1902 Encyclopedia > Germanicus Caesar

Germanicus Caesar
Roman soldier
(15 BC - 19 AD)

GERMANICUS, CAESAR, a distinguished Roman general and provincial governor in the reign of Tiberius, was born 15 B.C, and died 19 A.D. His name Germanicus, the only one by which he is known in history, he inherited from his father Claudius Drusus Nero, the stepson of Augustus, and the most famous of his generals. His mother was the younger Antonia, the daughter of Marcus Antonius and niece of Augustus, and he married Agrip-pina the grand-daughter of the same emperor. It was natural that a prince so intimately allied both by birth and connexion with the reigning family should be regarded as a candidate for the purple. Augustus, it would seem, long hesitated whether he should name him as his successor, and as a compromise required Tiberius to adopt him, though Tiberius had a son of his own. "When his uncle succeeded to the throne, Germanicus was the only rival that he feared; and the emperor's jealousy and suspicion of him not only cut short his career of conquest but embittered the last years of his life, and precipitated, if it did not indirectly cause, his unhappy and premature end.

For the facts of his life our chief and, except a brief notice in Suetonius, almost our sole authority is Tacitus. Germanicus forms the central figure of the first two books of the Annals, and in the minute and graphic record of his campaigns, the unravelling of the court intrigues to which he was subject, and the pathetic description of his last hours and of the outburst of grief and indignation which followed the news of his death, the historian has put forth all his powers. But a modern biographer, though compelled to trust to Tacitus for his materials, may yet be allowed to put upon them his own construction, to make allowance for the glamour which surrounded an amiable and ill-starred prince, and to discount the exaggerations of a master of rhetoric who has set his favourite hero in a blaze of light in order to deepen the shadows of his masterpiece Tiberius, the darkest and saddest portrait in all history. The following article will consist of a brief abstract of the life as related by Tacitus, and an estimate of the character as it presents itself to us in the foregoing records.

Of the early years and education of Germanicus little is known. That he possessed considerable literary abilities, and that these were carefully trained, we gather, not only from the speeches which Tacitus puts into his mouth, but from the reputation he left as an orator, as attested by Suetonius and Ovid, and from the frag-ments of his works which have survived. At the age of twenty he served his apprenticeship in the art of war under his uncle Tiberius, and was rewarded with the triumphal insignia for his services in crushing the revolt in Dalmatia and Pannonia. In 12 A.D. he was made consul, though he had neither attained the legal age nor passed through the grades of pnetor and sedile. Soon afterwards he was appointed by Augustus to the important command of the eight legions on the Rhine. The news of the emperor's death found Germanicus at Lugdunum, where he was super-intending the census of Gaul. Close upon this came the report that a mutiny had broken out among his legions on the lower Rhine. Germanicus hurried back to the camp, which was now in open insurrection. The tumult was with difficulty quelled, partly by well-timed concessions for which the authority of the emperor was forged, but mostly by the help of his personal popularity with the troops. Some of the insurgents actually proposed that he should put himself at their head and secure for himself the empire, but their offer was rejected with righteous horror. In order to-calm the excitement and prevent further disaffection, Germanicus determined at once on an active campaign. Crossing the Rhine at the head of 12,000 legionaries and an equal number of allied troops, he attacked and routed the Marsi, and laid waste the valley of the Ems. In the following year he marched against Arminius, the conqueror of Varus, and reached the fatal battlefield in the Teutoburg Forest. The bones of the Roman soldiers still lay bleaching on the ground near the altars where their tribunes had been im-molated, and the gibbets where the prisoners had been hanged. Having performed the last rites and erected a barrow to mark the spot, he led his army on, breathing vengeance against the foe, Arminius, however, favoured by the marshy ground, was able to hold his own, and it required another campaign before he was finally defeated. A masterly combined movement by land and water enabled Germanicus to concentrate his forces against the main body of the Germans encamped on the Weser, and to crush them in two obstinately contested battles. A monument erected on the field proclaimed that the army of Tiberius had con-quered every tribe between the Rhine and the Elbe. Great as the success of the Roman arms had been, it was not such as to justify this boastful inscription. We read of renewed attacks from the barbarians, and plans of a fourth campaign for the next summer.

But no more victories were in store for Germanicus. His success had already stirred the jealousy and fears of Tiberius, I and he was reluctantly compelled to obey the imperial summons and repair to Rome. The magnificence of a triumph, and the idle honours of a consulship had little attraction for a general in mid-career of conquest, and a man of singularly simple habits and no political ambition. The enthusiasm with which he was welcomed, not only by the populace, which went in crowds to meet him as far as the twentieth milestone, but by the emperor's own praetorians, warned Tiberius that it might be equally dangerous to keep so popular a favourite at Rome, and the earliest pretext was seized to remove him from the capital. The recent death of Archelaus, king of Cappadocia, and a disputed succession in Parthia and Armenia, afforded a sufficient plea for Roman interference; and, a few months after his return, Germanicus was despatched to the East with extraordinary powers, and started on his mission without waiting to enter onhis consulship. At the same time Tiberius took the further precaution of superseding Silanus, a connexion of Germanicus, in the government of Syria, and appointing in his stead one of the most violent and ambitious of the old nobility, Cneius Calpurnius Piso, in order to watch his nephew's movements, and if necessary to check his ambition. Germanicus proceeded by easy stages to his province, halting on his way in Dalmatia, where he conferred with Drusus, his brother by adoption, and visiting the battlefield of Actium, Athens, Ilium, and other places of historic interest. At Rhodes he met for the first time his coadjutor Piso, who had followed in his wake, and was seeking everywhere to thwart his policy and asperse his character. When at last he reached his destination, he found little difficulty in effecting the settlement of the disturbed provinces, notwithstanding the violent and persistent opposition of Piso. At Artaxata Zeno, the popular candidate for the throne, was crowned king of Armenia; to the provinces of Cappadocia and Commagena Roman governors were assigned; and Parthia was conciliated by the banishment of the dethroned king Vonones. After wintering in Syria Germanicus started next year for a tour in Egypt. The chief motive for his journey was love of travel and antiquarian study, and it seems never to have occurred to him, till he was warned by Tiberius, that he was thereby transgressing an unwritten law of the empire forbidding any Roman of rank to set foot in Egypt without express permission. On his return to Syria he found that all his arrangements had been upset by Piso. Violent recriminations followed, the result of which, it would seem, was a promise on the part of Piso to quit the province. But at this juncture Germanicus fell ill. Piso deferred his departure, and, when at length compelled to start, lingered in the neighbourhood of Syria, receiving with open exultation the bulletins which told of the prince's rapid decline. Germanicus on his side was fully convinced that he had fallen a victim to the arts of his unscrupulous enemy. He knew that he was dying, and believed that he was dying of poison. Even his gentle nature was stung to madness at the thought, and with his dying words he called on his friends and family to denounce his murderer and avenge his death. Whether these suspicions were true must remain an open question, yet the arguments in favour of a death from natural causes seem to preponderate. It is true that Piso desired his death, and, from what we know of their characters, neither he nor his wife Plancina were Likely to stick at any means for procuring it. But a poisoner does not generally let his wishes be publicly known, nor show his exultation when they are attained. The evidence from the appearance of the corpse is still more uncertain. Suetonius indeed avouches that there were livid marks all over the body and foam at the mouth ; but he adds as a further proof of poison that on the funeral pyre the heart remained unconsumed, which clearly shows that he was only retailing the vulgar gossip. Tacitus, though inclined to believe the worst of Piso, allows that the report of the symptoms varied with the prepossession of the observers.

The sad tidings of his death cast a gloom over the whole Roman empire. To the provincials he had endeared himself by his simple manners, his affability, his generosity, his justice. The legions mourned their comrade who had always stood their friend at need, their general who had never known a defeat. At Rome there was a universal outburst of sorrow and indignation. The natural grief at the loss of a favourite prince was aggravated by the suspicion of foul play, and by hatred of the emperor who was at least guilty of recklessly exposing him to danger, and who now sullenly refused to join the general mourning. Men recalled the forboding words which had been whispered at his departure, " Whom the plebs love, die young." Nor was he unworthy of this passionate devotion. He had
wiped out a great national disgrace; he had quelled their most formidable foe; he had pacified distant provinces; and in his high estate he had so borne himself that all save one man had loved and honoured him. His private life had been stainless, and he possessed in a singular degree the gift of personal attractiveness. And yet an impartial biographer must add that for his fair fame his death was opportune. There were elements of weakness in his
character which his short life only half revealed : an almost feminine impetuousness which made him twice threaten to take his own life; a superstitious vein which impelled him to consult oracles and shrink from bad omens; an amiable dilettantism which led him to travel in Egypt while his enemy was plotting his ruin; a want of nerve and resolution which prevented him from coming to an open rupture with Piso till it was too late. His very virtues, his elegant taste, his chivalrous sense of honour, his unsuspecting openness and candour, unfitted him for the stern times in which he lived. He was as little fitted to play the part of Augustus as that of Alexander, to whom Tacitus fondly compares him; and had he lived to succeed to the purple the historian might have been compelled to pronounce on him the epitaph of Galba, that all would have thought him fit to reign if he had not reigned. (F. S.)

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