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Germanicus, Mutiny and Memory in Tacitus’ Annales 1.31-49

Dominic Machado

Brown University

This paper offers a new reading of the mutiny on the Rhine in Book 1 of Tacitus’ Annales. Scholars have long noted that Tacitus’ juxtaposition of the mutiny on the Rhine with the earlier mutiny in Pannonia creates an effective synkrisis between the two young commanders at the head of each army, Germanicus and Drusus (Ross 1973). In this paper, I contend that this is not the only comparison that Tacitus is making; rather, he also assesses Germanicus’ behavior in relation to the ways in which great generals of the past handled similar situations.

Throughout the scene, Tacitus recalls several mutinies from Greek and Roman history. The most explicit reference to such events occurs during Germanicus’ second speech to his soldiers (Tac. Ann. 1.42). Here the young general cites his family’s history of easily putting down mutinies by reminding his soldiers of Caesar’s successful handling of his troops at Placentia in 47 BCE as well as Octavian’s at Brundisium in 30 BCE. More implicit is Tacitus’ use of a series of allusions to relate the current mutiny to the more distant past. As Woodman has demonstrated, the language of madness and disease that Tacitus uses in narrating the mutiny on the Rhine borrows heavily from Livy’s account of the sedition against Scipio at Sucro (Livy 28.24-30; Woodman 2006). Further, I demonstrate that the verbiage employed by Tacitus to describe how Germanicus addresses and interacts with his troops evokes Curtius Rufus’ account of how Alexander dealt with his soldiers during the mutiny at Opis in 324 BCE (Curtius Rufus 10.2-4).

By referring to these events concerning Caesar, Octavian, Scipio and Alexander, Tacitus allows his readers to evaluate Germanicus’ behavior in relation to some of the greatest commanders of Greek and Roman history. Such comparisons, however, do not reflect well on Germanicus. For example, Germanicus’ mention of Caesar and Octavian in his speech to the soldiers draws attention to the inferiority of the young commander in comparison with his more illustrious ancestors. Germanicus must deliver two speeches and resort to histrionics to accomplish what Caesar had done with one word and Augustus with only a glare. Similarly, whereas Scipio and Alexander’s tactics for dealing with mutiny ultimately prove successful, Germanicus’ attempts to engage in similar forms of behavior fail. While Alexander’s leap from the tribunal after addressing his troops inspires a sense of fear among his soldiers (Curtius Rufus 10.2.30), Germanicus’ jump from the speaker’s platform is met only with derision and mockery (Tac. Ann. 1.35). Quite simply, Germanicus does not measure up to the great generals of the past.

The failure of Germanicus in comparison to these figures, however, is more than just a reflection of sub-par generalship. Scholars have shown that Germancius, as he is portrayed in the Annales, is obsessed with the past, publicly styling himself in the likeness of illustrious politicians and generals from Greek and Roman history to serve as a contrast to the devious new world of the Tiberian principate (Kelly 2010). Thus, by referencing these mutinies that involve such figures from the past, Tacitus casts doubt on Germanicus’ attempts to portray himself as a link to a bygone era of pristine virtue. Further, the allusions that Tacitus makes to these mutinies are even more sinister than they at first seem; the four generals referenced in the episode – Caesar, Octavian, Scipio and Alexander –  all serve as models for Germanicus’ public persona in the Annales (Gissel 2001; Woodman 2015). Thus, in Germanicus’ first appearance in the work, Tacitus subverts one of the most prominent features of the young general’s public presentation and perception. While Germanicus is outwardly depicted as a throwback to an earlier and simpler time in Roman history, Tacitus’ narrative of the mutiny on the Rhine reveals that in reality the young general, for all his efforts, falls far short of those he seeks to emulate.

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Livy and Tacitus

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