Jubilation for the Julio-Claudians: ancient Roman general Germanicus was born on 24 May in the year 15 BCE. Germanicus was the son of politician Nero Claudius Drusus, who in turn was the son of Livia Drusilla, wife of Roman Emperor Augustus, and the brother of Emperor Tiberius. Thus, Germanicus grew up ensconced within the imperial lineage of Rome.
Pursuing a military career, Germanicus achieved great fame with his campaigns into Germania, a region bound by the Rhine, Danube, and Vistula rivers as well as the Baltic Sea to the north. So great were his military achievements that some went so far as to compare him to Greece’s Alexander the Great, as ancient historian Tacitus recounted:
“Some compared him to … Alexander the Great… .for both were handsome, both had famous families, both were not much beyond thirty when they died… . If [Germanicus] had become emperor, they said, and held the title of king by right, he would have surpassed Alexander in military success as easily as he did in mercy, moderation and all other worthwhile qualities.” (Tacitus, Annals, 2:73)
Germanicus died in Antioch while on a military campaign into Rome’s eastern provinces in 19 CE, not in the midst of battle but rather from an undetermined illness. Some, including Taticus, speculated that Germanicus’ death was not accidental but rather orchestrated by the Emperor Tiberius, who feared both Germanicus’ military skill and his popularity among the people of Rome.
Bust of a Julio-Claudian Man (Germanicus), c. 30 CE. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Nicolas Poussin, The Death of Germanicus, 1627. Oil on canvas. Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Benjamin West, Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1768. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.
Portrait of Germanicus, 14-20 CE. British Museum, London.