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Germanicus in the Literary Sources

The career of Germanicus is a major feature of Tacitus’ account in books one and two of the AnnalesHe figures less prominently in Cassius Dio, 57, perhaps in part because only parts of the work survive. He also appears but briefly in Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, especially chapters 15, 25, and 52. In all these cases, Germanicus has a distinct role.

Germanicus in Dio.

The main account of Germanicus in Dio is scattered through chapters 1-19. But if you read those chapters, we get very few details about Germanicus: his suppression of the mutinies is record as is his victory in Germany. We then hear about him giving games in Rome and then about his death in the East. But his role is crucial. While he is alive Tiberius is a good emperor.

  • He consulted the senate.
  • He did not kill people.
  • He refused excessive honours.
  • He refused anything that looked a divine honour.
  • He did not let people put up statues of him.
  • He gave money to poorer senators.
  • He moderated the collection of taxes.
  • He was friendly and approachable.

If you look at these characteristics, it is notable how many of them are personal. Think about what we value in our political leaders. What are the differences and why are there differences?

But after the death of Germanicus, he became a tyrant.

  • How realistic is such a transformation in character?
  • Why would Germanicus have such influence?
  • How might the death of Germanicus have changed the way in which Tiberius related to his fellow senators?

Germanicus in Suetonius

Suetonius’ biography makes very brief mention of Germanicus. The key passages are in chapters 25, when the Roman soldiers in Germany offer Germanicus the throne and Tiberius moderates his behaviour from fear of Germanicus, and chapter 52, in which Suetonius discussed Tiberius’ hostility towards Germanicus in terms of a failure of familial feeling. For Suetonius, the issue is one of dynastic politics and the emperor’s fear a prominent and talented individual.

  • Why would a monarch fear the most talented?
  • Why would Tiberius be hostile towards someone in his own family?

It is in Tacitus that Germanicus is given real prominence.

Germanicus in Tacitus

As in Dio, Germanicus plays a key role in the first two books of the Annales. In many ways, however, it is a difficult. Once one works through the account, one is left with more questions than answers. There are some more obvious characteristics:

Germanicus appears as a counter to Tiberius. His character is open and friendly. He is well-liked. He is the emperor that Rome never had. But is he more than just a literary counter-type to Tiberius.

  • He never acts against Tiberius, though he know Tiberius to be bad.
  • He accepts great honours in the East, beyond those with which a Republican would be comfortable.
  • He is openly emotional.
  • Some of his success, certainly in putting down the mutinies in AD 14, appear to be accidental rather than due to his brilliance.

If he is the counter to Tiberius, he is a complex figure, and never quite the hero.

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