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Tacitus’ Perfect Man

Accounts of the life of Germanicus are complex, fascinating and open to interpretation.

A new Alexander: The Death of Germanicus, by Nicolas Poussin, 1626/38. ©  akg-imagesIn the history of early Imperial Rome, the figure of Tacitus looms large. A senator under Domitian and consul under Domitian’s shortlived successor, Nerva, Tacitus wrote the only surviving narrative history of the early years of the Roman Principate from Tiberius to Nero: the Annals. The detailed chronological approach of the Annals means that Tacitus’ ideas about the Principate and the characters of the first century in Rome have shaped how we see them. Within Tacitus’ narrative, Germanicus is perhaps the most important character. He is first mentioned in the third paragraph of the Annals and gets his first glowing praise in the seventh, where he is ‘backed by so many legions, the vast reserves of the provinces and a wonderful popularity with the nation’.

Germanicus was the adopted son of the emperor Tiberius, who was forced to adopt him as one of the conditions of his own adoption by Augustus and to guarantee his own ascension to the Roman throne. These adoptions both occurred as part of what might be called a ‘succession package’ that Augustus put together in AD 4, a package that included Germanicus’ marriage to Augustus’ granddaughter Agrippina the Elder and marked him out as Augustus’ planned successor to Tiberius. Germanicus never fulfilled Augustus’ aim for him because, as with so many of Augustus’ chosen successors, he died of a mysterious illness in AD 19, while on a diplomatic mission to Syria. Tiberius was roundly accused of using a proxy to poison him out of jealousy.

Despite his early death, Germanicus bookends the Annals and echoes of him run throughout the text. The Annals begin with Tiberius ascending to the Principate and the immediate outbreaks of mutiny in both Pannonia (central Europe) and Germany. The troops in the latter were led by Germanicus and, says Tacitus, they hoped that Germanicus would rise up with them, ‘sweep the world’ and take the throne from Tiberius. Much to their dismay, Germanicus remained steadfastly loyal to his adoptive father. The Annals end 50 years after Germanicus’ death, with the final days of his grandson’s reign and the simultaneous revolts of the armies in northern France and Spain. In a clear contrast to Germanicus’ behaviour, in these revolts the generals actively marched on Rome to kill the emperor and take the throne. Tacitus gives his readers a clear sign of the decline of the times. 

Power couple: Agrippina and Germanicus by Peter Paul Reubens, c.1614. Alamy
Power couple: Agrippina and Germanicus by Peter Paul Reubens, c.1614. Alamy
Such bookending subtly places Germanicus as a moral height from which Rome falls during the reigns of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Tacitus seems to ramp up this portrayal with his description of the popular reaction to Germanicus’ death: he is called a new Alexander the Great, one who may have overtaken Alexander in military fame had he been able to succeed Tiberius; a man of extraordinary talents, virtues, good qualities and general handsomeness who was universally adored. In Rome, Tacitus says, people spontaneously observed a day of mourning, closing their businesses and shutting down civic life. When Agrippina arrived home bearing her husband’s ashes, crowds of mourners met her at the port and clogged the roads to Rome with their weeping. In short, Tacitus’ account of Germanicus’ death appears to describe him as an essentially perfect man.

As a result of this, readings of Tacitus’ Annals have often seen Germanicus as Tacitus’ ideal man, cast as a virtuous foil for the Tiberius he so clearly loathes. Tacitus is generally seen as an old-fashioned Republican who dreams of the restoration of the Roman republic and this view is seemingly underlined by his comment that Germanicus, along with Tiberus’ biological son Drusus, was killed because they wanted to give the Romans back their rights. This view has been the dominant reading of Tacitus’ Germanicus until very recently. 

One stumbling block in this has always been the extended passages at the start of the Annals showing Germanicus failing to put down the mutinies that are attempting to recruit him, resorting to tears, being mocked by his troops and eventually only succeeding in ending the mutiny with the aid of his wife. He is extraordinarily brutal in his punishment of the troops, forcing them to execute the mutineers themselves and then buying the survivors off. Historians have long tried to spin this as being somehow good, or have claimed that, because Tacitus does not explicitly state that Germanicus handles things terribly, he is trying to excuse Germanicus’ behaviour. Such a reading fails to notice that every word of praise recorded by Tacitus for Germanicus is put in the mouths and actions of a third party. Uniquely, Tacitus never uses his own authorial voice to give praise or condemnation to Germanicus. These twists of logic have to be made so that the ur-narrative of Germanicus as Tacitus’ ideal man remains intact, a clear case of the text being put to work for the historian. 

In recent years, Tacitus’ Germanicus has been re-examined and the straightforward reading of him as an ideal Republican figure, the lost hero who would have restored democracy, has been given some much needed and deserved nuance. Christopher Pelling, for example, has argued that Tacitus’ Germanicus acts as a representation of Republican virtue. Whether his actions are good or bad, he is always honest and bold, blurting out his feelings to an audience. He is naïve and sometimes awful, but he is never hypocritical, devious or scheming. He is, in Pelling’s reading, a representation of bluff Republican virtue that acts to highlight the shadowy complexities and hypocrisies of the Imperial court. He is brilliant, but only in the words of other people. He is flawed and he is easily disposed of. Another reading is offered by Kathryn F. Williams, who argues that Tacitus’ Germanicus is flawed and fragile, not because he is a representation of anything, but because he never became emperor. His early death means that Tacitus is unwilling to make a definite judgment of his core character, but instead makes Germanicus a commentary on the complex and contradictory nature of the Principate itself. Germanicus is not a representation of a flawed but beloved past, but of the cruelties, arbitrary popularities and strange contradictions of the world of the Principate. 

These newer readings are themselves contradictory but important. They serve to highlight Tacitus as a smart and careful writer who wrote complex histories with complex arguments, rather than crude dispassionate lists of events, despite his own claims to write without partiality. They also show us clearly a Germanicus who is not a one dimensional brilliant hero, but one who is multi-faceted, flawed and, therefore, far, far more interesting.

Emma Southon is the author of Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore (Unbound, forthcoming).

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