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Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 B.C.- A.D. 19)

Donna Hurley

bust of Germanicus c)1999 Princeton Economic Institute


Germanicus Julius Caesar [[1]] was born in 15 BC to Nero Claudius Drusus (Drusus the Elder, the son of Augustus' wife Livia by her earlier marriage) and Antonia Minor (Augustus' niece, the daughter of Mark Antony and his sister Octavia). There is no record of his birth name, but it was probably that of his father or possibly Tiberius Claudius Nero. His father's brother (the future emperor Tiberius) named his son after Drusus, and Drusus may have reciprocated. Drusus was awarded the honorific name of Germanicus posthumously for his successful campaigns against German tribes, and it passed to his sons when he died in 9 B.C. Germanicus was known by that name in antiquity and has been even since. His heritage was auspicious and his career promising, but an early death (AD 19) kept him from achieving the prize of the principate. He nonetheless influenced history for the next fifty years and was the father of one emperor, the brother of another, and the grandfather of a third. [[2]]

Early Advancement

In A. D. 4, the aging Augustus found it necessary to make another in the series of arrangements with which he expected to provide for the continuation of the principate after his death. It would be the last. The previous one, the adoption of his grandsons Gaius and Lucius, failed when the young men died in AD 2 and 4. At this point he adopted his stepson Tiberius, now in his late forties, and Agrippa Postumus, his last surviving grandson, and he had Tiberius adopt Germanicus despite the fact that Tiberius had a son of his own, Nero Claudius Drusus (Drusus the Younger), who was a few years younger than Germanicus. Adoption changed the names of all these candidates, and Germanicus became Germanicus Julius Caesar. [[3]] Experience had taught Augustus that multiple heirs were in order. [[4]]

The settlement of AD 4 included a plan for Germanicus to marry Agrippina (Agrippina the Elder), a daughter of Augustus' daughter Julia by Marcus Agrippa. It was a productive union in more ways than one. Not only did Agrippina offer the prestige of her Julian blood to the Claudian branch of the family but she proved exceptionally fertile, bearing Germanicus nine children in the next fourteen years. Six survived their father. They were security for the dynasty, contributed to Germanicus' popularity, and became players in the political intrigues of the mid-first century. [[5]]

Germanicus was advanced quickly as was usual, with the young men of the imperial family destined for important careers. He embarked on the cursus honorum, the series of magistracies that culminated in the consulship by being allowed to stand for the quaestorship in AD 7 at the age of 20, five years before the prescribed minimum. He skipped the next stage, the praetorship, and proceeded directly to the consulship in 12. In the intervening years, he held subordinate commands on the Danube frontier under his uncle Tiberius (AD 7-9), and was rewarded with the ornmenta triumphalia (AD 9), the trappings of the triumph without the parade, and with the perquisites of a praetor when he was in the senate. That same year Tiberius was transferred to the Rhine frontier in response to the disaster that befell P. Quinctilius Varus when he and three legions were trapped, massacred and their standards captured at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Germanicus joined Tiberius in Germany in 11. He spent the year 12 in Rome as consul. [[6]] His position as second in line for the principate had strengthened. Although Augustus was still alive, he was feeble, and Tiberius, positioned to succeed him, was in his fifties, a more advanced age in ancient Rome than it is today. One contender from Germanicus' own generation, Agrippa Postumus, evidently impatient of his subordinate position, had fallen from favor and was dispatched to increasingly remote places of exile after AD 6. [[7]] The other, Drusus the Younger was advancing in parallel but a few years behind.

Command in the West

So far, Germanicus had been fighting as a deputy of Tiberius, but in 13 Augustus made him governor of Upper and Lower Germany, west of the Rhine, administratively part of Gallia and Belgica. With the appointment came the command of eight legions, four attached to each province. Augustus died in August of AD 14, and the stability of the Empire was tested by the first transfer of power. Mutinies stemming from grievances about pay and discharge broke out simultaneously on the Danube and German frontiers, and the legionaries in the West used the uncertainty of events in Rome to offer their allegiance to Germanicus, who was the man on the spot. They offered to swear to him as their new imperator rather than to Tiberius. Germanicus extricated himself by means that were less than admirable, although in his defense it can be said that the situation was tense and very difficult. To his credit he refused to accept their oath of allegiance, but when he tried to quiet them by threatening suicide, some (to his embarrassment) moved to accept his offer. His solution was essentially to pay them off; he effected it by forging a letter from Tiberius that gave them all that they wanted. But unrest continued, for when Tiberius' envoys came from Rome, they were almost killed because the soldiers understood that the letter was a forgery and thought that the envoys intended to nullify the promises that Germanicus had made. Threats were made against his wife and son Gaius (Caligula) who were with him at his headquarters. Germanicus had to bargain with them to allow his pregnant wife to depart for safer quarters. When it was over, he chose a coward's method of discipline when he turned them loose on one another to settle scores for themselves. Finally, he diverted them with a brief military excursion. [[8]]

Germanicus was nonetheless a popular leader. Loyalty to a field commander was usually a given, his connections with Augustus were helpful, and the display of his small son dressed like a little soldier (Caligula = "Little Boots") was an effective public relations gambit. During the next two years Germanicus made major incursions into German territory east of the Rhine following the example of his father's campaigns of 12-9 BC. In AD 15 he marched against the Chatti and then against the Cherusci led by the charismatic chieftain Arminius. In the course of the campaign, one of the standards lost with Varus' legions was recovered, important symbolically because it reversed the shame of the legion's annihilation. When they found themselves in the region of the Teutoburg Forest, the site of the massacre, they buried the Roman bones that has been left there. The Germans harassed the Romans as they returned to the safety of the Rhine and their winter camps beyond. Roman invasions of Germany were always indecisive, because Rome was never able to hold territory against an enemy that faded away after defeat only to return. The terrain was wooded and often water-logged, and the Germans had the tactical advantage of maneuverability. [[9]]

In the spring of the next year (AD 16) Germanicus went east again, this time embarking his force on ships that sailed down the Rhine and then through the canal that had been engineered by his father Drusus a generation earlier in order to enter on the North Sea. From there they sailed East to the mouth of the river Ems and proceeded upstream to penetrate German territory. They then marched eastward to the river Weser, crossed it and engaged Arminius in battle at a site named Idistaviso. The Roman victory there marked the nominal submission of all the tribes west of the river Elbe, an important boundary because it was the furthest penetration of his father's incursion in 9 BC. The Romans were successful (as always) against the Germans in pitched battle, but (as always) this was not a permanent territorial conquest. Germanicus sent most of his force back by way of the same water route as they had come, and they were caught in a costly storm on the North Sea. By the end of the campaigning season the legions were in their winter quarters west of the Rhine, but not before a second of the three standards lost with Varus had been recovered. [[10]]

In the meantime, Germanicus had been granted a full triumph by Tiberius. It was the last that any general who was not a reigning emperor would be given and even then was reserved for someone close to the throne. The award was made in AD 15, but Germanicus delayed coming home to celebrate it and continued to operate in the field through 16; allegedly he wanted to keep on later still. The triumph took place on May 26, AD 17, and his five living children rode with him in the parade as an advertisement for a long an stable future. [[11]] Tacitus intimates that Tiberius had brought him back to Rome because he did not trust him at the head of a large military force and that he had substituted the honor of the triumph for the field command. Popular perception assumed that Germanicus was a threat to his adoptive father. In reality, Tiberius may have understood that indecisive stabs east of the Rhine were a futile waste of resources and that it was time to stop. As for Germanicus' anticipating the principate, he could be patient; Tiberius was now almost sixty. And he had already resisted temptation once. [[12]]

Command in the East

In 18, Germanicus was consul again, and this time he shared the honor with the emperor, a distinction reserved for an intended heir. When he entered office, he was already on his way to a new command in the East. Tiberius had given him maius imperium over the territory east of the Adriatic, a command that was not limited geographically but superseded the authority of all the governors in the area. The need for the extraordinary power was dictated by the unsettling effect of power struggles within Rome's client territories of Asia Minor and also by the necessity of giving Germanicus a responsibility commensurate with his status. Germanicus approached his new base (Antioch in the imperial province of Syria) by way of a grand tour of the eastern Mediterranean, touching on Actium, the site of the final showdown between his great-uncle Augustus and his grandfather Mark Antony, on Athens, and on the site of ancient Troy. Along the way, Agrippina gave birth on the island of Lesbos to their last child, Julia Livilla. [[13]]

Once in Syria Germanicus quickly came into conflict with Cn. Calpurnius Piso, whom Tiberius had appointed as governor of that province at the time when Germanicus received maius imperium. Piso was "a man of intractable temper with family history of hostility to the Caesars," [[14]] and in Germanicus he recognized the beginnings of hereditary monarchy. Each probably thought that the other was exceeding his jurisdiction, and their wives acted out their rivalry. Piso's wife (Munatia) Plancina reviewed military maneuvers in answer to what can be assumed to be Agrippina's display of her son Gaius, who had evidently been brought along in order to replay the success that he had had as 'little boots' with the troops on the German frontier. The rumor arose that Tiberius had appointed Piso for the specific purpose of monitoring Germanicus. [[15]]

Germanicus fulfilled his mandate to display a Roman presence in the area and to settle internal affairs. In the client kingdom of Armenia, he crowned Artaxias, who was a friendly ally, and installed the first Roman governor of the new province of Cappadoccia. [[16]] In AD 19, he left Asia Minor and visited Egypt. He went, it was said, in response to famine but the trip included a sightseeing tour, rather in the spirit of his initial journey to the East. He was warmly received when he moved unpretentiously among the populace and especially when he opened the doors of the grain storehouses. He was displaying civilitas (citizen-like behavior) and liberalitas (generosity), virtues associated with imperial largesse. He was upstaging Tiberius. He was either oblivious to the effect of his behavior or he was intentionally testing the waters. His action was aggravated by the fact that all men of senatorial rank were strictly forbidden to set foot in Egypt, which was under the emperor's personal control. [[17]] His visit and his grandstanding there, if arguably appropriate for the 'almost-emperor' that he was, understandably irked the actual emperor. [[18]]

Germanicus' Death and the Trial of Piso

When Germanicus returned to Syria at the end of summer, he found that Piso had undone arrangements that he had made and was harassing his party of aides and advisors. Hostility became open, and Germanicus renounced amicitia (friendship) with Piso, banished him from his company, and may have ordered him from his post and from the province as well. Piso claimed that he had. If he did he was arguably within the authority of his maius imperium although Piso was Tiberius' appointee. In any case, Piso did abandon his command. He went to an island off the coast so that he could return if the opportunity should arise. It seemed possible since Germanicus had fallen ill shortly after his return from Egypt. He suspected that Piso had cursed him by placing devotional objects (human remains, lead tablets and the like) in his house and was in the process of poisoning him. [[19]]

Germanicus died in Antioch on October 10, AD 19. Rumor had it that his corpse bore marks of poison: black and blue marks, foaming at the mouth, a heart that would not burn on the funeral pyre. Eulogies compared him with Alexander, who had died at the same age. [[20]] His aides in Syria appointed Cn. Sentius to fill the post abandoned by Piso. Piso reasserted himself and tried to regain the governorship, claiming that Germanicus had forced him from the province illegally in order to be free to attempt a coup against Tiberius. His reentry to Syria with a military force was easily countered and he was sent back to Rome to stand trial for treason. [[21]]

Agrippina returned to Rome with her husband's ashes early the next year (AD 20), coming home accompanied by the two children who were with her, Gaius (Caligula) and the baby Julia Livilla. There are reports of overwhelming grief in Rome; the people had looked forward to a new princeps to whom they could attach their emotions. At the present, they had only Tiberius, who seems to have been genuinely oblivious to the need to act the role of nurturing monarch, a role already expected in the young Empire. Germanicus' ashes were placed in the mausoleum of Augustus and there was a lengthy period of mourning. But what gave closure to Germanicus' story was the trial of Piso. [[22]]

Germanicus' circle lost the focus of their hopes when he died, for he took with him their expectation of being close to the center of power in the near future. Those who had been with him in the East returned to Rome and were waiting to challenge Piso and Plancina, who came back bluffing their innocence of any kind of wrongdoing. Piso was tried in the senatorial court as was appropriate since the wronged party was the emperor's son. The primary charge was treason -- insubordination and the inciting of sedition -- with an additional charge of poisoning. The prosecution's case in regard to poison was weak, but Piso was manifestly guilty of treason. When he saw that his case was lost, he killed himself before the trial ended. His wife was cleared through the influence of her close friend Livia, Tiberius' mother. [[23]]

Tacitus gives the fullest report of the trial, and his account has been proved essentially accurate by a recently discovered bronze tablet which gives the official version of the trial and its result. [[24]] The issue was indeed treason, not poison, and Tiberius was concerned to appear impartial. Tacitus departs from the official version with the addition of a rumor that Piso had in his possession a letter from Tiberius instructing him in regard to Germanicus and that he intended to show it to the senate and implicate Tiberius in what had taken place in Syria. He further implies that Piso's death might not have been a suicide but an execution to prevent the disclosure. In a sense the bronze tablet corroborates Tacitus' innuendo, for the careful and detailed report that was set up in every legionary camp in the Empire shows the unpopular Tiberius on the defensive and confirms that the trial was a crisis for him. Tiberius now faced a truly difficult rival. Dead, perhaps martyred, Germanicus remained a formidable force in Roman politics. [[25]]


The successor's mantle now fell on Drusus, Tiberius' natural son. But where were those to look who had pinned their future careers to Germanicus? His oldest sons, Nero and Drusus Caesar, were about 15 and 13, and Agrippina held determinedly to her husband's memory for their sakes. When Drusus died a few years later (AD 23), these two were heirs prospective although still young and vulnerable to the ambitions of older men. But a new force had arisen in the court. L. Aelius Sejanus, the praetorian prefect (chief officer of the palace guard) was becoming more and more indispensable to the emperor. As the result of intrigue whose details cannot be recovered, Agrippina and her oldest son were exiled by 29. By 30, her second son had been arrested. By 33 all, (including Sejanus) were dead. It was Germanicus' early death that generated the nasty politics of these years. [[26]]

The next two emperors, Caligula (37-41) and Claudius (41-54), Germanicus' son and brother respectively, used him as a surrogate with the legions where personal loyalty to a commander was paramount, evoking his name relentlessly in order to trade on his still glowing reputation. They had become emperor only because they belonged to the imperial family; Augustus and Tiberius, on the other hand, had military accomplishments that earned them the title imperator legitimately. Germanicus was the 'dynastic lynch-pin' between the Julian and Claudian branches of the family, [[27]] and Claudius especially needed him for a closer connection with Augustus. And even thirty years after his death, Nero's direct descent (his mother Agrippina the Younger was Germanicus' daughter) was still an asset.

What would a principate of Germanicus have been like? There is no way to know, although there was not much promise in his ineffectual responses during the mutiny on the Rhine or his strangely conceived trip to Egypt. Some, perhaps most, of the adulation accorded him when he was alive was reaction to the unresponsive Tiberius. Much more came from the fact that he had the good fortune to die young and permit legend to take over. If he had succeeded Tiberius, he would have been the first of the Julio-Claudian princes reared to the purple to put on the mantle of the principate. As it turned out, the opportunity was given Caligula.


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Gonz lez, J. (1984). "Tabula Siarensis, Fortunales Siarenses et Municipia Civium Romanorum", ZPE 55: 55-100.

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Griffin, M. (1997). "The Senate's Story", JRS 87: 249-263.

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_________ (1958). "Die Feldz ge des Germanicus 14-16 n. Chr.", Historia 7: 429-79.

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________ (1976). Tiberius the Politician. London.

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Mommsen, T. (1878). "Die Familie des Germanicus", Hermes 13: 245-65.

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[[1]] The sources for the life and career of Germanicus are primarily Tacitus, Annals 1-3: Suetonius, Life of Gaius Caligula 1-6; Cassius Dio, Roman History 56-57. Bronze tablets that record decrees the followed his death are the Tabula Hebana (Oliver and Palmer (1954), the Tabula Siarensis (Gonz lez (1984) and the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre (Eck, Caballos and Fern ndez (1996).

[[2]] His date of birth is calculated from the time of his advancement (Sumner [1967] 421-3). For his birth name, Simpson (1981) 368. For the cognomen Germanicus in the family, Suet, Cl. 1.3; Dio 55.2.3.

[[3]] Tiberius Claudius Nero (the future emperor) became Tiberius Julius Caesar. Agrippa Postumus became Agrippa Julius Caear. Tiberius' son became Drusus Julius Caesar.

[[4]] The adoptions: Tac. Ann. 1.3; Suet. Aug. 64.1, 65.1; Tib. 15.2, Calig. 1.1; Dio 54.18.1; 55.13.1a-2; Vell. Pat. 2.96.1, 104.1; Levick (1966). The deaths of Gaius and Lucius: Tac. Ann. 1.3; Suet. Aug. 65.1; Tib. 15.2; Dio 55.10.9-10; Vell. Pat. 2.102.3.

[[5]] The children: Suet. Calig. 7; Mommsen (1878); Lindsay (1995).

[[6]] Germanicus' early career: Suet. Calig, 1.1; 8.3; Dio 55.26.1, 31-33.3; 56.11-17, 23.3, 25.2-3; 56.26.1. Sumner (1967) 422-3.

[[7]] Agrippa Postumus was killed shortly after Augustus died: Tac. Ann. 1.6; Suet. Tib. 22; Dio 57.3.5-6. For more detail about his fall and Augustus' difficulties in establishing a succession, see Garrett Fagan, Augustus, De Imperatoribus Romanis (1999).

[[8]] The mutiny on the Rhine: Tac. Ann. 1.3, 31-51; Suet. Tib. 25.2; Calig. 1.1, 8.3; Dio 57.3.1, 5, 6.1; Vell Pat. 2.123.1, 125.1-4. Liechtenhan (1947); Walser (1951).

[[9]] Campaign of AD 15: Tac. Ann. 1.55-71; Dio 57.18.1. Koestermann (1958); Timpe (1958); both also for the next year's campaign.

[[10]] Campaign of AD 16: Tac. Ann. 2.5-26. A fragment of an epic by Albinovanus Pedo evidently describes the ordeal on the North Sea.

[[11]] The triumph: Tac. Ann. 1.55; 2.5, 26, 41; Suet. Calig. 1.1; Vell. Pat. 2.129.2.

[[12]] Interpretations of the relationship between Germanicus and Tiberius: Shotter (1968); Ross (1973); Rutland (1987); Pelling (1993).

[[13]] Command in the East: Tac. Ann. 2.43, 53-54; Suet. Calig. 1.2, 3.2. Koestermann (1957); Questa (1957).

[[14]] Syme (1958) 492.

[[15]] Tac. Ann. 2.43, 55-57.

[[16]] Tac. Ann. 2.56; Suet. Calig. 1.2.

[[17]] It was governed by a prefect of equestrian rank who was responsible directly to the emperor. Egypt was an important supplier of grain. An ambitious usurper might seize it and its resources with relative ease and threaten famine at Rome (Tac. Ann. 2.59).

[[18]] Tac. Ann. 2.59-61. Documents and epigraphic evidence corroborate Germanicus' popularity in Egypt (Weing rtner [1969] 1-4).

[[19]] Tac. Ann. 2.69-70.

[[20]] Tac. Ann. 2.72-3; Suet. Calig. 1.2; Dio 57.18.9; Pliny, NH 11.71.

[[21]] Tac. Ann. 2.74-81.

[[22]] Tac. Ann. 2.75, 82-3; 3.1-6. Suet. Calig. 5-6.

[[23]] Tac. Ann. 3.10-16; Suet. Calig. 2; Dio 57.18.10.

[[24]] AJP Special Issue; Eck, Caballos and Fern ndez (1996); Griffin (1997); Barnes (1998).

[[25]] Tacitean innuendo: Tac. Ann. 3.16.

[[26]] Tac. Ann. 4.8; 5.3-5; 6.23; Suet. Tib. 39, 53-54; 62.1; Dio 57.11.1-4; 58.3.8, 8.4, 22.4-5.

[[27]] Gordon, Reynolds, Beard and Rouech (1997) 212.

Copyright © 1999, Donna Hurley. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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