On 10 October AD 19, Ancient Rome’s most popular son died. On the bimillenary of his death, 2,000 years later, the cause remains a mystery, but the surviving sources provide vital clues.
Who was Germanicus?
After campaigns in Germania (AD 14-16), which went some way to restoring Rome’s honour after the humiliation of the Varian Disaster of AD 9, Tiberius appointed Germanicus as praepositus (governor general) over the eastern empire that was in some disarray. On the face of it, Tiberius had dispatched his best man to do a very important job.
The assignment lasted barely over a year. Germanicus Caesar died at Epidaphnae just outside Antioch on the Orontes. When news reached Rome, the city was thrown into chaos as the people rioted and demanded answers.
Forensic examinations were non-existent in this era. The ancient sources do not disclose if an autopsy was carried out on Germanicus’ body.
There were several accounts about his death in circulation soon after he passed away, since the Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions the fact. His is the earliest account we have.
Josephus writes around 93 or 94 CE,
“his life was taken away by the poison which Piso gave him, as has been related elsewhere”
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.54
That soon became the standard narrative.
Who was Piso?
Cn. Calpurnius Piso was the imperial legate governing Syria. The relationship between him and Germanicus had been fraught from the start.
Piso (b. 44/43 BC) was a proud, arrogant and irascible patrician. He had been consul with Tiberius in 7 BC and held the proconsulships of Africa (3 BC) and Hispania Taraconensis (AD 9).
The traditional interpretation, based on the account of Roman historian Tacitus, is that Tiberius had sent out Piso to be governor of Syria at the same time as Germanicus, so that he could check his son’s ambitions.
Reports state that even Germanicus believed Piso had poisoned him. Evidence of witchcraft at Epidaphnae pointed to a woman known to be an expert in poisons, who was a friend of Plancina, the governor’s wife.
Piso’s own actions implicated him too. In early October, the governor and his wife slipped out of Antioch and boarded a waiting ship. He did not return when Germanicus died and then, discovering he had been replaced, he cobbled together an army of renegades to retake his province.
His attempt at a coup failed. Finally, he laid down his arms and agreed to return to Rome to face trial in AD 20. There were many, however, who saw Piso as not operating alone, but under instructions of Tiberius to assassinate his adopted son.
Twenty or so years after Josephus, C. Suetonius Tranquilus reports that Germanicus died of “a long drawn out disease”, adding that the visible signs after death were “bluish spots (livores) that covered his entire body” and “foaming at the mouth (spuma)” (Suetonius, Life of Caligula 3.2).
Based on these symptoms, he deduced it was a poisoning – a verdict confirmed for him by the fact that, after the cremation in Antioch, Germanicus’ heart was found still intact among the charred bones, which, according to widely-held belief at that time, was a clear indicator of a drug or poison (veneno).
Writing at about the same time as Suetonius, P. Cornelius Tacitus puts the onset of Germanicus’ ill-health (valetudo) to the moment he returned to Antioch from Egypt, which he toured in the Summer of AD 19. The first symptoms of sickness seem to have revealed themselves in late September.
According to Tacitus, Germanicus recovered but, just as quickly, he relapsed. He writes that rumours of poisoning began to spread at that time.
The sickness grew in intensity. His ability to converse with his friends and family implies that he was not delirious. There is a hint that his condition improved yet again but, by then, he was physically exhausted and unable to sustain a full recovery. Not long after, he died. By Tacitus’ timeline, the sickness lasted under a month.
A lingering sickness, bluish skin and foaming at the mouth – if Suetonius’ and Tacitus’ records are accurate – are the only three clues we have, with which to attempt to identify the cause of death.
Analysing the symptoms
Bluish skin is called cyanosis. It usually indicates lack of oxygen in the blood and can be an indicator of several serious medical problems.
Causing the lack of oxygen can be a blood clot in the arteries of the lungs (pulmonary embolism), or asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), inflammation of the lungs (diffuse interstitial lung disease), or pneumonia. Cyanosis does not confirm poisoning, as Suetonius asserts.
Foaming or frothing at the mouth can occur while the patient is alive, such as during an epileptic fit or a seizure, or at the moment a person dies. It can also be a symptom of rabies. Any of these could indicate an entirely natural cause of death.
The cause could have been one of several bacterial or viral infections. Typhoid is one candidate. It was certainly prevalent in Germanicus’ day. Influenza, malaria, even an allergic reaction, could have been responsible. No others in his party are recorded as having come down with any of them, however.
A drug overdose administered by his own doctor, could equally well have been responsible. It may have been difficult for Germanicus’ doctor to obtain supplies of raw materials of a consistent potency or safety. Notably, Pliny the Elder later warned especially about accepting drugs from herbalists and drug-peddlers as dancing with death by suicide.
The Romans were aware of the toxic properties of many animals, minerals, and plants. These included aconite (wolfbane or monkshood), alcohol, belladonna, cannabis sativa (dagga), hemlock, hellebore, henbane, mandragora, opium, poisonous mushrooms, rhododendron, and thorn apple.
Debunking the poisoning theory
If there had been a plot to kill him, the murderer may have purposely administered several doses of one poison, or a variety of toxins, at different times. Roman authors used the word veneficium to indicate poisoning or sorcery, and it is significant that neither Suetonius nor Tacitus uses it in describing the death of Germanicus.
Indeed, noting that the body had lain uncovered in the forum at Antioch before it was burnt, Tacitus writes,
“it is disputable [or doubtful] whether it exhibited the marks of poisoning (veneficii)”
Tacitus, Annals 2.73
Two millennia later it is now extremely difficult to give a definitive diagnosis for the cause of Germanicus’ premature death. Josephus’ account claims poisoning was widely believed to be the cause, but in their later reports Suetonius and Tacitus doubt the assertion.
In ancient times poison was often assumed to be the cause of the deaths of very important people. The blue blotches on the skin and the foaming mouth mentioned in the sources are tantalising clues, but they are insufficient to be considered indisputable evidence of murder.
Piso takes the blame
Assuming Germanicus’ death to be assassination, loyal subordinates blamed Piso. By all accounts he was an unpleasant man who had demonstrably acted well outside the law to undermine Germanicus’ authority.
One morning during the trial, Piso was found dead at his house, apparently by suicide. It conveniently removed a man who was also disliked and distrusted by Tiberius. However, this private act led to insinuations of an imperial cover-up.
Decades later people still disputed the facts:
So true it is that the great event is an obscure event: one school admits all hearsay evidence, whatever its character, as indisputable; another perverts the truth into its contrary; and, in each case, posterity magnifies the error.
Tacitus, Annals 3.19
A hero’s death
Casting Germanicus as the hero and Tiberius as the villain made for a compelling story. The narrative of the emperor using surrogates to assassinate a political rival became the accepted version of events. Tiberius has ever since been – wrongly – implicated in the death of Germanicus.
The Roman Senate never did agree on a cause of death at Piso’s trial. It decided the evidence presented was inconclusive.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is also the most likely: Germanicus’ demise was caused by a sickness – one we cannot identify today – he had contracted on his travels, which was treated with an ineffective medication or the wrong kind. Either way it proved fatal.
Germanicus was certainly was not the first – nor would he be the last – Roman official to die inexplicably in Syria. As the saying goes, some cures really are worse than the disease.
Lindsay Powell is a historian and writer. His is the author of Germanicus: The Magnificent Life and Mysterious Death of Rome’s Most Popular General (Pen and Sword, second edition 2016). He is news editor of Ancient History and Ancient Warfare magazines.