Shortly after Augustus’ death, the Roman regiments stationed in Germany begin to mutiny in protest of the limited funds they had received in Augustus’ will. The worst of the mutiny is centered in the Rhine, and the soldiers massacre twenty of their commanding officers before Germanicus arrives and calms them. In an effort to quell the mutiny while arousing more loyalty to Tiberius, Germanicus forges an official letter promising to double the legacy promised to the troop and signs Tiberius’ name. In the meantime, Germanicus begs Claudius to lend him the promised funds and then distributes them under Tiberius’ name. Despite Germanicus’ actions, the troops continue in their disorderly conduct and, fearing for the safety of his family, Germanicus sends Agrippina and his children away. The troops are particularly attached to Caligula, Germanicus’ youngest son, and view him as a sort of mascot. They promise to establish complete order once again if only Germanicus will bring Caligula, or “Little Boot” as he is called, back to the camp.
Although Tiberius is appreciative of Germanicus’ attempts to regain order in the Rhine, he questions Germanicus’ true motives. He convinces himself that anyone who would willingly forge his name cannot be trusted, even though, as Claudius assures the readers, Germanicus only had the best intentions in mind. While Tiberius does not take any immediately action against Germanicus, he becomes increasingly suspicious and anxious about his nephew’s ever-growing popularity in Rome.
Tiberius finally gains almost absolute control of the Senate, but he is still unable to shake Livia’s influence over him. Claudius admits that almost all of Tiberius’ appointments and decisions were actually made by Livia; she rules through him almost as easily as she ruled through Augustus. Sejanus, the Commander of the Guards, becomes Tiberius’ close ally and begins to poison Tiberius’ mind even further against Germanicus. Sejanus clearly has his own motivation for his behavior, but Claudius is uncertain of his intentions; all he knows is that he has a great dislike for Sejanus and wishes that he could avoid running into him in Rome.
Throughout all of this political turmoil, however, Claudius maintains his position as a largely forgotten relative. Although he is still technically married to Urgulanilla, he rarely sees her, and Antonia assumes full control over the care of Drusillus. Prompted by Antonia’s constant criticism of him, Claudius moves out of the city to live in Capua and work on his histories in peace. He begins a relationship with Calpurnia, a kind-hearted prostitute who becomes his companion and one true friend for the next several years.
One afternoon while Claudius is sitting in the gardens of his villa, a beggar comes to him with a secret message from Postumus. Claudius had not seen or heard from Postumus in several years and had assumed that Livia had had him executed after Augustus’ death. However, Postumus had somehow escaped from Livia’s wrath thus far. Claudius is thrilled to hear from his old friend and sends him a bundle of clothes and several gold pieces. He also writes to Germanicus to tell him that Postumus is still alive, but he does not receive a response to any of his letters. Shortly afterward, Tiberius learns that Postumus is in Rome attempting to gain support against him and Livia. Sejanus’ soldiers ambush Postumus and his supporters, and Tiberius has Postumus beheaded.
Claudius eventually receives a letter from Germanicus in which there is no mention of the letters about Postumus. Claudius realizes that his previous letters had been intercepted by Tiberius and Livia, and he begins to fear for his life. His anxiety becomes so severe that his stammer returns and he is unable to concentrate on his duties as priest of Augustus. Finally, he writes to Tiberius and requests to be relieved of all of his religious duties on the grounds of ill-health.
Germanicus begins his third year of war against the Germans, and the campaign is even more successful than the previous ones. Germanicus writes Claudius rarely, but Claudius anticipates each letter with great enthusiasm, especially because Germanicus often writes about Hermann, the brave German chieftain. In the spring, Germanicus returns to Rome to celebrate a complete triumph over the Germans. However, before Claudius can tell Germanicus about all of the new plots of Livia and Tiberius, Livia sends him to Carthage and will not allow him to return until Germanicus has left.
Despite Claudius’ absence, Germanicus still takes it upon himself to go to Tiberius and tell him all that he knows of Livia’s treachery. Tiberius pretends to be shocked by the disclosure and promises to remove all of Livia’s public power, but he secretly tells Livia everything that Germanicus has said. Tiberius suggests that Livia manipulate Germanicus into believing that she is innocent; otherwise, Germanicus’ popularity could be very dangerous for both of them. Tiberius then sends Germanicus to the East and appoints Piso as the governor of Syria so that he can spy on Germanicus.
Germanicus and Piso are immediately at odds in the government of Syria. Piso causes as many problems as possible: promoting ill-qualified soldiers to position of power, accepting personal bribes, and blatantly disobeying Germanicus’ orders. Piso’s reports to Tiberius continue to cloud Tiberius’ opinion of Germanicus, while, in Rome, Sejanus attempts to do the same thing. Tiberius becomes convinced that Germanicus intends to overthrow him from Syria.
Germanicus suddenly falls ill and becomes convinced that his illness is the result of witchcraft. His house becomes filled with the omens that he fears the most: the number twenty-five and the midnight crowing of roosters. The only thing that contains his fears is a green talisman of the Goddess Hecate that he keeps under his pillow. The ominous omens get worse; a dead baby is found underneath a tile in the house, bloody rooster feathers are found underneath pillows, and the number twenty-five is scrawled all over the house. Germanicus feels under his pillow for his Hecate and, discovering that it has vanished, dies.
As emperor, Tiberius is increasingly susceptible to the influence of others, particularly when it comes to potential threats to his power. Livia and Sejanus are able to manipulate him easily by taking advantage of his insecurities about Germanicus’ popularity. Though Germanicus maintains completely loyalty to Tiberius, even suppressing the Rhine mutiny in his name, Tiberius is unable to accept that Germanicus is driven by unselfish motives.
Interestingly, though Tiberius is aware of Livia’s power in the government, he still seems oblivious of the extent to which she is able to influence him. Similarly, Sejanus has his own motivation for getting Germanicus out of the way, the least of which is gaining greater power in Rome, but Tiberius is not aware of his ulterior motives. Clearly, Tiberius is either unable or unwilling to see the threats that are closer to him and prefers to focus his energy on the innocent Germanicus.
Chapter 19 is significant because it is the first time that Claudius’ actions do not pass by unnoticed. His letters to Germanicus about Postumus are all intercepted, and Livia and Tiberius certainly know Claudius’ true feelings about the two of them. Perhaps Livia even begins to realize that Claudius is not as much of a fool as she thought he was. Yet, Claudius remains alive; his personal fears of the consequences of his actions trouble him far more than Livia and Tiberius actually do. Claudius’ lack of political power and influential friends save him once again. Although Claudius has clear sentiments against the current government, he could still not do enough damage to Livia and Tiberius in the political arena to justify his death.
Germanicus’ death also provides the readers with the first glimpse of Caligula’s true nature. At this point, Germanicus’ death and the theft of the Hecate are blamed on Piso and Plancina. Yet, as Claudius will soon discover, Caligula is actually the true perpetrator of the events leading to Germanicus’ death. A comparison of this murder with the murders that Livia commits in early chapters demonstrates Caligula’s emphasis on cruelty and psychological destruction. While Livia killed for her own political benefit, her weapon of choice was poison: swift and relatively painless; Caligula, on the other hand, uses fear and superstition to drive his father man and essentially frighten him to death. The circumstances surrounding Germanicus’ death foreshadow the madness and death that will characterize Caligula’s rule as emperor.
The death of both Germanicus and Postumus also signal the end of the “good apples” in the Julio-Claudian line. Claudius’ grandfather, father, brother, and friend were each noble and benevolent and, in each case, killed by the worst of the Claudian “crab apples.” Any opportunity for political redemption is now lost; only Claudius remains. And, as Livia and Tiberius’ pardon of him reveals, Claudius does not have enough power to make any changes for the better in the government. While Augustus’ reign had many negative qualities, there was still some honor and benevolence left in members of the family. With the death of each one, one after another, it becomes clear that things can only get worse.