27 August 2012

Warriors: Drusus Germanicus

By Heather Domin

Roman history is full of famous warriors, some factual, some mythical (usually a combination of the two); one of the most interesting is Drusus Germanicus, aka Drusus the Elder, the general who almost conquered Germania. Drusus had all the makings of a legend – he burned bright, died young, and was mourned by an empire – yet only one biography has been written about him in modern times, and that was just last year. His story deserves a little more of the spotlight on the stage of great Roman warriors.

Bust of Drusus; courtesy of Wiki Commons
Nero Claudius Drusus was born in 38BC to Tiberius Claudius Nero and his wife Livia Drusilla – or rather, his ex-wife, as she divorced him while pregnant with Drusus so she could marry the Emperor Augustus. In keeping with paterfamilias, Drusus and his older brother Tiberius remained with their father; after he died when Drusus was five and Tiberius nine, both boys went to live with their mother and stepfather. (Tiberius and Drusus were extremely close – they even named their firstborn sons after each other, which was almost unheard of in the Roman aristocracy at that time.)

Augustus obviously saw potential in his young stepson; Drusus was allowed to begin his career five years before he reached the minimum age, and at 22 he was leading large-scale military campaigns in Raetia. For the next seven years Drusus was the rock star of the Roman army – subduing tribes, gaining territory, leading battles on land and sea, and collecting accolades, including the cognomen Germanicus in honor of his victories. He was good-looking, charismatic, and smart; his troops adored him, his colleagues respected him, and Augustus held him up to the public as a paragon of conservative Roman manhood. It was even said (amazingly enough) that he was faithful to his wife, Antonia, the daughter of Marc Antony.

In 10BC the Chatti attacked Drusus' summer camp, but he fended them off and took his vengeance the following summer with another overwhelming victory. But then, in August of 9BC, as he planned his next campaign, the bright star of Rome was cut down in his prime by a strange and unexpected death. According to Suetonius, Drusus was thrown from his horse, and a month later he was dead –  that's it. No one knows exactly what happened in the weeks between his accident and his death at the age of just 29. Just like that, the hero of the legions was gone.
Drususstein monument in Mainz, Germany;
courtesy of Wiki Commons

Drusus' soldiers dearly mourned him, pooling their money to build a monument to him outside Mainz which still stands today. Tiberius was never the same, and Antonia never remarried for the rest of her life. Their eldest son, Germanicus, would go on to an even more famous career and an even more mysterious death; their younger son, Claudius, would become one of Rome's most well-known emperors. Augustus wrote a biography in tribute to Drusus which has sadly disappeared; after losing two more potential heirs, his imperial crown eventually went to Tiberius, and the rest is history.

Despite the effect Drusus Germanicus had on Rome, there is precious little about him in the historical record. Even from the few bits and pieces we do have, however, it's clear he deserves a place on any list of the most famous Roman warriors.

Further reading:
-Lindsay Powell, Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germania
-Suetonius, The Life of Tiberius and The Twelve Caesars
-Werner Eck, The Life of Augustus

Heather Domin is the author of The Soldier of Raetia,set in Augustan Rome, and Allegiance, set in 1920s Dublin. She is currently up to her eyeballs in revisions on the sequel to The Soldier of Raetia, in which Drusus Germanicus plays a major role. You can usually find her procrastinating on Twitter, procrastinating on Livejournal, or procrastinating staring at pictures of Tom Hiddleston on Tumblr.