The Butler Did It
Blood of the Caesars
By Stephen Dando-Collins
The great Roman historian Tacitus once wrote, “Rumor is always prodigal of horrors when princes die,” and worked with greater care than any ancient annalist to ground his accounts in direct records and first-hand accounts. He mentions the distortions of rumor only to condemn them, and he has nothing but scorn for writers who are either too credulous or too eager to treat truth with his same care.
This is only just: there are few things sadder than a good historian gone rogue.
That Stephen Dando-Collins is a good historian is beyond doubt: his in-depth studies of various imperial Roman legions are invaluable contributions to the discipline and will remain intensely useful to future scholars.
And in his latest book, Blood of the Caesars, he’s equally undoubtedly gone rogue.
He has a thesis, and it’s twofold: first, that the popular Roman prince Germanicus, who died in Syria in A.D. 19, was murdered (and he knows by whom), and second, and you really should sit down for this one, that this murder brought about the downfall of the Roman Empire centuries later.
His book has a bibliography six pages long, full of respected names like Mommsen and Syme (all of whom, were they able to come forward and see their inclusion in this book, would be first deeply ashamed and then deeply litigious), but the notes for each of his chapters make it clear he’s building all of his story on ancient sources – Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Josephus, and most of all Tacitus. In the notes that actually support the speculations he puts forward, chapter by chapter, pretty much the only names that crop up are these four – and, damning for separate reasons, Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome, and Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (Graves is at one point referred to as a ‘Roman scholar’). That I, Claudius is a work of highly selective and very effective historical fiction seems superfluous to point out; if Dando-Collins can warp someone like Tacitus into his speculations, he hardly needs the help of mere novelists.
A bit of historical grounding here will no doubt be useful. Germanicus, born Julius Caesar Germanicus on May 24, 15 or 16 B.C., was the son of Nero Drusus (brother of the future emperor Tiberius) and his wife Antonia, the daughter of Marc Antony. After his father’s death, he was adopted by Tiberius, who was adopted by Augustus, thus placing Germanicus squarely in the line of succession.
The young man served under Tiberius during his campaigns in Germany and Pannonia. Germanicus won distinctions in those cold seasons, and in 12 he was consul, and in 13 he commanded the provinces of Gaul and Germany. When the infamous Roman general Varus lost his three legions to the Germans in the Teutoberg Forest, it was Germanicus who led the murderous reprisals, eventually retrieving two of the three lost eagle-standards. When Augustus died, the legions along the Rhine revolted and wanted to make Germanicus their emperor, but he refused and made them acquiesce in his refusal. Tacitus refers frequently to his grace of manner and winning personality, and even tongue-wagging Suetonius has nothing but compliments.
The new emperor Tiberius obviously needed to make use of such a paragon, and he did. After career politician Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso and his wife Plancina were sent out to govern the province of Syria, Germanicus was made commander of all the Eastern provinces, effectively putting him over their heads – and probably creating a good deal of enmity in the process. Tacitus, or rather the first-hand sources he references, has made much of this inevitable animosity, but it bears stressing: Tacitus didn’t actually know anything of the first-hand truth of what he was writing, sixty years later (for this reason much later writers, like Suetonius or Cassius Dio, must be accounted mere gossips and given little or no credence). Despite the fact that he had access to innumerable sources we lack (the memoirs of Agrippina’s daughter, for instance, not to mention the daily Acta of the Senate), in the Annals, Tacitus is putting forward his best conjecture on the conjectures conjectured by others – it’s only through the grandeur of his intelligence that we don’t dismiss him too.
History has branded Piso and Plancina the murderers of Germanicus (utilizing a third party in the person of the notorious poisoner Martina), by dint of proximity and evident hostility. The traditional narrative – admissible from Tacitus with a little imagination stirred in – is that Piso and Plancina used Martina’s nefarious expertise to poison Germanicus at the Syrian imperial palace of Daphne. At the subsequent (and entirely unforeseen) trial, Tiberius fatally distances himself from his former cohorts. Piso takes his own life before the trial’s verdict, thus assuring the verdict of posterity. End of story.
End of story, cue speculation. Even those unfamiliar with the historical record will likely be familiar with the version of events put forward in the popular BBC mini-series I, Claudius, i.e., that Martina’s secret helper in the poisoning of Germanicus was none other than his young son, the boy Caligula. In the famous TV mini-series, Piso and Plancina enlist Martina’s aid on their own, without explicit instructions from Tiberius or his mother Livia (in the program’s single best scene, Martina is shown wolfing down food and glibly confessing everything to a listening – and abstaining – Livia, played with gleeful grandeur by Sian Phillips). Even in Tacitus’ own day, foul play was routinely assumed, either on the part of Piso and Plancina, on the part of Tiberius and Livia, or on the part of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, commander of the elite Praetorian Guard. Germanicus was heir apparent to the throne and so a prime target for anybody who wanted somebody else to sit on it instead.
Dando-Collins in Blood of the Caesars is eager to do some speculating of his own, but since the crux of his book is a stunning Agatha Christie-style revelation of a previously-unsuspected killer (ala Hercule Poirot pointing to a lounging loafer and saying, “A person such as you, Monsieur Greenwald!”), he must necessarily do quite a bit of padding in order to make his book longer than a single exclaimed sentence. And to give him credit, his padding is the best part of his book. Readers unfamiliar with the state of Tiberius’ reign – and most especially the rise and fall of Sejanus – will find this book both highly readable and highly enjoyable. And fairly well grounded in historical sources – provided you don’t look too close.
He begins humbly, as, come to think of it, Poirot always does:
While I have been aided by many kind people dealing with Roman history at libraries, universities, and historic sites over the decades, this particular book is all my own work. Its theories and conclusions are entirely my own, formed on the back of my many years of research into the history of ancient Rome and using what modest skills as an interpretive historian I may have developed over those years.
Right from the book’s start, he wants his readers to understand how special Germanicus and his wife Agrippina were, how forward-thinking, how adored. He’s so avid for this that he inadvertently tips his hand as to the role he himself would like to play:
Imagine a glamorous pair of young royals today who were also movie stars – such was the status achieved by Germanicus and his Agrippina in their day and long after it. If there had been celebrity magazines in those times, Germanicus Caesar and Agrippina would have dominated their covers year in, year out.
The reader at this point may be wondering something, and they would be right: after all the dormant centuries, the ancient Romans have finally come to the attention of the paparazzi.
The same reader may be, should be, indulgent. After all, Carlyle’s The French Revolution is written in a tone bordering on hysteria, yet it is not despised. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire can hardly be called dispassionate, but its validity still stands. The key lies in the integrity of the author, and that integrity is made manifest in how that author treats his sources.
And so we come to the whole ‘gone rogue’ part of our sad story. Take any ancient quote or anecdote in Dando-Collins’ book – not just from salacious Suetonius or Dio, but from sober Tacitus himself – and actually examine it, and chances are you’ll find it wantonly, misleadingly altered from the original it purports to quote. Examples begin piling up almost from the first page, until the author’s bare narrative can scarcely be heard over the din. Take an early, scene-setting tableau:
At the bedside [in the palace at Daphne in the province of Syria] kneels Germanicus’s attractive thirty-two-year-old wife Agrippina, granddaughter of the late emperor Augustus and daughter of Augustus’s loyal lieutenant Marcus Agrippa. She is alternately giving Germanicus sips of water and dabbing his flushed face with a damp cloth. His red-headed young chief of staff and five of his best friends – generals and Roman senators – cluster around the bed. Some of them are looking worried, others angry. Anxious servants hover in the background.
A dramatic, touching scene, for which the reader is referred to Book Two of Tacitus’ Annals, and there the matter ends; unless one actually refers to Tacitus, in which case one discovers these things: there is no mention of who’s at the bedside, no mention that the chief of staff has red hair, no mention of Agrippina ‘dabbing’ anybody, no mention of a flushed face, no mention of kneeling, no mention of worried or angry looks, and no mention of servants, hovering or otherwise. Aside from the correct factual identification of the people involved (Agrippina was Agrippa’s daughter, etc.), nothing of Dando-Collins’ version is in the ancient text he’s purporting to source.
Oh well, the aforementioned indulgent reader might say, let’s allow him some latitude, shall we? After all, his book is clearly pitched toward a general audience, and we all know they like a little drama mixed in with their history. And besides, all of those things could have happened, so what’s the problem?
Even though requiring such indulgence would be anathema to any historian in his right mind, what if we accept it and move on? Dando-Collins wants to describe the atmosphere at Daphne in those last weeks of Germanicus’ life, weeks in which, as Tacitus actually does tells us, the young prince was certain he was being poisoned. The deathly scene continues:
Those present at Germanicus’s palace in his final weeks and days would say that he’d become angry when these ‘spies’ [envoys sent by Piso to ask after Germanicus’ health] were detected in his palace. According to them, Germanicus had said, “If my doors are to be besieged, if I must breathe my last breath under the gaze of my enemies, what hope is there for my grieving wife and my little children?”
The reader is again referred to II Annals, and if the reader consults the ‘referenced’ text, the doubts as to our author’s candor darken ominously. The source, first of all, is only Tacitus, writing a century after the fact; that ‘those present…would say’ makes it sound like Dando-Collins circulated among Germanicus’ houseguests with a tape recorder – it’s a deliberate attempt to trick the reader, and it has plenty of company even in that one slim paragraph. That ‘according to them’ reinforces the lie of ‘those present,’ and equally incriminating is the fact that it’s Tacitus (and only Tacitus, no multiple attribution) paraphrasing what might have been Germanicus’ words, not Germanicus speaking them directly.
Each a little thing, perhaps, but they add up. At every turn, Dando-Collins can be found stage-directing and filling in fabricated details here and there, until, after a very short while, the dutiful reader can’t take him at his word on anything. He describes the rivalry between Germanicus and Piso this way:
Whenever Germanicus sat in judgment of legal cases in his capacity as chief judge in the province, for example, Piso, who would otherwise have occupied the judge’s seat, rarely bothered to attend court. If he did, it was wearing a sullen frown and showing signs of opposition to Germanicus’s rulings with sighs and raised eyebrows.
Sighs and raised eyebrows might be stereotypical signs of sullen behavior, but they aren’t in Tacitus. Likewise a scene illustrating the distrust Agrippina felt toward Tiberius after Germanicus’ death:
Tiberius began to think that Agrippina suspected him of trying to poison her. So to test her, he praised the apples being placed on the table in front of them as the last of the meal’s many courses, then took one from the bowl and handed it to Agrippina, recommending it. He then pretended to become involved in conversation with his mother, but out of the corner of his eye he watched as Agrippina beckoned to one of her female servants. When the girl knelt by her mistress, Agrippina slipped the apple to her, and Tiberius saw her do it.
Lay this alongside the passage it’s purportedly referencing, again from Tacitus:
Placed next to the Emperor, she [Agrippina] sat quiet and immobile, not touching her food. Tiberius (on his own or at someone’s hint) noticed this. To press the point, he praised a bowl of fruit as soon as it appeared and offered one to his daughter-in-law. Agrippina, suspicions alerted, took it in silence and handed it to her slaves. Tiberius didn’t say anything to her, but turning to his mother he said, “Is it any wonder I dream misfortune for a woman who’d imply I’m a poisoner!”
No apples. No last course. No many courses. No pretending to be preoccupied with Livia. No watching out of the corner of anybody’s eyes. No female servants. No beckoning. No ‘girl.’ No kneeling. No ‘slipping’ anybody anything, and therefore no need to stress that Tiberius saw it. Dando-Collins has not only dramatized a scene with fabrications, he’s dramatized it wrong: Tacitus’ point is surely that Agrippina’s haughty nature (about which, Tacitus tells us, Germanicus had warned her before he died) led her to make a public gesture of suspicion.
But the nature of the dramatization is beside the point; an author caught doing this over and over again simply cannot be trusted. And trust is essential if the author in question is trying to build a unique case, to forward an unprecedented theory, as Dando-Collins is. The main thrust of his book is far grander than simply serially misrepresenting his ancient sources, and his first order of business it so solve the murder of Germanicus.
He carefully assesses the cases made against the traditional suspects (and while he does this, again, he’s fun company), Piso, Plancina, Tiberius, Livia, and Sejanus. Piso and Plancina, the favorite culprits, he eventually acquits: Piso never liked Tiberius, and besides, they had too much to lose if anything went wrong. Tiberius and Livia, after much re-hashing of fact and gossip, are likewise let off: again, too risky to move openly against somebody as popular with the people as Germanicus, especially so soon after Tiberius had publicly scolded the young man for an ill-advised trip to Egypt earlier in A.D. 19.
(This little incident is handled adroitly by Dando-Collins, who wants no stain of impropriety to adhere to his golden boy. In 19 Germanicus entered the province of Egypt, which was then enduring a famine, and made to open the Imperial granaries there, or so his defenders maintained. It was illegal for anybody of Germanicus’ rank to enter Egypt without the Emperor’s permission, and for a very good reason: seizing the granaries and the flow of commerce on the Nile was a necessary first step to seizing the government of Rome, as Germanicus, no tactical fool, knew perfectly well. Tiberius’ rebuke – issued publicly to a general beloved by all – was entirely justified, but Dando-Collins reduces Germanicus’ behavior to “this innocent Egyptian sojourn, a combination of drought relief mission and sightseeing trip.” The adoptive grand-nephew of Caesar, once removed, must be above suspicion.)
Sejanus gets a much longer trot around the block: Dando-Collins has him scheming for Imperial power the very moment Tiberius succeeds Augustus, despite the half-dozen biological candidates in line at the time. As in the gossip of Suetonius and the conjecture of Tacitus, so too in Blood of the Caesars: Sejanus plots against all the male heirs of Tiberius, including the Emperor’s son Drusus, whom he has poisoned even while bedding the poor victim’s wife, Livilla. But eventually even Sejanus is cleared of the main crime concerning Germanicus and goes off to his own quite unrelated doom, and suddenly the deck seems cleared of any suspect. Dando-Collins stands ready to fill the void.
Readers who might want to explore his book on their own are warned at this point that “spoilers” lie ahead. I have no wish to ruin anybody’s surprise, but Dando-Collins’ two central theories require evaluation, and that requires naming names.
And the name on which Dando-Collins descends? Again, you might want to sit down for it: Seneca.
The Death of Germanicus, by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665)
|No, not some other Seneca you’ve never heard of. The Seneca, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the philosopher, satirist, and tragedian who Nero compelled to commit suicide and whose works have been read and studied and emulated and discussed from the Elizabethan era to the present day. The Seneca who has never before now been connected with the death of Germanicus in any way. Rather than point the finger at any of the more likely suspects – any of the people known to hate Germanicus or to in some way benefit from his death – or, Hell, at a disgruntled house-servant – Dando-Collins turns to a revered Stoic man of letters and says, “Someone like you, Monsieur Greenwald!”|
His proof, you ask incredulously? Well, back when Germanicus made his sightseeing trip to the granaries of Egypt, the province was under the care of Senatorial prefect Gaius Galerius, whose 21-year-old nephew, young Seneca, was staying with him to improve his always-tenuous health. So he probably met Germanicus and Agrippina. At some banquet or other. And maybe he took it into his head that he should kill Germanicus, because the Emperor, Germanicus’ adoptive father, might just like it:
Surely, he would have thought, the emperor would be grateful to a man who rid him of Germanicus’ annoying presence?
Yes indeed. Emperors are always so grateful when commoners they’ve never heard of poison members of the nobility. Astounding, really, that nobody spotted it before now. Why, it’s a wonder every asthmatic young dramatist wasn’t busy slipping wolfsbane into Germanicus’ pudding.
It’s absurd, and on some level Dando-Collins must know it’s absurd, but you have to give the man his due: he keeps hammering away at it, even though he’s forced to go it alone (the dozen or so endnotes to each chapter dwindle to only one apiece for his final, revelatory ones). Taking his cue from the fact that Seneca was banished from Rome for eight years for committing adultery with Julia Livilla (eight years during which Seneca kept himself busy, as Dando-Collins, with accidental hilarity, points out: “during the same period, with plenty of time on his hands, he [Seneca] had written some of his best philosophical work”), he posits an earlier illicit love affair between Seneca and a member of the Imperial family: no less than Agrippina, the allegedly devoted wife of Germanicus.
And it gets worse: Dando-Collins not only throws Seneca and Agrippina into the same bed, he throws them into the same murder plot. Impossibly, beyond anything even Suetonius dared to suggest, our author accuses Agrippina of being guilty, in fact, of exactly the dynastic ambitions Tiberius would later accuse her of having. Germanicus, it appears, was just too lackadaisical about the succession, unwilling to fight for their children if Tiberius should settle the line on his own son, or his son’s son. The fateful interview reads like a scene rightfully cut from I, Claudius:
And as Agrippina poured out her heart to Seneca about how Germanicus was denying her the future she felt she and her children deserved, the young man had an idea …
There’s not a speck of evidence, of course, but that would only matter if Dando-Collins were interested in evidence, and in his rogue state during the course of this book, he clearly isn’t. This applies even more so to his second thesis, that the death of Germanicus brought about the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire. It’s tempting to simply dismiss this part of his book as a cheap ploy to snare readers, but its very outlandishness requires at least a gesture of response.
Dando-Collins predicates this weird claim pretty much exclusively on the high opinion historians who never met him had of Germanicus – and the assumption that blood will out. If Germanicus had lived in A.D. 19, this claim goes, he’d have succeeded Tiberius, thereby rendering it highly unlikely that people like Caligula, Claudius, or Nero would have been emperor. Instead, Germanicus’ own son would have succeeded him, or his grandson, and if his sons had died, his brother would have succeeded him, or his brother’s sons. In any case, blessed, enlightened stability, with an empire extending from Ireland to China, all on the shoulders of one really great guy:
…If we are to accept the glowing character references given to Germanicus Caesar by Tacitus and the other Roman writers who unanimously sang Germanicus’s praises, then Germanicus would have made an incomparable emperor. His reign would have been an exciting, optimistic time unlike that the Roman people knew before him or after him.
Again, there’s no possible way to know, but human nature being what it is, we may be inclined to doubt the truth of it even in the hypothetical. After all, Caligula showed every sign of being as popular and noble as his father, until a bad fever broke his sanity. And Nero’s first five years were praised in antiquity for their wisdom and activity, by no less a figure than the emperor Trajan, who was himself one of the most powerful and enlightened rulers ancient Rome ever had, without a drop of Germanicus’ blood in his Spanish veins. And Germanicus himself was as Claudian as Caligula or Nero or Claudius, every bit as prone to megalomania upon acquisition of ultimate power as they were.
No, that part’s just a ploy to get attention, and the specter of a Seneca/Agrippina conspiracy is if anything worse.
Tacitus should sue.
Ascanio Tedeschi is a graduate student in the classics, born and raised in Rome. This is his first publication in English.