Had Germanicus not died in A.D. 19, and had he succeeded Tiberius as emperor, it is highly improbable that Caligula, Claudius, or Nero would have become emperor. Germanicus would have been fifty-one when Tiberius died in A.D. 37. If, as emperor, Germanicus had lived into his eighties—Augustus and Tiberius, both of whom endured poor health throughout their lives, survived into their late seventies—he would have reigned for thirty years, and his able son Nero Germanicus, or possibly a son of Nero Germanicus, would have succeeded him. His youngest son, Caligula, would never have become emperor. On the death of Nero Germanicus, the son of Nero Germanicus would have succeeded him, as the rule of succession provided, and his son would have succeded him. If Nero Germanicus had died without a son, his brother Drusus Germanicus would succeeded him, followed by Drusus’s sons. Every time his brothers fathered sons, Caligula would have slipped farther and farther down the line of succession, and into historical oblivion.
We would never have seen the emperors Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, etc., in the event of this Germanican succession, and history would have not necessarily have been the poorer for it.
Tacitus was to say that the Roman people had originally been hopeful that Germanicus’s father, Drusus the Elder, would succeed Augustus, end the monarchy, and restore the Roman Republic. On Drusus’s death, he says, Romans transferred that hope to his muchloved son Germanicus.¹ Yet Germanicus was aware that in its last eighty years the Republic had been rent by vicious power struggles and bloody civil wars, while under the first emperor, Augustus, Rome had experienced a golden age for almost half a century, with internal peace, expanding borders, and great prosperity. It is probable that the astute Germanicus would have wanted to follow in Augustus’s footsteps, providing strong and enlightened leadership without being an oppressive ruler in the Tiberian mold.
It is not difficult to imagine that the reign of Germanicus Caesar would have been another golden age for the arts and for commerce. The empire would have been enlarged under his generalship. In all probability, Germanicus would have led an invasion of Germany, to finish what he had begun in A.D. 14–16. He had firmly believed that he could spread the Roman Empire’s border into Germany as far as the Elbe River, had Tiberius given him one more year in Germany. And he would almost certainly have expanded into Britain, as Tiberius and Caligula contemplated and as Claudius actually did. Perhaps, as some were projecting prior to his death, Germanicus would have become an Alexander the Great and spread the Roman Empire, absorbing Parthia and pushing into India. Perhaps he would have expanded down into Africa, and even as far east as China, doubling or even trebling the size of the empire. And maybe today there would be the ruins of Roman temples in Cape Town, and the indigenous people of China would be speaking Latin.
A pessimist would say that Roman history would not have been all that different over the long term even if Germanicus and his successors were strong, enlightened, benevolent rulers. As we saw with Caligula and Nero, it took only one generation for youth, temptation, and unlimited power to combine to make deeply flawed rulers of Germanicus’s descendants. On the other hand, if we are to accept the glowing character references given to Germanicus Caesar by Tacitus and the other Roman writers who unanimously sang Germanicus’s praises, then Germanicus would have made an incomparable emperor. His reign would have been an exciting, optimistic time unlike any that the Roman people knew before him or after him.
So who deprived Rome, and history, of this great man and potentially great emperor, a man who would have ranked with Alexander, Pompey the Great, Caesar, and Constantine as one of the great figures of antiquity, if not the greatest? A study of the lives of Germanicus and his descendants through the texts of Tacitus and other classical authors can only lead to the conclusion that the five people considered murder suspects in Roman times were not actually directly involved with the death of Germanicus. There can be no denying that three of the five benefited from his murder, and perhaps two of them, Piso and Plancina, expected to benefit from his death, but this is not evidence enough to condemn any of them.
That Germanicus was poisoned seems beyond doubt. Previously as healthy as a bull, Germanicus was floored and then slain by an illness that displayed all the symptoms of a poisoning, the second and last bout of which lasted only days. That no one else around him fell sick suggests that he was not claimed by a contagious virus or an epidemic, or even was felled by accidental food poisoning. He appears to have been the lone, targeted victim of a deliberate and ultimately successful attempt on his life. Tacitus was skeptical about there being physical signs of poisoning, probably because he could not believe that anyone using poison on a prince as famous as Germanicus would want to leave any clue to suggest that his death had been anything but natural. There were, after all, numerous poisons available that left no obvious trace. Such a poison would have been used in the murder of Germanicus’s adoptive brother Drusus the Younger.
So why would anyone be unwise enough to leave his or her calling card by using belladonna to kill Germanicus, knowing that belladonna would result in cyanosis, which would shout “murder” to the world? One answer would be that perhaps the murderer was a novice with poisons and was unaware of the telltale aftereffects. This would make all five existing suspects unlikely culprits. Knowing what the public reaction to Germanicus’s death would be, all would have diligently covered their tracks. The alternative is that the use of belladonna was intentional, that the murderer wanted poison to be suspected and murder to be trumpeted.
The prosecutors at the Piso trial proposed that Piso and Plancina had employed the known poisonmaker Martina to provide them with the poison. Martina, as an expert, would have known about the cyanosis effect and would have warned Piso and Plancina against using belladonna. This aspect alone would tend to preclude Piso and Plancina from involvement in the crime. The other possibility, as already pointed out, is that the murderer, or murderers, knew that the poison they used would leave signs of its use, and used it quite deliberately for that reason—they wanted it to be obvious that Germanicus had been poisoned. Why would they do that? The answer will point to the identity of the murderer. Not one of the five classical suspects would have deliberately wanted poison to have been suspected, and that is one of the reasons why they can all be discarded as suspects.
There are a variety of other reasons why those five classical suspects can be cleared of the murder of Germanicus, and, commencing with Piso and Plancina, they are these. Piso and his wife were obvious chief suspects. No one could deny that Piso had gone out of his way to make life difficult for Germanicus in the East. And the fact that he and Plancina were delighted when Germanicus died was common knowledge. Piso also foolishly attempted to regain control of Syria by force following Germanicus’s death. There was nothing subtle about any of this. It was deliberate provocation. Yet none of it was evidence that Piso or his wife murdered Germanicus. Arrogant he may have been, but Piso, whom the very astute Augustus had considered worthy of occupying the Roman throne, was bright enough to have made himself less of a murder suspect if he planned to kill Germanicus from the outset and then methodically carried out the murder. What did Piso have to gain from murdering Germanicus? Did he do it to please Tiberius? That is highly doubtful—he despised Tiberius. Did he do it out of spite? And in doing so make himself an obvious murder suspect? Also doubtful. It should be remembered that to his dying day, Piso stated that he was innocent of any involvement in the murder of Germanicus and that the charges against him were false. Not even in his supposed suicide note did he confess to involvement in the death of the prince.
What then of Plancina? It was said that she involved herself in sorcery. It also was claimed that she was associated with Martina the notorious Syrian sorceress and poisonmaker. But Martina died before she could implicate Plancina or Piso in the murder. Conveniently for some, she also died before she could clear Piso and Plancina. At no point did Martina confess to having produced a poison for them, but her death gave that insinuation strength. That Plancina was a close friend of Livia, the emperor’s mother, is undeniable. So close a friend, in fact, that the emperor’s mother interceded on her behalf late in the trial and had her pardoned. But that is not proof that Plancina murdered Germanicus. It merely is proof that Livia protected a friend and possibly herself.
In defense of both Plancina and Piso, the second bout of illness, the one that killed Germanicus, took place some time after Piso and Plancina left Syria and were sailing back to Italy. Certainly they could have employed servants on Germanicus’s staff at Daphne to poison him. But following the first bout of illness, after which Germanicus himself was convinced that someone had tried to poison him, security precautions taken around Germanicus, in particular involving food and drink, would have been extremely tight. There also was the fact that his staff were intensely loyal, and at the time there was no suggestion that any of them were involved in his death. Only someone close to Germanicus could have slipped poison to him, especially on that second and ultimately fatal occasion. That someone had to be very close, in his inner circle, someone Germanicus trusted implicitly.
Taking all things into account, the logical conclusion must be that Piso and Plancina were innocent of Germanicus’s murder. There is no denying that they were arrogant and mean. But those are not crimes. They were such obvious scapegoats that it becomes increasingly obvious that someone else, the true murderer or murderers, very successfully set them up and, in casting the blame their way, accomplished the perfect crime. As for Piso’s death and supposed suicide note, many at the time were not convinced that Piso took his own life in the middle of his trial. His totally unexpected and unheralded death, when the trial seemed to be going his way, very conveniently wrapped up the affair for Tiberius and his mother, Livia. With Piso dead, blame for the murder could be set squarely on his shoulders, and the case could be put to rest.
The weight of evidence strongly suggests that Tiberius also can be crossed off the list of Germanicus’s murder suspects. 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, and once the furor following his death faded away without a revolution resulting. There is no doubt that Tiberius was a very insecure man. The precarious path he trod to the throne, during which many other contenders had died, had obviously made him paranoid. Yet Tiberius would have been so insecure, so afraid of the revolt that he must have dreaded would be unleashed by the death of Germanicus as a result of foul play, or even the suspicion of foul play, that he would not have chanced his throne by ordering the death of his hugely popular adopted son. It was enough to have Germanicus secluded in the East, as commander in chief there, well away from Rome and the troops loyal to him in the West, while Tiberius cemented his grip on power at the capital. 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.
This being the case, was Livia, Tiberius’s mother, guilty of Germanicus’s 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 missive 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 as strong an attachment to Germanicus as had those of Rome’s Rhine armies. This letter probably also contained Livia’s assurance that Plancina and Piso would have Tiberius’s blessing for their disruptive activities.
It is highly unlikely that this letter commanded or urged the couple to kill Germanicus. Livia was a crafty old witch of a woman who had more sense than to incriminate herself, in writing, in Rome’s most notorious murder. But the contents of this letter were still embarrassing enough for Piso to consider it weighty ammunition if he had to pressure the emperor to save his neck in the event the Senate convicted him of the prince’s murder. The letter’s contents also were embarrassing enough for Tiberius to want to retrieve the letter, and not just to save his mother’s reputation. Such a letter could have been construed as imperial authority for Piso and Plancina to put Germanicus’s life in danger. Had the contents been made public it could have been enough to lose Tiberius his throne, and his head, in an uprising of both the people and the legions.
Did Tiberius either order or condone Piso’s “suicide”? He had two motives to want Piso dead. One was an almost frantic desire to retrieve that embarrassing letter. The other was to put a cap on the whole Piso trial affair. While Piso lived, and continued to plead his innocence, some would believe him and would point the finger at Tiberius—most notably the friends of Germanicus and Agrippina. And the way the trial had been heading, Piso may well have been acquitted by the Senate for lack of evidence on the murder charge. With Piso dead, and with his supposed suicide note in hand—a note that was merely a plea for leniency for his sons, not an admission of guilt or a declaration of intent to take his own life—Tiberius was able to wrap up the trial by immediately finding Piso guilty as charged. That does not mean that Tiberius ordered the death of Piso. But the death of Piso conveniently closed the case with a scapegoat dead and buried.
That leaves just one original suspect. Was Praetorian Guard commander Sejanus behind the murder of Germanicus? Later generations thought so, after the accusation came to light that Sejanus had combined with Drusus the Younger’s wife to murder Drusus. It seemed a natural extension. And Sejanus then went on to convince Tiberius to remove Nero Germanicus and Drusus Germanicus from the picture, as he set his sights on claiming the throne for himself. Sejanus probably was just as nervous about removing Germanicus as Tiberius had been. As later history would show, within forty years the legions of the Rhine would march on Rome and defeat the Praetorian Guard to usurp one emperor, Otho, and install another, Vitellius, on the throne. And Vitellius did not have the hero status that Germanicus possessed. Such a possibility—of the Rhine legions creating an emperor of their choosing—also was very real during Germanicus’s time. And the astute and patient Sejanus, who seemingly did nothing without weighing the consequences, would have known that only too well.
Sejanus was given the inspiration and the courage to begin his campaign for the throne once Germanicus was out of the way. He set out to profit from Germanicus’s death by murdering Drusus the Younger and then removing the other heirs to Tiberius’s throne one by one, clearing the way for his own bid for ultimate power. There is no reason to believe that he knew in advance that Germanicus was going to be murdered, nor that he knew the identity of his murderers at the time of Germanicus’s death. But a case can be made that Sejanus was later approached by one of the murderers, who confessed to his or her part in the crime in the hope of winning Sejanus’s and Tiberius’s favor. The likelihood is that Sejanus did not entirely believe that confession, for reasons that will shortly become clear. On the other hand, it is quite likely that Sejanus orchestrated Piso’s “suicide,” on his own initiative, to help his master, Tiberius. Sejanus had the motive, the opportunity, and the capability to order the Praetorian Guard to carry out Piso’s murder and then make it look like suicide.
So if none of these five suspects was involved, who was Germanicus’s murderer or murderers?
An accumulation of evidence, from clues left over a period of forty-six years, leads to a figure whom many may consider, at first, to be a surprising guilty party. The man who masterminded the crime was none other than Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the same Seneca who became Nero’s tutor and later his chief secretary—and whose ambition to himself take the throne of Rome from Nero—ironically in another Piso plot—finally led to his downfall and suicide, as we have seen. Seneca was not alone. He had help on the inside, from an even more surprising source.
The key reasons for concluding that Seneca was one of the two people behind the murder of Germanicus, and was in fact the motivator for and inventor of the crime, are these. To begin with, Seneca possessed the two key elements that a criminal investigator looks for when considering murder suspects: Seneca had a motive—selfadvancement—and he had opportunity—he was in the East when Germanicus was murdered.
Seneca spent a number of years in Egypt before permanently coming back to Rome in A.D. 31. We are told that in A.D. 16, when he was a young man, Seneca’s aunt Marcia took him to live in Egypt, where his uncle was the province’s new governor, because the aunt believed Egypt’s climate would improve Seneca’s poor health. Seneca’s uncle Gaius Galerius became prefect of Egypt in A.D. 16. His was an imperial appointment, not a senatorial appointment, made by the emperor Tiberius personally. Being an imperial appointment, it was open-ended— Galerius could spend many years in the post, as opposed to appointees of senatorial postings, whose tenure was for just one year. In fact, Tiberius kept most of his provincial governors, such as the prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilatus (the Pilate of the Christian Gospels), in their posts for ten years or more. And so it turned out to be in Galerius’s case.
Seneca relocated to Egypt with his aunt and uncle early in A.D. 16, or his aunt took him there within months of her husband taking up his appointment in the spring of A.D. 16. Seneca was at that time in or very close to his nineteenth year. Like all Romans, he had come of age at the end of his fifteenth year. Like all young Roman members of the Equestrian Order, his schooling at Rome would have been completed by age seventeen, when he joined the Collega Junena, Rome’s young men’s association, a cross between the YMCA and the Hitler Youth fostered by Augustus. In this association for the sons of the elite, youths were trained to ride and to use weapons. The next step for a young man of eighteen or nineteen at Rome who was a member of the Equestrian Order, as Seneca was, took the form of six months’ mandatory military service with one of Rome’s legions as a tribunus angusticlavius, a tribune of the thin stripe. In republican times tribunes had commanded cohorts and entire legions of the Roman army, but by the imperial era the thin-stripe tribunes were mere officer cadets who served on the staffs of legion commanders.
Shortly after completing his service as a junior tribune, the young Equestrian Order member could be posted to the first of several Roman army auxiliary units he would command over the next eight years or so, with the rank of prefect. By the age of about twenty-seven, he would then either return to Rome to take up a civil service career, or, if he had shown promise with the army, he could be promoted to the rank of tribune of the broad stripe, or “military tribune.” In this latter capacity he became second in command of one of the twenty-five legions maintained by Rome at the time Germanicus became commander in chief on the Rhine. At age thirty the young tribune became eligible to join the Senate. He might serve as quaestor to a consul or provincial governor, after which he automatically joined the Senate. Or he was accepted into the Senate with the emperor’s approval, and could receive command of a legion as a “legate” or brigadier general. Within several years he could expect promotion to the rank of praetor, and then hope for a consulship from the qualifying age of thirty-seven. This was the normal promotional ladder for an ambitious young knight such as Seneca. But Seneca did not follow this route.
Seneca never served as an officer cadet, never commanded auxiliary units, never served as a military tribune with a legion, never commanded a legion. It was only after winning favor at the Palatium on his A.D. 31 return to Rome that he was made a quaestor that same year, and subsequently made a praetor in A.D. 49. Seneca’s career path was quite different from that of the usual ambitious Roman of Equestrian rank. In going to Egypt in A.D. 16 at about age nineteen, he avoided military service as an officer cadet, almost like a latter-day draft dodger. And remaining in Egypt until he was thirty-four, he did not follow the normal military or civil service promotional ladder. This was why Seneca was living at the governor’s palace in Alexandria when Germanicus was in the East between A.D. 17 and 19.
Seneca, who served on his uncle Gaius’s staff, would almost certainly have traveled up to Daphne with Galerius to pay his respects to Germanicus and Agrippina when they arrived there in A.D. 17. Germanicus, as Roman commander in chief in the East, was the superior of Seneca’s uncle, and like other senior Roman officials in the East, Galerius would have wasted no time going to Daphne to introduce himself to his new chief and give a personal report on the situation in his province. Seneca, being a knight of the Equestrian Order like his uncle, also would have been expected to pay his respects to the prince. In addition, Seneca would have been at the Alexandrian palace when Germanicus came to Egypt in the summer of A.D. 19 to initially implement measures to ameliorate the Egyptian drought and then to play tourist. There is no suggestion that Seneca was at Daphne when Germanicus died. So obviously, as he could not have been on the spot to poison Germanicus, someone else had to administer the poison Seneca procured. That is where the insider was to come in. More on that subject shortly.
What would have been Seneca’s motive for murdering Germanicus? By that time, A.D. 19, Seneca had been sidelined at Alexandria with poor health for three years. But he was anxious to make his mark at Rome now that his health had improved in the Egyptian climate. A chance remark or two would have started his excellent mind working on how he could leapfrog into the favor of the emperor and create a scintillating career for himself. The murder plan may have begun to take shape in Seneca’s mind in the summer of A.D. 19, after Tiberius’s angry reaction to Germanicus’s visit to Egypt. This was the first time that Tiberius had publicly admonished Germanicus in the Senate. More than illustrating Tiberius’s displeasure with his adopted son, this admonishment was like a green light to Seneca—surely, he would have thought, the emperor would be grateful to a man who rid him of Germanicus’s annoying presence?
Was Seneca capable of planning and carrying out the murder of a prince at age twenty-two? As his later exploits show, for all his admirable philosophical writings, there was nothing that Seneca would not stoop to. His boundless ambition had him in bed with Germanicus’s daughters Julia and Agrippina the Younger soon after his return to Rome. Seneca quite deliberately ruined men such as Germanicus’s quaestor Suillius as an act of revenge. Seneca had threatened to send in the military to force British tribes to repay his loans. He had no scruples about sanctioning and indeed encouraging Nero’s murder of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, Seneca’s former lover. Prior to that, Seneca had known about the murder of Claudius and had penned Nero’s speech to the Praetorian Guard, although aware that Claudius was already dead, while Rome waited for news of the emperor’s condition. He guided Nero’s hand for eight years as his chief secretary, during which time he made himself fabulously wealthy at the expense of countless others. And in the end he was prepared to allow Nero’s assassination so he could become emperor of Rome. As all these instances make clear, temptation and Lucius Seneca were well acquainted throughout his life.
Then there is the matter of poison. Their critics pointed out that Piso and Plancina were connected with the poisonmaker Martina. This was a diversion. In fact, it is probable that Martina had absolutely nothing to do with the murder. She was merely a tawdry friend of Plancina’s who gave weight to the suspicions raised about Plancina and Piso. Just as Martina was quite unconnected with the murder, Seneca had nothing to do with her. It is likely that Seneca procured the poison that killed Germanicus from another source, in Egypt. Tacitus tells us that on the day of his own suicide, Seneca asked his doctor to give him a poison “which he had some time previously provided for himself.” It was a poison, said Tacitus, that was commonly used to execute criminals at Athens. Here is graphic proof that Seneca not only had a working knowledge of fatal poisons but also had in the past procured one such deadly poison, which is likely to have been belladonna or hemlock.
Tacitus’s wording could be taken to mean Seneca had actually prepared the poison himself. Not that this matters—it would been easy enough for Seneca to have one of his freedmen buy the poison from an apothecary. Tacitus does not explain when or why Seneca had previously procured that poison. Was Tacitus talking unwittingly about the murder of Germanicus? Even if he was not, this evidence indisputably links Seneca with the type of poison used to kill Germanicus.
So how did Seneca plan and execute the murder of Germanicus? And who was his accomplice?