Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Death and Burial of Germanicus

Tacitus says of one of the Emperors that all men would have thought him equal to Empire, if he had never been Emperor. Perhaps it was well for the fame of Germanicus that his character was never subjected to the test of power. As it is, we know nothing but good of him. No prince of the Julian House, few of any royal race, have been more admired in life and more lamented in death.

One cannot wonder that Tiberius, who, without being the monster that he appears in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius, was certainly morose and suspicious, was jealous of the brilliant young man. Augustus is said to have hesitated long whether he should not bequeath to him the throne. He decided in favour of his stepson, Tiberius; nor can we believe that, while Livia was alive, any other choice would have been possible to him. But he made it a condition that Tiberius should adopt the prince whose claim was thus postponed to him. Thus Germanicus, from being a nephew, became a son, and a son whose brilliant qualities quite threw into the shade his adopting father's natural heir, the younger Drusus.

Tiberius had not been many days on the throne when he found what a dangerous rival the young man might be, if he were not loyal; and loyalty is a virtue which such character as Tiberius find it hard to believe in. The legions which guarded the Rhine frontier of the empire revolted. Other legions were disturbed, but the German armies were the most determined, partly on account of their strength, partly because they hoped that Germanicus, their general-in-chief, would claim the empire for himself. The young commander brought them back to their allegiance, "I know not," says the historian, "whether with more loyalty or courage." He then fought a brilliant campaign against the German tribes, penetrating to the spot where years before the legions of Varus had been destroyed, and burying the remains of the dead. When he returned to Rome, the people crowded to meet him, coming as far as the twentieth milestone from the city, and though his guard of honour, from the Praetorian Camp, was composed of two cohorts only, the whole of the force went out to escort him home.

There were not wanting prophets of evil. "The favourites of the Roman people," they said, "are short-lived and unlucky. It loved Drusus, his father, and he died in his prime; it loved Marcellus, his uncle, and he passed away in his youth." Within a year these gloomy prognostications were fulfilled. Germanicus lay dead at Antioch, and there were the darkest rumours about the causes which had brought him to his end. His body was livid; his lips were covered with foam, so said those who had seen his corpse. Stranger still, his heart had been found unconsumed in the funeral pile; and the heart of the man who dies of poison, such was the common belief, the flames cannot touch.

Was the Emperor guilty? everyone asked. The suspicions against him chiefly arose from the strange conduct of a Piso, who had been appointed to the government of Syria at the same time when the Emperor entrusted to Germanicus the general command of the provinces east of the Mediterranean. Piso seemed to have a mission to annoy and torment his superior. Anyhow, he behaved to him in a way on which he would scarcely have ventured, had he not felt himself supported by the Emperor himself. He seemed bound, as it was expressed at the time, to be the enemy either of the father or of the son, of Tiberius or Germanicus, and everyone believed that he chose the second alternative. It may not be a conclusive proof of his guilt, but when he returned to Rome, he was nearly torn in pieces by the people, and condemned to death by the Senate, on the charge of having brought about the death of his chief. Among the evidence brought against him was the discovery in the house which he had occupied at Antioch, of human remains, of papers inscribed with charms and cures, leaden tablets, inscribed with the name of the victim, and other articles belonging to the magician's stock-in-trade. Magic may be an idle fancy, but the story, nevertheless, may be true. That the prince himself believed that he had been poisoned by Piso and his wife is certain.

The corpse was exposed in the market-place of Antioch before it was burnt. About the funeral there was nothing remarkable, except for the crowd that attended it. Agrippina at once embarked with the ashes, though the season was unfavourable for travelling, and sailed to Brundisium, where a crowd of friends and comrades of the dead man, and of strangers, brought together by affection or curiosity—some even by the notion that they were showing their respect to the Emperor—had assembled. The harbour and the shore, the walls and roofs of the city—every point, in short, from which a view could be obtained—were crowded with spectators as the fleet drew near. All eyes were fixed upon the unhappy woman, as with a child on either side, the funeral urn in her hand, she stepped from the ship on to the pier. A deep groan went up from the whole assembly. Kinsmen and strangers, men and women, abandoned themselves to the same passionate grief. But the travellers had exhausted the violence of their sorrow, and the loudest manifestations came from the crowd on shore.

Two Praetorian cohorts had been sent to meet the funeral cortége, and the urn was borne on the shoulders of the officers. With the standards furled, and the axes reversed, the Praetorians marched along the great Appian Road. In all the towns on the way, the inhabitants, dressed in mourning, lined the streets, where altars smoked with incense. Even from distant places the people crowded in, eager to pay the same honour to the dead. At Tarracina, about seventy miles from Rome, the procession was met by the Emperor's son, and Claudius, the brother of the deceased. The new Consuls were there, for another year had begun, with a vast crowd of all ranks from the city, weeping with the true southern abandonment to grief. But three conspicuous figures were absent—the Emperor, and the Emperor's mother, and Antonia, the dead man's mother. Tacitus believes that she was not allowed to come.

The day on which the urn was carried to the Mausoleum of Augustus was one of dismal silence, broken now and then by some wild cry of grief. The streets were crowded; the soldiers stood under arms; the magistrates had laid aside the insignia of office; the people were ranged in their various tribes. But the unprompted, genuine grief of the whole nation was almost the only public honour paid to the memory of Germanicus. Many remembered how different had been the demeanour of Augustus, when the corpse of Drusus had been brought home. He had come to meet it, though the weather was intensely cold, and had not left it till it entered the city. The images of the great Claudian and Julian Houses had been ranged round the bier. The funeral lament had been raised in the Forum, and the panegyric on the dead pronounced from the hustings. All these honours were studiously withheld from the ceremony of Germanicus, whose funeral, but for the universal sorrow, might have been that of the most undistinguished citizen.

It was not the Roman world only that wept for him. The German tribes voluntarily offered a truce when they heard of his death, and the Parthian monarch, then as now styling himself King of Kings, neither followed the chase nor entertained his nobles.