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Germanicus in the East


Germanicus returned to Rome and in AD 17 celebrated a triumph. In the next year, he was consul with Tiberius and was sent East. He was given maius imperium, a power greater than that of the provincial governors, a power which marked Germanicus as imperial deputy (and heir): the same honour had been previously granted by Augustus to Agrippa and Tiberius himself.

Germanicus was sent to deal with a crisis on the Eastern frontiers involving the status of Armenia, which was a periodically disputed territory between Parthia and the Romans. This was a territory of symbolic importance. Success in the East called to mind the achievements of Alexander the Great. It was a place to secure prestige. The arrival of such a high-ranking member of the imperial family convinced the Parthians that the Romans were serious. Rather than fight and probably lose, they settled. It was a diplomatic triumph similar to that enjoyed by Augustus in 20 BC.

The problems arose not between Germanicus and the Parthians, but within the Roman camp. Germanicus was followed to the East by  a new governor for Syria, the most powerful province in the region. Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso was a trusted and experienced politician (Annales 2.55-57). He had been consul with Tiberius in 7 BC. His wife Plancina was a friend of Livia, Tiberius’ mother. His family had impeccable Republican credentials. He clashed publicly and repeatedly with Germanicus.

In AD 19, Germanicus visited Egypt. On his return to Syria, there was another disagreement with Piso. Germanicus fell ill and Piso, who had been leaving the province, delayed. Signs that magic was being employed against Germanicus were found in the dying man’s room (Tacitus, Annales, 2. 69; Dio, 57. 18.6–10). Germanicus, apparently convinced that Piso was behind the magic and his illness, formally renounced his friendship with Piso and ordered him from the province. This was a public declaration of hostility. Germanicus then died.

Piso  allegedly celebrated publicly the death of his enemy, the emperor’s son, a death for which, as he must have known, some would blame him, and then returned to Syria to challenge the governor appointed by the friends of Germanicus. He bribed some troops and raised an army. He was not, however, able to dislodge Germanicus’ friends. After being besieged and defeated, he was sent back to Rome under escort (Tacitus, Annales 2.74–81).

This is a puzzling episode for many reasons.

  • What was the origin of the dispute between Piso and Germanicus?
  • What was the role Tiberius played in the dispute?
  • What did Piso hope to gain?
  • Poisoning and magic?

Republicanism and Pride

One of the few consistent elements in the portrayal is the pride of Piso and his seeming Republicanism. This comes through in Tacitus introduction of him in 2.43, in his treatment of the people of Athens, who had befriended Germanicus, in 2.55, and in his entering into competition with Germanicus. It appears also at the account of a banquet, in 2.57, held in Germanicus’ honour by the King of Nabataea, at which golden crowns were offered. Piso tossed his present aside,  decried the immorality and luxury of the gifts and presented them as unRoman.

One could conclude from this that:

  • Piso saw himself as at least an equal of a prince of the imperial house.
  • Piso rejected what he saw as the moral implications of monarchy and attempted to maintain an ‘old’ Republican independence and moral stance.

The paradox is that Piso was a close friend of Tiberius and was holding a major command in service of the imperial Roman state. Although we may find his stance paradoxical, and there is some likelihood that writing almost a century later Tacitus found it strange, we must assume that Piso found nothing odd in his position.

With the Piso episode, we have again to acknowledge that this was a monarchic system in denial of its monarchic elements. Some of the aristocracy  may have seen little reason to modify their behaviour and moral values simply because there was now a princeps.

This raises a further and fundamental point:

  • Is it right to modify one’s morality and behaviour to take account of the political regime under which one lives?

Piso’s argument with Germanicus focused on who Germanicus was and how he behaved. He was a son of the imperial house and he behaved like a prince. For Piso, he was merely another Roman aristocrat and thus his social equal. And he should have behaved like a Roman Republican aristocrat.

The Role of Tiberius

The role of Tiberius in the death of Germanicus was the key political question which was to occupy the Romans. It came to the fore in the trial of Piso. Here, one can only ask the question. Is it feasible that Piso could have behaved in this way if he did not think that he had the backing of Tiberius?

Although Tiberius had done nothing obviously against Germanicus, he had offered some critiques of his behaviour, particularly in regard to a visit to Egypt (Annales 2.59). Yet, could he not have predicted trouble when he sent Piso out to Syria?

Germanicus had repeatedly demonstrated his loyalty to Tiberius. Nevertheless, his position made him the only viable alternative to Tiberius. In that sense, he was an obvious person to whom any oppositional elements might turn. Whereas Augustus had made Agrippa, Tiberius, Drusus, and latterly Germanicus partners in his endeavour, did Tiberius see his leading general and close family member as a potential threat? Oddly, Germanicus became a real and damaging threat to the regime only after his death and funeral.

What did Piso hope to gain?

This is really difficult. Was it pride? Was it status among his fellow senators so that when he eventually went home would he be able to say that he had stood up to Germanicus? Did he think he was acting on behalf of Tiberius? After Germanicus died, Piso returned to Syria and attempted to reclaim his province. The friends of Germanicus resisted him. Piso brought civil war to the province. How did he imagine that this would end well?

Sometime people get so angry that the world is not how they think it should be that they do astonishingly stupid things. Is that the case with Piso, the Republican aristocrat living under an imperial system?

Poison and Magic

This was a world without medical science. People died suddenly. When young strong individuals died and when those individuals had powerful enemies, people suspected foul play. They believed in magic. They knew a little about poisoning. In the absence of scientific knowledge, an act of magic or poisoning could not be proved, but it also could not be disproved. When people were very powerful, they feared those threats that they could not see, including magic and poison. It is not coincidental that these were seen as the weapons of women and the socially weak.

As we can see when we look at the trial of Piso, the Roman senators who judged the case against him, hostile though they were, could not find evidence for Piso’s direct involvement in the death of Germanicus.


Curse Tablet of the sort presumably found in Germanicus’ room. (From livius.org)

See this CSAD site for curse tablets from Roman Britain




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