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The Emperor's Jealousy



Germanicus had a complicated royal family tree: he was the son of general Nero Claudius Drusus who was the son of Livia Drusilla and stepson the Emperor Augustus. He was also the son of Antonia who was the daughter of Mark Antony with Augustus' sister Octavia minor. He was also the nephew and adopted son of the emperor Tiberius.


Germanicus was beloved in Rome. For a guy who died at ~35 he was busy: quaestor at 21, twice consul, triumphant commander of armies on the Rhine and in Gaul, successful suppressor of an uprising with the death of Augustus, father of 9 children (six of whom outlived him), governor of the eastern provinces. He died before he had the opportunity to reign as emperor.

"For Drusus was still a living memory to the nation, and it was believed that, had he succeeded, he would have restored the age of liberty; whence the same affection and hopes centered on the young Germanicus with his unassuming disposition and his exceptional courtesy, so far removed from the inscrutable arrogance of word and look which characterized Tiberius."
-Tacitus, Annals, I.33 

During Tiberius' reign (AD 17), there was a devastating earthquake in the Roman province of Asia with Sardes the likely epicenter. Tiberius navigated a rough political patch and soothed the senate's irritations by celebrating a Triumph for Germanicus in Rome, and sending Germanicus with another troublesome fellow, Piso, to the eastern provinces. In Asia, Tiberius embarked on a lavish rebuilding of cities in Asia Minor. (See: Daryn Graham(2019) "Tacitus, Tiberius, and the CE17 Earthquake in the Roman Province of Asia")

"In the same year, twelve important cities of Asia collapsed in an earthquake, the time being night, so that the havoc was the less foreseen and the more devastating. Even the usual resource in these catastrophes, a rush to open ground, was unavailing, as the fugitives were swallowed up in yawning chasms. Accounts are given of huge mountains sinking, of former plains seen heaved aloft, of fires flashing out amid the ruin. As the disaster fell heaviest on the Sardians, it brought them the largest measure of sympathy, the Caesar promising ten million sesterces, and remitting for five years their payments to the national and imperial exchequers."
-Tacitus, Annals, II.47 

My coin of interest today comes from Sardes, in western Türkiye where Tiberius sought to build his reputation for greatness by sponsoring large investments in reconstruction efforts after a devastating earthquake in AD 17. Sardes was one of the towns that benefited most from the emperors' largess. The dating of the coin is a bit of a mystery.


A Suspicious Death

When Germanicus died AD 19, there was not only suspicion that he was poisoned by Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, but also rumors that he was murdered by order of Tiberius, jealous of his adopted son's popularity. Today there is still debate about why Germanicus and Piso were sent east together. Tacitus suggests that Piso was deployed as advisor to Germanicus to undermine the prince. Some today consider that Germanicus may have been deployed to Syria to monitor Piso, who had been given the governorship in Syria to keep the Senate happy. For a full discussion of the various points of view see Graham (JHS 2021).


Tacitus, in Annals II.59, notes tension with Tiberius when Germanicus visited Egypt without permission, in violation of Augustus' rules. Egypt was held as the emperor's personal domain with a high level of strategic importance to Rome as a source of grain.


There is evidence that conflicts with Tacitus' story, in a speech given by Germanicus during his trip to Egypt. In this speech, Germanicus describes being sent by his father to address a grain shortage.

"A verbatim record on papyrus from Egypt, found at Oxyrhynchus in 1959, of a famous speech Germanicus delivered in Alexandria, celebrates Germanicus’ easing of a corn crisis in Egypt, for which he was sent there to alleviate conditions, by none other than Tiberius himself. In the papyrus record, twice the prince announced that he had been sent to Egypt on Tiberius’ orders: ‘I, sent by my father, men of Alexandria...”"
-Graham, JHS, 2021 p39 

The Emperor's Jealousy

Germanicus may have been too successful in solving the grain crisis, and triggered the jealousy of his step-father the emperor. When Germanicus returned from Egypt to Syria, he found that his orders had been undermined and he quarreled with Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, governor of Syria.

"On the way from Egypt, Germanicus learned that all orders issued by him to the legions or the cities had been rescinded or reversed. Hence galling references to Piso: nor were the retorts directed by him against the prince less bitter. Then Piso determined to leave Syria."
-Tacitus,Annals II.69

Germanicus fell ill in AD 19 and on his death bed blamed Piso and Piso's wife, Plancina, for poisoning him.

"Now, cut off as I am by the villainy of Piso and Plancina, I leave my last prayers in the keeping of your breasts: report to my father and brother the agonies that rent me, the treasons that encompassed me, before I finished the most pitiable of lives by the vilest of deaths."
-Tacitus, Annals II.71 

Tacitus reports that on his death bed, Germanicus called on his family to avenge his death.

"The prime duty of friends is not to follow their dead with passive laments, but to remember his wishes and carry out his commands. Strangers themselves will bewail Germanicus: you will avenge him—if you loved me, and not my fortune. Show to the Roman people the granddaughter of their deified Augustus, who was also my wife; number her six children: pity will side with the accusers, and, if the murderers allege some infamous warrant, they will find no credence in men—or no forgiveness!” His friends touched the dying hand and swore to forgo life sooner than revenge."
-Tacitus, Annals II.71 

The Coin

At last we get to the Roman provincial coin in the name of Germanicus. Dating of this coin is an unsolved puzzle. RPC p 487 highlights the challenges:

  • the ethnic and magistrate don't link with coins of Tiberius

  • it has an odd die axis (1h)

Perhaps this is a postumus coin with similar portrait style to those of Claudius, as suggested by Grant (1949). RPC Online currently assigns the coin to the reign of Tiberius.

Lydia, Sardes, Germanicus, Caesar, step-son of Tiberius, father of Gaius (Caligula), brother of Claudius, died 19 AD, Æ (16mm, 2.82gm, 1h), Mnaseas, magistrate.

Obv: ΓΕΡΜΑΝΙΚΟΣ ΚΑΙΣΑΡ, bare head left

Rev: ΣΑΡΔΙΑΝΩΝ (down right) ΜΝΑΣΕΑΣ (down left), Athena standing left, holding phiale


Years later, as emperor, Claudius cultivated the association with his beloved brother Germanicus to tap into the Roman sentiments for his brother. He minted coins in his brother's name. He had the laws changed so that he could marry his cousin, Germanicus' daughter, Agrippina the Younger, and adopted her son Nero.

"But his affections were ensnared by the wiles of Agrippina, daughter of his brother Germanicus, aided by the right of exchanging kisses and the opportunities for endearments offered by their relationship; and at the next meeting of the senate he induced some of the members to propose that he be compelled to marry Agrippina, on the ground that it was for the interest of the State; also that others be allowed to contract similar marriages, which up to that time had been regarded as incestuous."
-Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 26

This coin of Germanicus issued in Sardes where Tiberius invested in lavish reconstruction efforts in a display of imperial greatness. Tiberius made comparisons to Augustus' construction efforts in Rome to justify his engagement in a province that was normally overseen by senators. Formal imperial communications (in AD 31/32, years after the death of Germanicus in AD 19) celebrated the greatness of Tiberius:

‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, grandson of the divine Julius, pontifex maximus, in his 33rd year of tribunician power, imperator eight times, consul four times, founder of twelve cities simultaneously, founded the city.’
-ILS II² 8785 from Mostene (see also: a similar inscription from Puteoli ILS I 156) 

Where is Sardes, Lydia?

Sardes or Sardis is today an archeological site in western Türkiye, in Manisa province near the town of Sart.

This cylindrical base for a statue of Tiberius from Sardes during the reign of Claudius references Tiberius as the founder of the city in honor of his reconstruction after the earthquake.

Monograph 14 Sardis: Greek and Latin Inscriptions Part II: Finds from 1958 to 2017, Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, Sponsored by The Harvard Art Museums & Cornell University, Editors: Nicholas D. Cahill & Andrew Ramage, p.37

“The People dedicated (the statue of) Tiberius Caesar divus Augustus, the emperor, the uncle of the emperor Tiberius Claudius Germanicus Caesar Augustus, and the founder of the City and the benefactor of the world, because of piety and gratitude; Tib[erius Claudius Apollophanes, son of Demetrios, from the tribus Quirina,]superintended the work.”

A Painting

This 17th century copy of a painting by Nicholas Poussin, depicts the Death of Germanicus sold in October of 2021. The original is in the Palais Lobkowitz in Vienna. Poussin painted the image based on the story of Roman Emperor Germanicus' death as told by Tacitus.

This coin of Claudius with Agrippina the Younger from Ephesos highlights the similarity in portrait style with Germanicus above.

Ionia, Ephesus, Claudius, with Agrippina Junior, AD 41-54, Æ 19mm, 5.30g, 12h, struck circa AD 49/50

Obv: Jugate busts of Claudius, laureate, and Agrippina, draped, right

Rev: KOVΣINIOΣ TO Δ / EΦE, stag standing right


Additional references:




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