"...the recovery of the Varian Eagles, under the conduct of Germanicus, under the auspices of Tiberius." - Germanicus Julius Caesar, his life and times.

23 May 15 BCE, Germanicus Julius Caesar, celebrated Roman military hero, brother of Emperor Claudius and father of Caligula, was born in Rome.

“And what thoughts or memories, would you guess, were passing through my mind on this extraordinary occasion? Was I thinking of the Sibyl's prophecy, of the omen of the wolf-cub, of Pollio's advice, or of Briseis's dream? Of my grandfather and liberty? Of my grandfather and liberty? Of my three Imperial predecessors, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, their lives and deaths? Of the great danger I was still in from the conspirators, and from the Senate, and from the Gaurds battalions at the Camp? Of Messalina and our unborn child? Of my grandmother Livia and my promise to deify her if I ever became Emperor? Of Postumus and Germanicus? Of Agrippina and Nero? Of Camilla? No, you would never guess what was passing through my mind.“ (Robert Graves, “I, Claudius“)

A basalt bust of Germanicus, between 14 and 20 CE, 
now at the British Museum 

might seem that the honorific title “Germanicus”, meaning more or less “defeater of the Germanic tribes”, was used in a bit of an inflationary way in early imperial Rome, especially in regards to the Julio-Claudian brood. The usual routine was crossing the Rhine with an army composed of the best-equipped and best-trained professional soldiers in the world, large enough to subdue half a continent, getting one’s nose bloodied at the back of beyond nevertheless and withdrawing back to Rome to be awarded with a triumph. Over and above the fiasco in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE. Augustus’ stepson and Tiberius’ brother Drusus the Elder was not an exception. Leading one campaign after the other between 12 and 9 BCE against the tribesmen without achieving anything exceptional, considering the men and material he had at his disposal, he finally called it quits after he had an apparition of a gigantic woman prophesying doom on the banks of the river Elbe, fell of his horse, broke his leg and died somewhere in Germania in a place later known as “Castra Scelerata“, the “accursed camp”. His brother Tiberius brought his ashes to Rome and his family was awarded with the hereditary title of “Germanicus” and thus, his six-years old son, then called Nero Claudius Drusus, received the cognomen and was called Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus when Augustus decreed him to be the second-next in the line of imperial succession five years later. It was a rather auspicious beginning for the boy’s short but illustrious military and political career, but then, the younger Germanicus was superstitious all his life, even more than the rest of his tribe.

The early Julio-Claudian brood on Augustus’ Ara Pacis. Germanicus is the mid-sized boy who grabbed Augustus’ coat in the centre

himself had set the example and, by and large, the Julio-Claudian men in his wake could boast of their military capabilities only on a rather limited scale. The Elder Drusus seem to have been an exception, at least his men erected a rather monumental memorial monument for their allegedly popular commander in their headquarters at Mainz, the so-called Drususstein, (Drusus’ stone) and young Germanicus obviously followed in his father’s footsteps. He collected his first martial merits in the Balkans, fighting for his uncle, now the Emperor Tiberius, while countering the annual insurgency of the tribes there and was appointed supreme commander of the troops stationed on the Rhine frontier in 13 CE, about to live up to his name, by showing the Germanics what was what and taking revenge for Varus’ disastrous defeat four years earlier. In the spring of the following year, Germanicus stumbled almost into the same trap as Varus did after he crossed the Rhine, visited the eerie site of the battle somewhere in the North German Plain and when his men were in the proper fighting mood after they had buried the remains of their slaughtered comrades, campaigning began in earnest. With eight legions, one third of the entire Roman army, more than 30,000 fighting men not counting the numerous auxiliaries and camp followers, Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus meandered through the primeval Germanic forests and swamps, allegedly won a few victories, the best known being the one near Minden on the Weser River in a place called Idistavisus in the summer of 16 CE against Rome’s archenemy Hermann the German or rather Arminius. His successes to show when he was called back to Rome by Tiberius were: two of the three legionary eagles captured by Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest returned as tribute, Arminius wife Thusnelda captured, turned in to him by her own Rome-friendly father, a butcher’s bill and costs that defied belief and Germania not pacified at all, let alone subdued.

Benjamin West’s (1738 – 1820) idea of Germanicus’ wife Agrippina arriving with her husband’s ashes in Brindisi, c. 1768

Germanicus’ triumph in Rome in May 17 CE was a major propaganda show that belied the fact that Rome had achieved virtually nothing during the campaign beyond the Rhine. Tiberius wisely decided to let the Germanics fight out their tribal wars among themselves and deal with what was left. The iron curtain went down on the left bank of the Rhine and Germanicus was ordered to the Near East. Tiberius, however, viewed the popularity his nephew enjoyed, with at least some mistrust. Germanicus was indeed celebrated as the best thing that happened to Rome’s military might since Julius Caesar himself, justifiably so or not and whatever Tiberius’ own plans were, a latter day Alexander the Great, epitomised by his nephew and nominated successor, did not exactly fit into it. Meanwhile, having arrived in Egypt and Syria, Germanicus already acted the big shot and finally overstepped his authorities as military officer when he overruled local arrangements made by the Roman governor of Syria, one Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso. And then the hero lay down and died in Antioch, Syria’s provincial capital, at the age of 34. The cause and circumstances were never cleared up, Germanicus might have been poisoned by agents of a jealous Tiberius, by an offended Piso or maybe the Syrian governor acted on orders of the emperor. In the nest of serpents that was the Julio-Claudian dynasty, everything seems at least possible. Even the idea that his own son Gaius, the later emperor Caligula, then seven years old, put a curse on him in a Freudian moment of a parricide wish à la “I, Claudius”.

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