Germanicus and Agrippina: The Golden Couple, Parents of the “Mad” Emperor Caligula
Roman Emperor Caligula fell severely ill six months into his rule. When he recovered, he abandoned the toga for silk gowns and often dressed as a woman. He also declared himself as a living god. Caligula’s illness was widely credited by contemporary historians as a turning point to his madness. In contrast, Caligula’s parents, Germanicus and Agripinna, were the ‘Brad and Angelina’ of Ancient Rome. Their union provided the genetic lynch-pin between the two most powerful dynasties in Rome – the Julian and the Claudian, as well as celebrity, nobility and glamour. They were beloved by the Emperor and the empire alike. From the glowing reports on Germanicus and Agripinna, it was hard to believe that Caligula was their son.
Emperor Caligula. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
However, it is possible that Caligula’s descent into madness was not as dramatic as it was reported. His childhood was extraordinary even by ancient Roman standards. In the time that he lived in and all Caligula and his parents have had to go through as a family, is it so hard to believe that this may have planted at least some of the seeds of Caligula’s peculiarities?
Germanicus: The Public Relations Expert of Rome
Nowadays Germanicus’ name has faded into obscurity compared to the more famous romans such as his son Caligula, his uncle Tiberius, even his grandmother Livia. But during the height of the Roman Empire Germanicus was universally recognized by the citizens of Rome as one of the greatest warriors the Empire had ever produced.
Statue of Germanicus (Public Domain)
The stepfather of Germanicus’ father was the Emperor Augustus himself who, by the time of Germanicus’ birth, was already widely referred to as a living god and his grandfather on his mother's side was the legendary Mark Antony. The name Germanicus was given to him when it was awarded to his father posthumously in honor of his victories in Germania.
Bust of Germanicus (CC BY-SA 3.0)
As a young man, Germanicus was known to be very intelligent, with a stainless personal record, never once bringing dishonor on his family through a personal indiscretion. Augustus’ partiality to Germanicus showed when he then had Tiberius adopt Germanicus to further secure the succession, despite the fact that Tiberius had a son of his own, Nero Claudius Drusus (Drusus the Younger).
As part of Augustus’ plan, in 4 CE Germanicus married Agrippina, grand-daughter of Augustus. Germanicus held subordinate commands on the Danube frontier under Tiberius from 7 to 9 CE. In his military duties, Agrippina was always by his side with their children. Although this was an unusual arrangement, as most Roman matrons and their children remained at home while their husbands went to wars, it greatly endeared Germanicus’ family to the soldiers. When they were in Rome, the children were put on display with both Augustus and Germanicus whenever opportunity allowed, as a testament of Rome’s imperial continuity.
Germanicus’ career also progressed quickly, standing for the quaestorship in 7 CE at the age of 20, four years earlier than the allowed minimum age for the position under the Empire, before proceeding to the consulship in 12 CE.
In 14 CE, the news came of the death of Augustus and Tiberius' accession. Mutinies broke out on the Danube and German frontiers where Germanicus served as governor. At this point, Germanicus was a very popular leader—more popular than Tiberius. The legionaries in the west offered to swear to Germanicus as their new emperor rather than to Tiberius.
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Top Image: Agrippina and Germanicus (Rubens), 1614. (Public Domain)