Agrippina And Germanicus, Painted By Sir Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1577 – 1640)

These side profiles, painted by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1577 – 1640), depict the ancient Roman tragic couple, Agrippina and Germanicus. In the 1st century, these two were incredibly important and prominent figures in the Roman Empire. Germanicus 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). Although there was prestige involved in being so close to the royal family, Germanicus seemed to be a rare member of the Julio-Claudian line that won much of his respect through sheer talent, intellect and virtue, all of which could be seen and appreciated by the Roman people. Germanicus was said to have been one of the most level-headed and skilled members of the Julio-Claudian family, and his likability was amplified after he proved himself to be a capable military leader, showcasing his skills in a series of successful campaigns along Rome’s unruly German borders. Suffice it to say, Germanicus came to be a massively popular man, and he was seen as a sure bet to become a future emperor. Such hopeful projections, however, were crushed when the famous general suddenly and unexpectedly died on October 10, in the year 19. Germanicus was only thirty-three years old.

Although no definitive proof was ever uncovered, Germanicus’ death was widely seen as suspicious throughout the empire. If he truly was assassinated, the prime suspects, in the public’s eye, 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 less evidence, but many believed Tiberius was paranoid and jealous about Germanicus’ popularity with the public and military. In addition, it could have been significant that Germanicus’ glory was overshadowing Tiberius’ birth son, Drusus (who also ironically 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).

Whatever the truth behind Germanicus’ death, many among his friends and family believed it had been murder. Agrippina and her children returned to Italy with a funerary urn, and, to the annoyance of Emperor Tiberius, they did not let the case go. After all, friends and family had allegedly pledged to avenge Germanicus, and this promise was fulfilled to some extent. A court trial was set, and the Roman public was firmly behind the family of Germanicus. Tacitus described the public’s infatuation with the mourning family in a memorable description of Agrippina’s return to Italy. He wrote:

“Meanwhile, at the news of her approach, people flocked to Brundisium….As soon as her squadron was seen out to sea, huge sorrowing crowds filled the harbours and shallows, walls, house-tops—every vantage point. They wondered whether they ought to receive her landing in silence or with some utterance. As they still hesitated about the appropriate course, the fleet gradually came nearer. There was none of the usual brisk rowing, but every deliberate sign of grief. Agrippina, with her two children, stepped off the ship, her eyes lowered, the urn of death in her hands. Her companions were worn out by prolonged grieving; so the sorrow of the fresh mourners who now met her was more demonstrative. Otherwise everyone’s feelings were indistinguishable; the cries of men and women, relatives and strangers, blended in a single universal groan” (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, III.1).

Supporters of Germanicus eventually were able to have Governor Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso dragged to trial. Nevertheless, before any answers or closure could be reached, Piso managed to take his own life. With Piso’s death, the formal investigation and trial ground to a halt. Despite the court case ending, Germanicus’ family continued to cast suspicion on Emperor Tiberius. This persistence, however, was becoming increasingly dangerous. Agrippina, who remained especially hostile to the emperor, was ultimately exiled by Tiberius to an island prison, where she died around the year 33. Sadly, most of Germanicus’ family died of suspicious causes along with Agrippina, leaving young Caligula as the last surviving member of Germanicus’ ravaged branch of the Julio-Claudian clan. After surviving the harrowing final years of Emperor Tiberius’ reign, Caligula succeeded in seizing the throne in the year 37. One of the first things Emperor Caligula did at the start of his reign was to gather the scattered remains of his family members who had died in exile or prison, and relocate them to the family mausoleum. The Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), described the scene:

“He sailed for Pandataria and the Pontian Islands to fetch back the remains of his mother and brother Nero—and during rough weather too, in proof of devotion. He approached the ashes with the utmost reverence, and transferred them to the urns with his own hands…He had arranged that the most distinguished equites available should carry them to the Mausoleum about noon, when the streets were at their busiest, and also appointed an annual day for commemorative rites, marked by chariot races in the Circus, at which [his mother] Agrippina’s image would be paraded in a covered carriage” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Gaius Claudius, chapter 15).

Such is the tragic family that inspired Peter Paul Rubens’ painting. It shows Germanicus, the promising and beloved Roman figure who was thought to have been murdered in his prime. And it shows Agrippina, the widow who was left to languish on an island prison and whose family was suppressed and gutted. It was, perhaps, this traumatizing family history that may have put the seeds of madness in Emperor Caligula, whose later reign became legendary in its insanity.


Written by C. Keith Hansley


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