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Top 5 Theories About The Death Of Germanicus

“Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud, Hatch out.” – Roman Emperor Tiberius

Germanicus (a.k.a. Germanicus Julius Caesar) was regarded by many Romans as a hero in the mold of Alexander the Great. His untimely death, under suspicious circumstances, ended the possibility of a return to a more open republic and ambitions for the outright conquest of Germany. 

Born in 15 BC, Germanicus grew up to be a skilled diplomat and bold soldier. Married to the granddaughter of Augustus (by whom he fathered the future Emperor Caligula) and responsible for avenging Rome’s humiliating defeat at the Teutonburg Forest through victory at Idistaviso (AD16) and the recovery of one of the lost standards, his reputation and popularity were immense. The Emperor Tiberius, his adoptive father, granted him a triumph, but refused to let him complete the reconquest of Germania, sending him instead to command in the East. Did Tiberius feel jealous and threatened?

Germanicus’ fortunes waned when he fell out with one of Tiberius appointees, Piso. His death in mysterious circumstances, aged 34, brought great outpourings of public grief and anger, with many suspecting murder on the orders of Tiberius. Piso was put on trial but he committed suicide – or was he murdered? – before the senate could reach a verdict. So what or who killed Germanicus?

5. Poison by Piso


In an attempt to separate Germanicus from his troops and weaken his influence, the emperor Tiberius sent him to Asia, where in 18 AD he defeated the kingdoms of Cappadocia and Commagene, merging them into Roman provinces. Once in Syria, Germanicus soon came into conflict with Calpurnius Piso, whom Tiberius had appointed as governor of that province. In Germanicus, Piso 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, Plancina, reviewed military maneuvers in answer to what she assumed to be Germanicus’ wife, 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. A rumor arose that Tiberius had appointed Piso for the specific purpose of monitoring Germanicus.

Germanicus suddenly became very ill and it was believed by all, including himself, that poison was involved. According to the ancient historian Suetonius, Germanicus died of ‘a long drawn out disease’, adding that the visible signs after death were ‘bluish spots that covered his entire body’ and ‘foaming at the mouth’. In his mind, based on these signs, poisoning was self-evident. Germanicus himself believed that he was being poisoned by 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.

Plancina, Piso’s wife, was known to have an active personal interest in the science of toxicology and befriended an experienced practitioner by the name of Martina. Both being 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 food or drink at any moment.

Two close subordinates of Germanicus, Veranius and Vitellius, conducted an investigation of the crime scene and the residence of their prime suspects, Piso and Plancina. In the report, it states:

“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. “

Tiberius would later put them on trial for murdering him after an intense public outcry for justice. The Roman people were in a foul mood and wanted justice. They loudly shouted their threats that, if Piso was acquitted, they would resort to violence. The people vented their anger by covering the walls of many public buildings with graffiti exclaiming, GIVE US BACK GERMANICUS!

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. His friends repeatedly declared that it was a letter from the Emperor himself, in which he gave instructions referring to Germanicus. Piso, it was said, intended to produce it before the Senate and use it to confront Tiberius in the event that he did not come to his rescue.

The trial did not go well for Piso. It seemed to him that the senators would probably accept the prosecution’s accusations of treason. Sensing she was in danger of her own life, Plancina distanced herself from her husband and prepared an independent defense. In her favor, she enjoyed the protection of Livia, Tiberius’ mother, and to her she appealed for help. 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 defense. The senators railed against him, pouring scorn on his reputation. 

He subsequently wrote a letter and gave it 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. At daybreak, Piso was found 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. The letter he left behind explained he had no chance against an overwhelming conspiracy of his enemies and the universal hatred it incited. He had decided he had no chance of proving his innocence and emphasized his loyalty to Tiberius.

4. Natural diseases


A lingering sickness, bluish skin and foaming at the mouth are the only three clues we have to attempt to identify the cause of death. The duration of the condition clearly suggests a very serious sickness. The cause 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. Typhoid is one candidate.

The bacterium Salmonella Typhi can be contracted by consuming food that has been handled by a person infected with the bacteria. It can also be in water used for drinking or washing food that has come into contact with contaminated sewage. It was certainly around in Germanicus’ day, bringing Augustus close to death when he was in Spain. Typhoidal fever typically lasts about a month, but in fatal cases it may be over in half that time.

Influenza could also be a culprit but as no others in his entourage are recorded as having come down with it, this seems an unlikely cause. Similarly, malaria or West Nile Encephalitis, both spread by mosquitoes, could have been responsible for making Germanicus sick. Without details about the accompanying symptoms – such as headache, fever, chills and sweating, bleeding, skin rashes, stomach pains or vomiting, and the like – or information about the medications his doctor administered, this diagnosis is purely speculative.

3. The Emperor Tiberius had him killed


Tiberius was the Emperor Augustus’ choice as his successor. Tiberius was not his first choice but all the others had died, for whatever reasons. Tiberius was a complicated man. In his youth, Tiberius did not like the responsibility that his step-father Augustus and mother, Livia, placed on him. However, after sacrificing much, he fulfilled his duties. Tiberius was never popular with the Roman people but Germanicus was. This was to cause Tiberius the great anxiety of a popular son of Rome perhaps overthrowing him as Emperor. However, the majority of historians agree based on the the historical evidence that Germanicus had no intention of disrupting the rightful succession and always honored and respected Tiberius.

The success of Germanicus’ victories in Germany had already roused the jealousy and fears of Tiberius. Germanicus was called to Rome and was celebrated with a triumph for his successes. The enthusiasm with which he was welcomed, not only by the populace, but by the emperor’s own praetorians, was so great that the earliest pretext was seized to remove him from the capital. He was sent to the East with extraordinary powers to settle a disputed succession in Parthia and Armenia. At the same time Calpurnius Piso, one of the most violent and ambitious of the old nobility, was sent as governor of Syria to watch his movements.

Tiberius did not, himself, have the opportunity to kill his adopted son, so he would have had to work secretly through others. He was certainly capable of this.The Pisos 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.

The ‘Tiberius as mastermind of Germanicus’ death’ theory fails to be convincing on two major points. Firstly, if Tiberius was so upset about Germanicus’ attitude or performance, he could have recalled him and stripped him of his powers. As history shows, he did not. Secondly, the general impression left by the ancient accounts is that he went out of his way to grant the man chosen by Augustus to be the third emperor considerable leverage in running his affairs, even publicly lavishing praise on him.

Tiberius certainly had the most to gain from the death of Germanicus and he would have breathed a sigh of relief once the man he considered his chief rival for the throne was out of the way. There is no doubt that Tiberius was a very insecure man. His path to the throne, while watching all contenders around him die, had obviously made him paranoid. Yet Tiberius would have been so afraid of the revolt that would be unleashed by the death of Germanicus as a result of foul play, or even the suspicion of foul play, that he more than likely would not have risked ordering the death of his hugely popular adopted son. Tiberius may have encouraged Piso to make sure that the legions in the East did not develop a strong loyalty to Germanicus. And there is no doubt that Tiberius was grateful to the murderers of Germanicus, but it is almost certain that he had no idea who those murderers were.

2. What about Livia?


Was Livia, Tiberius’s mother and wife of Augustus, guilty of Germanicus’ murder? There can be no doubt that she had acted shamefully as far as Germanicus and Agrippina were concerned. Almost certainly the letter that Piso clutched during his trial was a vindictive mission from the emperor’s mother to Plancina, urging her, and her husband, to make life as difficult as possible for Germanicus and Agrippina in the East, and to ensure that the legions of the region did not form a strong attachment to Germanicus. This letter probably also contained Livia’s assurance that Plancina and Piso would have Tiberius’s blessing for their disruptive activities.

Livia discouraged Augustus when he was actively considering the adoption of Germanicus as his primary heir. Livia’s supposed motive was to see her own eldest son, Tiberius, follow Augustus first. If true, she had achieved her goal. But what would she gain by arranging the death of Germanicus? Obviously, Germanicus was a threat to Tiberius. The Roman people adored Germanicus and were very indifferent to Tiberius.

After Augustus’ death, Livia remained an influential figure. She was said to have taunted Tiberius with the thought that Augustus had preferred Germanicus. It was rumored that he left Rome for Capri (AD 26) in order to avoid her. Indeed, he only saw her once more after he departed and then briefly. He did not go to her during her final illness, nor did he attend her funeral. After she died, he forbade the deification proposed for her and disregarded her will. There was a rumor among the Romans that she was a poisoner. However, the evidence is virtually non-existent to justify it.

1. The loving wife Agrippina


Agrippina was married to Germanicus, her second cousin, in her teenage years.  His marriage to Agrippina lay alongside his adoption by Tiberius as a clear public sign that he would be the next Roman emperor. And that Agrippina would be the next empress. Agrippina was, from what we know, a very good wife to Germanicus and it appeared they were very much in love. The Roman people loved them too and would line the streets to see them and fling flowers at them. During their marriage they had nine children in 14 years, of whom six survived infancy. Agrippina’s fertility during a time when birth rates were very low among the Roman aristocracy was staggering. Equally impressive, she had several of them in camps among soldiers, while accompanying her husband on campaign on the German frontier.

Agrippina was more than a traditional wife to her husband. She was also an active partner who was willing to advance both of their causes. Extremely intelligent and foresighted, she once took the initiative to put down a mutiny that her husband could not control. During this revolt, Germanicus cried, threatened suicide and made every attempt at grand gestures to calm angry, neglected and overworked legions and still faced violence. Agrippina, while heavily pregnant, threatened to pack her bags and, with maximum fuss, weeping and attention drawing, left the camp with her child “Little Boots.” Little Boots was the the toddler of Agrippina and Germanicus who had been born on campaign and who had been with the troops throughout their campaign. The troops were appalled that the granddaughter of Augustus and the daughter of Agrippa was being forced to seek sanctuary with non-Romans and they quickly called of the mutiny.

After Germanicus’ death, his wife Agrippina traveled back to Rome and was under the mercy of Tiberius. She would live to see her sons Nero and Drusus starved to death by Tiberius as traitors to Rome. She would then be sent into exile only to have her and Germanicus’ son “Little Boots” (Caligula) kill Tiberius and become the infamous emperor still talked about today. Germanicus could not have imagined his son Caius (Caligula) succeeding Tiberius, nor the bizarre lifestyles both men would lead. Agrippina’s life and that of her children devolved into a nightmare when her husband died. But did she kill him?

A modern theory suggests L. Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) and, remarkably, Agrippina the Elder. 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 there. In the hope of advancing his career, 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.

A short-term love affair, and the schemer, offering long-term fulfillment 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 theory. 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. Knowing that Germanicus would never challenge Tiberius, although he had the love of the Roman people, perhaps Agrippina needed and expected more. If so, it was a tragic mistake. 









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Rick Mac
Student and author of History. The study of History is the beginning of wisdom.

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