The Death of Germanicus
Accusations of magic could be used so effectively against enemies because people genuinely believed magic could harm-even to kill. Such was the case with Germanicus, hugely popular general and a member of the imperial family. In 4AD, at the age of 19, his father’s brother, the future emperor Tiberius, adopted Germanicus. Tiberius already had a son but emperor Augustus, who had appointed Tiberius as his successor, wanted the line of succession to follow his own bloodline. Germanicus was his great-nephew and married to Augustus’s granddaughter, Agrippina. He fitted Augustus’s plans entirely.
In 18AD, Tiberius was now emperor and Germanicus was sent to reorganize Asia Minor. However, on the way, he managed to upset his imperial ‘father’ in a number of ways. When Germanicus arrived in Athens, the populace greeted him with rapture appropriate to the emperor himself. The reaction of the Athenians was beyond his control. However, his illegal entry into Alexandria was completely his decision. Since the time of Augustus, it had been prohibited for any member of the imperial family to enter the city without the emperor’s permission. In doing so, Germanicus was testing his popular support- and Tiberius’s patience.
Cnaeus Calpurnius Piso was a crony of Tiberius’s and the governor of Syria. He disliked Germanicus, either for his own sake or Tiberius’s. Piso was meant to assist Germanicus when he reached Syria. Instead, he provoked and undermined him. Both he and his wife, Plancina, criticized Germanicus for accepting the praise of the Athenians and mocked him and Agrippina for their imperial pretensions. Worse still, when Germanicus was in Egypt, Piso canceled Germanicus’s orders. Finally, Germanicus order Piso out of Syria. However, before he and Plancina could leave, the general fell dangerously ill.
Germanicus and Agrippina believed that Piso and Plancina had found a way to poison him. However, there was more to the case than poison. Germanicus’s room was searched, and investigators discovered: “the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, lead tablets inscribed with the patient’s name, charred and bloody ashes and other malignant objects which are supposed to consign souls to the power of the tomb,” hidden in the walls and floor. The poisoning was being complimented by witchcraft. In the meantime, Piso and Plancina now left Syria, hovering just outside the province, waiting for Germanicus to died.
On October 10, AD19, Germanicus obliged them. The public uproar surrounding his death was so great Tiberius was forced to act against Piso. Rumors abounded that the emperor himself had set the former governor the task of dispatching his more popular nephew. Piso was tried for treason and insubordination. However, the prosecution also accused he and his wife of killing Germanicus by “spells and poison.” “Then after his and Plancina’s evil rites and sacrifices, ” the charges stated,” he [Piso] had made war on the state.’ Piso committed suicide before the verdict was delivered. However, Tiberius was believed to have had him murdered to cover his own involvement in Germanicus’s death by witchcraft.
Accusations of magic were not just used employed for political ends. They were used in family disputes, too.