The Death of Germanicus 1: Tacitus and Poussin

The Death of Germanicus by Nicolas Poussin 1627, now in the Minneapolis Institute of Art

High Baroque is not my favourite style of painting, but Poussin is an intriguing artist, not to say strange,  and in this story painting he celebrates (if that is the word) one of the strangest episodes in Tacitus’ Annals, the death of Augustus’ designated heir Germanicus.  So today I am spending time with this painting.  I can’t get to Minneapolis, but there is a magnify button on the linked web page which we can all enjoy.

So we are in the French Baroque period – although Poussin mainly worked in Rome.  The Renaissance rediscovery of Classical art and literature has transformed art and architecture.  The Church remains a great artistic patron, but secular art is thriving, including portraiture and historical paintings.  As the educated elite define themselves by immersion in the culture and achievements of the Classical world, scenes from Roman literature are popular.  Where earlier artists set historical scenes in the dress of their own day, there is now a gesture towards historically accurate costumes and settings.  But this does not mean realism.  Baroque style is mostly concerned with creating a rich visual environment, full of Classical details heaped together with improbable draperies and exaggerated gesture.  The Classical past in Baroque art is more dramatic, more colourful, more grandiose than any real world could be.  It is, in Umberto Eco’s term, hyper-real.

We are in Syria in AD 19.  Germanicus is dying.  He was grandnephew of the Emperor Augustus and husband of his granddaughter Agrippina 1.  Before his death in 14 AD, Augustus had intended Germanicus to be his ultimate heir, but allowed power to pass first to Tiberius, Germanicus’ uncle.  Now Tiberius is Emperor.  Our source is Tacitus, Annals II 69-73.

The Baroque Classicism is worth looking at.  Germanicus has found a large architecturally Roman hall to die in.  Poussin has stripped out the painted plaster which usually adorned Roman palaces.  This is a convention of the style, and partially reflects Renaissance ignorance of Roman use of colour; ruins were stripped back to bare stone and marble, and it was not obvious that there had been paint and plaster.  But the bare stone floor adds to the generally grim effect, which is probably intentional.  This is not so much a room in a Roman palace as a bleak and empty corridor of power literally imagined.  A blue curtain is being rigged up (a figure on the left is still holding it) to make a corner for Germanicus’ bed, which is the only furniture, and which looks like a draped catafalque more than anything else.

Germanicus, apparently already wearing his shroud, is dying in maximum discomfort, in a bright spot created by the white bed linen, or grave linen, as it soon will be. The glitter of his eye gives a disturbing sense of his agonised awareness.  The left of the painting is dominated by a crowd of male figures, his military escort, in a combination of Roman armour and epic undress.  They hold spears, and in one case a legionary standard.  One brandishes a sword for no apparent reason, but probably to swear in oath of vengeance.  Some mourn, head on hands, others gesticulate, one points aloft, presumably to indicate where Germanicus is bound, unless he has seen something on the ceiling.  These are hardly ideal deathbed companions – or rather they are ‘ideal’ and not real.  They represent the emotions of Germanicus’ loyal army.

On the other side, clustered in a more naturalistic fashion are the grieving family.  Agrippina 1 is seated.  The other members of the family are less well defined.  The naked boy is the future Emperor Caligula.  Is that Germanicus’ seal by his foot?  This boy will inherit Germanicus’ place in the succession, after the killing of his brothers, and will be, according to Tacitus, one of Rome’s most murderous emperors, sadistic, controlling and probably insane.  This will be the child’s inheritance.  At the bedside his nakedness is not just part of the heroic style, but denotes his innocence.  Even so he holds a rich drape, prophesying his imperial future, across his shoulders.

The rest of the family is more vaguely outlined.  The woman with partially undraped breast is a nurse, and the baby, if anyone in particular, will be Agrippina’s youngest child Julia Livilla.  The older mourning boy is one of two other sons and two daughters are missing.  The family in grief is carefully stylised – Germanicus is mourned as a public figure on the left and as a husband and father on the right.

Deathbeds are not a cheerful subject.  This one is particularly rich in the imagery of shock, despair and impotent rage.  Here is why.

Tacitus takes the view that Tiberius saw Germanicus as a threat to his own unpopular rule and to the ambitions of his own son, whom Augustus excluded from the succession.  He reports the extraordinary stories of the circumstances of Germanicus’ death – and the general belief that he was the victim of an attack by a combination of witchcraft and poisoning – a usual combination at Rome.

 The cruel virulence of the disease was intensified by the patient’s belief that Piso had given him poison; and it is a fact that explorations in the floor and walls brought to light the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, leaden tablets engraved with the name Germanicus, charred and blood-smeared ashes, and others of the implements of witchcraft by which it is believed the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the grave.

Germanicus, it is said, believed as he died that he had been poisoned by his subordinate, Piso.  The idea is that the poison and the witchcraft have been carried out on his orders.  But behind Piso stands Tiberius.  We are invited to accept Piso as Tiberius’ agent.

Tacitus has Germanicus accuse Piso in his dying words.  And he commends his six children and wife to the people of Rome, reminding them that Agrippina is Augustus’ granddaughter.  Poussin’s Germanicus points to his family with his dying hand.  He goes on to relate that Germanicus was buried without proper imperial honours – the effect of a plague death in a hot climate or deliberate imperial neglect? Tacitus composed Germanicus’ speech with knowledge of the fate of Germanicus family.   Agrippina and Germanicus’ two elder sons would suffer lethal persecution by Tiberius.  All of the children in the end died violently, although they would be perpetrators as well as victims in the vicious struggle for imperial power.

As a murder painting, it is interesting to compare Poussin’s picture with Botticelli’s portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici.  There is the same sense of untimeliness and expropriation, but in Poussin’s painting the emotions are heightened by Germanicus’ dying rage at his  betrayal and helplessness, reflected in the response of his soldiers, who have all the bravery in the world and no-one to fight.  Even without Tacitus’ text, the painting has a compelling character, but it is meant to be ‘read’ by viewers who cut their teeth on the text in the schoolroom.

Poussin has put the emotions of the text into visual form.  And he has refused to be distracted by the most sensational part of the story – the witchcraft allegations.  I can’t find a single reference to these in the painting.  For Poussin these would only detract from the true story of nobility tormented.  But even though Poussin is not prepared to be distracted by the sensational details, they will be the basis of a follow-up post here.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 10: The Great Cameo of France)


The Great Cameo of France


There is confusion about the date of this carved sardonyx jewel, about a foot in diameter, which now resides in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.   The Cameo commemorates the unity of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.  On all interpretations, Augustus in heaven watches over Tiberius, who, under the wise guidance of his mother, the Augusta, is surrounded by the stalwart men and women of the family who will carry the dynasty on.  This was the public face of the Augustan succession.  And it had a job to do – reinforcing the obvious reality of Rome’s power with the belief that it radiated from a divinely appointed stable imperial household.

From the time of Augustus, the provincial peoples worshipped the Emperor and, over time, more and more of his deified relatives.  The Cameo presents his lineage in heroic style.  The jewel has 3 levels.  At the top is heaven, where dead Julio-Claudians reside.  Roman heaven is only for gods: starting with Julius Caesar, Augustus’ father by daoption, the dead Julio-Claudians become gods on death.  The reclining figure with veiled head and rod of office is always taken to be Augustus himself, at the head of his dynasty.

IN the middle are members of the dynasty.  This is where opinion begins to conflict.  I see these as people who were alive when the jewel was made, following the theory that it was made in AD 23, to celebrate Tiberius’ adoption of his nephews Nero and Drusus as heirs following the death of his own son.  Another theory is that the Emperor Claudius had it made.  On either theory, the jewel tells an open story of unity and strength, which covers up a tale of violence, instability and cruelty.

What we see in the middle ground is a group of strong men and noble women, in heroic pose around a commanding throned man and his female consort.  The clothing generally suggests the loose draperies of an earlier age, and that the men of warrior age wear armour.  Strong eyelines connect the figures with each other and the heavenly scene.

Most interpretations agree that the throned man is the Emperor Tiberius, who ruled from 14-37 AD.  The throned woman is not his wife but his mother, the dowager Empress, known as the Augusta.  Under the throne sits a defeated Parthian, reminder of Tiberius’ role in recovering the Roman standards lost at the battle of Carrhae (53 BC) .  These returned to Rome after negotiation in 20 BC, but both Augustus and Tiberius presented their recovery as evidence of massive military victory.

Under the imperial feet, at the bottom of the Cameo, the images of captives and subjects, use the language of violence openly.  The Romans were traditionally a warrior society, and celebrated their power over lesser peoples.  For centuries, triumphant generals had literally paraded captives in the streets.  In diverting Romans away from Civil War, Augustus used the tactic of reinforcing traditional military values and promoting foreign war instead.  So the artist’s decision to use images of abased subjects is not subversive; it is a traditional part of Roman self-glorification.  The humility of the subjects is contrasted with the glory of the rulers, the imperial house.

The identification of other figures is more tenuous and varies depending on the date ascribed to the Cameo.  Everyone agrees that they are Julio-Claudians, especially members of the family of Germanicus, and however you swap them around, the Cameo tells the same story of public grandeur concealing private dysfunction.

Augustus lacked a son, the male heir he craved to keep his dynasty in power.  At one point he took his daughter’s sons as heirs, but they died before him.  He then looked at various options for the succession involving marrying descendants of his sister and his only daughter, to create a bloodline.  He came to view his great-nephew Germanicus as the next dynastic head.  Germanicus married Augustus’ granddaughter Agrippina 1 to produce great-grandchildren multiply descended from Augustus and his sister.  These children were Augustus’ best hope for taking the dynasty forward.

There was a snag in the shape of Augustus’ step-son, Tiberius, Germanicus’ wicked uncle.  Tiberius was a significant commander, and an earlier plan had been for him to head the next generation, married to Augustus’ daughter, Julia 1.  This marriage had been a disaster, and led to the strangest possible compromise.  When the grandchildren died, Augustus adopted Tiberius as his heir AND made Tiberius adopt Germanicus as his heir above his own only son.  The idea was that Tiberius should be a caretaker emperor, and pass power back into Augustus’ biological family, by handing power over to Germanicus at the right time.

When Augustus died in AD 14, Tiberius took over and restored his own son to the succession.  But when this son died in AD 23, Tiberius returned to Augustus’ plan.  Germanicus too was already dead, murdered in very grisly circumstances, so, according to Roman custom Tiberius adopted of Germanicus’ sons, Nero and Drusus.  However, their closeness to the throne was to cost both these young men and their mother their lives.  Germanicus had already paid this price, undoubtedly murdered, at the behest of someone very high up in the court – perhaps even Livia, the dowager Empress.

Returning to the jewel, around Augustus in heaven are some dead heirs.  If we are in AD 23 and Drusus has just died, he may be the warrior ascending to heaven on Pegasus.  The other figure is probably Germanicus.   No-one is quite sure but we need to choose two from this short-list; Drusus son of Tiberius, Germanicus, and Germanicus’ father, Drusus, brother of Tiberius.  In front of these figures is a man in a tunic, who may represent Aeneas, founder of the Julian family.  Heaven consists of Augustus and, probably, the two dead heirs of his adopted son, Tiberius.

We move to the living in the middle row, which, on this version, contains the Emperor and his newly adopted sons and heirs.  Tiberius and Livia are central.  In front of him and behind him stand two young warriors, the sons of Germanicus, whom he has just adopted.  We’ll assume the elder son, Nero (not the Emperor) is standing in front of him.  Portioning out the girls is more controversial.  The woman with the laurel wreath may be Germanicus’ wife, Agrippina, the granddaughter of Augustus (hence the wreath).  The little boy may be Germanicus’ youngest son Gaius, known as Caligula.  This all sounds very neat, but it doesn’t account for all three of his three daughters.   The woman on the far right is often identified as Germanicus’ daughter Agrippina 2, wife of the Emperor Claudius.

Without worrying about the details, we can use the Cameo to look at the carnage the Augustan succession caused in the imperial family.

Germanicus, a resident of heaven, was undoubtedly poisoned on campaign in 17 BC.  To be more precise he was undoubtedly attacked by witchcraft – in Rome, poison and cursing magic went together.  His wife, Augustus’ granddaughter, whom I identify as the wreathed woman proudly supporting her son on the Cameo, would be put to death by Tiberius.  So would the two elder sons, the new heirs.   So far, that is four figures dead by unnatural means.

But Drusus, winging his way to heaven, was also said to have been poisoned – by his wife, Germanicus’ sister.  We could count her death too, as she was later put to death for conspiring against Tiberius, but she isn’t on the Cameo.  So the official Cameo unnatural death toll is 5 and counting.

The boy, Caligula, would survive to be Emperor – and to be assassinated.  That makes 6.  His three sisters lasted his reign.  One of them, Agrippina 2, became the wife of her uncle, her father’s brother, the Emperor Claudius.  The other two survived Caligula’s reign to be put to death by their uncle, their father’s brother, the Emperor Claudius.  Agrippina 2 went on to be assassinated by her own son.  So whichever they are, the Cameo unnatural death toll rises to 8 – everyone except Tiberius and Livia from the middle panel met sticky ends.

Even if you try some new identities for the figures, the death toll does not improve much.  If one of the heavenly figures is Tiberius’ brother, Drusus, it improves a bit, as he fell off his horse on campaign.  In the version where Claudius makes the jewel for Agrippina 2, he and Agrippina are said to be the figures behind the throne.  Emperor Claudius was supposedly poisoned by his wife and she Agrippina 2 was assassinated by her son, so no improvement there.  On this reading the little boy on the left may become a young version of Agrippina 2’s son, the future Emperor Nero, who was dethroned and committed suicide to avoid execution.  If we make the woman holding the boy an allegorical figure, such as Providentia, goddess of Providence, then at least she is immortal.

All this only scrapes the surface of unnatural and suspect deaths in the imperial family, let alone the acrimonious marriages and divorces and punishments without trial.  If the Cameo was made by Claudius, the Cameo shows Tiberius with people he had openly had killed.  I find this a major problem with the later date.  If the date is 23 AD, the irony is accessible only to later viewers; Tiberius’ strong household consists of people he was to kill and with others who would kill and be killed because of their claims on the Augustan succession.  Whichever members of the family you place around him, you still get a litany of violent death.  How can something so exquisite be so grim?

If you liked this post, you may like the post on the Hampton Court Portrait of Henry VIII and his family.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 9 – Swapping Off)

So far we have seen Augustus build a succession of heirs, only to be disappointed by repeated deaths.

His moves in the succession combine four principles, NO MORE WAR, GIRLS ARE MUMS, DADS ARE BEST, AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.

Here is a summary of Augustus’ attempts to provide a succession of strong male heirs.

Augustus lacks a son.  He decides his nephew Marcellus (son of his sister, grandson of his biological father, Gaius Octavius) will make a suitable father for the children of his daughter Julia 1.  This simple plan fails due to Marcellus’ death.

Next he adopts his grandsons, Lucius and Gaius, Julia’s children by another husband.  They die.

Then accepts his unrelated stepson Tiberius, as a father of heirs.  When Tiberius’ marriage to Julia fails, and it is clear that she will have no more sons (in fact she gets banished), Augustus is forced to consider Tiberius as an heir and adopts him.  Augustus really wants a biological heir and so also adopts Julia’s third son by her previous husband, but later rejects him as unsuitable to be an heir.  He has now run out of Julia’s sons, but there are still daughters.

Faced with the prospect of seeing his succession pass out of his biological line to Tiberius, Augustus brings in his great nephew, Tiberius’ nephew, Germanicus, who has descent from Augustus’ sister Octavia.    Germanicus is to marry one of Julia’s daughters and keep the succession in Augustus’ biological family.  Tiberius and his son lack biological relatedness to Augustus.  Tiberius’ son is placed after Germanicus in the succession and given a suitable marriage which will produce children descended from Augustus’ father, but not Augustus himself.

The rest is just swapping off.  Here are the Julio-Claudians who ruled.

In 14 AD Augustus died.  Tiberius succeeded, as planned.  During his reign he killed off several of Augustus’ descendants, including his own ex-wife, Julia 1, Agrippina, wife of Germanicus, and her two elder sons.  Germanicus himself died of disease or poison in 19 BC.  When Tiberius finally died in 37 AD, he had kept the peace for quarter of a century, although the imperial court had become a dangerous place.  His son had predeceased him, possibly murdered by his wife, and Tiberius, now embittered and absorbed in his own world of vice and paranoia, allowed his line to die out.

Since Tiberius’ son was dead,  a son of Germanicus followed him, as Augustus had intended.  A survivor of the massacre of his family, the Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar, known as Caligula was reputedly mad.  His bloody reign ended with his assassination in 41 AD.  The line of Germanicus’ sons was exhausted, although daughters remained. Caligula left no heir.

The next Emperor was Claudius, brother of Germanicus, a descendant of Augustus’ father.  He had never been intended as an heir – he was lame and Augustus viewed him as half-witted.  Tiberius never saw him as a rival, and Caligula made him a figure of fun.  Now, in the confusion of the assassination, he became Emperor.  Claudius already had a son and a daughter.  But in 49 AD Claudius married into Augustus’ bloodline, cementing his claims on the Augustan succession.  This involved incest –  he chose his niece, Caligula’s sister, Germanicus’ daughter, great granddaughter of Augustus himself, and, like Claudius, descended separately from Augustus’ sister .  Names in the imperial household were departing from tradition and becoming very confusing.  So we will call her Agrippina 2, to distinguish her from Agrippina 1, wife of Germanicus.

When the marriage took place, Agrippina 2 already had a son, Nero, by a previous marriage who had a double claim to Augustan descent, both from Augustus and from his sister.  Claudius was only descended from Augustus’ sister.  As a result of Augustus’ back-up heir plans, there were a number of people around with some sort of relatedness to him and his father.

Agrippina 2 was a dangerous bride.  She had survived the killings of both parents and  two brothers, and she had also steered her way through her brother Caligula’s murderous court.  The story is that Claudius could not see through his young wife’s ambition for her own son.  When Claudius’ son died young, it was said he had been poisoned by his stepmother.  Left without an heir, Claudius adopted Agrippina’s son Nero and made him his heir.  As you might expect by now, Nero also married Claudius’ daughter, his stepsister and first cousin once removed.  Their son would be Claudius’ grandson (and his great nephew) and descended in multiple ways from Augustus and his sister.  When Claudius died in 54 BC, allegedly poisoned by his wife, Nero became Emperor.

However, once he became Emperor, Nero’s concern for the Augustan succession was minimal.  There was no grandson for Claudius.  After Nero had established his rule, he murdered his mother and had his wife put to death.  He made two other legal marriages as well as two irregular marriages, but had no children who survived infancy.  In 68 AD his military commanders rebelled and he committed suicide.  Civil War followed and the Augustan succession was over.  Augustus had prevented Civil War for nearly 100 years.  But his concerns for promoting his biological line in the succession had made the imperial family a brutal and murderous place.  The traditional morality which Augustus promoted in his legislation was nowhere more flouted than in the distorted relationships, scandals and cruelties which typified his own family.

Disentangling the Augustan Succesion (Part 8 – Germanicus)

So in AD 4 Tiberius, son of Livia, stepson of Augustus, was adopted into the Julius family and had only Augustus’ unsatisfactory grandson, Postumus, between him and the prospect of ruling Rome.  AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.  But Augustus didn’t love Tiberius that much and he had not finished with the DADS ARE BEST principle.  He soon rejected Postumus and was left with the prospect of Tiberius taking over, and founding his own dynasty, with no biological connection to Augustus at all.  Yet there were still options among his biological family through his sister’s daughters.

Essentially, Augustus had a good stepson/bad stepson problem, at least, from his own point of view.  Livia’s younger son, Drusus, was the good stepson.  He had never known any father except Augustus – and many people believed he was Augustus’ son, conceived while Livia was still married to her previous husband.  He was a great military commander in his own right, and earned the title Germanicus for his family in battle.  And he had married a daughter of Augustus’ sister Octavia in 16 BC.

In 16 BC this had made sense.  Julia 1 (GIRLS ARE MUMS) and Agrippa were producing numerous children, including the boys, Gaius and Lucius.  Tiberius had been betrothed to Vipsania, Agrippa’s daughter by a previous marriage, almost since she was born – a political match which had nothing to do with the succession.   They married in 19 BC and were happy.  Meanwhile, as a back-up plan for the succession, Augustus decided Drusus could be a father of his own father’s descendants (DADS ARE BEST) and married him to his niece, the daughter of his sister Octavia in 16 BC.  While this fulfilled the AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA principle, Augustus didn’t expect to need either of Livia’s sons in the succession.

All this changed with Agrippa’s death in 12 BC, Tiberius’ disastrous marriage to Augustus’ daughter, Julia 1,  and her disgrace and exile.  Augustus had to give up on having a biological grandson in the line of succession.    But Drusus’ successful marriage had produced a potential heir, descended through women from Augustus’ biological father  Gaius Octavius .  This new arrival was  – well, he is always called Germanicus.


If Drusus had lived, Tiberius would almost certainly have missed out on the succession in AD 4.  He and Augustus had had a terrible relationship since the marriage to Julia in 11 BC.  Drusus could have been adopted as a strong successor and caretaker for his own son, Germanicus.  But Drusus died in 9 BC, reputedly of falling off a horse – another example of the dangers of campaign.   Left without Drusus, Augustus briefly considered making Germanicus his heir, but at barely twenty, he was too young to take over, especially against the opposition of his now wicked uncle, Tiberius.

But the future was with Germanicus.  Let’s not forget Julia 1’s daughters (GIRLS ARE MUMS).  By now, Augustus had given up on marrying Tiberius to anybody.  But Julia’s daughters were still available for marriages and their children would be great grandchildren to Augustus himself.   He was set on Germanicus, already a great nephew via Octavia, marrying one of Julia’s daughters and fathering his great grandchildren.   So Augustus came up with a complicated plan.

In AD 4 Augustus forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus, his nephew and to make him his heir above his own son.  Augustus finished the plan by marrying Germanicus to one of Julia’s daughters, Agrippina.  Now everything would unfold as if Drusus had lived, with Tiberius filling in until Drusus’ son took over.

Augustus was following the four principles.

Germanicus (DADS ARE BEST) was descended from Augustus’ father, Gaius Octavius, through Octavius’ daughter Octavia, and her daughter Antonia (GIRLS ARE MUMS).  So he was descended both from Livia on the one side (AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA)  and Augustus’ father on the other.  By the marriage to Agrippina, Augustus’ granddaughter, Germanicus’ children could be descended from Augustus himself.  So Germanicus’ children would be Augustus’ descendants, Gaius Octavius’ descendants, and also Livia’s descendants in a mixed Julio-Claudian succession.  As a promising young commander, Germanicus would soon be able to ensure the NO MORE WAR principle for himself.  And meanwhile Tiberius would be  get to rule for life, but he would not get to found a dynasty.  All this might have made sense on paper, but it took no account of psychology.

What about Tiberius’ son?  Well, like Tiberius, Tiberius’ son wasn’t biologically connected with Augustus at all.  He had a place in the succession too – Tiberius was allowed to adopt him as a Julian and junior heir after Germanicus.  And a marriage was made between Tiberius’ son and Germanicus’ sister.  This gave Augustus another chance to bring his father’s line into the succession even if Germanicus died without heirs.  After Tiberius would come his son (unrelated to Augustus) and then his son (descended from Augustus’ father).   But Germanicus and his line came first.

Tiberius came off worst in these arrangements.  having been forced to divorce his son’s mother to marry Julia 1, he now found his son virtually disinherited.  He had to treat his nephew, Germanicus, as senior in his household to his own son – a humiliating position.  And he became a wicked uncle to Germanicus, knowing that his own son could only succeed if Germanicus’ line failed.   When Augustus made these arrangements,  he was signing a death warrant for his granddaughter Agrippina and two of her sons, who would be wiped out, along with other potential rivals, in the reign of Tiberius.  Germanicus himself would die of poisoning on campaign in 19 AD.  But Germanicus would eventually contribute two Emperors to the succession – his son Caligula and grandson Nero.

We are now ready for the final post; Part 9 – Swapping Off.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 7 – the Fourth Principle)

In AD 4 Augustus was faced with the death of both his heirs, the sons of Julia 1, and the lack of a credible regent.  He revised his position.

Julia still had one son left -her youngest, Postumus Agrippa.  So Augustus adopted this boy, whom he had previously ignored.  The sources suggest there was some deep-seated objection to Postumus,  possibly because he had some sort of disability or mental illness.  Postumus did not remain an heir for long – he was banished in AD 6.

Livia heart

But Augustus also made a much more interesting move.  While focusing his hopes on Gaius and Lucius, Augustus had kept on devising  back-up plans involving brutal political marriages and divorces.  Let’s go back in time.  When Agrippa died in 12 BC, Julia 1 was still young enough to become the mother of even more heirs.  Augustus hoped not to need them – he had Gaius and Lucius, her sons.  But on the GIRLS ARE MUMS principle Augustus felt Julia should continue to ensure his succession with back-up sons, and picked another suitable husband.

So in 11 BC, Julia married her stepbrother, Livia’s elder son, Tiberius.  He was indeed strong enough to enforce the NO MORE WAR principle, but his choice over other candidates was obviously to please Livia.  AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.   To make this marriage,  Tiberius was made to divorce his beloved wife, the mother of his son, and marry Julia against his will.  The marriage with Julia was a disaster and produced no children.  Julia’s career as mother of heirs was over.  By 6 BC, Julia and Tiberius had separated and in 2 BC she was disgraced and sent into exile.  Augustus would have to make the best of her children by Agrippa.   At the time, with Gaius and Lucius shaping up excellently, this didn’t seem much of a problem.

But in AD 4, the situation was much more urgent.  Augustus did something much more radical than just trying out the unsuitable Postumus as an heir – he adopted his stepson, Julia’s ex-husband, Livia’s elder son Tiberius, bringing the Claudius family into the succession.  Like Agrippa, Tiberius was no biological relation, but an experienced commander and able to uphold the NO MORE WAR principle.   This helps explain how he got chosen to marry Julia.  But that doesn’t explain his adoption in his own right, after it was clear that he would not father Julia’s sons – for that we need the fourth principle; AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.  Augustus was elevating Livia’s son to a position where he might inherit the rule of Rome – something he had not done for either of Julia’s previous husbands.  In fact (spoilers), on Augustus’ death in 14 AD, Tiberius became the Emperor Tiberius.

However, Augustus did not let go of the idea of keeping his own biological family in the line of succession.  Initially, he kept his grandson Postumus in reserve; given the age difference, it is probable that he considered placing him next in the succession after Tiberius, so that Tiberius would hold power in his life, but pass it back to a descendant of Augustus at death.  Even after he finally gave up on Postumus, Augustus would continue to interfere with the line of succession, diverting it away from Tiberius’ natural heirs towards his own biological family.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 6 – the Children of Julia)

The death of Marcellus ruined Augustus’ first hopes.  But he caused Julia 1 to remarry by 21 BC.  She was 18, her new husband some 25 years older.  The new husband had to divorce his wife, another cousin of Julia’s, to marry her.  In fact the ex-wife was the sister of Julia’s dead husband.  Augustus’ family was becoming extremely complicated.  But it all seemed worthwhile to him because Julia had to be the mother of heirs and she had to have a hand-picked husband.

The husband picked in this case was Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’ second-in-command who had won the crucial Battle of Actium for him in 31 BC, causing the flight and suicide of Augustus’ rival Mark Antony and his consort Cleopatra.  The choice of Agrippa seems to have been purely practical – Augustus needed a regent who could take over and protect his heirs if he died.  On the NO MORE WAR principle, Agrippa was the obvious person to take over, and he would champion the rights of Julia’s children if they were also his own.

Augustus had not abandoned the idea of bringing his own father’s descendants back into the line of succession.  He was arranging other marriages among his kin which we will come back to later.  Augustus did not adopt Agrippa.  His focus was on Julia’s children and their marriages.

Julia and Agrippa had a number of children, many of them doomed to be martyrs to the Augustan succession.   The marriage produced three sons.   Gaius Vipsanius Agrippa (b. 20 BC) and Lucius Vipsanius Agrippa (b. 17 BC) were the first two.  Augustus stretched the law in order to adopt them both in 17 BC; he removed them from their parents, and brought them up in his own household.  As the boys were adopted, they officially took new Julian names.  You will find them listed as Lucius Caesar and Gaius Caesar.  He showered titles and privileges on them and sent them out into theatres of war as soon as they were old enough to get experience.

Gaius and Lucius aureus.jpg
Aureus of Augustus, Lugdunum Mint, 2 BC – 2AD, RIC 209

This coin was recently sold by for $21,000.  It is solid gold – nearly 8 grams.  This was a prestigious coin, celebrating the stability of the succession.  The younger boy put on the adult toga in 2 BC, and died in 2 AD, so scholars think the coin must have been minted in the interval when both were alive and officially adult.  On the obverse is Augustus, with his titles – SON OF THE GOD, FATHER OF THE FATHERLAND, CAESAR AUGUSTUS.  On the reverse, CLCAESARES – GAIUS AND LUCIUS CAESARS.  Above this legend stand the heirs, wearing the toga and displaying shields and spears.  The odd objects floating between them are religious implements.  The message is clear – the youths are ready to take over from Augustus in civil, military and religious life.  Around them are their own titles; SONS OF AUGUSTUS, CONSULS DESIGNATE, LEADERS OF YOUTH.

The coin told one story, reality another, but there was no reason why most people handling the coin should know the true situation.  Augustus presented an image of direct father son succession, cleverly constructed by adoption.  The title ‘leader of youth’ was invented especially for the Senate to bestow on Gaius (5 BC) and Lucius (2 BC), along with ceremonial silver shields and spears, pictured on the coin.  In the days when consuls had been elected from the Senate, a consul designate would usually be a senior general in his forties.  Now, under Augustus, the role was ceremonial.  Gaius was designated as consul in 6 BC aged 14, before he even put on his adult toga.  The next year he put on the toga, was appointed to the elite religious role of pontifex, and was made leader of youth and given a ceremonial military command.  Lucius followed in his footsteps as he reached the same ages.  Gaius held his consulship in AD 1, aged barely twenty.  There was no substance behind the images.

Augustus also married Gaius to his 12 year old cousin Livilla in 1 BC.  She complied with the four principles by being descended through women from Augustus’ sister (DADS ARE BEST, GIRLS ARE MUMS), and by being the daughter of Livia’s younger son (AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA).   But she was very young to begin producing heirs and Augustus probably felt there was no urgency.  He focused on rapid military training for Gaius and Lucius instead (NO MORE CIVIL WAR).  By 4 AD they were both dead in foreign lands – Lucius in Marseilles and Gaius in Lycia (Turkey).   Hostile writers suggest that Livia poisoned them, but their deaths are probably more an illustration of the deadliness of the exposure to disease and accidents which was an inevitable part of campaigning.

Amid state mourning in 4 AD, Augustus had to make a new plan.


Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 5 – Julia and Marcellus)

Augustus was confronted with the possibility that he would not father the strong male heir he needed under the NO MORE WAR principle.  Employing the GIRLS ARE MUMS and DADS ARE BEST principles where did he go next?

Head of Julia 1

Look at the picture while you think it over.

Julius Caesar, Augustus’ adoptive father,  left no children, especially after Augustus allegedly killed Caesarion, his son by Cleopatra, in 30 BC.

Augustus biological father, Gaius Octavius had one other child, Augustus’ sister, Octavia.

Octavia had a number of children, but the only boy was Marcus Claudius Marcellus, officially a member of the Claudius family, but Augustus’ nephew and the only grandson of Augustus’ dead biological father.

(The noble family of the Claudii was huge.  Marcellus was not closely related to Livia’s sons.)

Yes, like his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, Augustus looked for an heir descended from his own father.  But which father? Augustus did nothing to further the biological line of Julius Caesar.  The father Augustus looked to was his biological father, Gaius Octavius.

So Augustus’ predictable first move (DADS ARE BEST) was a cousin marriage, bringing Marcellus into the succession by (GIRLS ARE MUMS)  marrying his daughter Julia 1 to him in 25 BC.  Now, when and if Julia had a son,  Augustus’ grandson, the boy would be  Augustus’ own father’s great grandson twice over, on both his mother’s and father’s sides; for Augustus, this was the next best thing to having a son of his own.  Augustus didn’t adopt Marcellus because he hoped there was plenty of time for the grandson to turn up in.  There wasn’t.  Marcellus  died childless in 23 BC.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 4 – Happy Families)

Augustus (Octavian, as he was called until 27 BC) made three marriages.

He made his first marriage was made to cement the uneasy alliance he entered with Mark Antony after Caesar’s death in 44 BC.  The bride was Antony’s step-daughter.  Divorce was rapid, and helped cause a small war.

By the time of his next marriage, 40 BC, Augustus was seeking the alliance of Sextus Pompey, the son of Pompey the Great, who had gained control of Sicily.   The bride was Scribonia, a relation of Sextus’ wife.  She was 17 years older than Octavian and had to divorce in order to marry him.  The alliance with Sextus was short-lived.  The marriage ended in 39 BC; Sextus was defeated and killed in 35 BC.

The marriage to Scribonia produced one daughter Julia; we have to call her Julia 1 because there are other Julias in this story.   Julia 1 was born on the day of her parents’ divorce because Augustus was preparing to marry the love of his life, Livia Drusilla.  Under Roman law, the father took custody, and Julia was brought up by her stepmother.  It turned out that Julia 1 was the only legitimate child Augustus would ever father, making her crucial to his plans.

Livia and Augustus married in January 38 BC.  The marriage was extremely unlikely; Livia’s father and husband had sided with the killers of Caesar against Antony and the young Augustus.  Her father had committed suicide after losing to Augustus in the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.  Livia was still married to her husband and pregnant with his second child when she and Augustus made a love match.  A divorce was arranged and the marriage took place while she was still pregnant by her ex-husband – a scandal even by Roman standards.

Livia’s ex-husband waived his right to keep their sons; Livia brought them up in Augustus’ household.  The two boys were named Tiberius Claudius Nero and Decimus Claudius Drusus   We will call them Tiberius and Drusus 1.  They were not adopted as children and remained officially members of the Claudius family.  Augustus did not adopt them.

In 27 BC the Senate granted Gaius Iulius Caesar Octavianus the title Augustus.  By this time he had assembled the model Roman family – a strong father (himself), a dutiful wife (Livia), two sons and a lovely daughter.  He used his own family as the model for a campaign for a return to traditional moral values.  But in fact the tensions and divisions which would cause major problems in the succession were already in place.  Augustus had no male heir – and he did not intend to make his stepsons his heirs, although Livia, their mother had ambitions for them.  Julia’s relationship with her stepmother was unhappy, and her value as a mother of heirs in the line of succession destined her for a disastrous future, which begins in Part 5.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 3 – Dads are Best).

Roman’s had a strong sense of heredity.  They respected their noble ancestors and, in fact, worshipped them.  The images of the family’s dead patriarchs were carried at every aristocratic family funeral and displayed the rest of the time in the atrium,  the great reception hall of the family home.  The faces of the dead ancestors reminded visitors that they were visiting the representative of the genius or spirit of one of the great noble houses – a man whose ancestors held consulships, led great armies and changed

The oldest living ancestor of any branch of a family was called its paterfamilias, the father of the family.    In prehistory he had the powers of an Old Testament Patriarch, and his sons literally lived in his household.  This had all gone; noble Romans maintained their own households, even if the father or grandfather were still living.  But the paterfamilias still wielded enormous authority, and still theoretically had power of life and death over his children – a father actually killed a treasonous son in the year of Augustus’ birth.

So in planning his succession a Roman was looking to carry on the great line of his ancestors as much as, or even more than, his own private bloodline.  If he could not provide himself with a son, choosing an heir descended from his father or grandfather would honour their memory, maintain the bloodline of the ancestors and help transmit the family genius.

We can see this in operation in the case of Augustus himself.  He called himself the son of Julius Caesar – as he was, by adoption.  Caesar never had a legitimate son, and his daughter predeceased him.  He had a son, Caesarion, by the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, but he had no intention of making him his heir at Rome.  Instead, in his will, he adopted his sister’s grandson.  This followed the two principles GIRLS ARE MUMS and DADS ARE BEST; because he could not carry on his father’s line himself, he carried it through his sister.

In 44 BC Julius Caesar was assassinated.  The young man he adopted, Gaius Octavius, immediately changed his name to Gaius Iulius Caesar Octavianus – the correct way to show he was now a Julius adopted from the Octavius family.  In 27 BC this young man was granted the title Augustus, which he used for the rest of his life.

What about the children of Caesar’s only daughter Julia?  He had made a political match for  her; she married Pompey the Great  who adored her, but she died young in 54 BC leaving no children.  After her death, Caesar and Pompey fought each other in Caesar’s Civil War (49-45 BC), which ended with Pompey’s defeat and death.  Had Julia lived and had a son, maybe things would have been different.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 2 – Girls are Mums)

Yes, girls cannot be strong male heirs.  In fact they even need a male guardian to manage their business affairs and represent them at law.  Marriage and motherhood is their destiny.

Girl Clip Art #9347 (1)

But as wives and mothers, girls have the capacity to glue aristocratic families together.  Suppose you are an ambitious Julius and you want to make overtures to the Sempronius family.  The ultimate networking move is to marry a Sempronia, a girl imaginatively named after her family, and preferably one with a well-connected father.  These unions didn’t necessarily last very long – the Romans believed in political divorce as well as political marriage.  But the potential of the match went beyond the public relations coup of the wedding.  If the marriage lasted, the children born into it would be of mixed Sempronius/Julius descent, they would have Julian and Sempronian grandfathers, and these patriarchs would unite for important events.  Frequent intermarriage between the same families created important political bonds.

So girls could cement aristocratic families together, providing offspring with ancestry on both sides, creating shared dynasties.  But that’s not all.

Romans were not impeded by Salic Law and Tail Male and all those things which in later Europe meant that property and status missed out girls and their descendants.  Status in the Roman family passed in patriarchal manner from father to son, and in default of sons to brothers and so on.  But property went by the will of the testator.  And men without sons had a special Roman resource – adoption.

In Britain, adoption is of children, and, historically, adopted children could not enter the line of succession.  So even a man as powerful as Henry VIII could not adopt a son, and ran through  6 wives and invented his own Church trying to get himself a strong male succession.  Romans adopted adults.  A man without a son could adopt a suitable young man to take his name.  The adopted son was regarded as equivalent to a son by birth – he took on the family identity and its ancestors became his ancestors.

So where does the girl come in?  Well suppose you have a daughter but not a son.  When you adopt, your daughter marries the new son – this is legal.  Now your grandson will be your biological heir, even if your ‘son’ isn’t.  Perfect.

And what about deciding whom to adopt?  Networking is a factor here.  But you could also consider your own relatives on the female side – your sister’s sons for example.  That way, your new ‘son’ will be biologically close to you, and importantly, descended from your own noble father.  This brings us to Part 3 – Dads are Best