Episode 20: The Tragedy of Drusus the Good Son
Today’s episode returns to the narrative format after the last two talked about society and culture. One myth I want to dispel about Augustan Gallia right now is that it was a peaceful society that accepted Roman rule. That image is what early historians of the period believed and they believed it largely because of Augustan propaganda. Augustus, after all, was brilliant but he was also a notorious liar, so keep that in mind. During the late 30s to 20s BCE there were a number of rebellions which had to be put down. However, these rebellions were mostly localized and small, as the strength had largely been sapped by the Gauls. Moreover, rebellions may have actually enhanced the process of Romanization because they allowed pro-Roman Gauls to put down the rebellions, proving their loyalty and acquiring wealth and power. This in turn had the effect of dismaying the anti-Roman Gauls from rebelling since they would be opposed by their own countrymen.
Augustus appears to have had a special place in his heart for Gallia because Gallic soldiers helped him defeat Mark Antony. Gallia was the first place he visited after acquiring his title of ‘Augustus’ in 27 BCE. Furthermore, he understood that the Roman world would be in danger if any one region became too powerful. Egypt was one such place. Egypt’s vast agricultural output, access to eastern markets, heritage and wealth meant that if a usurper general emerged there they could cause major chaos. Augustus then decided he was going to develop those parts of the empire that were economically backward and less heavily populated, the most important of which was Gallia. Gallia had incredible potential: it was a vast area with rich agricultural land and had access to trade from Britannia and Germania. Moreover, Gallia had been under the control of Caesar directly and then very firmly under Augustan control, even though technically the Senate was in control. I mean, technically the Senate was in control of everything, and in reality nothing, but Gallia was an even more pronounced example. Gallia had to have numerous legions posted inside of it to counter the German threat. Because the legions were loyal to Augustus and future Roman Emperors, Gallia was firmly under the Emperor’s control.
For all these reasons Augustus wanted to develop Gallia and devoted more energy to it than most of the rest of the Roman world. Sometime around 27 BCE he divided Gallia into the three Roman provinces ‘Aquitania’ in the southwest, ‘Lugdunensis’ in the center and ‘Belgica’ in the north. Thus ‘The Three Gauls’ were born. Note, these areas do not overlap with Caesar’s description of pre-Roman Gaul, so please see our social media where I will post a map. Finally, be aware, Narbonensis at this time wasn’t considered truly Gallic since it had been conquered by Rome much earlier, it had been more thoroughly Romanized, and since it bordered the Mediterranean Sea it was culturally much different than the Atlantic-oriented north.
Augustus’ reign is commonly referred to as the beginning of the ‘Pax Romana’ a period of relative peace and prosperity. It is true that Rome didn’t experience a civil war for a prolonged period, but Rome still engaged in major military excursions, and there was still active resistance in Gallia. The Pax Romana was part Augustan propaganda, much of which comes from the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, his funerary inscription. The Res Gestae claims that under Augustus Gallia was at peace and did not need Roman legions occupying it. It claims that most Roman legions within Narbonensis were moved to the Rhine frontier in 22 BCE and most of the legions within Gallia proper in 15 BCE. Roman literary sources, probably patronized by Augustus, back up his claim. However, military sources confirm that there were sizeable legions still in Gallia.
A number of small-scale insurrections occurred across Gallia, though there were never any serious threat to Roman rule since many elite Gauls believed “if you can’t beat them, join them.” The revolts along the Pyrenees mountains were much more serious. Aquitania was sparsely populated and its rough terrain meant that the Aquitaines of southwestern Gallia and the Celto-Iberians of northern Iberia could strike at Roman merchants and flee into the woods, hills and mountains. Augustus’ subordinates spent decades fighting a small-scale war across Aquitania against these raiders.
In the 20s BCE the Romans took the first census of Gallia so that they could tax it more efficiently. In our last episode I mentioned how notorious Gallic tax collectors were and this census inspired a series of revolts. Again, Roman power was never seriously threatened, but Augustus’ claim that Gallia was at peace was a lie meant to glorify himself. In reality, many Gauls grumbled at Roman rule. Most Gauls understood it was foolhardy to overthrow Rome, but they did not passively accept Roman rule. The census and other egregious acts often resulted in some level of violence.
During the 10s BCE Augustus and his trusted second-in-command Agrippa built a series of roads throughout Narbonensis and Gallia. Roman legions could shuttle long distances along these roads at an average speed of almost four miles per hour all day, which is incredible considering that these were walking men wearing armor and carrying packs. Messengers could travel between Arles and Rome, a distance of about 550 miles, in a mere eight days, which is almost 70 miles a day. Augustus made markers and rest areas along these roads, which meant trade and military communication were maintained across this vast area.
Here we have to introduce one of the main characters of this episode and an incredibly important Roman military leader, Nero Claudius Drusus. Drusus was born in 38 BCE, three months after Livia divorced her first husband and married Augustus, prompting rumors that Drusus was Augustus’ son. Whether he was a legitimate son or a bastard did not matter; Augustus loved Drusus and groomed him to be his heir. In 16 BCE Augustus ordered the conquest of Helvetia, what we now call Switzerland, to secure the Roman border. In 15 BCE Drusus was made governor of the Three Gauls and put in charge of the conquest. Helvetia had already been devastated during the early Gallic Wars, and couldn’t put up much of a fight against the Roman invaders, giving him easy experience and prestige.
While Drusus was busy in Helvetia, events in Gaul would put him on a path to glory and ruin. I am of course talking about Germania. Ancient Roman historian Cassius Dio notes that around 16 BCE the German tribes of the Sugambri, Usipetes, and Tencteri crucified some Romans living among them. Afterwards they raided into Gaul. Augustus himself led an army to meet them but they fled back into the thick woods. Upon hearing that Augustus himself was coming these tribes eventually gave hostages to placate him, but Augustus knew that the Germans would always trouble Gallia as long as they thought they could pillage and plunder at will. Moreover, if the Germans destabilized Gallia that could lead to rebellion against Roman authority, especially since the governor Licinius was wildly corrupt. Licinius at one point told his Gallic subjects that there were 14 months in a year so that he could collect taxes 14 times rather than 12, something which understandably angered the Gauls.
Augustus appointed Drusus governor of Gaul and Drusus proved just as apt and dutiful as governor as he was a military leader. He kept the peace, even putting down some minor revolts in response to the census, and he erected an altar in Lugdunum for the worship of Rome and his divine father-in-law. He was a good son to say the least.
In 12 BCE a tribe of Germans crossed the Rhine during a Roman festival and decided to pillage Gallic territory. Drusus expected the Germans to raid while he was occupied and he met them with an army and annihilated them. Then he crossed the Rhine and devastated Sugambrian territory as vengeance for the crucified Roman citizens of a few years before. Next, he sailed up the Rhine until he reached the ocean and there made friends with the Frisians around what is today the lower Netherlands. Drusus then raided nearby German territory but was nearly stranded when the docked boats were stuck in wet ground during a low tide. Luckily, the Frisians decided to ally themselves with the Romans against the large German tribes that threatened them and shielded him with their infantry, allowing the Germans to retreat back to Gallia for winter. As a side note, in 12 BCE Drusus founded many military camps which became cities, along the Gallic-German border, the most famous of which was Argentoratum, which is today known as Strasbourg. Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace, a major French city and houses the European Parliament, making it one of the capitals of the European Union.
His campaigns won him enormous praise in Rome, where he was named praetor urbanus. But Drusus wasn’t finished just yet. He aimed to conquer Magna Germania, or Greater Germany, which in the Roman mind was roughly the land between the Rhine and Elbe rivers. When winter ended Drusus crossed over into Germania and conquered tribe after tribe. Luck was on Drusus side as the dangerous Sugambri tribe was then at war with the Chatti. The Sugambri were seeking revenge since the Chatti were the only tribe to side with Rome in the previous year. Drusus used this diversion to go through Sugambri lands and crush them. Drusus wanted to keep going but his men ran low on food, winter was approaching, and according to Cassius Dio, their camp was attacked by a swarm of bees. Apparently Drusus and the legions were fine against Germans, but bees were too much and the story of the bee attack in 11 BCE has survived for 2,000 years.
Just like last year when he had been stranded by the tides and in enemy territory, his army was nearly wiped out on the return journey home. The Germans harassed his armies with constant ambushes and at one point had the Romans trapped in a narrow pass. But seeing the Romans in dire straits the Germans charged them and their army lost its discipline. This allowed the Romans to cut them down. When he returned, Drusus was given a triumph. This was an enormous honor under normal circumstances but in the Roman Empire triumphs were usually only given to the emperors. After all, emperors couldn’t go promoting powerful and popular generals for fear of betrayal. The fact that Augustus allowed Drusus to have a triumph shows that he loved his son-in-law and was almost certainly grooming him for succession, rather than Drusus’ older brother Tiberius.
10 BCE to early 9 BCE were Drusus’ golden years. He was loved throughout Rome, governor of a prosperous Gallia, he had conquered much of Magna Germania, and on August 1 his son Claudius was born in Lugdunum. Furthermore, his conquests in Germania were so successful and so impressed the nearby Ubii Germans that they constructed an altar to Augustus and Rome in their capital at Koln, in modern-day Cologne. In 9 BCE he was elected consul and even given the chance for spoila opima. This honor meant that if Drusus personally killed an enemy leader he could claim their weapons and armor as his own trophy.
But such a happy story rarely lasts, and despite being Roman the rest of his life was a Greek tragedy. Even as he rose to unimaginable heights and was well on his way to succeeding Augustus for the throne, the gods heralded his doom. According to Dio, Rome experienced a number of bad omens.
Dio says “Many buildings were destroyed by storm and by thunderbolts, among them many temples; even that of Jupiter Capitolinus and the gods worshipped with him was injured. Drusus, however, paid no heed to any of these things, but invaded the country of the Chatti and advanced as far as that of the Suebi, conquering with difficulty the territory traversed and defeating the forces that attacked him only after considerable bloodshed.”
After conquering the Suebi, Drusus led his forces all the way to the Albis River, what we call the Elbe, and pillaged and conquered everything in between. According to legend, Drusus met a “woman of superhuman size” who told him not to advance any farther because his death was surely approaching. More likely, Drusus understood that the Elbe was as far as his troops could go and turned them around. And that is when tragedy struck. According to Dio, Drusus fell ill on the way back. Augustus learned of Drusus’ illness and sent his brother Tiberius to him, but it was too late. Tiberius escorted the body back to Rome, where the funeral was held in the Forum. Drusus’ body was placed in the sepulcher of Augustus and he was given the title of Germanicus. He was the first ‘Germanicus,’ and his family inherited the title, which was passed down from his brother Tiberius and his son Claudius to the rest of the Julio-Claudian emperors.
Drusus was not only an important figure in Roman history for 7 years but he also cast a long shadow over Gallia. He was a major figure in the conquest of Helvetia, which secured Gallia’s eastern flank. Don’t forget, the Gallic Wars started when tribes from Helvetia invaded Gaul. Drusus succeeded the corrupt governor and established order in Gallia and promoted the worship of Rome and its divine leader. His repeated successes in Germania convinced Augustus that Rome could conquer this land all the way to the Elbe. This, however, was a huge error in judgement. Rome’s military could fight and defeat German armies in a pitched battle, but the thick forests and vast territory of Germania meant that the Romans struggled to engage their enemies. Furthermore, Roman soldiers were not used to the extremely cold winters in Germania. Keep in mind that Europe was colder than it is today, and most Roman legionaries came from the balmy Mediterranean. Furthermore, thick forests meant there was less cropland and the cold meant less planting time, which meant food was scarcer. This meant that the Roman garrisons rarely went beyond the Rhine, meaning that the legions could not enforce Roman rule during the winter months.
Another major error that Augustus and his successors made is their assumption that Germania could be conquered and Romanized like Gaul. By the turn of the millennium Gallia was a prosperous, rapidly-developing part of the Roman world. Caesar and Augustus’ success there convinced the Romans that a barbarian civilization could be conquered and remade in the Roman fashion. Except the Gauls weren’t barbarians. When Caesar described them as such, it was because he was appealing to a Roman audience and justifying his brutal tactics against the Gauls. In reality, the Gauls were relatively developed and cultured. Many of them lived in cities. Their merchants traded in goods around the world. A small minority spoke Latin and even adopted some Roman legal customs which they found useful. Many worshipped similar gods or even incorporated gods from the Roman pantheon into theirs. They had artisans and craftsmen, particularly goldsmiths. Gauls were well-acquainted with Roman customs before the invasion, which meant that their conversion into Romans was much easier.
The Germans were not like the Gauls. The Germans did not have many large towns. They were not acquainted with Roman culture, except perhaps the Ubii and even they were not nearly as Roman as many Gauls had been before Caesar’s invasion. The Germans did not engage in the type of regular commerce with the Mediterranean world that the Gauls had done. When the Germans wanted Roman goods they raided Gaul!
Before Drusus died he had conquered a handful of territories on the eastern side of the Rhine, which the Romans divided into Germania Inferior and Germania Superior. The actual provinces of Germania Inferior and Germania Superior didn’t come about until much later, and their territories changed a lot. Since this is a French history podcast we’re not going to bother with them too much. What’s important to know is that Rome established a foothold in Germania and believed they could Romanize it and continue their conquest eastward. As we will see in the next episode, Drusus’ triumph was Rome’s tragedy.
King, Anthony, Roman Gaul and Germany, 1990.
Guerard Albert Leon French Civilization: From Its Origins to the Close of the Middle Ages, 1921.
Woolf, Greg, Becoming Roman, 1998
Seutonius, De Vita Caesarum
Cassius Dio, Roman History
Drinkwater, J.E., Roman Gaul, 1983