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Germanicus in Germany

Immediately after the suppression of the mutiny in Germany, Germanicus led his troops on campaign into Germany. The campaign is presented as a response to the mutiny. Tacitus, Annales 1.39 explains the attack in religious terms, as a way of expiating the guilt and shame of the mutiny.

There are other possible explanations:

  • A campaign offered the prospect of reward from raiding Germany territory. Some of this might come in the form of the movable wealth of the Germans, but there would also be slaves. The soldiers would be rewarded and hence feel better about the regime.
  • Campaigns necessitated hard work and military discipline. Roman leaders worried that if the soldiers rested, they would get lax and mutinous.
  • The Roman army was traditionally aggressive. It was built for conquest. The Augustan period had seen nearly unbroken imperial expansion in Europe. Germanicus was resuming the traditional and  Augustan policy.
  • The imperial regime had built a considerable reputation around its success in imperial expansion. A victory in Germany would restore the prestige of the regime.

The army Germanicus marched into Germany consisted of 12,000 men drawn from the legions, 26 cohorts of auxiliary troops, and eight squadrons (alae) of auxiliary cavalry (see Roman Army for more details on the organisation of the troops). The auxiliaries contributed 13,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. There was thus a total of 29,000 men.

The first campaign was punitive. It was a slaughter of all they met. They destroyed villages and temples (Annales, 1. 50-52) .

The next year, Germanicus returned to Germany, but in greater force (Annales, 1. 56-70 (56-59; 60-69; 70). Two armies were sent across the frontier, one of approximately  25,000, the other of nearer 30,000. This represented the vast majority of the forces stationed along the Rhine. Germany was divided into various tribes, which had been under Roman authority at the time of the revolt against Varus. Roman policy was intentionally brutal. They spared few and slaughtered even non-combatants. It is worth noting that Germanicus’ actions in Germany were such that it would in the modern era lead to his prosecution for war crimes.

Our knowledge of the geography of regions bordering the Roman Empire is not exact: the Romans have not left us maps and many of the geographical descriptions are not precise. But modern historians have tried to draw maps of the territory.


The repeated and intense pressure that the Romans had put them under and various dissensions between the tribes, now led to one of the major leaders, Segestes of the Cherusci defecting to the Romans.

In a combined naval and land attack along the Northern coast of Germany, Germanicus penetrated deep into German lands. He recaptured the eagle lost by Varus and marched across the field where Varus’ legions were defeated, a sombre site for the legionaries, some of whom were survivors of that battle. The Romans buried their dead.

The German tribes attacked in an attempt to repeat their previous success, but Germanicus’ legions drove them off. Germanicus then began his victorious retreat back to the Rhine.

In the meantime, rumours reached the Rhine that Germanicus had been defeated and his army lost. In the panic, some wanted to destroy the bridge across the Rhine. Agrippina stood on the bridge and prevented its destruction. As the army reached the Rhine, she was there to meet them and thank them for her success.

Tacitus tells us that Tiberius did not take kindly to Agrippina’s actions.

The fleet had a difficult time. It was hit by a storm and dispersed, but most of the ships returned safely to Roman ports.

A third year of campaigning (Annales 2.5-26; 5-9; 10-19; 20-26) brought major victories in battle, another fleet scattered by storms, and Germanicus’ recall to Rome. Tiberius needed Germanicus for the East and argued that more could be achieved by diplomacy than war.

Analysis and Questions

The description of these events in the Annales draws a contrast between Tiberius and Germanicus. Tiberius is shown to be jealous of Germanicus and hostile to Agrippina. This presentation foreshadows the hostility between Agrippina and Tiberius that is to dominate the years that follow. But is this a reasonable interpretation?

  • What had Germanicus achieved?

One might argue that Germanicus had achieved little. Little if any territory was added to the Empire. Losses were also significant. Nevertheless, victory could be measured in other ways. The German tribes suffered heavy losses. Roman military hegemony was re-asserted in the region between the Rhine and the Elbe. To some extent, the losses of the Varus disaster were made good.

  • Was there hostility between Germanicus and Tiberius?

If we look at what happened next, Germanicus was given a consulship and a major campaign in the East. This is not how one treats an enemy. If this was the public face, what happened in private is obviously not known. But those who claim that there was already hostility on the part of Tiberius would appear to be laying claim to knowing Tiberius’ inner feelings. How could they know such things?

  • What was Agrippina doing on the bridge and why was Tiberius cross?

On the face of it, Agrippina was doing ‘a good thing’, but there are issues. Most obviously, Agrippina was a woman. Women held no political or military offices.She stood on the bridge because she was Germanicus’ wife and the granddaughter of Augustus. Her position was evidently and obviously imperial. This was in some contrast with the  Republicanism of Tiberius.


  • Why did Germanicus feel it necessary to launch these campaigns in Germany?
  • Were the campaigns a war crime?
  • Were the achievements of the campaigns more political than military?
  • Was Tiberius right to withdraw Germanicus?

On completion of the campaign, Germanicus returned to Rome and began preparations for his Eastern expedition.

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