Germanicus’ body lay lifeless on the bed. As Agrippina grieved unconsolably, the stunned members of his staff debated quietly what to do next.¹ An official announcement had to be dispatched to Rome. A new governor had to be appointed to replace Piso. Germanicus’ body had to be prepared for the funeral and his ashes shipped home. The cause of death had to be established, and, if found to be murder, the person responsible had to be found, arrested, and charged. The army commanders and senators considered who among them was best qualified to become interim governor, pending the princeps’ decision about who should receive the official authority and a proper mandate. It was an uneasy discussion, coming so soon after their leader’s death, and with his still-warm body only feet away, but Marsus and Sentius hotly debated the matter.² Age and vigour finally won, and Sentius accepted the position.
Even as the staff of the deceased Caesar considered the other issues, the tragic news was announced to the crowd waiting anxiously outside the villa. The outpouring of public grief was instant and passionate, and quickly spread to nearby Antiocheia.³ The family began preparing the body. Tradition required that the dead man’s body be washed with warm water, anointed with unguents, and a form of embalming be undertaken.⁴ The body would normally be dressed in the finest attire from the man’s wardrobe. Agrippina, however, insisted that Germanicus’ body be left undressed, perhaps covered only by a simple sheet of cloth.⁵ A coin would be slipped under the deceased’s tongue to pay Charon the ferryman, who would carry his spirit across the River Styx to Elysium in the afterlife. Flowers, garlands and wreaths would be strewn over the body as it lay, while candles and lamps bathed the room in subdued light.
On the day of the funeral, laments were recited and sung as the body was made ready. Agrippina, her family and friends in mourning, each dressed in dark clothes (vestes pullae), assembled and performed a solemn ritual in which she would have called out Germanicus’ name three times to the accompaniment of horns in a fanfare of death, and concluded with the words conclamatio est!⁶ Each member of the family then said their personal final farewell (extremum vale) to him. Much as the family’s and friends’ grief was a deeply private affair, the funeral of this state official would be a very public event. Outside, the cortège began assembling. At the head of the line waited musicians – players of flutes, horns and lyres – followed by hired mourners (praeficae), who would sing dirges (naeniae). Germanicus’ body was now lifted carefully onto a waiting funeral couch. The attendants – perhaps chosen from among the officers or staff – carried the bier bearing Germanicus’ body, feet first, upon their shoulders. They strode solemnly through the villa to their place in the line waiting outside, flanked by his twelve lictors, shouldering their fasces reversed to signify the death of the proconsul. Following immediately after Germanicus’ corpse gathered his wife and children, his close friends and clients. On that sombre October day, as was customary for the wife of the deceased, Agrippina wore her hair dishevelled, and no jewellery. Then the musicians struck up their funereal tune, the mourners began their discordant wailing, and the solemn procession set off slowly along the road, from the villa to the forum, in the heart of the one of the greatest cities of the empire.
The funeral would lack some aspects required by ancient tradition: there could be no procession of the ancestral imagines of the gens Antonii, Claudii Nerones and Iulii, since they were locked up in cupboards in far-away Rome. The funerary procession, now joined by hundreds of ordinary people from the city and the surrounding country, gathered together in the forum. There, a wooden tribunal and a pyre had been erected. The funeral couch with Germanicus’ body was set down before the tribunal. As befitted Rome’s most popular commander, Germanicus’ life and achievements were commemorated. Speaking from the raised platform, his oldest son present or closest friend – the sources do not say which – addressed the assembled crowd and gave a prepared funeral eulogy (laudatio funebris). As reported – or re-imagined – by Tacitus, the speaker told of Germanicus’ many virtues and personal qualities. He drew the inevitable comparison with a young Macedonian hero of centuries past, who had similarly died young:
Some there were who, as they thought of his beauty, his age, and the manner of his death, the vicinity, too, of the country where he died, likened his end to that of Alexander the Great. Both had a graceful person and were of noble birth; neither had much exceeded thirty years of age, and both fell by the treachery of their own people in strange lands. But Germanicus was gracious to his friends, temperate in his pleasures, the husband of one wife, with only legitimate children. He was, too, no less a warrior, though rashness he had none, and, though after having cowed Germany by his many victories, he was hindered from crushing it into subjection. Had he had the sole control of affairs, had he possessed the power and title of a king, he would have attained military glory as much more easily as he had excelled Alexander in clemency, in self-restraint, and in all other virtues.⁷
To gasps from the crowd, Agrippina pulled back the shroud and displayed her husband’s naked body to show strange blue marks on his skin.⁸ Agrippina was grief-stricken and the crowd pitied her awful situation.⁹ The corpse was then carefully lifted onto the pyre. In accordance with custom, Agrippina ascended the pyre and kissed Germanicus in a final and public farewell. Family members and close friends tossed onto the pyre the personal belongings Germanicus had most cherished in his lifetime. Then, with a lighted torch, Agrippina or one of her close friends set the pyre alight. To the crackle and snap of burning kindling, the mourners stood aside and watched as the raging flames licked, and finally consumed, Germanicus’ mortal body, and thick smoke curled up into the sky. After the fire had burned itself out, wine was poured onto the scorched bones and embers, and the ashes were gathered up, covered with oil or honey, and placed in a jar or casket.¹⁰ Ordinarily, the body would be buried and then would begin a period called the ‘Nine Days of Sorrow’, and on the final day, a sacrifice (sacrificium novendiale) and a meal was offered to give the deceased a final send-off into the afterlife. However, Germanicus was not destined to be buried in Antiocheia. Agrippina was determined to see his casket of ashes placed 2,250km (1,400 miles) away in Rome.
By word of mouth, news of Germanicus Caesar’s death passed from person to person and, within days, all Syria knew of it. Despite the great distances, merchants and travellers carried the news beyond the borders to neighbouring provinces, to client kingdoms, and far across the region. ‘Foreign nations and kings grieved over him, so great was his courtesy to allies, his humanity to enemies’, wrote Tacitus.¹¹ The shockwaves of the news from Syria led to the display of previously unthinkable marks of respect by foreign heads of state. Nations at war with each other or with Rome agreed to suspend hostilities for days of mourning.¹² Several regents of smaller kingdoms were reported to have shaved their beards and their wives’ heads. Even the King of Parthia, the self-styled ‘king of kings’, suspended all business, including hunting and feasting, to commemorate his former adversary. Some of the accounts of events following Germanicus’ death may be exaggerations by the Roman historians, but what is very likely true is that the unexpected death of Rome’s emissary to the Orient now plunged her neighbours into a period of diplomatic uncertainty.
The news took several weeks to reach Rome. Spoken and written communications travelled only as fast as the physical mode of transportation, and delays were frequent and inevitable. More recent news could often arrive sooner than older news, creating confusion. The first news reports that Germanicus had died plunged the city into consternation and grief.¹³ Initial accounts of Germanicus’ death were both rejected and exaggerated, and ‘the mourning of the people could neither be assuaged by consolation, nor restrained by edicts’.¹⁴ The city was plunged into grief. Business in the city was suspended – shops were shuttered, the normally noisy courthouses were empty, the front doors of private houses were closed.¹⁵ Even the Senate, without word from the prevailing speaker of the house or its magistrates, went into voluntary recess. ‘Everywhere, there was a silence broken only by groans’, writes Tacitus, ‘nothing was arranged for mere effect; and though they refrained not from the emblems of the mourner, they sorrowed yet the more deeply in their hearts’.¹⁶ Yet there were still those who – hoping against hope – were unwilling to believe the reports of Germanicus’ death. They gathered at Ostia to quiz arriving merchants for updates on his condition. Then, one evening, a ship brought news – unconfirmed and source unknown – that Germanicus had actually recovered. Roused by the happy news, the crowd raced to the city, carrying lit torches and dragging sacrificial animals up to the Capitolinus Hill, all eager to fulfil their vows to the gods for having brought about Germanicus’ recovery.¹⁷ So many crowded onto the acropolis that they almost broke open the doors of the temple. On the neighbouring Palatinus Hill, Tiberius was awoken from his sleep by the incessant noise of the people in the streets, congratulating one another and chanting the words
Rome is safe,
Our is country safe,
Germanicus is safe!¹⁸
Comfortably far from the madding crowd, Tiberius chose not investigate the reports and preferred to wait for the official announcement to arrive from Antiocheia.¹⁹ Yet he could not afford to entirely ignore the situation in the streets below, which was getting rapidly out of hand. Confirmed reports arrived that, all the while the people had believed Germanicus was alive, he was long since dead. Jubilation now turned to abject despair. It was a cruel double blow, ‘and so the people grieved the more bitterly, as though Germanicus was again lost to them’.²⁰ Suetonius reports that riots broke out. Stones were lobbed at temples, altars were cast down and broken, the statuettes of the cherished household gods were thrown into the streets by some, and some chose to expose their new born children to die, as though the world they would grow up in was not worthy without Germanicus.²¹
Causes and Culprits
In Syria, Veranius and Vitellius had been conducting an investigation to establish the cause of death. The sources do not relate if an autopsy was carried out on Germanicus’ body, though it is not beyond the realm of possibility, since at least one is recorded as having taken place in Roman times.²² The historian Velleius Paterculus, who of all the surviving historians’ accounts wrote nearest in time to the events – his Roman History was completed by 30 CE – is oddly silent on the matter of Germanicus’ death.²³ There evidently were several accounts in circulation soon after he passed away, since Flavius Josephus mentions the fact in passing. His is the earliest account we have that mentions Germanicus’ death and offers a cause for it. He writes around 93 or 94 CE, ‘when he had been in the East, and settled all affairs there, his life was taken away by the poison (φαρμάκῳ) which Piso gave him, as has been related elsewhere’.²⁴ Who those sources were, Josephus does not disclose. Suetonius reports, two decades or so later, that Germanicus died of ‘a long drawn out disease (diuturno morbo)’, adding that the visible signs after death were ‘bluish spots (livores) that covered his entire body’ and ‘foaming at the mouth (spuma)’.²⁵ In his mind, based on these signs, poisoning was self-evident – a verdict confirmed for him by the fact that, after the cremation, Germanicus’ heart was found still intact among the charred bones, which, according to widely-held belief at that time, was a clear indicator of poison (veneno).²⁶
Writing about the same time as Suetonius, Tacitus gives us an inexact timeline, which puts the start of Germanicus’ sickness (valetudo) after he had returned to Antiocheia from Egypt.²⁷ The first symptoms of sickness probably would have revealed themselves in late September or the early part of October. Germanicus seems to have recovered; then he relapsed. Tacitus says that rumours of poisoning began to spread at that time. The sickness grew in intensity (saevam vim morbi augebat) and Germanicus himself began to believe Piso had poisoned him.²⁸ He appears not to have been delirious at that time, as he was able to converse with his friends and family. There is a hint that his condition improved again, but, by then, he was physically exhausted (dein fesso corpore) and unable to sustain a full recovery; not long after, he died (neque multo post extinguitur).²⁹ By this account, the sickness lasted under a month, and perhaps just a couple of weeks.
So what killed Germanicus? Modern doctors apply a systematic technique called ‘differential diagnosis’, in attempting to determine the cause of a sickness by comparing and contrasting clinical findings. A lingering sickness, bluish skin and foaming at the mouth – if Suetonius’ and Tacitus’ records are accurate – are the only three clues we have, with which to attempt to identify the cause of death. The duration of the condition clearly suggests a very serious sickness. The culprit could be one of several bacterial or viral infections, and Syria was a dangerous place, ending the lives of several Roman governors to infections of one type or another.³⁰ Typhoid is one candidate. It is caused by the bacterium Salmonella Typhi and is contracted by consuming food or drink that has been handled by a person shedding the bacteria, or it may be in water, used for drinking or washing food, that has come into contact with contaminated sewage.³¹ It was certainly prevalent in Germanicus’ day, and it affected parts of the Empire periodically, bringing Augustus close to death when he was in Spain, and his nephew Marcellus may even have died from it while in Campania.³²Typhoidal fever typically lasts about a month, but in fatal cases it may be over in half that time. However, one fifth of people contracting it die from complications of the infection.³³ Its symptoms include high temperature, a feeling of weakness, stomach pains, headache, and loss of appetite. Alternatively, influenza might have been to blame, but as no others in his party are recorded as having come down with it, this seems an unlikely cause.³⁴ Similarly, malaria or West Nile Encephalitis, both spread by mosquitoes, could have been responsible for making Germanicus sick.³⁵Without details about the accompanying symptoms – such as headache, fever, chills and sweating, bleeding, skin rashes, stomach pains or vomiting, diarrhoea, and the like – or information about the medications his doctor administered, any diagnosis today must needs be speculative.
Foaming or frothing at the mouth can occur while the patient is alive, such as during an epileptic fit or a seizure, and is quite natural before, or at the moment, a person dies.³⁶ It can occur when the patient has difficulty swallowing, which is caused by paralysis of the throat and mouth muscles, resulting in excessive salivation. Difficulty in breathing may also result from the restriction. The excess saliva mixed with air from rapid breathing forms bubbles – the foam or froth. It can also be a symptom of rabies. Alternatively, foaming occurs when the muscle which controls the opening and closing of the stomach finally relaxes and the gastric acid rises up the oesophagus, throat, and out of the mouth. Any of these could indicate a natural cause of death, though none of the accounts reveal Germanicus as having a history of epileptic attacks or having been bitten by a wild animal.
Bluish skin is called cyanosis in modern medical parlance. It usually indicates lack of oxygen in the blood, and can be an indicator of several serious medical problems.³⁷ It may develop suddenly, along with shortness of breath, such as in a seizure, but it can also indicate longer-term heart or lung problems. Causing the lack of oxygen can be a blood clot in the arteries of the lungs (pulmonary embolism), or asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), inflammation of the lungs (diffuse institial lung disease), or pneumonia. Any of these could provide adequate medical explanations for the natural cause of Germanicus’ death. Thus, by itself, cyanosis does not indicate a particular naturally-induced cause of death – but neither is it a confirmation of poisioning, as Suetonius asserts.
Alternatively, a drug overdose, such as of a sedative administered by his own doctor, could equally well have been responsible. As a high-ranking official and member of the imperial family, Germanicus could have afforded the services of a private physician. Often a Greek by birth, he would have been trained to a high standard and been familiar with the works of Hippokrates.³⁸ Nevertheless, ignorance of the strength of medicaments did cause accidental deaths, and, with the frequency of Germanicus’ travelling, it may have been difficult for a doctor accompanying him to obtain supplies of raw materials of a consistent potency or safety. Local alternatives may have been available, but Pliny the Elder warned especially about accepting drugs from herbalists and drug-pedlars as dancing with death by suicide.³⁹
The Romans were aware of the toxic properties of many animals, minerals, and plants. Some were used in low dosages to induce euphoric trances for religious rites, rather than to kill. Indeed, some were used as remedies. These included aconite (wolfbane or monkshood), alcohol, belladonna,cannabis sativa (dagga), hemlock, hellebore, henbane, mandragora, opium, poisonous mushrooms, rhododendron, and thorn apple.⁴⁰ The most widely-used derived from plants. Problematic for modern scholars are the use of the terms for poison by ancient writers. The words φάρμακον andvenenum are ambiguous. The Greek word, used by Josephus in his account, means a drug of any kind, and does not indicate whether its use is benign or malicious. Similarly, the Latin word, which originally meant a love potion, can mean poison, but can also be used for remedy, abortive or magic potion.⁴¹ The Romans themselves recognized this ambiguity and, in later times, insisted that the user of the word should indicate whether beneficial or harmful effects were intended.⁴² Tacitus uses the word scelus (‘crime’) specifically for murder by poison, but he does not in the case of Germanicus.⁴³ The precise meanings of the Greek and Latin terms depend on the context and, specifically, the dosage. Opium, for example, was known to aid digestion, and was also used as a soporific and analgesic; but, in large dosages, it was understood to be harmful and even kill.⁴⁴
If Germanicus was poisoned by a single or repeated overdose of medication, his death was by misadventure. If, however, there was a plot to kill him, the murderer may have purposely administered several doses of one poison, or a variety of toxins, at different times, which would explain why he relapsed after having seemingly made a recovery. But the surviving accounts suggest not. Roman authors used the word veneficium to indicate poisoning or sorcery, and it is significant that neither Suetonius nor Tacitus uses it in describing the death of Germanicus. Indeed, Tacitus himself casts doubt on poisoning as the cause of his death. The body had lain uncovered in the forum at Antiocheia before it was burnt and, he writes, ‘it is doubtful whether it exhibited the marks of poisoning(veneficii)’.⁴⁵
If the death of Germanicus was not by accident or natural causes, but in fact was homicide, the question has to be asked who murdered him? There are several potential suspects. There are the known enemies of Germanicus to consider. If Tacitus’ account is accurate, Germanicus himself believed that he was being poisoned by Cn. Calpurnius Piso and his wife Munatia Plancina. The couple’s dislike of the young Caesar was well-known, and their personal actions were consistent with their low opinion of him. To convince a modern jury of guilt in a crime, however, police detectives look for three things in investigating a death: means, motive and opportunity. How would the husband or wife have benefited from murdering Germanicus? Their motive could not be financial: they were already extremely wealthy people. Perhaps it was power? There is a story that Augustus had described Piso as not unworthy of the throne, and under his successor he was a man of considerable influence, but there is no evidence that he had his eye on taking supreme power.⁴⁶ Was Piso settling an old score? Piso was a haughty, arrogant man and he had had bitter arguments with his superior, but there is no suggestion that he bore a festering grudge against Germanicus – at least, not one so great that he would have committed murder in order to find redress. Could the motivation have been the excitement of murder? It might seem an odd question, but modern studies have highlighted how risk-taking plays a part in a lot of criminal activity, and how, for some, the act of committing a crime is its own reward.⁴⁷ Were the Pisones thrill-seekers? Apparently not: far from finding pleasure in risky adventures, the couple are portrayed in the ancient literature as a pair of antisocial bores, who derived their pleasure from flaunting their wealth and status. Both husband and wife were undeniably callous towards Germanicus, but that would not necessarily drive them to murder him. If they were inclined to, they could certainly have provided the means and have paid for an assassin. Plancina was known to have an active personal interest in the arcane science of toxicology and befriended an experienced practitioner by the name of Martina.⁴⁸ Being co-located in Antiocheia, they also had the opportunity. Indeed, there is an allegation recorded by Tacitus that, at a dinner party, Piso reclined near Germanicus where he could have dropped poison in his host’s food or drink at any moment.⁴⁹ Tacitus himself thought it implausible as, surrounded by other guests, he would likely have been seen doing it. Piso was also accused of using spies to note every unfavourable symptom and chart the progress of Germanicus’ fatal illness, which did not cast him in a good light, but it was only an accusation.⁵⁰ Taken at face value, all this circumstantial evidence amounts to little of substance, and would probably be insufficient to secure a conviction. Other than removing someone they felt was below them socially, Piso and Plancina had little or nothing to gain personally from killing Germanicus.
Did they perhaps act in consort with another party? There is a suggestion recorded by Tacitus that Piso was operating under special instructions from Tiberius Caesar – or his mother.⁵¹ These alleged instructions, if they existed at all, were never released for public scrutiny. The crux of this hypothesis is the premise that Tiberius had decided to eliminate his adopted son sooner rather than later. His motivation would have been the growing suspicion that his adopted son was driving an agenda of his own, becoming more arrogant and insubordinate in the knowledge that he was destined to rule. The main source for this theory is, again, Tacitus, and the historian provides examples of Tiberius’ annoyance, such as Germanicus’ insistence on continuing the war in Germania, or his disregard for policy preventing unauthorized high-ranking officials from visiting Egypt. Tiberius did not, himself, have the opportunity to kill his son, so he would have had to work secretly through agents, just as he was alleged to have done in the affair of Postumus Agrippa. In that role, the Calpurnii Pisones could have acted to carry out his instructions. If not them, there could have been other agents sufficiently removed from him for plausible deniability. These could have included trusted high-ranking military officers, such as the chief of his own Praetorian Cohorts, L. Aelius Seianus – of whom more later. Perhaps in the hope of advancement or favouritism, Seianus acted on his own initiative and commissioned Piso or Plancina or someone else to carry out the deed. Yet the logic seems flawed. The ‘Tiberius as mastermind of Germanicus’ death’ theory fails to be convincing on two major counts. Firstly, if Tiberius was so upset about Germanicus’ attitude or performance, or he felt so threatened by him, he could have simply recalled him and stripped him of his powers. As history shows, he did not. Secondly, the general impression left by a reading of the ancient accounts is that the princeps actually went out of his way to grant the man chosen by Augustus to be the third emperor considerable leeway in running his affairs, even publicly lavishing praise on the young Caesar for his achievements and promoting him with an ever-expanding portfolio of duties and powers.
If not Tiberius, then what about Livia? Initially, she had positive feelings about Germanicus. She approved of her grandson’s marriage to Agrippina, seeing in it a union of the gens Claudia and Iulia, out of which would spring children carrying the mixed blood of the clans.⁵² Yet she allegedly discouraged Augustus when he was actively considering the adoption of Germanicus as his primary heir.⁵³ Livia’s supposed motive was to see her own eldest son follow Augustus first. If true, she had achieved her goal. But what would she gain by arranging the assassination of Germanicus? In explaining the many unfortunate premature deaths of Augustus’ nominated heirs, some ancient historians have perceived a master assassin with a higher agenda at work. Stereotyping women as assassins whose preferred weapon was poison was a common literary device among Roman historians.⁵⁴ In the Augusta, such conspiracy theorists had a ready scapegoat. Indeed, historians and novelists alike have been unkind to Livia, branding her as a champion of her eldest son’s advancement, ruthlessly eliminating anyone who stood in his way.⁵⁵ The truth, however, is that the widely different circumstances of the deaths of M. Agrippa, Marcellus, Drusus the Elder, Caius and Lucius Caesar, Postumus Agrippa and Germanicus make it neither likely that a single criminal mind was at work, nor that Livia – or anyone else – schemed their demises.
Casting the net wider, among Germanicus’ amici, advisors and adjutants, several men could have harboured secret grudges. The lust for power could have provided a motive for murder. Vibius Marsus and Cn. Sentius were quick to argue over who would take control of Syria and, with it, command of its four legions. Similarly, Q. Veranius and P. Vitellius might each have held private resentments. However, all of these men owed their recent advancements and current positions to Germanicus and had everything to gain from seeing him live a long and prosperous life, not dead. Nor is there a suggestion that his brother Drusus ever harboured any grudge – in fact, there was genuine fraternal affection between them. It is highly unlikely that his friends or members of staff produced a murderer. Intriguingly, Veranius and Vitellius, who were investigating the crime, did, however, have the opportunity to doctor the evidence and make it point to one or more individuals, whom they wanted to see brought down in fulfilment of their oath to their deceased patron.
Could Germanicus have been the victim of a foreign plot? During his tenure in the East, Germanicus had negotiated with a host of nations – Armenia, Cilicia, Commagene and Parthia. In advancing Rome’s best interests there, he had probably hurt those of powerful local men and created enemies in the process – henchmen of Vonones, for instance. There were others, no doubt, who had much to gain if war broke out between Rome and Parthia. Any of these could have hired an assassin to pay back the chief Roman diplomat for his meddling in their affairs, or, by bringing about his death, to destablize the region in order to realize their agendas. The Roman sources, however, give no indication of an agent working on behalf of the Parthians or their client states. Indeed, the response of potentates across the region was to mourn his passing, not to celebrate it.
In recent times, two other names have been suggested. These are L. Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) and, remarkably, Germanicus’ own wife, Agrippina the Elder.⁵⁶ The theory is premised upon the idea that the young Seneca was staying in Alexandria at the time of Germanicus’ visit, since he had been recuperating there from a serious sickness at the invitation of his uncle, C. Valerius, praefectus of Aegyptus. In the hope of advancing his career by making his mark, his supposed motive was to ingratiate himself with Tiberius by eliminating the man he had come to see as a threat. The author of the hypothesis presupposes that Agrippina is a wife in a rocky marriage. Seneca is portrayed as the seducer, providing the distraction of a short-term love affair, and the schemer, offering long-term fulfilment of her secret ambition to see her sons rule Rome before her husband. Agrippina is proposed as the willing accomplice and the executioner. While there were certainly opportunities aplenty for Agrippina to administer a lethal dose of poison at any time, it is a fanciful – if not an absurd – conjecture with absolutely no basis in fact. All the surviving evidence presents Agrippina as a devoted wife who was loyal to her husband, both during his life and well after his death. As for Seneca, in 19 CE, he was known only as a sickly teacher of rhetoric from Cordoba in southern Spain.
Forensic science was almost non-existent at this time. In the sincere belief that they were investigating a murder, Veranius and Vitellius conducted on-the-spot searches of the supposed crime scene for evidence, both at the villa at Epidaphnae and the residence of their prime suspects, Piso and Plancina. In the governor’s property in Antiocheia, it is reported,
certainly, there were found hidden in the floor and in the walls disinterred remains of human bodies, incantations and spells, and the name of Germanicus inscribed on leaden tablets, half-burnt cinders smeared with blood, and other horrors by which, in popular belief, souls are devoted to the infernal deities.⁵⁷
The discovery of the use of black magic would reinforce the impression of the couple’s wicked intentions. The little room of horrors may even have been stage-managed by friends of Germanicus, to ensure that there was enough evidence to secure a conviction. Many people had already made up their minds, no matter what any facts might prove, ‘for men, according as they pitied Germanicus and were prepossessed with suspicion or were biased by partiality towards Piso, gave conflicting accounts’.⁵⁸ In the summary court of popular opinion – both in Antiocheia and Rome – the finger of accusation pointed straight at the former governor and his wife.⁵⁹ For Veranius, Vitellius and others, it was a foregone conclusion. They immediately began work on preparing the indictment, ‘as if a prosecution had already been commenced’.⁶⁰ The task now was to find the accused, present the charges, and bring them to justice. Of deeper concern was the suspicion that the Pisones had not acted alone and that they were acting under direct orders from the emperor – or his mother.⁶¹ In the meantime, a suspected accomplice – the woman named Martina, notorious for numerous poisonings in Syria – was taken into custody. The hunt for Piso and Plancina was on.
The former governor and his wife had long since left Syria and were already berthed at the Dodecanese island of Kos, just off the Carian coast.⁶² It was there that they received news of Germanicus’ death. The couple were jubilant. Piso celebrated his joy with sacrifices and prayers of thanks at the local temples. Plancina, who was in mourning for the loss of her sister, now expressed her happiness at Germanicus’ passing, by wearing the brightest coloured clothes she could find. Among Piso’s party were centurions who were still loyal to the former governor.⁶³ They hinted that the legions in Syria would come to his side if approached, and urged him to return and retake his office. His son, Marcus, urged him to go to Rome, however, saying he was not implicated in Germanicus’ death since he had already left before it happened. Moreover, his return to Syria might provoke a civil war.⁶⁴ Domitius Celer, one of Piso’s confidants, backed the centurions’ motion, arguing that he had been appointed the governor by the emperor and that he was still entitled to lead the army stationed there.⁶⁵ Moreover, he – or at least his wife – had the support of Livia, mother of Tiberius, who could exert considerable influence over the emperor. After weighing up his options, Piso decided his best interests lay in taking back command of Syria. He dispatched a letter to Tiberius, in which he accused Germanicus of living a life of luxury and arrogance and further stating that, having been forced out of office, he was resuming command of the army and the province.⁶⁶ Celer was sent on ahead aboard a trireme with orders to go directly to Antiocheia by the fastest route – open sea, not by hugging the coast. Meanwhile Piso’s men began to assemble an army of deserters and armed the civilian camp-followers. They diverted a detachment of new recruits who were on their way to Syria, and also demanded that the client king of Cilicia should provide him with cohorts of auxiliary troops.
Meanwhile, leaving Sentius in charge in Syria, and accompanied by members of Germanicus’ staff, Agrippina now set off with her children for Rome.⁶⁷ Carrying her husband’s precious ashes, she was emotionally at her lowest ebb, worn out from grieving. Yet she was keen to hasten to Rome and see justice done.⁶⁸ In her wretched state, she was ‘pitied by all’, wrote Tacitus, but she had attained a heroic stature through her unwavering resolve:
Here indeed was a woman of the highest nobility, and but lately because of her splendid union wont to be seen amid an admiring and sympathizing throng, now bearing in her bosom the mournful relics of death, with an uncertain hope of revenge, with apprehensions for herself, repeatedly at fortune’s mercy by reason of the ill-starred fruitfulness of her marriage.⁶⁹
The ships made steady progress along the coasts of Lycia and Pamphylia. By chance, her flotilla passed Piso’s. Across the waves, there was a heated exchange. M. Vibius shouted that Piso should go to Rome and face charges. Piso is reported as replying that ‘he would be there as soon as the praetor who had to try poisoning cases (praetor qui de veneficiis quaereret) had fixed a day for the accused and his prosecutors’.⁷⁰ He was determined to use every means available to him to come from a position of strength and appear in court on his own terms. The ships went their separate ways. Celer, meantime, had landed in Syria at Loadicea (Laodikeia, modern Latakia) and was heading for the winter camp of Legio VI Ferrata, which Tacitus remarks was particularly susceptible to revolutionary ideas. Its legate, Pacavius, had anticipated the visit and forestalled Piso’s envoy. With the stakes rising, Sentius wrote a letter to Piso telling him to stay well away from the legions. If he did decide to wage war, Sentius would be at the head of a substantial force of men still loyal to the memory of Germanicus in Syria.⁷¹
His initial approaches having proved unsuccessful, Piso decided – wisely – against entering Syria. He took refuge, instead, in neighbouring Cilicia, in a fortified hill-top citadel called Celenderis. Combining the Cilician auxiliaries, the intercepted recruits and miscellaneous deserters, he cobbled together a legion.⁷² In a show of force, they assembled, using the advantage of the terrain below the hill, where they faced Sentius’ men deployed in battle array on the plain. When the order was given to engage, the veteran Roman soldiers and the reserves advanced up the slope of the hill and clashed with Piso’s army of untested tirones, supplemented by a rag-tag band equipped with pitchforks and scythes. Seeing no chance of victory, the Cilician auxiliaries decided it was not worth risking their lives, and withdrew up the hill and back into the safety of the fortress. Piso attempted to attack a fleet that was waiting offshore, but that action also came to nought. In growing desperation, he tried to incite a mutiny of the troops on Sentius’ side.⁷³Riding up to their temporary camp, he called to men he knew by name, and shouted to them that a signifer of Legio VI had already come over to his side. Sentius would not stand for this behaviour and gave the order for his troops to besiege Celenderis. Faced with an all-out assault of tried and tested siege weaponry, Piso knew he could not win, and sued for time to write to Tiberius and consult about him the governorship of Syria. Sentius blankly refused, offering him only safe passage to the shore, where he could board a ship and return to Rome. Piso’s revolt was over.
Honours for Germanicus
Outbreaks of civil disruption continued in Rome well into December.⁷⁴ On 16 December, the Senate decreed an extraordinary list of posthumous honours for Germanicus Iulius Caesar.⁷⁵ The decree of the Senate – Senatus Consultum de supremis honoribus Germanici – was later cast in plaques of bronze and posted in the portico of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatinus Hill in Rome, and on public buildings in the municipiae and coloniae of Italy and across the Empire, ‘so that the devotion (pietas) of all orders toward the imperial household (domus Augusta) and unanimity of all citizens in honouring Germanicus’ memory might be more easily visible’.⁷⁶ It decreed that the day of Germanicus’ death was henceforth a day of remembrance on which neither legal cases could be heard, nor serious business could be conducted; no banquets, weddings, games or public entertainments could take place; and to accommodate for it, the theatrical games of Augustus (ludi Augustales scaenici), normally held on that day, should be postponed to the end of the month. It decreed that Germanicus’ name was to be included in the song of the Salii, sung by the twelve priests of Mars Gradivus when they celebrated the ancient festival of Mars on the Kalends (1st) of March – an honour only a few mortal men ever received, the most recent being Augustus.⁷⁷ The chairs of state decorated with garlands of oak were to be set up in the places assigned to the priesthood of the flamen divorum Augustalis of which Germanicus had been its first chief priest. In the room used by Germanicus, no flamen or augur would henceforth be chosen, with the sole exception of those from the gens Iulia. His image, exquisitely carved in ivory, was to appear at the head of the ceremonial procession before the games (ludi) of the circus.
Three triumphal arches (iani) of marble were to be erected: in the Circus Flaminius in Rome, on the banks of the Rhine (probably at Mogontiacum), and on the slopes of Mount Amanus in Syria, where it would stand at the intersection of Syria, Cilicia, and Commagene – significantly all places and countries personally associated with Germanicus.⁷⁸ Each would display an inscription recording his lifetime’s achievements and how he had died in the service of the Republic. The arch in Circo Flaminio in Rome would feature Germanicus riding in a decorated triumphator’s chariot, flanked by the figures of Antonia, Agrippina and Drusus the Elder.⁷⁹ The arch in Rome, specifically, would be raised to commemorate Germanicus’ important mission to the East, ‘because he died on behalf of the Res Publica’.⁸⁰ Thus, it was to be stated publicly that Germanicus had not died in vain, but – like his father, Drusus, before him – in the service of his country. The arch in Germania Superior would bear an inscription stressing the familial connection to Drusus the Elder, brother of Tiberius, where his reputation was still cherished.⁸¹ Only in Syria, where the imperial family had no direct involvement before Germanicus, would the members of the domus Augusta not be represented on the triumphal arch. Its siting would, nevertheless, be at the discretion of the princeps.⁸²
A high mound would be raised at Epidaphnae, where his life had ended, and a cenotaph (sepulchrum) was to be built at Antiocheia, where his body had been cremated.⁸³ A new bronze boundary marker was to be raised in Rome.⁸⁴ Statues were to be erected, and Tacitus remarks that there were finally so many that neither the number of them nor the places they were displayed in could be easily calculated.⁸⁵ Germanicus’ famed skill as an orator also was to be celebrated, but, in the scale of its award, the Senate pushed its luck too far. When a remarkably large commemorative shield made of gold was voted him as inter auctores eloquentiae, ‘a leader among orators’, Tiberius – ever one for showing restraint (moderatio), the very quality for which Augustus chose him as his successor – overruled the decision. He declared that he would dedicate to his son one of the usual kind, similar to those issued to others, ‘for in eloquence’, he said, ‘there was no distinction of rank, and it was a sufficient glory for him to be classed among ancient writers’.⁸⁶
On the Capitolinus Hill, beside the Temple of Fides, honouring trust or faith, trophies of Germanicus’ victories (Tropaea Germanici) were erected upon a tribunal, where they stood among others placed by notable Roman greats like C. Marius; it was a considerable honour for Germanicus, as only a decade or so before, Augustus had arranged for many of the historic monuments to be moved to other locations, to make the space more accessible for visitors.⁸⁷
The lower orders, too, showed their respect to his memory. The equites changed the name given to the hemicycle of seats they occupied in the theatre, popularly known as ‘the juniors’ (iuniores), to ‘Germanicus’ row’ (cuneum Germanici). Additionally, they arranged that their turmae would ride behind his effigy in their annual procession for the transvectio equito – a celebration held on the Ides (15th) of July by the Roman cavalry, which started at the Temple of Mars, then wound its way through Rome’s streets, crossing the Forum, before finally halting at the Temple of the Dioscuri.⁸⁸ One of their number, C. Lutorius Priscus, composed a best-selling poem deploring the wasteful death of Germanicus, which pleased Tiberius greatly and, for it, he paid its author a cashreward.⁸⁹ Tiberius’ own panegyric (elogia) for his son was set in bronze and put on public display.⁹⁰ The plebeian class also played its part by paying for statues of Germanicus in triumphal panoply and erecting them in the temples and altars that Augustus and Livia had formerly chosen for statues of Drusus the Elder, with dedicatory inscriptions from the thirty-five tribes.⁹¹ To the ten voting centuries of the Caesars, five were to be added in honour of Germanicus Caesar.⁹²
Individual cities across the empire also showed their appreciation for the life of their favourite member of the imperial family, each according to their means.⁹³ In Italy, the city of Gabii installed a marble statue (plate 39) in the forum, depicting Germanicus as a demi-god, his naked muscled body covered only around the waist and legs by a toga, while in Amelia, the city fathers repurposed an existing bronze statue (plate 40) by swapping the old head for a new one of Germanicus.⁹⁴
On the banks of the Rhine, there was deep disaffection among the soldiers when they heard of the death – or, as some believed, the murder – of their beloved commander; the army remained calm, however, and began work on constructing the arch at Mogontiacum, as the Senate had ordered, and would later hold the first of many annual sacrifices on Germanicus’ birthday.⁹⁵ On the coast of North Africa at Lepcis Magna, the city fathers were building a temple to Roma et Augustus in the Old Forum. In front of the main temple building, they erected a statue group honouring members of the imperial family, placing Germanicus and his brother Drusus, together in a triumphal chariot, prominently in the centre.⁹⁶ On mainland Greece, a day was dedicated to the ‘Victory (Nike) of Germanicus’ at the festival of the Kaisareia held at Gytheum (Gythion) near Sparta.⁹⁷ Several Greekspeaking cities of Asia – for example, in Bithynia et Pontus, Isauria, Paphlagonia – voluntarily changed their names to Γερμανικόπολις (Germanikopolis), ‘city of Germanicus’. In mourning for him, the world had gone crazy for Germanicus.⁹⁸
Amid all of the private and public grieving, new life had, meantime, come bawling into the world. In the imperial family, Drusus’ wife Livilla had given birth to two sons. One of them was named Ti. Claudius Caesar Germanicus Gemellus (Ti. Germanicus, for short), and the other was Ti. Iulius Caesar Nero Gemellus (commonly known as Gemellus, ‘the twin’). The news of the birth of twins would have normally been cause for joyous celebration; but, instead, it brought the opposite reaction, as people quickly speculated that the prospects for Germanicus’ surviving children were now diminished by the additions to his brother’s family.⁹⁹ Tiberius, for one, found reason to be cheerful, and boasted of his new grandsons to the Senate at every opportunity.¹⁰⁰
By the end of the year, Agrippina’s flotilla finally reached the island of Corcyra (Corfu). She was still distraught – ‘wild with grief and knew not how to endure it’ – yet determined to press on.¹⁰¹ The crew and passengers disembarked for a few days’ respite, but the stop was also calculated to ensure that news of her imminent arrival reached Italy and that a good-sized crowd would turn up. Just 300km (186 miles) across the Adriatic Sea, people began to gather at Brundisium, waiting expectantly for the famed widow of Germanicus Caesar.¹⁰² Intimate friends, officers, men who had served under Germanicus, and strangers who just wanted to pay their respects and offer their condolences, all kinds of people crowded into the busy port city. Every vantage point was taken. Unaccustomed to welcoming home a deceased V.I.P., many on the quayside quizzed the people standing next to them about whether they should show respectful silence or freely express their grief. Then, someone saw the ships approaching on the horizon and cried out, and the general mood suddenly turned at once to excitement and gloom. The oarsmen carefully manoeuvred the ship bearing the imperial family along the dockside. Retracting their oars, the hawsers were cast and tied off at the piers. Dockhands carefully positioned the ramp, stood discreetly aside, and bowed their heads out of respect. It was a memorable scene. As reported by Tacitus:
When Agrippina descended from the vessel with her two children, clasping the funeral urn, with eyes rivetted to the earth, there was one universal groan. You could not distinguish kinsfolk from strangers, or the laments of men from those of women; only the attendants of Agrippina, worn out as they were by long sorrow, were surpassed by the mourners who now met them, fresh in their grief.¹⁰³
She was met by civic officials and two units of Cohors Praetoria – sent on Tiberius’ direct orders – who would provide a ceremonial escort from the coast all the way to Rome.¹⁰⁴ The official welcomes and condolences having been given, the procession set off at a slow march along the ancientVia Appia. Ahead of the column marched the standard-bearers with their signa unadorned: this was not a time for celebration. Then came Germanicus’ twelve lictors carrying their fasces reversed. The tribunes and centurions followed, carrying the urn with Germanicus’ ashes on a bier upon their shoulders, and behind them walked Agrippina, her children, attendants and friends.¹⁰⁵ The 570km (354 mile) journey which lay ahead would take them across the breadth of Italy, through the coloniae andmunicipiae of Calabria, Campania and Latium. People turned out in strength to witness the funeral cortège. The equites dressed in their finest robes, the plebs wearing the best they could find in black, burned offerings of clothes and spices according to their means along the roadside. Even citizens of towns not directly on the route travelled to pay their respects, offering sacrifices and prayers, erecting altars, shedding tears and wailing their own sorrows, as the sad entourage rolled past. Many could recall how Germanicus’ father, Nero Claudius Drusus, had been similarly welcomed home after his tragic death in 9 BCE.¹⁰⁶ Germanicus’ brothers, Drusus the Younger and Claudius, and the other children of Agrippina met the mourners at Tarracina (Terracina), a full day’s ride – 76km (47 miles) – south-east of Rome.¹⁰⁷ It was an emotional meeting: Drusus and Agrippina had not met since the spring of the previous year, when it had been under happier circumstances in Dalmatia; for Claudius, it was longer still. None could have imagined the tragedy causing this reunion. By now, Agrippina and her party had been travelling for weeks. As they approached Rome, people thronged the roadsides. The consuls, M. Valerius Messalla and M. Aurelius Cotta, came out to officially receive the cortège. All present shed tears at the overwhelming emotion of the event.
Conspicuously absent from the welcoming party were Tiberius, the Augusta (Livia) and Antonia. It did not go unnoticed. Tacitus offers alternative explanations for their absence. They may not have felt comfortable showing their grief in public, he says, or they believed people might see through their crocodile tears for the hypocrisy that it was. ‘I do not find, in any historian or in the daily register, that Antonia, Germanicus’ mother’, he wrote,
rendered any conspicuous honour to the deceased, though besides Agrippina, Drusus, and Claudius, all his other kinsfolk are mentioned by name. She may either have been hindered by illness, or with a spirit overpowered by grief she may not have had the heart to endure the sight of so great an affliction.¹⁰⁸
Nevertheless, even here, he suspects the ill will of Tiberius and Livia at work, ‘that their sorrow might seem equal to hers, and that the grandmother and uncle might be thought to follow the mother’s example in staying at home’.¹⁰⁹
There was to be no state funeral. Tacitus describes the actual day as ‘desolate in its silence, distracted by lamentations’.¹¹⁰ Rome’s narrow streets were packed with mourners on their way to the Via Flaminia. Outside the city walls, lit torches blazed across the wide, open space of the Campus Martius. Soldiers turned out in their arms and armour, as if prepared for inspection by their commander. State officials and magistrates did not carry their badges of office, as if to appear as humble citizens. The crowds gathered on the parkland consecrated to Mars in front of the great Mausoleum of Augustus (fig. 9). The Roman historians do not record if a speech was given, but two fragments of an eloquium believed to have been for Germanicus have been found, carved on blocks belonging to the facing from the base of the monumental tomb.¹¹¹ Beneath the tree-covered earthen tumulus, deep within its concentric circles of arched vaults, were the caskets containing the ashes of Marcellus, Agrippa, Octavia, Nero Claudius Drusus, the brothers Caius and Lucius, and, most recently, Augustus himself. Agrippina led her children silently past the two great obelisks and the bronze tablets, upon which were inscribed her grandfather’s lifetime achievements. They walked slowly through the single doorway and down the dark, echoing passageway, illuminated only by flickering oil lamps. She reached a niche, which had been prepared in advance, and she carefully placed the urn in the dark space, uttered a prayer, and stood reflecting upon her loss. Then, she turned about and left Germanicus to rest for the ages. Outside, the people openly spoke of her as ‘the glory of the country, the sole surviving offspring of Augustus, the solitary example of the old times’; and they looked up to heaven and the gods and ‘prayed for the safety of her children and that they might outlive their oppressors’.¹¹²
Figure 9. Germanicus’ ashes were placed in Augustus’ mausoleum, Rome by his wife Agrippina after a long voyage from Syria. (Reconstructed by the author after H. von Hesburg)
Since dawn, the mood of the people had been sombre and resentful. Many had gone expecting a grand state funeral and were disappointed by what they saw. Others, who had attended the funeral of Drusus the Elder, compared what they had just witnessed with what they had seen some three decades before. They recalled the grandeur of that occasion, and the moving speech Augustus had given when he lauded the man’s life and achievements, and compared it with Tiberius’ present silence. They contrasted the aged Augustus, and his willingness to travel in winter from Ticinum to receive the body as the cortège made the long journey from Germania to Rome, with Tiberius, who now stayed at home. All the ceremony and trappings of a patrician funeral given to Drusus pater – the parade of the imagines of the Claudii and Iulii, the panegyrics spoken from the Rostra, even the pathetic laments of the crowd – were missing on this cold winter’s day in January 20 CE.¹¹³ They also contrasted the honours heaped upon Drusus and the meagre few granted to Germanicus. Yet, seen in the wider context, these criticisms seem unfair. After the death of Drusus, Tiberius had walked the entire journey on foot in front of the hearse, because it was a mark of pietas for his brother. He had attended his funeral and delivered the eulogy from the Rostra before the burning of the body, because it was in keeping with tradition for high-ranking Romans, such as accorded to Sulla, Agrippa and Augustus. He was not intentionally being disrespectful to his adopted son, whose body had been burned overseas. Tiberius had sent the Cohors Praetoria and officials to receive Germanicus’ cremated ashes at Brundisium and ordered that they accompany them all the way to Rome. As for the claim of meagre posthumous honours, the Senate had already decreed them on 16 December, and they were fine distinctions for Rome’s most popular citizen. Tacitus himself notes, ‘granted that his body, because of the distance of the journey, was burnt in any fashion in foreign lands’.¹¹⁴ This, therefore, was not intended to be a state funeral. In Tiberius’ view, the family members were simply placing the urn in the family tomb. It was, in effect, a private ceremony. There were recent precedents for this. Caius and Lucius Caesar had each been cremated far from Rome and had not received funerals in the city, and the honours granted to Germanicus were just as substantial as theirs.¹¹⁵ Tiberius was, thus, meticulously following standard protocol. His error was to misjudge the mood of the people. The people needed a response that reflected their pain, an assurance that the princeps cared. By staying out of view and not shedding tears in public, the head of state and his family were seen as cold and remote. The public responded to the perceived snub by turning their sorrow for the loss of Germanicus into scathing criticism of his adoptive father.¹¹⁶
The foul mood festered for weeks after the event. Finally, in late March or early April of that year, Tiberius was compelled to issue a public statement:
Many eminent Romans had died for their country and none had been honoured with such passionate regret [as Germanicus]. This regret was a glory both to himself and to all, provided only a due mean were observed; for what was becoming in humble homes and communities, did not befit princely personages and an imperial people. Tears and the solace found in mourning were suitable enough for the first burst of grief; but now they must brace their hearts to endurance, as in former days the Divine Iulius after the loss of his only daughter, and the Divine Augustus when he was bereft of his grandchildren, had thrust away their sorrow. There was no need of examples from the past, showing how often the Roman people had patiently endured the defeats of armies, the destruction of generals, the total extinction of noble families. Princes were mortal; the State was everlasting. Let them then return to their usual pursuits, and, as the shows of the festival of the Great Goddess were at hand, even resume their amusements.¹¹⁷
The message was clear. The time for mourning was over. Romans must get on with their lives. He had done so himself when his own brother had died.¹¹⁸ The proclamation had the intended effect. Businesses reopened and people went back to work.¹¹⁹ The festival of the Magna Mater – the Megalensia – took place, as it always did, between 4 and 12 April: her temple was consecrated on the Palatinus Hill and her image was paraded through the streets to the Circus Maximus, followed by chariot races.¹²⁰ Yet Germanicus was not so easily forgotten. The public had a new spectacle to focus their minds on: the impending trial of Cn. Calpurnius Piso.¹²¹
M. Piso had arrived ahead of his father to meet separately with Tiberius and Drusus.¹²² The princeps received the man with courtesy. His son, however, was concerned about the allegations of Piso’s involvement in Germanicus’ death, and, while he professed he did not believe them, nevertheless, the meeting did not dismiss his concerns. Piso senior had arrived at Ancona and was making his way along the Via Flaminia. At one point on the journey, he intercepted Legio VIIII Hispana redeploying from Dalmatia to Africa, and he used the opportunity to flaunt his superior rank on the marching troops. Eventually, he took a ship down the Tiber to Rome, where, to everyone’s consternation, he disembarked alongside the Mausoleum of Augustus.¹²³ It was a deliberately provocative act. In full daylight, Piso and Plancina and their retinue made their way through the crowds on the Campus Martius, arrogantly flashing their smiles at their joy to be back. They processed through the city to their lavish home on the Palatinus Hill, conspicuously located high above the Forum. Their house had been made all the more prominent by being decked out in garlands for a celebration. The wafting savoury aromas of cooking advertised the banquet being prepared for Piso’s friends and followers.
The team seeking to prosecute Piso wasted no time. Normally, a case involving the allegation of poisoning would have been tried in the quaestio de veneficiis.¹²⁴ The following day, Veranius and Vitellius sought to file the application for the prosecution, but found themselves beaten to it by Fulcinius Trio.¹²⁵ As one of the new breed of legal professionals, he was keen to win the case and build his reputation. He had already asked the consuls for permission to file the indictment. Hardly had he finished filing the application than he was reproached by Germanicus’ friends, who argued that, as accusers representing the deceased, it was their role, not Trio’s, to file. Trio withdrew the application and sought to file a new case based on Piso’s earlier career. The main case was given back to Veranius and Vitellius to present to the consuls. The consuls then asked Tiberius to take the case. He summoned his circle of close friends and advisers, and listened to the arguments presented by the prosecution and the defence, with Piso representing himself. Tiberius was apparently not yet aware of the convoluted nature of the case and of the many rumours circulating that implicated him in the death of Germanicus. Tiberius decided to refer the case to the Senate – not the quaestio de veneficiis – where Piso would be tried by his peers. Tiberius announced that he would personally attend the hearing, though not presiding as a judge. He had long been dissatisfied by the way in which cases were handled and, only five years earlier, chose to oversee them himself.¹²⁶ Even before that time, he had sat in on every known case involving the crime of maiestas – short for maiestas minuta populi Romani, ‘the diminution of the majesty of the Roman people’ – securing the defendant’s aquittal in most cases, in a gesture of clemency (clementia). Knowing this, Piso would have had every reason to be optimistic about his own trial’s outcome. Piso had assembled a defence counsel comprising some of Rome’s great names, including M. Aemilius Lepidus, Livineius Regulus, and his own brother L. Calpurnius Piso – others having politely declined to represent him.¹²⁷ Drusus the Younger now decided to join the prosecution.¹²⁸ He joined with fellow advocates Servaeus, Trio, Veranius and Vitellius, and prepared his case notes.
The scene was set: the two sides had their teams in place and were eager to proceed. Outside the curia in the Forum Romanum, the crowds buzzed with excitement as they wondered how loyal Germanicus’ friends would prove to be, speculating on the basis of their case against Piso, and how impartial Tiberius would remain during the hearings. Sentiment negative to Tiberius had never been so freely and publicly expressed.
Uniquely in recorded Roman history, we have both an official version of the trial and a reputable historian’s account of it. A document survives, known to modern historians as the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone patre, or ‘Decree of the Senate Concerning Cn. Piso Senior’, which summarizes the judgement of the conscript fathers at the end of the trial.¹²⁹ Like a set of meeting minutes, it provides an exceptional but contemporary account of the trial, and captures the authentic language used by the trial lawyers. In contrast, the account of Cornelius Tacitus – prepared using his recollection of oral traditions he heard as a boy, and reference to official reports of the Roman senate (acta senatus) – was written some fifty years after the hearing.¹³⁰
On the first day of the trial, the senators crowded into the high-ceilinged hall of the curia and took their seats across the wide aisle, according to their seniority. A composed Tiberius arrived and took his seat on the raised dais at the far end of the chamber.¹³¹Opening the proceedings, Tiberius gave a prepared speech (oratio). It was the very model of reason. The words recorded by Tacitus may be the actual words Tiberius spoke, since it is possible that he copied them directly from the official record. He began by stating that Piso had been Augustus’ friend and representative. Tiberius reminded the senators that Piso had been appointed by him – on the advice of the Senate – to assist Germanicus in the administration of the East.¹³² He quickly separated the matter of insulting behaviour by the accused towards his deceased son from the charge of his murder:
Whether he [Piso] there had provoked the young prince by wilful opposition and rivalry, and had rejoiced at his death or wickedly destroyed him, is for you to determine with minds unbiased. Certainly, if a subordinate oversteps the bounds of duty and of obedience to his commander, and has exulted in his death and in my affliction, I shall hate him and exclude him from my house, and I shall avenge a personal quarrel without resorting to my power as emperor. If, however, a crime is discovered which ought to be punished, whoever the murdered man may be, it is for you to give just reparation both to the children of Germanicus and to us, his parents.¹³³
Tiberius urged the conscript fathers, first, to consider whether Piso had committed treason (maiestas) by inveigling his way into the confidence of the troops, to incite the army to rebellion in an attempt to take Syria by force, causing civil war, or, in the words of theSenatus Consultum, diminishing the majesty of the Roman people. The second point was to prove whether Germanicus, a magistrate of the Roman state holding imperium, had, in fact, been murdered.¹³⁴ ‘For my part,’ he said,
I sorrow for my son and shall always sorrow for him; still I would not hinder the accused from producing all the evidence which can relieve his innocence or convict Germanicus of any unfairness, if such there was’.¹³⁵
The last charge was extortion. Standing accused with Piso were his wife, son and aides as accessories.
Tiberius sought an impeccably fair trial: this was not to be seen as a show trial with a foregone conclusion.¹³⁶ He urged the senators, of whom almost 300 were present, to keep an open mind as they considered the evidence to be presented. But there were harsh words, too, for Germanicus’ friends. Tiberius criticized them for the manner in which they had displayed Germanicus’ naked body – a humiliating act, in his opinion – to the non-Roman public in the forum at Antiocheia, and for spreading rumours that he had been poisoned, questioning pointedly ‘if all this is still doubtful and requires investigation?’¹³⁷ He urged those who could to speak eloquently in defence of Piso; and equally, he expected the prosecution to pursue their case robustly and with persistence:
In this, and in this only, will we place Germanicus above the laws, by conducting the inquiry into his death in this house instead of in the forum, and before the Senate instead of before a bench of judges. In all else, let the case be tried as simply as others. Let no one heed the tears of Drusus or my own sorrow, or any stories invented to our discredit.¹³⁸
Having established his expectations, it was now for the trial lawyers to argue their cases.
Two days were allocated for the prosecution to lay out the charges.¹³⁹ The court would recess for six days to consider the evidence. Piso would then be given three days to conduct his defence. Fulcinius Trio spoke first. Perhaps intending to portray Piso as a dishonourable man, the sort no respectable Roman would trust, he presented a rambling, somewhat irrelevant list of accusations about the defendant’s term as governor in Hispania. Then Servaeus, Veranius and Vitellius each rose and spoke in turn. They delivered their words with earnest hearts, but Vitellius was notably eloquent in laying out the case against Piso. On the count of treason, he said the accused had been motivated by personal hatred (odium) of Germanicus. He had gone out of his way to incite the legions to revolt, to oppress the allies, and to be savagely cruel (crudelitas) to the commander’s companions, friends and an officer of the Roman army, showing a complete lack of humanity (humanitas).¹⁴⁰ The prosecution now launched their accusation that Piso was the murderer. The word they used to describe Piso was feritas, meaning ‘half-animal’ – an extremely pejorative term to apply to a Roman nobleman. As to the method used, Vitellius alleged that he had poisoned Germanicus’ food at a banquet. He explained that Piso had the opportunity as the man laying beside him on the lead couch, and he had the motive. Circumstantial evidence pointed to Martina as the source of the poison, because she had been a close friend of Plancina.¹⁴¹ She had since been transported to Italy under guard on Cn. Sentius’ orders to await the trial. Unfortunately for the prosecution team, she never reached Rome. She had apparently concealed poison of her own concoction in a knot of her hair, and died while in custody in Brundisium, though Tacitus adds that ‘no symptoms of suicide were discovered on her person’.¹⁴² In the absence of solid forensic science or a star witness, the murder charge was always going to be hard to prove. In summing up the case for the prosecution, Vitellius said that Piso ‘destroyed Germanicus himself by sorceries and poison, and hence came those ceremonies and horrible sacrifices made by himself and Plancina; then he had threatened the res publica with war, and had been defeated in battle, before he could be tried as a prisoner’.¹⁴³
When his turn came, Piso responded with a vigorous defence. His dislike of Germanicus was well-known, he said, and not a secret. However, the charge of murder levelled agianst him was preposterous. He even offered up his own household slaves for torture – standard Roman procedure when questioning slaves as witnesses – and insisted it be done.¹⁴⁴ The inference was that they would break under pain and fully confess what they had seen, which was nothing. Throughout the proceedings, Piso was often seen to be holding a scroll. He did not, at any time, disclose the contents of this document, but it nevertheless aroused curiosity.¹⁴⁵ His friends repeatedly declared that it was a letter from the princeps himself, in which he gave instructions referring to Germanicus. Piso, they said, intended to produce it before the Senate and use it to scold Tiberius in the event that he did not come to Piso’s rescue.¹⁴⁶ For the moment, he kept its contents concealed.
Outside the Senate House, the public were in a foul mood. In their minds, Piso was guilty of Germanicus’ murder and they wanted justice. The doors to the Senate House were firmly shut to them, but they loudly shouted their threats that, if Piso was acquitted, they would resort to violence.¹⁴⁷The people found a way to vent their anger and daubed the walls of many public buildings with graffiti exclaiming,
GIVE US BACK GERMANICUS!
and people in all districts of the city shouted out these words through the night until their voices were hoarse.¹⁴⁸ Some, impatient with the speed and direction of the trial, carried out their own kind of summary justice by trashing Piso’s statues. Toppling them from their plinths, the rioters dragged them to the Gemonian Steps (Scalae Gemoniae) – the so-called ‘Stairs of Mourning’, which led down steeply from the Arx on the Capitolinus to the Forum Romanum below – and began smashing them up. Hearing about the fracas, Tiberius quickly dispatched men from the Praetorian Cohorts to bring a halt to the wanton destruction, and had the statues restored to their bases.
For the time being, the husband-and-wife team of Piso and Plancina held steadfast; but the trial was not going at all well for Piso. It seemed to him that the senators would probably accept the prosecution’s accusations of treason. That meant a humiliating end for Piso. Sensing she was at threat of her own life, Plancina now distanced herself from her husband and prepared an independent defence.¹⁴⁹ In her favour, she enjoyed the protection of Livia, the princeps’ mother, and to her she appealed for help. Whether she actually did so or not, it was widely believed at the time that the Augusta was secretly interceding on her behalf. Her decision was a crushing blow to Piso. He was now left to defend himself alone. He hesitated as to what to do next; but, at his sons’ urging, he returned to the Senate one last time to continue his defence. The senators railed against him, pouring scorn on his reputation. Piso took all this in his stride, but hard to bear was seeing his mentor and friend Tiberius, sitting icily cool, listening unemotionally to the tirades launched at his deputy. At the end of that gruelling day, he was carried in his litter back to his sanctuary on the Palatinus Hill.¹⁵⁰ There, he retired to his private office, where it seemed to those in the house that he continued to work on his closing statement. He wrote on a fresh sheet of papyrus, rolled it up, and sealed it using his signet ring to indicate that it was authentic. He gave the letter to one of his freedmen. Piso took some time to relax with his wife and, after she left his bedroom late that night, he ordered the doors to the room closed. An uneasy stillness fell upon the great house. At daybreak, Piso’s manservant knocked on the door. Hearing no sound inside, he entered timidly. He found his master dead, laying in a pool of blood. Examining his body, it was found that his throat had been cut. An army issue sword was found lying on the floor close by.¹⁵¹ Was it the handiwork of one of Seianus’ men, or perhaps of Plancina, hoping to make it look like his work? The extant sources are silent on the matter.
That morning, the Senate assembled once again. A visibly saddened – perhaps dissembling – Tiberius lamented the death of Piso. His melancholy, however, may have had as much to do with the loss of a friend as with politics: he complained that it now madehim look like the villain.¹⁵² He repeatedly asked how Piso had spent his last night, and listened to the various sycophantic replies. Finally, he read out the suicide note, which the freedman had produced. In it, Piso explained that, against an overwhelming conspiracy of his enemies and the universal hatred it incited, he had decided he had no chance of proving his innocence. He stressed his loyalty to Tiberius and his predecessor Augustus, and begged the current princeps to spare the lives his sons, Cnaeus and Marcus. In the letter, he conspiculously made no mention of his wife. Many, both in the Senate House and outside, questioned whether it was a suicide. The weapon – a military-issue gladius – and the manner of the death-blow – a strike to the neck – seemed odd to Romans, for whom the more typical method was to slash the wrists and lay in a hot bath. It was never satisfactorily resolved.
On 10 December 20 CE – over a year since the Senate had voted honours for Germanicus – the conscript fathers assembled to give their verdicts. On the count of maiestas, the court found Piso guilty. The charge of murder, however, did not stick. The senators were unconvinced that Germanicus had been murdered by poisoning at Piso’s hand as alleged by the prosecutors.¹⁵³ Plancina, meanwhile, benefited from her connection with Livia. She was pardoned – much to the chagrin of Tiberius, who was annoyed by the interference of his mother in affairs of state.¹⁵⁴ Whether Plancina was ever culpable would not now be proved in court.
Outside the Senate House, the verdict on Germanicus’ murder was met with dismay. ‘What the laws secure on behalf of every citizen’, they grumbled, ‘had to Germanicus alone been denied. The voices of Vitellius and Veranius had bewailed a Caesar, while the emperor and Augusta had defended Plancina’.¹⁵⁵
The senators now considered the sentences. Piso was dead by his own hand, but the consul, Aurelius Cotta, moved that his name should be expunged from the public register (fasti). Prominent people in the Roman world worried a great deal about their reputation and of being forgotten (oblivio) after their deaths.¹⁵⁶ Piso’s removal from the fasti was to deny his very existence as a noble man in the public memory (memoriae) forever. The shame of it would also be borne by the family members who survived him. His estate should be dissolved: half would go to the public purse, the other to Piso’s son Cnaius, who was probably never in the East, but would be required to change his name.¹⁵⁷ For his complicity in the act of treason, Piso’s son Marcus was to be stripped of his rank and banished from Rome with an allowance of 5 million sestertii.¹⁵⁸ The Calpurnii Pisones, however, would be spared the ignominy of banishment and extinction. Piso’s suicide provided Tiberius with an unexpected opportunity to show clemency (clementia). Through his intercession, the sentences were mitigated: Calpurnius Piso’s name was not to be erased from the record, citing the examples of M. Antonius, who had waged war on Rome, and Iulius Antonius, who had dishonoured Augustus’ house, and yet whose names had both remained in the register.¹⁵⁹ The estate was not broken up, and M. Piso, who was acquitted, inherited his father’s entire household.¹⁶⁰
The advocates for Germanicus – Valerius Messalinus and Caecina Severus – proposed that an altar and golden statue of Vengeance be erected in the Temple of Mars Ultor.¹⁶¹ This, too, Tiberius overruled, saying that such honours were intended only for victories over foreigners, not over fellow Romans, and that it would be better for all to grieve silently. Messalinus proposed that the avengers of Germanicus – Agrippina, Antonia, Drusus, Livia, and Tiberius himself – be publicly thanked for their restraint (moderatio).¹⁶²The absence of the name of Germanicus’ brother, Ti. Claudius Nero, was pointedly noted by L. Asprenas to his peers. It was duly added. Finally, in recognition of their service in representing the case for the prosecution, the princeps proposed to the Senate that Servaeus, Veranius and Vitellius be appointed to the priesthood (sacerdotia tribuendi).¹⁶³Ambitious Fulcinius Trio was not overlooked, either, in this distribution of accolades: he received a promise of imperial support for his promotion, but with a polite warning not to spoil his eloquence by harbouring resentfulness.
Based on the acta senatus recorded by the scribe, the official wording of the proceedings from the trial were agreed for publication, and copies cast in bronze of the Senatus Consultum were made for distribution across the Empire, to be displayed in its principal cities and all army bases, and ‘in whatever place seemed best to Ti. Caesar Augustus’.¹⁶⁴ It served as a clear warning to government officials of the punishments which would be meted out to traitors. Significantly, the decree omitted any reference to the formal charge of the murder of Germanicus. It was, in effect, a whitewash. With time for reflection, the Senate may have decided that there was nothing to be gained by reminding readers of the decree of the mysterious demise of its young prince. They deemed it better to gloss over the matter, rather than to raise more questions and prompt speculations, especially those beloved of conspiracy theorists which might point the finger of suspicion at the princeps. In fact, the cause of his death was never properly determined. As far as Tiberius was concerned, the matter was now closed. The memory of Germanicus Iulius Caesar had been honoured. To emphasize the point, the Senate duly recorded in cast bronze tablets that Tiberius had ‘exceeded the devotion (pietas) of all parents’ in showing his grief for Germanicus, which was ‘so great and so constant’.¹⁶⁵ Most people took their cue from this, but not all. ‘This was the end of avenging the death of Germanicus’, writes Tacitus, ‘a subject of conflicting rumours, not only among the people then living, but also in after times’.¹⁶⁶ Important to Tiberius and the Senate was that the threat of civil war had been averted, the supremacy of the imperial family had been acknowledged, and the unity of the Roman state had been preserved.¹⁶⁷ The bronze tablets memorialized Germanicus for as long as the Roman Empire endured.
Around the Roman world, some people began worshipping the genius or departed spirit of Germanicus. In Anticaria in the Spanish province of Baetica, the pontifex Caesarum Cornelius Proculus paid for an inscription to be erected that confirms the worship ofGermanicus.¹⁶⁸ The existence offlamines of the cult of Germanicus is also attested by inscriptions found in Lusitania (modern Portugal) and Vienna (Vienne on the Rhône).¹⁶⁹
Early in the following year, the Senate received a letter from the chief of the Chatti nation, Adgandestrius, with a promise to eliminate Arminius, if the Romans would only provide the means.¹⁷⁰ Tiberius dismissed the offer outright, saying that the Romans avenged themselves on their enemies, not by secret deceptions, but openly using ‘spades and spears’.¹⁷¹ Tiberius’ new policy of strategic patience with his Germanic neighbours would yet prove effective. With the region free of direct Roman rule for twelve years, and Marboduus having since found asylum at Ravenna, Arminius had grown arrogant and sought to be king over his coalition allies. It was an unpopular move. In a violent struggle, he was killed by one of his own kinsmen. Arminius died aged 37, within a year of his nemesis’ passing.¹⁷²