This artwork, by the French artist Gabriel-Jacques de Saint-Aubin (c. 1724-1780), depicts the death of an important ancient figure named Germanicus. He was a member of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty that found itself in control of the Roman Empire after the momentous lives of Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) and Augustus (r. 32/27 BCE-14 CE). In terms of Germanicus’ place in the imperial family tree, he was the nephew (and adopted son) of Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37). He was also the brother of future Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) and the father of notorious Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41). Germanicus, as members of the Julio-Claudian family go, was said to have been one of the most level-headed and talented of the bunch. He was a massively popular man, and his popularity was amplified when he proved himself to be a capable military leader, showcasing his skills in a series of successful campaigns along Rome’s unruly German borders. With acclaim and abilities like this, Germanicus was a leading candidate to become a future emperor. Yet, as the above painting displays, he was unexpectedly met by an early death and never reached the throne. He was only thirty-three years old when he died on October 10, in the year 19.
Although no definitive proof was ever uncovered, Germanicus’ death was widely seen as a suspicious occurrence throughout the empire. If he truly was assassinated, the prime suspects were Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso (the governor of Syria) and Emperor Tiberius. Germanicus, on his deathbed, was said to have personally believed that he had been poisoned by the command of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, and Germanicus’ family was reportedly very vocal in spreading that suspicion. As for Emperor Tiberius’ involvement, there was little evidence besides the potential motivating factors of Tiberius’ paranoia and jealousy about Germanicus’ popularity with the public and military. This also combined with the fact that Germanicus’ glory was overshadowing Tiberius’ son, Drusus (who also succumbed to a premature death a few years later). The Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56/57-117+), for his part, decided to embrace the suspicion of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso and Emperor Tiberius in his account of Germanicus’ demise. Tacitus wrote:
“For a time Germanicus’ condition was encouraging. But then he lost strength and death became imminent. As his friends stood round him, he spoke to them. ‘Even if I were dying a natural death’ he said, ‘I should have a legitimate grudge against the gods for prematurely parting me, at this young age, from my parents, children, and country. But it is the wickedness of Piso and Plancina that have cut me off…Sympathy will go to the accusers. Any tale of criminal instructions given to Piso will seem unbelievable or, if believed, unforgivable.’ His friends touched the dying man’s right hand, and swore to perish rather than leave him unavenged…Soon afterward he died” (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, 2.71-72).
It is this deathbed scene that inspired Gabriel-Jacques de Saint-Aubin’s artwork. In particular, the display seems to show the moment when Germanicus’ family and friends put their hands on their dying friend. His miliary comrades and political allies promised they would avenge him and this promise was fulfilled to some extent. Governor Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso was set to be tried for the murder, but he committed suicide before a confession or verdict could be reached. In addition to Piso, Germanicus’ family also continued to cast suspicion on Emperor Tiberius. Germanicus’ widowed wife, Agrippina, was especially hostile to the emperor, eventually resulting in Agrippina being exiled by Tiberius to an island prison, where she died around the year 33.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.