In the first century, Roman writers identified five potential suspects whom they believed had been involved in the murder of Germanicus. In the murder scenarios spun by their proponents, often two or three of those suspects were accused of working together to achieve Germanicus’s death. The emperor Tiberius figured in most of these murder scenarios. Suetonius was to write that, “according to the general verdict, Tiberius cunningly orchestrated the death of Germanicus, using Gnaeus Piso as his middleman and agent.”¹But was that truly the case?
There was a question in Roman law that prosecutors still ask to this day: Qui bono? (Who benefits?) To pinpoint a murderer, find a motive. That motive often becomes apparent when it is established just who benefits when a person dies in suspicious circumstances. The emperor Tiberius seemingly had much to gain from the death of Germanicus. The broad public belief was that he was jealous of Germanicus, that he feared his popular adopted son would depose him, and as a consequence wanted Germanicus out of the way. But did the insecure Tiberius really want to kill his own adopted son, the agreeable, self-effacing son of a brother whom Tiberius had adored, and in the process potentially stir the empire into revolt against him?
To understand the intricacies of Roman imperial family politics at this time, and to comprehend why Germanicus was so hugely popular with the Roman public and correspondingly such a perceived threat to Tiberius, it is necessary to do a short crash course on the complex family relationships of the Caesars.
When he was alive, Germanicus Julius Caesar was addressed as “Caesar.” This was because, at the beginning of the imperial era, Caesar was a family name, not a title. The Roman imperial family of the Caesars was established by Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the greatnephew of Julius Caesar. He became sole ruler of Rome in 30 B.C. by finally defeating Antony and Cleopatra. In 27 B.C. he officially took the title of Augustus (meaning “revered”), the name by which we know him as the first emperor of Rome. The family that Augustus created was a blend of the Julian and Claudian bloodlines. In this royal family created by Augustus, marriage between cousins was common. The adoption of nephews as sons further complicated matters. In the case of Germanicus Julius Caesar, both of these factors applied. Through adoption by his uncle Tiberius following the death of his father, Drusus Caesar, Germanicus’s first cousin Drusus the Younger became his brother. And because Drusus the Younger married his cousin and Germanicus’s sister Livilla in one of the many incestuous political marriages arranged by Augustus, Livilla was both Germanicus’s sister and his sister-in-law.
Because Tiberius had made Germanicus his son by legally adopting him on Augustus’s orders, Germanicus was the heir apparent to the Roman throne after Tiberius, and ahead of Drusus, who was several years younger than he. And, with the lineage of his wife, Agrippina— she being the last surviving biological grandchild of Augustus Caesar—the children and grandchildren of Germanicus and Agrippina were considered special people by Romans. The future of the Caesar dynasty rested with them. Ultimately, with the death of Germanicus’s grandson the emperor Nero, forty-eight years after the death of Germanicus himself, the Caesar family would disappear. Future emperors would adopt the name Caesar as part of their title, and later again the title Caesar would denote heirs apparent to the Roman throne, but none of these emperors and potential emperors shared the Caesarian bloodline.
Germanicus’s mother, Antonia the Younger, was the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, the second of Antony’s three wives—after Fulvia and before Cleopatra (if he did indeed officially marry Cleopatra). Octavia was the sister of Octavian, who became the emperor Augustus, and was from the same bloodline as Julius Caesar. This made Antonia’s sons, Germanicus and Claudius, grandsons of Mark Antony as well as great-nephews of Augustus and distant relatives of Julius Caesar.
Antonia, “famous for her beauty and discretion” according to first-century Greco-Roman historian Plutarch,² married Drusus Caesar (or Drusus the Elder, as he would also be described by later historians), eldest son of Tiberius Claudius Nero, who had been Julius Caesar’s onetime quaestor, or chief of staff, and a successful admiral during Caesar’s 47–46 B.C. battle to conquer Egypt. Antonia’s husband, Drusus, was handsome, a brave soldier, and a born leader, yet possessed the same sweet nature displayed by his eldest son, Germanicus. Drusus had, like his younger brother Tiberius, become the stepson of the emperor Augustus when their mother, Livia, divorced Tiberius Claudius Nero and married Augustus. The two boys had been raised by their father until his death, and Drusus and Tiberius had formed a close bond, with Drusus apparently looking out for the younger Tiberius as they grew to manhood.
Well liked by the Roman public, Drusus the Elder enjoyed the same birthday as his late father-in-law, Mark Antony, and suffered a similarly tragic fate. Germanicus had been just six years old when his father died while on campaign in Germany—Drusus was seriously injured when thrown from his horse. Apparently contracting gangrene, he was dead thirty days later, dying in the arms of his devoted brother Tiberius, who had galloped all the way from northern Italy to be at his bedside. Antonia had never remarried, despite the urgings of Augustus. Instead, much respected for choosing to do so, Antonia had led a chaste life at Rome, helping to raise her grandchildren.
In a marriage arranged by Augustus, Germanicus had, in about A.D. 5, wed Agrippina, the intelligent, feisty daughter of Augustus’s troublesome daughter, Julia, and Augustus’s loyal right-hand man, the talented general and admiral Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Agrippina would bear Germanicus nine children, two of whom died at birth, with a third dying in infancy. Unlike many of the husbands and wives in other arranged royal marriages, Germanicus and Agrippina gave every appearance of genuinely loving each other, and were inseparable.
When in his twenties, Germanicus demonstrated both military skill and leadership qualities, first in the Dalmatian War and later serving under Tiberius in several campaigns in Germany. By A.D. 14, Germanicus had been appointed by Augustus to replace Tiberius as Roman commander in chief on the Rhine. Ignoring the convention that generals’ wives stayed home in Rome while their husbands served on the frontiers, young Agrippina had joined Germanicus on the Rhine, living at his headquarters in the city of Cologne. Their elder children had remained in Rome, in the palace that Augustus had permitted Germanicus to build on the Palatine Hill. It sat below the emperor’s own palace, the Palatium, a title from which came our word “palace.”
As the years passed, the couple had the habit of always keeping their youngest child with them at Germanicus’s headquarters, a natural habit for loving parents. In this way, their third son, Gaius, spent his early years at the Rhine army base. A legion tailor made a little red legionary’s tunic for the popular child; a legion cobbler crafted him a pair of small caligulae, the military sandals worn by legionaries. As a result, the boy had gained the nickname Caligula, or Little Boot. It was a nickname that would resonate down through history, although in his own time Caligula was generally, and officially, known as Gaius.
During the winter of A.D. 13–14, when Agrippina was pregnant with her eighth child, the infant Caligula stayed at Rome with his grandfather the emperor Augustus. Caligula was so well liked by his father’s troops, who saw him as something of a good-luck charm, that in the spring of A.D. 14 the couple had sent to Rome for Caligula to join them on the Rhine. In May, elderly emperor Augustus, who had become extremely fond of the child, wrote to Agrippina, who was about to rejoin Germanicus at Cologne from where she had wintered in Gaul:
Yesterday I made arrangements for Talarius and Asillius to bring your son Gaius [Caligula] to you on the 18th of May, if the gods will it. I am sending one of my slaves with him, a doctor, [to serve as Caligula’s physician] who, as I have told Germanicus in another letter, need not be sent back to me if he proves to be of use to you.
Farewell, my dear Agrippina. Stay well on the return to your Germanicus.³
Within three months of writing that letter, Augustus was dead— from pneumonia, it seems—after a reign of more than forty years. Augustus had been grooming his elder grandsons, Agrippina’s brothers Lucius and another Gaius, as his heirs, but they both passed away prematurely—officially one died from battle wounds, another from illness, although historian Tacitus was to express suspicions that Augustus’s wife, Livia, had played a role in their deaths, perhaps via poisoning.⁴ Hugely fond of his stepgrandson Germanicus, whom he considered a model of manliness and virtue, Augustus in his last years contemplated naming Germanicus his heir. But under pressure from Livia, Augustus had named her surviving son, Tiberius, as his chief heir in his will. At the same time, he had made Tiberius adopt Germanicus, making Germanicus Tiberius’s heir in preference to Tiberius’s own son, Drusus the Younger. In this way, Augustus established a line of succession that satisfied his wife yet that was designed to also make Germanicus emperor, even if that would occur later rather than sooner.
The problem was, Augustus never formalized that succession plan. His will certainly made Tiberius the chief beneficiary of his estate, but nowhere had Augustus written his intent that Tiberius should succeed him as emperor. After Augustus passed away at Nola near Naples on August 19, A.D. 14, Tiberius had not immediately claimed the throne. One potential rival for the throne, Marcus Agrippa Postumus, another of Augustus’s grandsons, was promptly decapitated on the Italian island where he had been held prisoner by Augustus for a number of years. Suetonius was to speculate that the order for that execution was either written previously by Augustus, to be enacted on his death, or was issued by Tiberius or by his mother, Livia. In his defense, Tiberius had appeared both angry and upset at the news of the execution of Postumus. Disavowing any knowledge of the execution order, he threatened to punish the Praetorian tribune in charge of guarding Postumus, who had carried out the young man’s beheading and then reported to Tiberius and presented him with the severed head. Yet Tiberius never did follow through on that threat.⁵
Even after Postumus Agrippa’s execution, and after Tiberius had announced Augustus’s death to the Senate, Tiberius hesitated to claim the vacant throne. There was, Tiberius believed, another, more powerful rival to contend with: his own nephew and adopted son, Germanicus. Much of his paranoia about Germanicus can be attributed to the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Praetorian Prefect Sejanus was able to convince Tiberius that Germanicus wanted the throne for himself. And while Sejanus brought Tiberius the support of the Praetorian Guard—a sort of military police force not unlike today’s carabinieri in Italy—plus the imperial bodyguard unit, the German Guard, totaling twelve thousand men, Germanicus commanded eighty thousand crack legionary and auxiliary troops on the Rhine who were extremely loyal to him; some of his troops had even offered to make Germanicus emperor, using their swords as their authority.
If Germanicus chose to march on Rome with even half those men to make himself emperor, not even the self-confident Praetorians would be able to stop him, not that there was any guarantee that the rank-and-file Praetorians would want to stand in Germanicus’s way. As they were to prove in late A.D. 16, when every cohort of the Guard went out of the city to meet Germanicus on his victorious return from Germany—when only two cohorts had been ordered to do so—the Praetorians also revered Germanicus, and would almost certainly have refused any order to resist him.
In August A.D. 14, just prior to Augustus’s death, Germanicus was away from his troops, making the annual tax collection in Gaul. In his absence, the legionaries of eight Roman legions, or regiments, on the Rhine had gone on strike at the news of the passing of Augustus. Germanicus had galloped back to Cologne, where Agrippina waited with two-year-old Caligula, to find that the four legions there had killed some of their officers and thrown out the rest. The troops were making various demands, but most of all they wanted the length of their military service reduced. Several years before, Augustus had extended their period of service from sixteen years to twenty. If the original sixteen-year enrollment had still been observed, thousands of these men would have been in retirement by that time; instead, they were faced with several more years in the ranks.
Addressing the assembled troops, Germanicus had agreed to let the men who had served sixteen years or more retire. After restoring order, he had dashed up the Rhine to Mainz, to calm the four mutinous legions there. But at both legion bases, the troops had clamored for Germanicus to take the Roman throne for himself, promising to back him to the hilt. But Germanicus knew that Augustus had intended that his adoptive father, Tiberius, become the next emperor. Angrily, Germanicus resisted all calls from the troops for him to take the throne, telling them that he would rather take his own life than be disloyal to his “father.” To take his troops’ minds off the throne, Germanicus had immediately led them in a surprise assault across the Rhine into Germany, to punish the German leader Hermann—or Arminius, as the Romans called him—and his German allies, for wiping out Rome’s general Publius Quintilius Varus and the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions in the Teutoburg Forest east of the Rhine five years before.
Once it was clear that Germanicus was more interested in being a general than an emperor, Tiberius had ascended the throne. But he had never entirely trusted his nephew/adopted son. Praetorian Guard commander Sejanus would have told Tiberius that no one with the popular support attracted by Germanicus could be that honorable or that trustworthy, and would have warned him that eventually Germanicus must point his legions toward Rome.
Each year for three years, Germanicus drove across the Rhine with well-organized Roman invasion forces and utilizing well-conceived and quite complex battle plans. Sweeping through central Germany using carefully coordinated pincer movements, he had destroyed numerous German strongholds, towns, and villages and put the tribes on the run. In three major set-piece battles his professional soldiers had defeated Hermann’s undisciplined German warriors every time, using good intelligence to avoid ambushes and inflicting tens of thousands of casualties on the enemy. Hermann himself just managed to avoid capture, and became a fugitive, but his pregnant young wife, Thusnelda, fell into Germanicus’s hands and was sent to live in Italy under house arrest; there, Hermann’s son was born, into Roman captivity.
As, each year, news of Germanicus’s successes reached Rome and his fame blazed brighter than ever, Tiberius became all the more suspicious of him. The new emperor had a good friend, a general named Seius Tubero, serving on Germanicus’s military staff, someone who could keep him posted on what Germanicus said and did. In A.D. 15 he had also sent a former consul, Lucius Apronius, supposedly to give Germanicus the benefit of his experience, but in reality to spy on him. Germanicus had left Apronius in charge of a fort in his rear, where he could spy on nothing more than an empty forest.
The following year, Tiberius had sent two thousand men of the Praetorian Guard to join Germanicus’s army. This was unheard of. Praetorians never usually left the emperor, and many Romans would suspect that the Praetorian officers had orders from their commander at Rome, Sejanus, to assassinate Germanicus in the heat of battle and so eliminate him as a threat to Tiberius’s throne. Well aware of that possibility, Germanicus had deliberately led these Praetorians in the vanguard of a charge against a vast German emplacement, the Angrivar Barrier. What’s more, he removed his helmet and went into battle bareheaded, so that he was easily recognized and no Praetorian officer could put a sword into him with the excuse of mistaken identity.
To the disappointment of his army and of the Roman people in general, just as Germanicus was preparing to invade Germany again, in A.D. 17, on a campaign he believed would bring final victory against the Germans and expand the Roman Empire as far as the Elbe, Tiberius had recalled him to Rome. Various excuses were offered by the Palatium for this recall. Tiberius wanted Germanicus to become a consul for the second time. He wanted him to take the Triumph voted him by the Senate. He had a new assignment for him. Tiberius had also hinted that he wanted Germanicus’s adoptive brother Drusus the Younger to share some of the glory by sending him with the Rhine legions on the next campaign against the Germans. But while there would be the occasional punitive Roman raid into Germany in future decades, once Germanicus left the Rhine, the legions were never again sent on a major invasion of Germany, and the Rhine became the northeastern border of the Roman Empire.
To many, then and now, it would seem illogical that Tiberius would want to prevent his best general from capitalizing on what Germanicus had achieved in Germany over the past two and a half years, in the process expanding the empire. But Tiberius was clearly jealous of his adopted son. A decade before, Tiberius himself had led an army of fifteen legions—almost twice the size of Germanicus’s army—on harrowing campaigns in Germany, and had achieved little apart from peace treaties with some of the German tribes that, subsequently, had gone to war with Rome under the leadership of Hermann. Germanicus, with fewer troops than Tiberius and with less difficulty, had defeated the Germans in a number of major battles. He had destroyed their major centers and sent hundreds of thousands of German refugees streaming east. He had captured numerous German leaders. He had retrieved two of the three captured golden eagle standards of General Varus’s vanquished legions. And unlike Tiberius, a man without an ounce of personal charisma, Germanicus had been hailed as a hero by the Roman people. To the increasingly paranoid Tiberius, the final defeat of Hermann and the occupation of Germany by Germanicus Caesar would only raise the young general’s reputation to the point where he would be catapulted onto the throne—Tiberius’s throne— by the adoring Roman people.
Yet Germanicus remained loyal to Tiberius. He obeyed orders, gave up his plans for one final German campaign in A.D. 17, and returned to Rome, receiving a tumultuous welcome home from citizens and soldiers alike. Once Germanicus took his Triumph in the streets of Rome, Tiberius had ordered him to take charge in the Roman East, granting him imperium, which gave him supreme command over all Roman troops and officials in all eastern provinces of the empire. This would put thousands of miles between Germanicus and Rome, and even more distance between Germanicus and his loyal legions half a world away on the Rhine.
There were seven legions in the East—four based in Syria, one in Judea, and two in Egypt. But their legionaries only knew Germanicus by reputation, and it would take time for him to build the noquestions-asked loyalty that he had won for himself among his troops on the Rhine. To deliberately complicate matters for Germanicus, Tiberius had also appointed a new provincial governor to Syria, where Germanicus would be based, having recalled the existing governor, Creticus Silanus. Retiring governor Silanus was a friend of Germanicus—his daughter was engaged to marry Germanicus’s eldest son, Nero—not the future emperor Nero, but his great-uncle Nero Julius Caesar Germanicus.
The new governor appointed by Tiberius was Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso. Certainly, Augustus had thought highly of Piso—under Augustus he had been in charge of the imperial mint at Rome, had been made a consul, had governed the senatorial province of Africa for a year in 3 B.C. and, in A.D. 9 had been made governor of Farther Spain. Yet despite Piso’s broad experience, to outsiders, Piso’s Syrian appointment was unusual, for Piso was no friend of Tiberius. Arrogant, self-opinionated, and argumentative, son of a noted opponent of Julius Caesar, Piso despised Tiberius, even though he had shared the consulship with him in 7 B.C. In his sixties now, Piso had respected no man apart from the emperor Augustus, who had been his close friend. Piso had even gone against Tiberius in the Senate in A.D. 16, arguing that the House should be able to sit and conduct business if the emperor was away from Rome, even after Tiberius had said he thought it should not. Tiberius had won the argument, but only after heated debate in the Senate between Piso and senators close to Tiberius.
Piso’s wife, Plancina, a woman of noble birth and of great independent wealth, was on good terms with the emperor’s mother, Livia. It was generally believed that Livia had recommended Piso’s appointment to the governorship of Syria, one of the highest-paid Roman gubernatorial postings, as a favor to her friend Plancina. Piso’s irascible nature would have finally influenced Tiberius’s choice. As the astute Praetorian commander Sejanus would have noted, prickly Piso could be expected to make life very difficult for Germanicus in the Roman East.
Germanicus made just one misstep in his career, and that was while he was in the East. Importantly, it was a misstep that could only antagonize Tiberius and exacerbate his fears about his adopted son’s ambitions. At the beginning of the summer of A.D. 19, hearing that Egypt was experiencing a famine, Germanicus had hurried down through Judea to the Egyptian capital, Alexandria, to supervise relief operations. Some modern historians and authors have speculated that Germanicus took Agrippina and two of his children with him on this excursion, as he rarely if ever traveled without his family in friendly territory. No classical author confirms that Germanicus took his family to Egypt with him on this trip. Tacitus, who describes a solo visit,⁶ says that on arrival in Alexandria, Germanicus promptly opened the government granaries and reduced the price of grain to help the Egyptian populace recover from the drought. He also implemented a number of other measures that received great popular approval.
The problem was that Germanicus’s visit to Egypt broke the law. Augustus, at the beginning of his reign, had introduced a law that extended a practice first introduced by Julius Caesar. This law of Augustus decreed that no Roman of senatorial rank could enter Egypt without the emperor’s personal approval. This was because Egypt’s lush fields of the Nile Delta supplied so much of Rome’s grain for its daily bread that Egypt was called “Rome’s breadbasket.” If a rival to the emperor were to take charge of Egypt, he could literally starve Rome into submission and wrest the throne away from the incumbent. As a result, not even the governor of Egypt was of senatorial rank—he was only a knight, with the title of prefect. Likewise, the commanders of the two legions stationed in Egypt were not legates, or brigadier generals, men of senatorial rank, as they were almost everywhere else throughout the empire. This was because legion commanders could not take orders from a governor who was of lower rank than themselves. In Egypt, as in Judea, the legions were commanded by colonels—tribunes of the broad stripe, who would only later enter the Senate on their next step up the promotional ladder of the Roman civil service.
That no Roman of senatorial rank could enter Egypt was literally written in stone, and Germanicus knew full well that he was breaking this law. Yet he seemed to think that the law did not apply to him. This was apparently not through arrogance, a characteristic never ascribed to Germanicus, but through an innocent, almost naive belief that because he had no evil intent and was indeed going to Egypt to help his people there, it would be overlooked in this instance.
At Alexandria, Germanicus would have stayed at the vast palace of the Ptolemys, the kings (or pharaohs) of Egypt for hundreds of years until Julius Caesar terminated their reign and made Egypt a Roman province. This palace’s last royal occupant had been Queen Cleopatra. Now the palace was home to the Roman governor, the prefect of Egypt. In A.D. 19, that governor was the prefect Gaius Galerius, who had taken up his appointment in A.D. 16, apparently after the death in office of his predecessor, Seius Strabo, father of Praetorian Guard commander Sejanus. To reflect the importance of this post in Egypt, although Galerius was only a knight he was paid as much as the most senior governors of other provinces, all former consuls—400,000 sesterces a year. This was a fortune, especially to a knight. A net worth of 400,000 sesterces was required for knights to qualify for and maintain membership in the Equestrian Order, and here the prefect of Egypt was paid his net worth every year. And with the new emperor Tiberius showing a reluctance to replace his governors once they were installed, Galerius could look forward to many profitable years in Egypt.
Living with the prefect Galerius at the Alexandrian palace were his wife, Marcia, and his twenty-two-year-old nephew, Lucius Annaeus Seneca Jr. Seneca, born at Córdoba in the Roman province of Baetica, or Farther Spain, was the son of Lucius Annaeus Seneca Sr., a Spanish-born Roman knight who had served as a provincial procurator and had gained some fame as an author and teacher of rhetoric at Rome before retiring to his home city of Córdoba. Young Seneca had been educated at Rome, but after being afflicted with a serious health problem—he seems to have suffered from severe asthma and possibly also tuberculosis—his aunt Marcia had brought young Seneca to live with her husband, Prefect Galerius, and herself. That aunt would have been a sister of either Seneca’s father or his mother, Helvia.
Germanicus was already acquainted with the prefect Galerius— like all the Roman governors and allied potentates of the East, the prefect and his nephew Seneca would have traveled to Daphne to pay their respects to the prince, the prefect’s new superior in the East, on Germanicus’s arrival in the region in A.D. 17. For young Seneca, there would also have been the added element of curiosity in this visit—a desire to make the acquaintance of Germanicus and Agrippina, the most famous couple in the Roman Empire.
At Alexandria eighteen months after Germanicus had taken up the command in the East, Galerius and Marcia made the visiting prince welcome. Germanicus would have reviewed the two Roman legions then based at Alexandria, the 3rd Cyrenaica Legion and the 22nd Deiotariana Legion, also enjoying the sights of this well-laid-out metropolis of upward of a million inhabitants beside the Mediterranean, and which was then considered the most beautiful city in the world. Germanicus would have visited the famous library of Alexandria, the world’s largest, viewing some of the hundreds of thousands of books in its collection and speaking with Greek scholars who worked at the library. He would have gone to see the city’s mausoleum of Alexander the Great, where Alexander’s remains were reputedly interred. And without doubt he would have gone to see the mausoleum of Cleopatra, where the remains of his grandfather Mark Antony lay beside those of Cleopatra. And as a Roman priest, he would have performed religious rites in Antony’s memory.
Tacitus says that Germanicus also took the opportunity to play tourist by visiting the Egyptian antiquities along the Nile, the same antiquities that attract tourists to this day. Removing his military uniform and putting on the sort of simple Greek tunic that Mark Antony had himself favored when off duty here in Egypt, Germanicus had hired a riverboat and, leaving behind his military escort, journeyed up the Nile from Canopus as far as Elephantine and Syene, then the limit of the Roman Empire—which would later extend to the Red Sea. At Thebes, which was ancient even in those times, Germanicus the tourist took in the vast ruins. There, says Tacitus, an elderly local priest translated inscriptions about the pharaoh Rhamses and his military adventures for the visiting prince. Germanicus also marveled at the statue of Memnon, and at the pyramids of Giza “rising up like mountains in almost impassible wastes of shifting sand,” says Tacitus.⁷
When word reached Rome that Germanicus was in Egypt, Tiberius was furious. He wrote a letter to the Senate containing mild disapproval of Germanicus’s dress and manners while in the country, but expressing sharp censure for his visiting Alexandria without the emperor’s permission—in contravention of the regulations of Augustus. Only when Germanicus returned to Syria did he learn how much he was “blamed” by Tiberius for his expedition to Egypt.⁸
This innocent Egyptian sojourn, a combination of drought relief mission and sightseeing trip by Germanicus, would be taken by Tiberius, and particularly by his influential chief adviser, Sejanus, as proof that Germanicus was prepared to flout the law and thumb his nose at Tiberius and his authority. If Tiberius had not previously considered eliminating Germanicus, now his fear of his adopted son, accentuated by this unwise Egyptian episode, and fanned by the manipulative suggestions of Sejanus, could well have caused him to authorize his murder.
Several classical authors were to suggest another, allied motive for Tiberius to remove Germanicus. During the first five years of his reign, up until the death of Germanicus, Tiberius acted with restraint. He was generally fair in his rulings regarding Roman law, and rarely ordered anything, instead making suggestions to the Senate and senior officials rather than issuing them with instructions. As the Roman saying went, a word is enough for a wise man. If the recipients of this “advice” were wise, they acted on it and benefited accordingly. Following Germanicus’s death, now that Tiberius no longer had “a rival awaiting his chance” to take the throne, in the words of Dio,⁹ he became increasingly autocratic and arbitrary. His change in conduct, which previously had been marked by caution and moderation so that Germanicus could have no excuse to act against him, was obvious to all. Now, said Dio, “his rule became cruel.”¹⁰
Suetonius took the same line as Dio—that Tiberius had been restrained by Germanicus’s presence. Suetonius reasoned that if Tiberius acted autocratically while Germanicus was alive, there would have been a public outcry for his replacement by Germanicus. “Everyone believed,” Suetonius was to say, “with good reason, that respect for Germanicus had alone kept Tiberius from showing the cruelty of his wicked heart,” which, he said, soon showed itself after the death of Germanicus.¹¹
So if we accept that Tiberius did finally decide to murder Germanicus, five years into his reign, to remove both a powerful rival and to remove inhibitions to his rule, how would he have gone about achieving his adopted son’s death? Of course, he could not arrest Germanicus on some trumped-up charge and have him executed by the Praetorian Guard, the usual method employed by many Roman emperors for the removal of rivals. Such an act would have brought about a revolt against Tiberius by both the public and the military; Tiberius would have been signing his own death warrant. A murder was required, a surreptitious murder. For Tiberius to escape blame for the crime, Germanicus’s death would have to be seen to be an accident, or, preferably, to have a natural cause. Poisoning was the obvious solution. But who, on the spot in Syria, would carry out the act? Suetonius, like many other Romans, was convinced that, in Suetonius’s own words, “Tiberius cunningly orchestrated the death of Germanicus, using Piso as his middleman and agent.”¹²
But where was the proof? And would Tiberius’s middleman have been so inept as to use a poison such as belladonna that left a calling card? Surely, the point of the exercise, if Tiberius was behind it, was to make the poisoning of Germanicus look like a natural death, so that no accusing fingers were pointed Tiberius’s way? Tiberius was an obvious murder suspect, and he knew it. Would such a paranoid ruler have risked being implicated in the murder of Germanicus? Would Tiberius really have put his own neck on the line by risking a revolt by the people and the soldiers of Rome, a revolt that was still a very real possibility when Gnaeus Piso returned to Rome to face his accusers?
Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso had done little to make himself appear innocent of complicity in the death of Germanicus, either before or after the prince’s demise. Piso’s arrogance was born of a belief that he was superior to every man alive, including the emperor Tiberius. Tacitus was to say that there had been a report that Augustus, just prior to his death, had been musing about who, apart from his relatives, had both the ability and the ambition to succeed him as emperor. One story had Augustus numbering Piso among three senior senators whom he considered fitted into this category. Piso, said Augustus, was “not unworthy” of the throne, and, if offered it, would have accepted it.¹³ Piso obviously also thought himself worthy of the throne.
Following his appointment as propraetor of Syria, Piso had left Rome to head for the East, some little time after Germanicus and Agrippina had made their departure. Piso sailed from Italy in a fleet of merchant ships carrying his wife, Plancina; their youngest son, Marcus Piso, who was in his late twenties or early thirties and who would serve as his father’s aide; and hundreds of slaves, staff members, and friends, including the senator Domitius Celer. Piso in fact took a veritable royal court with him to the East.
Agrippina was well into her ninth pregnancy when she and Germanicus sailed from Italy, and after stopping at Actium in Greece to silently view the site where her grandfather Augustus had defeated Germanicus’s grandfather Antony and Queen Cleopatra in the famous Battle of Actium, Agrippina and Germanicus had paused at the Greek island of Lesbos. There Agrippina gave birth to their last child and third daughter, Julia Livilla. Germanicus was in no hurry to reach Syria. Possessed of an insatiable curiosity, he took his time coasting around western Greece and eastern Turkey, all part of the Roman Empire, with his wife and newborn child, inspecting various cities as he went. At every city and town they visited on their royal tour, the famed young prince Germanicus and his equally revered wife were welcomed enthusiastically by the populace and fawned over by local officials. At Colophon in the province of Asia, Germanicus had visited a famous oracle who had, according to Tacitus, predicted, in verse form, an “early doom” for the prince.¹⁴Germanicus, never one to be superstitious, had made light of the prediction.
This leisurely eastward progress of Germanicus and Agrippina had allowed Piso to overtake the prince. Pausing briefly in Greece while on his way to take up the Syrian posting, Piso had given a bitter speech to the leading citizens of Athens in which he’d made indirect aspersions against Germanicus, who, he claimed, had derogated the Roman name by treating with excessive courtesy leading Germans whom he had taken prisoner in his German campaigns.
Piso’s fleet caught up with Germanicus’s fleet at the island of Rhodes. Arriving in a storm, Piso’s ships, powered only by sail, were soon in danger of being swept onto the Rhodian rocks, until Germanicus sent oar-powered warships to throw them lines and drag them to safety. Without as much as a “thank you” to Germanicus for this act, which had saved his life and those of his family and entourage members, Piso set sail again within a day, determined to arrive in Syria well in advance of his new commander in chief. Once he landed in Syria, Piso quickly set out to establish regional control for himself and to systematically undermine Germanicus’s power and authority. The battle of wits between Piso and Germanicus would last for the next two years, ending only with the removal of Piso and the death of Germanicus.
Why did Piso embark on this program of confrontation with Germanicus? What was the point? Roman authors would agree that Piso seemed to believe that he had the backing of someone well placed at the Palatium at Rome to implement his campaign to antagonize Germanicus and sabotage his government. Whether this approval was tacit or real would later become the subject of intense debate. But what would have been Piso’s motive for going as far as murdering Germanicus? What did he have to gain from such an act? Certainly it would remove an annoying overlord and potentially give Piso a free hand in Syria. But surely Piso must have realized that he would become the chief murder suspect if Germanicus were to die in suspicious circumstances—following Piso’s quite overt campaign against him?
Was the unfettered government of Syria a strong enough motive to murder the heir to the Roman throne? Did Piso in fact have the most to gain from the death of Germanicus? He certainly did not have as much to gain from it as the emperor Tiberius. There were others who also had more to gain than Piso. Much more. Germanicus’s death would make Tiberius’s biological son, Drusus the Younger, his heir apparent and potentially the next emperor. So Drusus would gain significantly from the death of his cousin and adoptive brother. Not that any Roman author ever suggested that Drusus had ambitions for the throne or wished Germanicus dead. Just the opposite—he was considered to be extremely close to Germanicus. Piso, then, had less to gain from Germanicus’s death than either Tiberius or his son Drusus.
Could Piso have been compelled to engineer the murder of Germanicus? Many Roman writers were convinced that the man with the strongest motive, Tiberius, had been behind the murder, using Piso as his agent of death. Yet, while Tiberius would benefit from Germanicus’s death, other possibilities would emerge, involving Piso but not necessarily implicating Tiberius.
There is no doubt that Piso arrived in the East determined to undermine Germanicus’s authority. Before Germanicus even set foot in Syria, Piso immediately removed the older centurions and strict tribunes of each of the legions stationed in the province, replacing them with men he could trust or could bribe. He ordered a relaxation of discipline in the legions, allowing the troops to idle away their time in their camps without any duties and to do as they pleased in the towns, where they were not subject to Roman law. He also made sure the men knew that it was he they had to thank for this newfound freedom. In response, some soldiers began to call him “father of the legions.” His wife, Plancina, had even watched the legions and the cavalry training at their Syrian bases—an unheard-of thing for a Roman lady to do. And the governor and his wife were on record as having openly made insulting remarks about Germanicus and Agrippina.¹⁵
According to Tacitus, a whispered rumor had quickly gained currency in Syria once Piso was in the province, to the effect that the emperor was not averse to these anti-Germanicus goings-on of the new governor.¹⁶ Piso was infamously irascible, and it is not impossible that he set out to cause Germanicus problems simply because that was the nature of the man. Yet some Roman writers firmly believed that Piso had highly placed support at Rome for his campaign against Germanicus. Circumstantial evidence would later emerge to support that view, but following Germanicus’s death, Piso did not act like a man operating on the emperor’s orders. The amateur attempt to take control in Syria using force, then sending his son to Rome to seek the emperor’s blessing for his return, while he himself diverted to the Balkans to seek the backing of Drusus the Younger, none of these were the actions of a man who believed that the emperor secretly but wholeheartedly supported him.
It should be remembered that Piso and Tiberius had not been on good terms just prior to Piso’s appointment, with Piso challenging Tiberius’s authority over whether the Senate should sit while the emperor was away from Rome. On the face of it, Tiberius was no friend of Piso’s. So why would Tiberius employ Piso, a man who made a show of his opposition to him, against Germanicus? And why would the ultraindependent Piso agree to act for Tiberius, a man he despised, against Germanicus or anyone else?
Suetonius believed that Piso had decided he must make an enemy either of Germanicus or of Tiberius, although we aren’t told what the reason for this might have been, and that was why he took every opportunity he could to provoke Germanicus.¹⁷ Why would Piso have to make such a choice? Was he perhaps under threat—from Sejanus, for example—that if he did not act against Germanicus he would be considered Tiberius’s enemy, and he and his family would suffer accordingly? Piso seems so strong-willed and contemptuous of everyone from the emperor down that he would have been unlikely to be influenced by or governed by threats from anyone. Whoever influenced Piso, they gave him the impetus and the confidence to take every opportunity to inconvenience Germanicus and even to put him in danger, seemingly without fear of repercussions. Was that influential person his wife, Plancina? Piso’s wife seems to have been the principal influence in his life, if not the only influence apart from the late emperor Augustus.
When Germanicus landed in Cilicia in southern Turkey he had been met with news of Piso’s activities, and the accompanying rumor that Tiberius approved of those activities. Brushing both aside, Germanicus had sent Agrippina on to Syria by sea, to take up residence at the palace at Daphne, while he headed for Armenia to crown a king loyal to Rome. In company with Agrippina, Germanicus had sent an officer with sealed orders for the governor Piso at Antioch—Piso was to march two legions into Armenia without delay and to meet him there. If Piso could not leave the province, said Germanicus’s dispatch, then the governor was to deputize his son and quaestor Marcus to lead the legions north to meet up with Germanicus in Armenia.
Apparently setting off from Tarsus, the thriving capital of Cilicia, Germanicus had continued overland with a small retinue including his closest friends, the former generals Silius, Vitellius, Veranius, and Marsus, as well as Zeno, son of the king of Pontus, a Roman ally. Arriving in Armenia after crossing the mountains, Germanicus had waited in vain at the rendezvous point. There was no sign of Piso, Senior or Junior, and no sign of the ten thousand legionaries whom Germanicus had ordered sent north to meet him for his mission in Armenia. After waiting in vain for the troops to show up, Germanicus had continued on to Artaxata, the Armenian capital, in the far northeast of the country, with just his personal staff, and armed merely with bravado. He’d been welcomed into the city by the Artaxatans, who up to that point had been ruled by the Parthians. And there he had crowned Prince Zeno, naming him King Artaxias of Armenia, to the resounding approval of the Armenian people, who were mightily impressed by the famous Germanicus Caesar.
Subsequently, on the way down to Syria from Armenia, Germanicus had left his friend Quintus Veranius in charge in Cappadocia as its first Roman governor—Rome had recently annexed the kingdom on the death of its last king, making it a Roman province. In nearby Commagene, another former kingdom, another of Germanicus’s friends, Quintus Servaeus, a man in his thirties who was a former praetor, remained behind as its new governor, again on Germanicus’s instructions.
Just weeks later, the men of the guard cohort of the 10th Legion’s winter base at Cyrrhus, just northwest of Antioch, would have rubbed their eyes with surprise when Germanicus Caesar rode up to their main gate with a small entourage. Germanicus took up residence at the base and sent for the governor. By the time Piso arrived, Germanicus had been primed by those of his staff members whom he’d sent ahead to Daphne with Agrippina—including his quaestor, Publius Suillius Rufus (commonly referred to by Roman writers by his middle name of Suillius). These officials had hurried to Germanicus at Cyrrhus with tales of Piso’s exploits since he’d taken up the post of governor, exaggerating some episodes and inventing others to incite the anger of their normally genial general so he would rid himself of Piso before the man did too much damage.
Tacitus was to make the sweeping statement that Germanicus was a kindhearted man who never took a menacing stance with a fellow Roman.¹⁸ Menacing he may not have been, but when Piso finally arrived at Cyrrhus—having taken his time to answer Germanicus’s summons—Germanicus demanded to know why his orders had been disobeyed. Piso, says Tacitus, replied with “haughty apologies.”¹⁹ After this edgy conference at Cyrrhus, the pair parted in an atmosphere of restrained but undisguised mutual enmity, and each went his own way—Piso returning to Antioch, Germanicus reuniting with Agrippina and their two children at Daphne, which he went on to use as his residence and headquarters in the East.
From that first tense conference in Cyrrhus, the relationship of Germanicus and Piso progressively worsened. Whenever Germanicus sat in judgment of legal cases in his capacity of chief judge in the province, for example, Piso, who would otherwise have occupied the judge’s seat, rarely bothered to attend court. If he did, it was wearing a sullen frown and showing signs of opposition to Germanicus’s rulings with sighs and raised eyebrows.
At a banquet given by Germanicus in honor of the visiting king of Nabataea, a Roman ally on Syria’s southeastern border that supplied a famous unit of auxiliary cavalry to the Roman army, Germanicus and Agrippina were presented with heavy golden crowns as gifts, with Piso and other Roman officials given lesser crowns by the king. Piso had thrown his crown to the ground in disgust. Jumping to his feet, Piso had declared, “This adornment is given to the son of a Roman emperor, not the son of a Parthian king!” He had then launched into a long speech against luxury. Germanicus, while no doubt privately riled by Piso’s speech, had patiently suffered it in statesmanlike silence, rather than cause a scene or admonish a senior Roman official in front of a foreigner.²⁰
Piso had particularly taken exception to Germanicus on another score. When Piso had arrived in Syria, he’d found that his predecessor as governor, Silanus, had been giving sanctuary to a Parthian prince, Vonones. This Parthian had been sent to Rome when a child by his father, as a hostage, and there he had been raised among Roman nobility. When Vonones’s father died, the emperor Augustus had sent him back to Parthia to take his place as king. But Vonones had grown up with Roman habits, and the Parthians soon dethroned him, considering this Romanized Parthian too foreign for their tastes. He had then become king of neighboring Armenia, but he’d also become unpopular there and had been ejected from that country by its people, whose habits and tastes were very much like those of the Parthians. Vonones, the twice-dethroned king, ended up seeking refuge in Syria, which the governor Silanus had granted him.
Once Piso replaced Silanus, the extremely wealthy Vonones had showered expensive gifts on Piso’s wife, Plancina, as he sought the new Roman governor’s support in reclaiming the Armenian throne. How Vonones thought that Piso could put him back on the throne of Armenia we are not told. Perhaps Piso, to extract the gifts from Vonones, had let the former king think that he would lead the Roman legions based in Syria on an invasion of Armenia and reinstate Vonones. But while Germanicus had the authority to do such a thing, under Roman law the governor of Syria was not permitted to lead the troops under his command beyond the borders of his province.
Piso had been all for Vonones’s restoration, but Germanicus was not of the same mind. Considering Vonones a man without a future, Germanicus had other ideas. First, Germanicus had made Zeno of Pontus the new king of Armenia, in opposition to Piso’s support of Vonones. On top of that, in the peace treaty he sealed with King Artabanus of Parthia, Germanicus agreed to remove Vonones some distance from Syria so he was not living threateningly on Parthia’s doorstep. Germanicus had sent Vonones to Cilicia, where he lived a comfortable life on a luxurious private estate, but under guard, a veritable prisoner in a gilded jail. Probably encouraged by Piso in secret communications, Vonones had not given up his ambitions to rule in Armenia. Before long, while on a hunting expedition in Cilicia, the former king had escaped. He had soon been recaptured on a riverbank, and was killed by one of his Roman guards, a retired legionary who claimed Vonones had again attempted to escape. When Vonones died, so, too, had Piso’s ambitions to extend his power and influence in the region, as had Plancina’s hopes of being the recipient of further rich gifts from Vonones.
So Piso had no love for Germanicus. That much Piso had made evident. That much was indisputable. More than that, Piso had acted in an insubordinate manner toward Germanicus, and Piso and his wife had behaved insultingly toward both Germanicus and Agrippina, members of the imperial family. On top of that, Piso had celebrated Germanicus’s illnesses and had not tried to hide his delight when he heard that Germanicus had died. But despite all this, and despite the rumors and assumptions concerning his complicity, had Piso actually been involved in Germanicus’s death?
Cassius Dio, writing in the third century and using the numerous Roman biographies and history books then available as his source material, including the writings of Tacitus and of Suetonius, was to form the view that the death of Germanicus occurred “as the result of a plot formed by Piso and Plancina.”²¹ But could Plancina have planned and carried out the murder of Germanicus with her husband or on her own?
Gnaeus Piso’s wife, Munatia Plancina, was the daughter of Lucius Munatius Plancus, who had been a consul several times during the reign of Augustus. Plancus had been so rich that when Augustus had called on the wealthy patricians of his day to endow the city of Rome with grand buildings, and Marcus Agrippa had subsequently built the astonishing domed Pantheon, which stands to this day, Plancus used his own money to build Rome’s Temple of Saturn, at the heart of the Roman Forum.
Raised amid wealth, luxury, power, and privilege, Plancina was a snobby aristocrat who counted among her friends Livia, influential widow of the late emperor Augustus and mother of the emperor Tiberius. It seems very likely that in private meetings with Livia at the Palatium, Plancina had lobbied for the prestigious and well-paid appointment of her husband as governor of Syria, and that as a result, Livia had persuaded Tiberius to give Piso the job.
Plancina is known to have shown intense dislike for both Germanicus and his beautiful and much-admired wife, Agrippina. Plancina knew that Livia was almost insanely jealous of Agrippina, her late husband’s last grandchild, with whom she had no blood connection. Tacitus believed that this “feminine jealousy” was due to “Livia feeling the bitterness of a stepmother toward Agrippina”²²; since Agrippina’s mother, Julia, had been incarcerated, Livia had been in effect Agrippina’s stepmother. But there was more to this than mere jealousy. Plancina knew that Livia would do almost anything to thwart Agrippina’s ambitions to become wife of the next emperor of Rome, which would rank Agrippina above Livia, requiring Livia to pay court to her stepgranddaughter. What was more, many Romans believed that Livia had instructed Plancina to make life a misery for Agrippina and her husband in the East. Some believed that Livia had even encouraged Plancina to carry out the murder of Germanicus, to prevent Agrippina from becoming the next empress.
It should be remembered that according to Tacitus, Germanicus himself had seemed to suspect Plancina of being involved in his poisoning. So what had Plancina done that would incriminate her? What evidence is there to link Plancina to the murder of Germanicus? There can be no doubt that she had spoken rudely and slanderously about both Germanicus and Agrippina in Syria, and had reveled in the news of Germanicus’s death. It was said that in Syria, Plancina had been known to have had contact with Martina, an infamous sorceress and maker of poisons. And evidence of sorcery had been discovered at the governor’s palace on the island in the middle of the Orontes River at Antioch, the palace that Plancina had shared with her husband.
But had Plancina really organized, or participated in the organization of, the poisoning of Germanicus? The connection with Martina suggests that Plancina had access to poison. Yet how would she have administered it to Germanicus? Critics of Piso and Plancina would point out that Piso had reclined beside Germanicus at a banquet just prior to the prince’s first illness, giving him an opportunity to poison Germanicus’s food or drink. But they could not explain how Germanicus was poisoned the second time, or link that second poisoning to either Plancina or her husband. By that stage, Piso and Plancina were sailing away from Syria. By that stage, too, all of those around Germanicus would have been alert for further attempts to poison the prince.
Vitellius and Servaeus, the two generals who had collected evidence in Syria for the indictment against Piso, can be expected to have interrogated slaves at Germanicus’s palace to find out if any of them had been employed by Piso or Plancina to administer the poison on either the first or the second occasion, or on both occasions. No confessions of guilt or statements implicating anyone in the crime were forthcoming from any person associated with Germanicus, Plancina, or Piso.
In summation, Plancina had two possible motives for Germanicus’s murder: personal jealousy of Agrippina and the prince, and possibly the desire to please the emperor’s mother. Plancina potentially had access to poison, and her husband had an opportunity to administer the poison to Germanicus prior to the first occasion Germanicus fell ill. But others also had motives, some of them much stronger than Plancina’s. Anyone with enough money could acquire poison. And many others also had an opportunity to administer that poison to Germanicus. But there was no proof of Plancina’s complicity. And there was no confession from Plancina or anyone connected with her, including Martina the poisonmaker. The case for accusing Plancina of the murder of Germanicus, either acting on her own or linked with her husband, was based purely on slim circumstantial evidence, on her occasionally self-incriminating behavior, and on her odious personality.
The fact that Plancina and Piso were such obvious culprits should also be taken into account. It was almost as if someone had set them up, or had used them as their agents in the crime—knowing that the governor and his wife would be blamed for Germanicus’s death. Were Plancina and Piso so arrogant and so stupid as to think that they would get away with murdering the most popular Roman figure of the day after having so publicly reviled and obstructed him? Perhaps they were that arrogant and that stupid. Many Romans thought so. Perhaps Plancina was emboldened by the belief that she would be protected by her friendship with Livia, the emperor’s mother.
Yet an array of doubts seem to outweigh such a possibility. Where was the solid evidence against Plancina? And the proof that she was somehow in partnership with the emperor’s mother?
Tiberius’s mother, Livia Drusilla—who took the honorary title of Julia Augusta on the death of her husband, Augustus, but continued to be called Livia by most Roman writers—had a solid motive for wanting Germanicus killed. She was known to despise her stepgranddaughter, Germanicus’s ambitious wife, Agrippina. By repute, Livia had been prepared to do anything to ensure that her son, Tiberius, came to the throne, and she would have wanted to see Tiberius’s biological son, her grandson Drusus the Younger, rather than Germanicus, succeed Tiberius in due course. Most especially, she didn’t want Agrippina to become empress.
Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius, would point out that the name Livia is connected with the Latin word that means “malignity,”²³ the quality of malevolence, spite, and unprovoked malice. Ambitious, manipulative, and spiteful all her life as Augustus’s wife and Tiberius’s mother, Livia would actively protect Plancina as the tide turned against Piso. Why? Tacitus was to say that rumors were rife in Rome at the time of Germanicus’s death that Livia had conducted secret interviews with Plancina prior to Plancina and Piso going to the East, and that in these interviews she and Plancina had plotted Germanicus’s death.²⁴ In the same vein, some would suggest that Livia subsequently protected Plancina because Plancina had murdered Germanicus on Livia’s orders. Yet this was all unsubstantiated, all based on gossip.
Some would also assert that Tiberius had known nothing of the murder plot hatched by his mother. In support of this theory, Suetonius was to speculate that on the death of Augustus in A.D. 14, Livia may have ordered the death of Tiberius’s rival Postumus Agrippa in Augustus’s name, without the knowledge of Tiberius. Says Suetonius, Tiberius himself had appeared to know nothing about that murder before the event, and went to some length to disassociate himself from it afterward.²⁵
Tacitus, too, felt that Livia had the capacity to murder. He had his suspicions about the deaths of Agrippina’s brothers Lucius Caesar and Gaius Caesar when they were still only young men. Officially, one had died from illness while on the way to Spain, while the other had reportedly succumbed to a lingering battle wound while returning to Rome after leading a military campaign in Armenia. Tacitus was to ponder whether that pair had been cut down by fate “or by the treachery of their stepmother Livia.”²⁶
If we accept this line of thinking, it is possible to conceive that Livia did engineer Germanicus’s murder, without Tiberius’s knowledge. She had the motive and, through Plancina, an opportunity to carry out his assassination. But where is the proof? Just as there was no proof to link Livia with the deaths of Agrippina’s brothers Lucius and Gaius, and only the suspicion that she ordered the execution of their sibling Postumus, there is nothing to directly link Livia with the murder of Germanicus. But that would not prevent many Romans from wishing to see her punished for the crime.
There was a fifth suspect in the Germanicus murder in the first century. Praetorian Guard commander Lucius Aelius Sejanus was the son of a soldier and the nephew of a soldier. His father, Lucius Seius Strabo, was a knight of the Equestrian Order and a tribune in the Roman army who rose to become joint commander of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus’s mother, Strabo’s wife, was a member of the distinguished Cornelii Lentuli senatorial family. Sejanus’s uncle, Quintus Junius Blaesus, was a former consul, lieutenant general, and provincial governor—he had been governor of Illyricum at the time of the A.D. 14 Illyricum Mutiny, which Sejanus put down with Drusus the Younger and elements of the Praetorian Guard and German Guard.
Late in the reign of Augustus, Sejanus became joint commander of the Praetorian Guard together with his father—Augustus had established the convention that there should be two Praetorian prefects at any one time, to limit the power of the position, a convention observed on and off by later emperors for hundreds of years to come. Sejanus, himself a member of the Equestrian Order of knights like his father, but not a member of the senatorial class, had as his patron the senator Marcus Gabius Apicus, a wealthy spendthrift. Sejanus also had been a friend of Germanicus’s father, Drusus the Elder, and it is likely that Sejanus had served under Drusus during his German campaigns, in which case he would have then been a prefect, commanding a cavalry or auxiliary light infantry unit attached to one of Drusus’s legions on the Rhine.
Within a year of Sejanus’s appointment as joint Praetorian Guard prefect, Strabo was sent by Tiberius to Egypt to become its new governor. Strabo seems to have died in Egypt within the next twelve months or so, to be replaced by Gaius Galerius. Sejanus was then left as sole prefect of the Praetorian Guard. At his instigation, the then nine one-thousand-man Praetorian cohorts and three fifteen-hundred-man City Guard cohorts were brought from separate barracks throughout the city and consolidated in a new headquarters on the northeastern edge of Rome, a massive new fortress called the Castra Praetoria, on a site today occupied in part by Italy’s national library. From this point on, the consolidated Praetorian Guard was used by Sejanus as, in effect, his private army.
The order to execute the exiled Postumus Agrippa in August A.D. 14 had to pass through the hands of Sejanus, as commander of the Praetorian Guard, for it was a Praetorian tribune who had charge of Postumus, and he would take orders only from his superior, the Praetorian prefect. Classical authors Tacitus and Suetonius would speculate about whether that execution order came from Tiberius or from his mother, Livia, but it is not impossible that Sejanus issued the order of his own accord, to clear the way to the throne for Tiberius. Sejanus had formed a close relationship with Tiberius, probably while serving under him on the Rhine after Tiberius replaced his brother Drusus as commander of the Rhine legions. In the confusion following Augustus’s sudden death, this execution order, from Sejanus, would not have been questioned by the tribune in charge of Postumus’s exile.
According to Cassius Dio, Sejanus quickly became Tiberius’s senior and most influential confidant, his adviser and his assistant in all things.²⁷ In A.D. 20, following the death of Germanicus, Tiberius promoted Sejanus from the rank of knight to that of praetor, automatically entitling him to sit in the Senate. This was the equivalent promotion from the rank of colonel to that of a modern-day major general. It may have been coincidental that this spectacular promotion came in the wake of Germanicus’s death. It was a reward for Sejanus; of that there can be no doubt. Many Romans and later historians would ask themselves whether this could have been Tiberius’s reward to Sejanus for eliminating Germanicus.
Could Sejanus have engineered Germanicus’s death at Tiberius’s request or suggestion? Or did Sejanus orchestrate Germanicus’s death of his own accord, to please Tiberius and to solidify both their positions, just as he may possibly have ordered the execution of Postumus five years before? And if the latter was the case, had he only informed Tiberius of what he had done after the event, receiving his reward accordingly? This reward gave Sejanus the confidence to advance his own ambitions. He began an affair with Germanicus’s sister, Livilla, the wife of Germanicus’s adoptive brother, Drusus the Younger, who had become Tiberius’s heir apparent. Sejanus was considerably older than Livilla. His past friendship with her late father, Drusus the Elder, a father Livilla barely could have remembered, would have enhanced Sejanus’s access to the young woman. By all accounts the younger Drusus was initially unaware of this affair between his wife and the Praetorian commander.
In early A.D. 20, just as Agrippina was returning to Italy with Germanicus’s ashes, Livilla gave birth to twin boys, who became next in line for the Roman throne after Drusus the Younger, sidelining Germanicus’s sons. There is no way of knowing when Sejanus’s affair with Livilla had commenced, but it is possible it began before Germanicus’s death and that, as novelist and Roman scholar Robert Graves would suggest in I, Claudius, Livilla’s twins were fathered by Sejanus, not by her husband, Drusus.²⁸
As later events were to show, following the death of Germanicus, Sejanus set in motion a long-term scheme to eliminate Drusus as well as Agrippina and her three sons, the sons of Germanicus, removing them from the line of succession. Sejanus was not doing this for Tiberius. As events would prove, and as later Roman writers would record, Sejanus was setting himself up to eventually overthrow Tiberius and make himself emperor of Rome.
Sejanus was a master at manipulating others to do his dirty work for him. Do his bidding, and you won his favor and support. As Tiberius grew older, he would rely on Sejanus more and more. Ultimately, with Tiberius in semiretirement on the isle of Capri, off the western coast of Italy near Naples, Sejanus came to rule the empire by proxy. That stage was still some years off, and Sejanus’s first provable murder of an heir to the throne was, in A.D. 20, three years away. His insinuations against Agrippina and her boys, meanwhile, had already begun by the time Agrippina arrived back in Italy with Germanicus’s remains. Sejanus would press his campaign against everyone associated with Germanicus without relent in the coming years, as he set out to destroy the wife and sons of the murdered prince.
It was not beyond the bounds of possibility that in A.D. 19 it was Sejanus, not Tiberius and not Livia, who had orchestrated the murder of Germanicus, as his first step down the road to his ultimate goal of gaining the throne for himself. It is possible that he used Piso, Plancina, or both to carry out the murder. Then again, perhaps he involved neither of them, but used someone else in Syria as his agent. Who might that agent have been? As an example of how far Sejanus’s tentacles could reach, in years to come it would transpire that one of Germanicus’s closest friends was a secret associate of Sejanus. This was Quintus Servaeus, the former praetor appointed by Germanicus to govern Commagene in A.D. 17. This was the same Servaeus who, in partnership with Publius Vitellius, was now, in the spring of A.D. 20, preparing the indictment against Piso. It is Tacitus who reveals Servaeus’s “discreet” friendship with Sejanus.²⁹ Unfortunately, he fails to tell us whether Servaeus’s friendship with the Praetorian commander began before the death of Germanicus or after it.
It is probable that Servaeus quietly joined the Sejanus camp following the death of Germanicus. Sooner or later, most of Germanicus’s former friends would abandon Agrippina in the wake of Germanicus’s death. They would do so as an act of self-preservation, as it became obvious that Agrippina was a marked woman as far as the Palatium was concerned. One or two of them, such as Servaeus, went farther and cultivated the friendship of Sejanus to ensure their career advancement. Perhaps Servaeus’s friendship with Sejanus did only begin following the death of Germanicus. But if he had been Sejanus’s friend prior to Germanicus’s death, it is possible that he had been brought into Sejanus’s murder plot, if such a plot existed. Servaeus had been in Commagene when Germanicus fell ill the first time, but apparently was at Daphne when Germanicus died. Perhaps Piso had administered the first dose of poison while reclining beside Germanicus at the last banquet they shared, and perhaps Servaeus had administered the second dose.
Countering this proposition is the fact that Servaeus received no further promotion, appointments, or honors following the death of Germanicus, unlike other friends of Sejanus. If he had been Sejanus’s murder accomplice, some reward could have been expected—a consulship, perhaps, followed by a well-paid governorship. Instead, Servaeus’s career ground to halt, like those of so many genuine friends and supporters of Germanicus. But at least Servaeus was not caught up in the purges instituted by Sejanus in the subsequent decade. This would suggest that Servaeus cultivated the friendship of Sejanus following the death of Germanicus—perhaps some years after, as the need for self-preservation took hold. Yet there are those who would say that even if Servaeus had not betrayed Germanicus, this does not mean that Sejanus did not use someone else close to Germanicus to carry out the murder of the prince.
Sejanus rounds out the list of five murder suspects whose names exercised the minds of Romans in the spring of A.D. 20, when the calls for justice and revenge for the death of Germanicus rang throughout Rome and around the empire. Tiberius, Piso, Plancina, Livia, and Sejanus. Alone, or in combination, these were the potential murderers who were the subjects of earnest and often heated conversation at every dinner table, at every tavern counter, on every barber’s stool. All of Rome had an opinion about who the murderer was. The scene was set for a murder trial that would grip Rome and Romans throughout the known world.