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.

Botticelli’s portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici

Many years before I had a chance to go anywhere virtually, I spent some real life time in Bergamo, with Italian friends.  This was my first experience of Italy, and I was lucky enough to be completely unprepared for the cultural shock.  Bergamo has a beautiful historic centre with many astonishing buildings, and, unassumingly tucked away, one of the world’s great Art Galleries, the Academia Carrara.

I memorised some of my favourite portraits including Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Pear.  But today I am going to share an image I actively disliked, but which drew me with the kind of magnetic quality which makes children keep creeping up to something nasty to see if it is still as horrible as it was the first time round.  In fact, last week I visited it again: I was back in the Academia Carrara and it is hard to miss.  So here it is.

Portrait of Giuliano De’ Medici, Botticelli c.1478

The Medici family need no explanation – the fifteenth century was the time of their rise to power in Florence.  Giuliano co-ruled with his brother Lorenzo the Magnificent.  In the picture, which is a very standard portrait bust,  he is plainly but richly dressed.  His profile is accentuated by the pale square behind it.  He has fashionably curled very dark hair, which suggests youth and beauty, and here is a sign of immaculate grooming.  Then we come to the face.

Male portraits of this period have a strong bias towards what we call branding – recognition and respect are more important than prettiness.  Giuliano carries his chin high and looks, as he was, a distinguished man of about twenty-five.  His distinctive family features are too narrow for the ancient Greek aesthetic; he has a thin face with regular features, a sharp nose, thin lips, and a strong cleft chin.  His eyes are down cast, half-hidden under the lids, his lips are pressed lightly together.  He is oblivious of the viewer, perhaps thinking of some serious subject with calm deliberation.  He is also, as it happens, dead.

Giuliano was killed in 1478 in a botched conspiracy to dislodge the Medicis from power.  This is one of several portraits made posthumously by Botticelli.  Botticelli had painted him living, but some people think this set of portraits show characteristics which come from the use of a death mask – the half-closed eyes, the sunken colourless cheeks and prominence of the nose.

Terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici by Verrocchio, 1475-8

In fact Giuliano looks a good deal healthier in another image from not much earlier.  Here there is a fullness in the face and an alertness about the eyes which balanced the sharp nose.  The contrast is very striking.  In fact we know he was a robust young man who enjoyed sports.

But whether the picture represents a death mask or not, we are also to understand that he is dead from another key feature of the picture – the empty window square.  In North Italian painting of the period, it was common to place subjects in front of open doors or windows.  The view in the background contributed to the meaning and atmosphere of the picture, and might contain local landscapes or significant scenes.  Guiliano’s window contains nothing except strong central light, which illuminates each side of the window equally.  He has no portion in this world anymore, so his lands and his aspirations cannot appear in the window.  He is not, however in heaven.  This is a human portrait not an imagined apotheosis.  Giuliano, with his immaculate hair and rich modern clothing is suddenly and totally dispossessed.  No wonder he looks pensive.

There is a version now in Berlin, which is very similar to the Bergamo one, but the memento mori aspect is even more marked in this version in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Giuliano de’ Medici, Washington Portrait, Botticelli c. 1478


Here Botticelli has added extra symbols of liminality and death.  The window now has two shutters, one open and one closed.  This marks a point of transition, as Giuliano, captured in paint, is poised everlastingly  between life and death.  We are now separated from Giuliano by a sill where a bird perches on a dead twig.  The bird is often an emblem of mortality, and the flight of the soul.  Here it is a dove, emblem of fidelity, perhaps to the widowed bride, or the family he represented.  The dead twig, broken off its living tree, is an emblem of premature death.   The sill itself makes no sense in real space.  Similar sills often separate us from the divine in paintings of the period, as in Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Pear in the same gallery.

 Madonna and Child with Pear, Bellini c. 1488

Here a highly artificial screen behind the Madonna and Child separates them from the scenes of Italian life, over which they nonetheless reign. Close in front of them a balustrade separates the viewer from the holy figures, like the altar rail which seals off the holiest ritual area of a liturgical church.  The balustrade forms a sill where the symbolic object is a piece of fruit – emblem of swift decay.  The painter has also stuck his tag in the centre of it.

The same principles are used in the  Washington portrait is the same.  The sill in this case separates the dead from the living and is ornamented with symbols of death.  But Giuliano is not wholly gone or the frame would be empty.  The viewer is holding Giuliano between the two worlds, between life and death.  This isn’t eternal life through art, it is more like eternal non-death.

This is a truly secular Renaissance painting, rooted in Classical not Mediaeval culture, and in the Court not the Church.  There is nothing Christian about this painting – no fears of Judgement or hopes of Heaven.  We have a young and powerful man in the midst of a rich life, about to be married, in fact, suddenly and horribly expelled from his world and offered instead what appears to be nothingness.   Botticelli uses these portraits to confront  human questions about death, which go far beyond the mere fear of dying.   How can our selves, our whole private universe, depend for existence on a body that gives in to 19 stab wounds in a church in Florence.  How can a person suddenly not be?  How does it feel to have your enemies force you out of life?  Can there be justice for that?  Is this all there is?  How do you construct a life which is not dominated by the fear of losing it?

If you think this is a lot for Botticelli to infuse into this painting, then it is worth knowing that the conspirators had misjudged crowd feeling in Florence.  With the encouragement of Lorenzo, the people hunted out and exterminated them and their associates  Few made it to formal execution.  Numerous people – maybe a hundred – met humiliating and agonising ends.  Botticelli was commissioned to paint images of the condemned as hanging corpses on the outside of the Bargello, the public building concerned with administration of justice.  He had a lot of time to reflect on the wreck of human lives.

As for the influence of  Classical philosophy, this was central to the whole Medici Court.  which patronised many artists and scholars, including the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino.  The Platonic tradition fostered very different beliefs about the soul and its immortality than those of the prevailing Catholic orthodoxy.   For a start, Platonists thought reincarnation as a human or animal was a possibility.   But, more importantly, the soul is on a journey.  It is indeed immortal, and survives death, but its goal is to escape the imprisonment of matter.  Our conduct in this life determines whether our next existence will be more or less bound by matter – whether we will be philosophers or pigs, or whether we will escape having a material body altogether.  Christian orthodoxy is more sympathetic to the body – Christians hope for a new Resurrection body, without the defects of the old.  This allows for the idea that the individual will continue as a recognisable individual into everlasting life.  But Platonic after life, stripped of the body is more complicated.  Souls which achieve the happiest outcome will return to the One, the source of all life, free from the taint of a material body.  But in what sense will we still exist as individuals?  The whole point of the One, is that it is whole, complete, and not divided.  Will my soul take my individual consciousness there?  Is this life even ‘my’ life – I may have been a cat, or Plato in a previous existence; after death ‘I’ may have more incarnations.  Who am I, once the body is removed?  Giuliano’s soul has clearly left his body.  Where is he now?

Henry VIII: the impossible portrait

Posting about the Great Cameo, and its impossible image of stability within the Augustan succession, brought to mind this other impossible dynastic image.  The Hampton Court portrait of Henry VIII with his family represents the Tudor monarch as the head of a successful nuclear family.  He sits in the centre in majestic bulk, flanked by a younger edition of himself, and his dear wife.  The daughters, older, but by English law always lower than sons in the line of succession, stand dutifully one on each side.

Henry VIII and his family

This picture may have been commissioned by Henry about 1545 for his Royal Palace of Whitehall, but it now hangs suitable enough in the Haunted Gallery of Hampton Court Palace.  The Royal Collection has an interesting page about it.  Its function was to project Henry’s vision of his own stable family, for his own satisfaction and presumably to impress state visitors.  And yet the scene it represents is very misleading.

We start with the middle.  The whole painting glows with gold, but this section is extraordinarily rich, and surrounds the King with priceless objects proclaiming his royal lineage and power.


Central detail

Behind and above him is a black velvet canopy embroidered all over in gold thread.  It bears his initials and royal arms.  his feet are supported by a matching cushion placed on top of a rich carpet.  He himself wears cloth of gold and gold embroidered red.  His huge padded sleeves increase his breadth, turning his bulk into power and suggesting the huge shoulders of the athlete he had been in his youth.

On his left, at a lower level, but close under his arm, sits his beloved wife Jane, the mother of his son.  She is demure, but arrayed in cloth of gold and ermine.  Henry’s right hand rests on the shoulder of his son, Edward, who stands, as is appropriate in the presence of his royal father, but is gathered affectionately under his father’s arm and behind his knee.  His stance, features and costume (minus the gold) suggest that he is in every way his father’s son.  This closely gathered trio present a united front to the world – the males confront the viewer in full face, the Queen modestly tilts her head inwards to avoid the direct gaze.  Beneath their feet stretches an exquisite carpet.

Edward was born in 1537 to Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour who barely survived the Christening.  His age in the picture is one of the clues to its date, which is towards the end of Henry’s reign, conventionally 1545.  As the mother of the Prince and heir, Jane is is Henry’s eternal Queen in the picture, but she was long dead when it was painted.  She had never lived to sit by her husband while their son stood at his right hand.  And Henry had not kept her place vacant.  There had been Anne of Cleves (divorced) and Catherine Howard (executed).  In legend, Catherine’s screams for mercy haunt the Gallery where the portrait now hangs.  And finally, Henry married Catherine Parr, who was to survive him.  She, not Jane, was his Queen in 1545.

Standing on ornate tiles, not carpet, and separated from the central group by a colonnade, stand the two dutiful older daughters, Mary on Henry’s right, Elizabeth on his left.  They are dressed almost identically, but their height is used to indicate their age.  If this is 1545 Elizabeth is 12, and Mary 29.  The artist has smoothed out the age discrepancy and emphasised their physical resemblance.  They are not here as individuals, but as the royal daughters, included as a matter of course in the courtly scene.  But there was nothing matter of course about how they got there.

Just as the Great Cameo celebrated some development in the Augustan Succession, perhaps Tiberius adoption of Germanicus’ sons, or Claudius’ marriage to Agrippina, so this portrait puts into living form Henry’s Third Succession Act of 1543.  His son by Jane is his principal heir.  Then in order of age come his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.  Given usual rules of succession in the period, this looks like a very standard arrangement, but there was nothing standard about it in this case.

The Third Succession Act replaced two earlier acts; the Succession Acts of 1533 and 1536.  The First Succession Act of 1533 followed Henry’s annulment of the marriage to first wife Catherine of Aragon, his conversion of the national religion to Protestantism, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  In this Act, Henry repudiated Mary, the only surviving child of the marriage to Catherine of Aragon, as a bastard and disinherited her, in favour of the new born Elizabeth,  his child by Anne.  Mary was demoted from Princess to Lady, and spent three years attached to the court of her baby half-sister and separated from her mother who died in 1536.

But Catherine of Aragon wasn’t the only royal consort to die in 1536.  Anne Boleyn’s reign was over and, accused among other things of adultery and witchcraft, she was beheaded.  Now the Second Succession Act bastardised and disinherited Elizabeth too.  Henry had no named successor until his third marriage produced Edward in 1537.  At this point, Henry still hoped for more male heirs, but in 1543 he restored the girls to the line of succession.  Whatever he had said about them, he privately accepted that that were his biological daughters.

So finally this Tudor family were united in an image which dismissed all the unsatisfactory marriages and focused on Henry’s relations to his three children.  This was the next stage of the dynasty.

But, like Augustus, Henry’s manipulation of the succession had already produced the roots of serious complications.  Edward was too young to reign when his father died in 1547, and he was very ill, possibly with a congenital disease inherited from his father.  He did not live to marry.  Edward’s reign was dominated by his advisers, and characterised by Protestant religious intolerance.  It was a dangerous time for Mary and Elizabeth.  When he died in 1553, there was a brief Civil War between the supporters of Mary and the supporters of Jane Grey.  Why?

Mary, who had suffered so much at the time of the divorce, had clung to her Catholic faith.  This gave a Protestant faction the opportunity to try to replace her with a Protestant cousin, Jane Grey.  Mary triumphed easily, and set about replacing the intolerant Protestantism with intolerant Catholicism.  Her religion and her odd status as the King’s bastard had kept her unmarried – Henry should have learned from Augustus to focus on the grandchildren.  Now she married the King of Spain, Philip II, and hoped desperately for an heir.  The prospect of Philip’s son adding England to the Spanish Empire, and importing the Spanish Inquisition caused unrest in England.  Fearing a repeat of the Jane Grey rebellion, Philip urged Mary to execute Elizabeth if she would not convert, and Elizabeth ended up in the Tower of London.

Mary’s death without heirs in 1558 brought Elizabeth to the throne.  But her early life experiences may be responsible for her lifetime refusal to marry.  She had seen her mother executed, and then Catherine Howard, who had been a kind stepmother.  The legend is that, as Catherine fell, Elizabeth, aged 8, declared to her cousin Robert Dudley that she would never marry.  In Edward’s reign, living under the protection of the dowager Queen Catherine Parr,  the teenage Elizabeth was compromised by the advances of her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, who exploited his access to try to involve her in an affair, and, with luck, eventually a marriage.  His ambitions cost him his life and endangered Elizabeth’s.   Later, Elizabeth saw her half-sister Mary finally gain the throne only to give in to domination by Philip of Spain, who roused up her subjects against her and neglected her in private life.  In her adult life, she had ample opportunity of observing her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, lose her child and her kingdom through her marital disasters.  Elizabeth was not prepared to share power, even for the sake of producing an heir.  The Tudor dynasty died with her.


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.