The cold case of Germanicus – 2000 years ago today

2000 years ago today, the greatest Roman emperor that Rome never had was allegedly assassinated. The Roman general Germanicus was heir to his adopted father Emperor Tiberius. As a famous general, and a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, he was widely popular and regarded as the ideal Roman long after his death. To the Roman people, Germanicus was the Roman equivalent of Alexander the Great due to the nature of his death at a young age, his virtuous character, his dashing physique, and his military renown.While in the eastern provinces, he came into conflict with the governor of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnia Piso. During their feud, Germanicus became ill in Antioch, where he died on 10 October 19 CE, at only 33 years of age. His death has been attributed to poison by ancient sources, but that was never proven. Seutonius relates that he had “dark stains” covering his body and “foam on his lips,” which he seemed to suggest was poison. Supposedly, after Germanicus’ cremation, his heart had been found intact among the charred remains – “a heart steeped in poison is supposedly proof against fire.” This is of course nonsense by modern scientific standards

Germanicus’ death aroused much speculation, with several sources blaming Piso, acting under orders from Emperor Tiberius. This was never proven, and Piso later died while facing trial. Intriguingly, once Piso had died, the investigation into the assassination of the next Roman emperor stopped. There has never been identified a definitive assassin of Germanicus.

Tacitus says Tiberius was involved in a conspiracy against Germanicus, and Tiberius’s jealousy and fear of his nephew’s popularity and increasing power was the true motive. Suetonius went on to write: “According to the general verdict, Tiberius craftily arranged Germanicus’ death with Gnaeus Piso as his intermediary and agent.” This is unlikely as following Germanicus’ campaigns in Germany, he was given command of the eastern provinces – a sure sign he was intended to rule.

What is more likely is that Sejanus, the son of Tiberius’ first Praetorian Prefect Strabo and now leader of the Praetorian Guard in Rome, had a hand in Germanicus’ death. The ever ambitious Sejanus may have wanted to eliminate Germanicus because he believed that he himself could one day be emperor. It is highly unlikely that Tiberius and Sejanus worked in collusion, as a few years later Sejanus was behind the murder of Tiberius’ son, Drusus. The style of Drusus’ murder was similar to his cousin and adopted-brother Germanicus’ and would not have happened if Tiberius was implicated in Germanicus’ death.

Perhaps one of the oldest of cold cases may be solved with the discovery of the ‘Memoirs of Agrippina’, written by his daughter Agrippina the Younger. We know the ‘Memoirs of Agrippina’ once existed as they were referred to in the writings of the Roman historian, Tacitus, as well as mentioned by Pliny the Younger, however there are no extant versions that survived beyond antiquity. We can only hope.

RIP, Germanicus Julius Caesar.

Nicholas Poussin, The Death of Germanicus (1628), oil painting. Collection Minneapolis Institute of Arts.