a settlement with a fabricated letter. It may not have been his idea, but on the counsel of his leadership team he nevertheless proceeded with it. It was a bad call. In the eyes of his troops he had tried to dupe them. From that moment he lost his authenticity and credibility and he paid for it dearly during the ensuing prolonged negotiations. When the mutiny had finally been broken, he gave orders for Caecina Severus to round up the ringleaders. In his written communication, however, he also failed to make his orders crystal clear. His officers interpreted his orders in the broadest terms. The bloodbath which followed led to unnecessary deaths of both the innocent and guilty alike. Germanicus was mortified to discover his error, but by then it was too late.

Following the example of many of his Antonian and Claudian ancestors Germanicus was quite prepared to disregard protocol when circumstances demanded it. In picking up human bones and turfs to raise a monument to the fallen at Teutoburg, Germanicus committed an act of sacrilege because, as augur, he was prevented by custom and religious law from doing so. The exceptional circumstances called for a compassionate response. His need to connect with his men at a time of emotional stress transcended any political niceties. Nevertheless Tiberius disapproved. More gravely, as a senator he did not first seek permission to visit Egypt as required in a directive laid down – for good reason – by Augustus and upheld by Tiberius. By taking the broadest interpretation of his remit, Germanicus seems to have understood Aegyptus was a province and, as such, under his care as governor general in the eastern Empire. Alternatively, he may have felt able to disregard the rule as he was making a private trip to see the nation’s famed antiquities. If so it was naïve of him: a man of his consular status could not simply sneak in to Egypt and hope not to be noticed. Indeed, he was mobbed as a ‘rockstar’ on his arrival in Alexandria. Making matters worse, once in the country, discovering its population faced famine, on his own initiative he ordered the warehouses opened and selectively issued grain to the needy. This unauthorized intervention may have been welcomed as a humanitarian act locally, but it risked starving the plebs in Rome and bringing its attendant dire consequences. Responding to what he saw as a serious breach of protocol, Tiberius issued his deputy with a written reprimand for his meddling.

The way in which Germanicus managed his difficult deputy, Cn. Calpurnius Piso, reveals how he handled interpersonal conflicts. Most people responded warmly to Germanicus’ good-natured amiability – Piso was not one of them. He had made it plainly known that in his opinion Germanicus was his social inferior and he saw no reason to kow-tow to him. He was the authorized governor of Syria with complete jurisdiction over its internal affairs. As praepositus Orienti, Germanicus’ role was that of an emissary or minister with special portfolio, but without direct control of any particular province. Piso felt no compunction about disobeying an order or countermanding instructions issued by him, because he likely regarded them only as advisories. On his return from Armenia, Germanicus confronted his deputy for failing to mobilize his army for the mission. In the account of that meeting preserved by Tacitus, emotions were high, and there was considerable posturing, but the issues between the two men were not brought out on to the table and no resolution was reached. Bad feelings remained to fester. But what was Germanicus to do? He was in an awkward position, both constitutionally and socially. On paper, he was Piso’s superior, but the legate had been appointed by Tiberius with the consent of the Senate. Piso was a friend of his adoptive father and his wife was connected to his grandmother Livia. Custom demanded that the older aristocrat received respect from the younger, despite his uncouth behaviour. Germanicus’ strategy for dealing with him seems to have been one of tolerance or blocking. At the dinner held in honour of the king of the Nabataeans, Germanicus simply ignored Piso’s intolerably bad manners. Upon his return from Egypt and discovering that his deputy had rescinded his orders, the sources give diametrically opposing versions about his reaction. In Suetonius’ account Germanicus takes the news calmly. By contrast, Tacitus portrays Germanicus as reacting angrily. Which is closer to the truth is now impossible to say. A year into the job, Germanicus decided he could tolerate the disrespect no longer. Believing he had been poisoned by Piso, Germanicus formally renounced his friendship with him and dismissed the man from his post.

In a crisis, Germanicus felt unabashed about revealling his sensitive side – or was willing to fake it. It is reported that as he watched his fleet smashing against the Frisian shore and his men struggling in their wretched state, he repeatedly blamed himself and threatened to throw himself into the sea. It might be seen as overemotional by some, but this is surely only the heart-felt reaction of a man of moral courage, a general totally invested in his mission who cared deeply about the welfare of his men and who was devastated by the catastrophe he had brought upon them. A modern historian has described Germanicus’ threat to commit suicide when faced with mutinous troops who demanded he take the throne as ‘histrionic’.¹ But was it a genuinely emotional outburst? Another way to view the episode is this was Germanicus speaking as orator. Suetonius comments on Germanicus’ ‘surpassing ability in the oratory and learning of Greece and Rome’.¹¹ Trained by Salanus, a teacher of rhetoric respected by Ovid, Germanicus learned to perform with ‘fiery eloquence’.¹² His widely acknowledged gift for public speaking helped him convince juries in favour of his clients at court and to rouse his troops to fight in battle. It was a talent the Senate recognized when it posthumously voted him a clipeusof gold to hang in the curia. Addressing the mutinous troops from the tribunal, Germanicus would have mustered all his skill as a performer. Declamation, the use of florid language and theatrical gestures were all tools in trade of the orator. He well knew how to work an audience. Threatening suicide with the flourish of a sword would be precisely the sort of grand gesture he would use to evoke an emotional – specifically a sympathetic ‘no, don’t do it’ – response from his listeners. Indeed, many tried to grab his sword so he would not go through with the threat. He had not reckoned that one of the soldiers would offer his own weapon claiming it was sharper, which stole some of his thunder. It did not blunt his style, however, and he would use the technique again. Later when Agrippina and Caius were about to leave the danger of the mutineers’ camp, Germanicus embraced his wife tearfully on the tribunal where he could be seen and said his farewell. Seeing the popular couple separated in this cruel manner, the men responded emotionally – just as he had calculated they would. Quickly injecting an appeal to patriotism, achievements and duty, he succeeded in swinging them to his side and broke the mutiny.

Germanicus was a man of culture (humanitas) and a cosmopolitan. His traditional education based on the study of Greek and Latin literature instilled in Germanicus a great love of drama, history, philosophy and poetry. Ovid considered him a poet in his own right. With his talent for the written word he crafted stage-worthy comedies (which were performed) and translated works of cosmology (which have survived). His choice of genres may reveal something of his personality and beliefs. Comedy brings joy by making people laugh and to do it well takes considerable talent. His decision to translate Aratos’ Phaenomena – a work of ‘stoic cosmologising, practical know how with moral uplift’ – from Greek into Latin may have been a project Germanicus undertook just for his ownamusement.¹³ Or it may have been out of a genuine intellectual interest in the subjects it covered. There is nothing in Germanicus’ lifestyle to suggest he was a practising stoic or a follower of any other Greek philosophy. If one word best describes his outlook on life it is ‘traditional’.

Germanicus was a keen observer of the mos maiorum, the ‘ways of the elders’. He was a prominent figure in the institutions which nourished Rome’s religious life. He served willingly as an Arval Brother and as Chief Priest of the Cult of the Divine Augustus and observed the religious blood games as a sponsor. As augur he learned how to interpret bird flight and declare the auguries. It made a difference at Idistaviso where he deftly used the appearance of eagles in the sky to rally his men before giving the order to charge. He believed unquestioningly in the power of prophecy, going out of his way to visit the oracles at Claros and Memphis, and he would have visited Samothrace also had bad weather not prevented him landing on the island. To what degree their unfavourable predictions affected him personally is not recorded in the sources, but it is reasonable to suspect it was unsettling to him.

Germanicus was lucky in love. Arranged marriages were commonplace in the imperial household and divorces were frequent as political alliances shifted (as Tiberius discovered when he was made to divorce Vispania and marry Iulia). Germanicus married the strong-willed grand-daughter of Augustus, with whom he had nine children, five of whom survived him. He was faithful to Agrippina throughout the fourteen years of their marriage. There was no scandal while Germanicus lived and there is not a single suggestion in the surviving accounts that he was anything other than heterosexual. She repaid his loyalty by seeking justice for her husband after his mysterious death and by promoting the interests of their children. During their life together Germanicus and Agrippina were the glamourous celebrity couple par excellence. Along with their children, they were seen as the youthful and energetic faces of the next generation of the imperial family, a point Augustus himself made when he tried to enforce his policy on marriage by displaying the children on his knee in public. The couple was mobbed by crowds wherever they went – a clear sign of their widespread popularity with the common people.

Relationship with Tiberius

There remains the vexing issue of Germanicus’ relationship with Tiberius. The story according to the so-called ‘Germanicus Tradition’ is largely based on Tacitus’ account in the Annals.¹ At face value, Tacitus’ Tiberius is a complex and flawed man who thrives on contradictions: his self-deprecating manner disguises his deceitful nature, his deference to the Senate is passive-aggressive control, his generosity is motivated by hypocritical self-interest, his upholding of the law enables him to abuse it. He inherits Augustus’ form of benign autocracy and over the course of his reign degrades it into unbridled despotism. Germanicus is presented as the balancing force, preventing Tiberius from the descent into cruelty and oppression. While his adopted son lives, he rules much as Augustus intended – he defends the frontiers of empire more by diplomacy than force, upholds the law through the courts (iustitia), shows modesty (modestia) and clemency (clementia) even to wrong-doers. But he harbours a deep-rooted fear of his adopted son. He seems unable to believe Germanicus is genuinely loyal to him and that he must be concealing some scheme to overthrow him. When Germanicus asks to continue the war in Germania, his request for a troop surge is denied. Tiberius buys him off with a triumph and the promise of a second consulship. Then he is hurriedly dispatched to the Orient, where he is paired with Calpurnius Piso, a despicable man bent on making life difficult for his senior officer. On his death-bed Germanicus accuses Piso of poisoning him, while many see the hand of Tiberius in what they believe to have been an assassination. It is a real case of ‘some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall’.¹

Why would Tacitus choose to portray Tiberius as the schemer and Germanicus as the victim? Most modern historians agree that Tacitus twisted the story of Tiberius to portray him as an unpleasant individual.¹ In the Annals, Tacitus ‘presents a detailed pathology of power under the Roman emperors’ from Augustus to Nero.¹ He acknowledged that in the wake of civil war the institutions of the Republic collapsed and in the interests of peace all power had to reside in one man, but he did not concede that it had to be permanent. His view of history was that the Pax Romanaestablished by the benign dictatorship of Augustus became ‘the dreadful peace’ of his successors, paid for in lost freedom and spilled blood, and which got dramatically worse with each new emperor.¹Tiberius was the reluctant heir to the First Citizen and through his increasingly disengaged management style he facilitated the slow descent into despotism. Having adopted this editorial stance, to accentuate the hypocrisy of the tyrant and tell his story, Tacitus needed a foil in the form of a good and moral man, and found him in Germanicus. It is quite apparent to a modern reader of his work that Germanicus was a hero-figure for the Roman historian.¹ He deliberately slanted his presentation of the historical truth, assigning malicious intent to Tiberius’ actions while portraying his adopted son as the innocent object of his designs. The tension between the two protagonists became the central story in Books 1 and 2 of the Annals.² Portraying the young man in the best light was essential to his telling of the story of decline and fall. Some have argued that Tacitus played down his idol’s flaws and exaggerated his achievements, with one historian summing up the difference between the two men starkly as Germanicus ‘pure white’ and Tiberius ‘jet black’.²¹

The problem for historians studying this period is that there are so few extant sources against which to compare Tacitus’ version for accuracy – in fact for most parts of the story his is the only surviving account – but that does not absolve us of the duty to attempt to uncover the real truth. Tacitus claims in the introduction to the Annals to write ‘without rancour or bias’.²² But he was reliant on already decades-old source material on which to base his own version of events. Velleius Paterculus, who was partisan to Tiberius, neither makes mention of any bad feeling between the two men – indeed he lauds the princeps for the way he promoted his son – nor does he mention Germanicus’ death. However, by the time Josephus wrote his Antiquities six decades later he was reporting Germanicus’ poisoning as accepted fact. Thus, when Tacitus began writing his great work on the early principate the story of the hateful uncle and the murder of the irreproachable nephew-cum-son had become immutable lore.²³ While his expressed doubts that Germanicus was poisoned suggest he did not believe it himself, however, with the benefit of knowing the history of Seianus’ conspiracies and the treason trials during the emperor’s final years Tiberius’ paranoid behaviour may have been explicable to him.

Strip away Tacitus’ more obvious editorial bias, read between the lines, and what is revealed is rather different. Tiberius had reluctantly agreed to his own adoption by Augustus for the sake of the nation. When Augustus required Tiberius to adopt his nephew, Tiberius took on the solemn duty with the intention of seeing it through. In power he remained loyal to Augustus’ vision of a Julio-Claudian dynasty, which meant Germanicus must succeed him. Tiberius may never have had a particularly strong paternal love for his adopted son, but Germanicus was the son of Tiberius’ beloved brother and his treatment of him underlines a relationship based on respect not disdain.² Upon the death of Augustus, Tiberius acted quickly to ensure his adopted son in the Tres Galliae was grantedimperium maius for five years, giving him the authority to run the military in the region which he had lacked up to that point. Through religious posts, and importantly the flamen divorum Augustalis, Tiberius raised his prestige. His treatment of Germanicus seems at times to actually have favoured him over his own son, Drusus. It was Germanicus he singled out for particular praise after quelling the mutiny on the Rhine, not Drusus who was still wrestling with the mutiny on the Danube. After his campaign in Germania, Tiberius agreed to a triumph for Germanicus and a second term as consul. The only legal power not granted to Germanicus was the tribunician. This was probably only on account of his age: had he lived he would almost certainly have received it within a year or two of taking on his next assignment.²

Germanicus was promoted by Tiberius to the important office of governor general of the eastern Empire – an honour previously accorded to M. Agrippa and C. Caesar – with the mission ‘to restore order in the Orient’ and granted imperium maius for a further five years to carry it out.² Rome’s provinces closest to its frontier with Parthia were plagued with bad government at the hands of corrupt officials and the debilitating after-effects of natural disasters. Tiberius needed a man who could address the problems and stand up to the Parthians if the need arose. Tiberius could not risk the situation Augustus had found himself in when, as a young triumvir, he was obliged to go to war with M. Antonius who had become a dissolute potentate and a threat to Roman interests. In Germanicus, Tiberius had a safe pair of hands. For the most part, he toed the line.

Germanicus was not a free agent, however. Everything he did was under the auspices of the emperor. Whenever Germanicus failed to follow the agreed rules, as his mentor and superior – in the interests of maintaining the dignity of his office – Tiberius pointed out the error of his ways. He also knew better than most that power was seductive and it opened a man up to many temptations. In the East there were many enticements and Germanicus would be constantly fêted by special interests who would distract him from his mission – distractions which had finally seduced his grandfather, M. Antonius, and brought him into catastrophic conflict with Rome. With that in mind Tiberius dispatched Piso – his opinionated former co-consul – to Syria in the full knowledge that the crusty old patrician would challenge his son without hesitation. Indeed, it might have been a perceptive insight about his nephew. When Germanicus visited Athens and Alexandria he ‘went native’: he dispensed with his lictors who bore the traditional symbols of his consular status, and he dressed in a Greek chiton and sandals, eschewing the Roman tunic and toga – much to Tiberius’ distaste and he chided him for it. Perhaps Germanicus’ behaviour was intended to show sensitivity to local customs, but then, perhaps it was blatant self-promotion – conscious manipulation of his image intended to increase his popularity with his eye on the day when he would assume supreme power. The partnership of two men, in which each knew the younger would succeed the older, but not when, encouraged both parties to be on their best behaviour and thus provided a natural check and balance. While his son lived, Tiberius kept strictly to the straight and narrow. When Germanicus died, Tiberius lost his moral and political counterweight. Aided by men with personal agendas who he had promoted and a Senate fawning for his favour or living in fear of his retribution, he tipped inexorably into despotism.² Among the casualties were Germanicus’ wife Agrippina and their sons Nero and Drusus. Germanicus could not have imagined his son Caius (Caligula) succeeding Tiberius, nor the bizarre lifestyles both men would lead.

Tiberius was not as black as Tacitus portrayed, but Germanicus was certainly greyer. There were actually striking parallels between the two men. Though temperamentally dissimilar – arguably even opposites – the two men were bound by the blood of the Claudians and shared similar backgrounds and life stories. They were both eldest sons who had lost their fathers at a young age, and were brought up by their strong-willed mothers; both were highly educated men with interests in poetry and philosophy; both were thrust into leadership positions with much expected of them in their youths; both were self-starters, able to make decisions on their own initiative; and they were each mindful of their duty and willing to take great personal risks in the fulfilment of it. The main difference between them was the attractiveness of their personalities. Germanicus was popular with almost everyone, stranger and familiar alike; Tiberius was generally liked only by those in the military and Senate who had served with him and knew him personally. It has been said that Germanicus had clementia and humanitas in abundance, while Tiberius did not.² Tiberius could show clemency and generosity on occasions, but his cardinal virtue – and the one Augustus had chosen him as his successor for – wasmoderatio.² For most people, Germanicus was simply the most charismatic of the two men. If the great but reluctant leader was perceived to be brooding, cold and mean, any junior relative with some humanity would, in contrast, be seen as warm and approachable. It turned out that Drusus the Younger was as unpopular as his father. Thus, without much effort on his part, Germanicus became the friendly face in the palace – a person ordinary people, and even public figures such as Ovid, felt they could appeal to for help. With successive tellings of the story by historians, the contrasts between the men would become starker, painting Tiberius blacker and Germanicus whiter than either probably deserved.

Germanicus Caesar’s unexpected death on 10 October 20 CE was ancient Rome’s ‘JFK moment’. It was a tremendous shock to the population whose response was nothing short of hysterical. Romans clamoured for every piece of news arriving by ship at Rome’s great port and reacted to every rumour they heard. Even today, it is still unclear if Germanicus was murdered and if there was a conspiracy behind it, or if he died naturally from an unidentified disease or accidentally by overdose of medication. Despite the allegations of Josephus and Suetonius, it is significant that Tacitus never actually verifies that Piso had poisoned Germanicus, and even expresses his own doubt about the charge.³ Having reviewed the evidence provided by the prosecution, even the Senate recorded at the time only that Germanicus himself had identified Piso as the cause of his death, in response to which he renounced his friendship. The absence of an autopsy report or forensic evidence and the long interval of time which has since passed now makes impossible a definite identification of the cause of death. Germanicus’ death will likely forever remain a mystery and the continuing subject of speculation. He would certainly not be the last prominent Roman official to die in Syria.³¹


What, then, of his achievements? In his obituary of Germanicus, Suetonius lists his quelling of the mutiny of the Rhine legions and refusal to betray his emperor, the campaigns in Germania Magna, his two consulships, his assignment in the Orient as Tiberius’ special envoy in which role he ‘vanquishing the king of Armenia’ and, finally, reduced Cappadocia ‘to the form of a province’.³² He was acclaimed imperator twice by his soldiers, granted an ovation, triumphal ornaments and finally rewarded with a full triumph. In death the Senate voted him honours far exceeding those accorded Augustus’ popular adopted sons Caius and Lucius Caesar and rivalling those of his own birth father Nero Claudius Drusus. For many Germanicus embodied what it meant to be Roman: he demonstrated through his deeds the virtues of courage, loyalty, trustworthiness, restraint, dignity, humanity, patriotism, equity, dutifulness and respect for tradition. He burst with youthful energy and offered the promise that Rome could be strong and vigorous again, a place where the common people had a champion who stood up for their interests against the powerful and corrupt few. With his premature death, and the subsequent demise of his eldest son Nero who was most likely to realize it after him, that vision of the future was lost. But the memory of Germanicus continued to be celebrated each year by people from Dura Europos to Vindolanda for hundreds of years, some even using his name for the month of September, until the Roman Empire itself fell.

Over the centuries, historians, dramatists, novelists, painters and sculptors have accepted and rehashed the ‘Germanicus Tradition’ but that narrow version of his life has obscured the real man. From his self consciousness about his slender legs as a teenager to his irrational fear of chickens throughout his adult life; from his tearful farewell to his wife before mutinous troops to his sense of awe standing before the pyramids of Egypt; from the comedies he wrote to make men laugh to his translation of a cosmological treatise to make men think; from charging headlong into the thick of battle to laying the first sod on the cenotaph to the Roman dead at Teutoburg; from his willingness to flout regulations to save lives during a humanitarian crisis to his curiosity to know his fate from oracles, and in so many other ways, Germanicus emerges from the ancient world as an attractive, romantic and very human figure. To his contemporaries, the flesh-and-blood Germanicus was a Roman hero in the finest tradition. From his father, Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, he inherited an iconic name and a heady legacy. He lived up to it remarkably well through his own lifetime’s deeds and achievements and was building a formidable reputation which many believed eclipsed it. Augustus recognized in his adoptive grandson a charismatic leader with innate talents for war fighting and diplomacy, but that he had much to learn and some maturing to do. With more experience and mentoring he believed Germanicus would one day be ready to become princeps. In his plan of succession he saw to it that Tiberius adopted him, intending Germanicus to one day be the third man on the throne.³³ Germanicus Caesar’s tragically premature death, however, ended that dream and today we are left to ponder what might have been.

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