Sweetheart of the Legions

How one extraordinary woman saved a Roman army from destruction.

5 Years Before.
Dead lay the Romans amongst the bogs and forests of the Teutoberg pass. In the moist air the scent of the pine and moss was corrupted with the overpowering sweet, sour tang of death on an almost industrial scale. The natural stillness was dispelled by the harsh bark of Germanic war cries, the wail and moan of wounded, soon to be quieted by the blow of a sword or the thrust of a spear, and the hue and cry given up as the tribesmen pursued fugitives through the trees. Almost to a man, save an unknown few, from Quinctilius Varus to the meanest legionary servant, 3 legions of the finest soldiers in the world had been decimated and scattered for the scavengers of the dark forest and to slowly rot as bog-food.

The gruesome aftermath of the disaster was one of ghoulish celebration for the barbarian tribes of what the Romans called Germania. A warlord named Arminius was the author, a man who wore the ring on his finger that told of how he had once been honoured by the Romans with the dignity of the equestrian order, he now took his proper place and presided over the torture and execution of the sacred eagle bearers and legionary officers. Herded under the anticipatory gaze of their guards, the wounded and broken wretches of the mighty Roman military watched, they realised that to be held down and forcibly drowned in a bog, beheaded and your head nailed to a tree, or simply hanged from one of its limbs was a mercy. Others had their tongues cut out, their screaming lips sewed shut and their eyes put out before the sword stroke finally severed the trophy from its shoulders and was added to the decorations hanging from the branches.

In the grisly Pantheon of Roman military defeats this disaster stands out amongst the names of Cannae, Carrhae and Adrianople as one of the most disastrous and humiliating events in Roman military history. The empire was shaken. Augustus stalked the halls of the palatine, banging his head on doors, crying out to the spirit of his dead general “Quinctilius Varus give me back my Legions!”. Panic seized the frontier, and Tiberius was at once sent to restore order and with an excellent example of how the Roman state could devour like a wolf, yet regrow limbs like a lizard, restored the balance of power in three years. Yet 5 years after the AD 9 catastrophe it almost happened again. In almost the same place, at the hand of the same man.

In AD 14 the Roman world mourned the passing of Caesar Augustus on the Campus Martius and Tiberius succeeded the deified Princeps, after possibly killing off his main opposition with the complicity of his mother Livia Augusta, the late Princeps’ wife. Tiberius had no sooner slipped into the roomy shoes of his deified adopted father than his first crises as emperor loomed. The hard bitten Legions stationed on the Rhine frontier mutinied, seeking better pay, more humane treatment and shorter terms of enlistment. With Augustus dead they hoped that they would have a chance to better their lot with the Tiberius before he got too comfortable on the Palatine Hill. Things quickly got out of hand though. As a means to vent their frustration at the punishing life they had to live they targeted as the focus of their fury the symbols of military discipline. Their Centurions where seized, abused and in some cases downright murdered, order dissolved and the senior officers could no longer control their angry men.

Agrippina's husband Germanicus.
Agrippina’s husband Germanicus.

Tiberius was an experienced soldier, and not one to be cowed by the anger of his soldiers. However with mutinies flaring up across the northern frontier, he knew that all his hard work after the Teutoberg disaster would be undone if the legions in Germany refused to defend the line of the Rhine. Luckily, his own adopted son and natural nephew, Germanicus Caesar was in Gaul conducting a census at the time. Germanicus was the glamorous military hero that the taciturn and methodical Tiberius was not, indeed he had stolen not a little of Tiberius’ thunder during his own Triumph to celebrate his victories in the east. Germanicus was a good looking, personable and intelligent man of action, the son of Mark Anthony’s first wife’s daughter Antonia and Tiberius’ brother Drusus. Despite looking a touch frail, he was one of those slight youths that engendered great admiration for his keen mind and energy, albeit one with somewhat weedy calve muscles that he did his best to bulk up so as to not like a robust insect. As soon as he heard of the mutiny he dropped the boring job of census taking and headed for the Rhine accompanied by some trusted officers and his wife and young son Gaius.

Vipsania Agrippina was pregnant but not a woman to let the inconvenience of her unborn baby prevent her from following her husband on what could prove to be a dangerous mission. Apart from being naturally determined, she also felt perfectly safe around soldiers, angry or not. As far as families went she came from the cream of the crop. She was born in Athens, the daughter of Marcus Agrippa and Julia the Elder. As the granddaughter of Augustus Caesar, she was proud of her lineage, who wouldn’t be? But this also lent an extra layer of armour for the coming confrontation with the mutinous legions, for the army had been specifically instructed to honour and protect the August family. Aged one or two at the time, Gaius had been born in one of the military camps his father had commanded and was often dressed in a little soldiers uniform with replica boots so the men nicknamed him Little Boot “Caligula” or “Bootykins”, she could be reasonably certain of the safety of her family therefore.

She had married Germanicus sometime between AD 1 and 5 and in the course of their lives would have nine children together, throughout all they remained a close and devoted couple. Agrippina had an honest resolute face and an unflinching stare worthy of a Roman matron of days gone by, which sometimes made her look rather harsh. Feminine gentleness however peeked from behind it though. It was discernible especially at the corners of her wide eyes and in the slight upturn to her aquiline nose. She had pouting lips and a swan like neck, and she seemed to have worn her hair in a high, fashionable wave of tightly dressed curls like many women of her class. She was beautiful, strong, loyal and self confident, and the partnership between the brilliant Germanicus and the courageous and outspoken Agrippina was one that worked, making them immediately the most adored couple in Rome. Agrippina was described as being of a temperament that made other women jealous, “somewhat too excitable except that purity and love of husband helped her turn a still untamed character to the good.” She was a woman who knew who she was, and more importantly where she came from, a loving but superior woman who gave as much as she got. As a pair Germanicus and Agrippina brought ought the best in the other.

At the time Agrippina’s behaviour was seen to be very strange, and it bordered on scandalous in good Roman society. But she clearly loved her husband and wasn’t afraid to rough it if it meant keeping her family together. She was the first Roman woman known to have done this. Traditionally Roman women where supposed to stay home, spin wool, look after the hearth fire and uphold the traditions of republican virtue, patiently awaiting for their husband’s to return from whatever manly thing they were doing. But on the other hand it was seen as fitting for a woman to inspire courage in the hearts of men. In a throwback to the early days of Rome’s rise, Agrippina was not only fulfilling the role of the demure and proud matron so embodied by Livia Augusta, but also that of rural ideal, of a simpler time were virtue and honour had been the hallmark of all Romans. Certainly by the time of the mutiny Agrippina and her children where an accepted part of the army and the ordinary soldier’s were tremendously attached to her.

Vipsania Agrippina.
Vipsania Agrippina.

The hard bitten troops of army on the Rhine frontier was divided in two. The Upper army guarding the stretch of river from the coast to Vetera and the Lower army from there to Cologne. Germanicus arrived at Vetera to find the atmosphere heavy with threat, but at some personal danger to himself he restored order. The high esteem with which the soldiers held him even prompted them to ask him to lead them against Rome itself, something that Tiberius did indeed fear. However Germanicus had no aspirations to the primacy, he wished to serve the state, and as commander of the army on the frontier of Germany, he would soon have a chance to prove himself. The ringleaders of the mutiny were informed upon and lynched, and then took the garrison across the river 60 miles and torched whatever barbarian lands he found to take their minds of their woes. He then went south where he found the Lower Army in a much uglier state.

While dealing with the 1st and 20th Legion’s of the lower army. He incited the anger of the men for telling them that the Legion’s had disgraced themselves. They didn’t take it constructively, and Germanicus suddenly found himself surrounded in a camp of over 10,000 angry soldiers who, before he arrived, had almost lynched a former consul. Negotiations all but broke down, when he cried out that he would rather die than betray Caesar a legionary handed proffered him the use of his his sword. He was strongly advised by his aides to leave and find safety with the Upper army, but he refused, instead he decided to stay and send Agrippina and their son away. At first she predictably told him were to go with that idea. “I am Augustus’ descendant, not someone worthless in the face of danger!” she said and she was right, he knew this all too well but he needed her to leave. Pleading that he could not concentrate if there was even the possibility of her being at risk he knelt before her with tears in her eyes, and embracing her swollen belly and holding young Gaius to him begged her to go. At last she broke down and agreed to leave.

The sound of women sobbing alerted the the legionaries camped closest to headquarters that something was happening. In the predawn gloom Agrippina kissed her husband goodbye and with her son boarded a transport wagon followed by her female companions who had followed her example and travelled with their own husbands to the provinces. In contrast to Agrippina’s stony self control and stately bearing, they were raising an awful din, weeping and wailing as they bade their husband’s farewell. As they were driven towards the gate Agrippina remained aloof amongst the other distraught wives. The racket however awoke the rest of the sleeping camp, soldiers began to emerge from their tent’s and what they saw shocked them.

There was no escort for the General’s wife, there was no entourage, no centurion to lead them, not even a single cavalry soldier to provide protection for the commander’s wife and son. The inference was clear, Germanicus couldn’t trust them to protect his family and was smuggling them out before the camp was awake, word soon spread that Agrippina was heading into Gaul, to the lands of the Treveri, to foreigners, where a daughter of Augustus would be safe, from Roman soldiers! Suddenly the reason’s for the mutiny were forgotten, what mattered now was pride and honour. The majority went to Germanicus and angrily asked the meaning of his insult, while others chased after the wagon to try and stop Agrippina calling out “Come back, stay!” Germanicus stood by his tent, full of righteous indignation, facing down the mutineers. Twisting the knife he told them that he was sending his family away not for only their own safety but for the good of the Legions, so that whatever further crimes they committed, the murder of Augustus’ great grandson and Tiberius’ daughter in law would not add to their guilt.

They were appalled but did not stop there and told them bluntly that he would have expected such behaviour from a Spanish or Syrian Legion, but not the 1st and 20th. How could he lead such men against the Germans and avenge Varus and his men he asked, did they not want to punish Arminius? Tacitus wrote “Suppliant at this, and declaring his reproaches true they pleaded. Punish the guilty, forgive the misguided, and lead us against the enemy! Recall your wife, let the Legion’s darling return!” Germanicus had used his wife’s delicate strength to break the Mutiny’s back, and soon the mutineers where informing on their ringleaders, who where promptly executed by their comrades, while Germanicus discharged any centurion found guilty of unjust behaviour. The Legion’s darling was sent on, but to the upper army and as a consolation Gaius Little boots remained with his father. With the mutiny put down, a victory for Agrippina as much as Germanicus, he embarked on the treks and true method he had used at Vetera. He was left free to take his men on a raid into Germany to take their mind off their grievances. They burned and plundered a huge swathe of enemy territory before fighting off an attack and marching back to winter quarters, the soldiers once more reconciled with their General.

Agrippina at the Bridge.
The bleached bones of their fellow citizens lay exposed, scattered like rock screes around the countryside. It had been high time to put the ghosts of their comrades to rest, and in so doing banish the memory of what had happened in that pass five years before. Still it was a sight to send the shivers down every spine. Though none had been present the horror of Teutoberg lived in the mind of every soldier serving on the German front. As Germanicus and his men silently moved amongst the boggy boneyards, and rooted amongst the undergrowth of the catacomb like forests, where the trees were still decorated with the pierced skulls of their comrades, the reality of the nightmare was all too real. AD 15, Germanicus had made good on his promise to avenge Varus and had lead his men into the cursed lands where the disaster had occurred. There raised a monument to Tiberius and reinterred the remains of the Roman dead then split his army in two, taking command of four Legions himself to pin down the elusive Arminius.

Aulus Caecina had been the man in command of the Rhine when the legions had mutinied the year before, he was now Germanicus’ deputy in Germany. While Germanicus conducted the glamour campaign, avenging Roman honour, Caecina was to divide the Germans and to build causeways through the forest and marsh. He had four legions plus 5,000 auxiliaries. It was a tough campaign for both armies, through the brooding forests and wild bogs, which for Germanicus ended in an inconclusive battle somewhere in the dark northern forests, after finding resistance beatable but stubborn, he saw that it was getting late in the season, so he withdrew towards the to the Ems and began transporting his men by ship back to the Rhine. This left Caecina isolated, he would have to to make his way back as best as he could, however Caecina appears to have lingered, probably because word of Germanicus’ retreat took time to reach him and by that time Arminius turned on him with all his might. The Romans were harried towards the border by the barbarian tribes in a nightmare retreat through hostile territory. In a situation highly similar to the fate of Varus they were then surrounded, outnumbered and without hope of reinforcements things looked bleak. Yet Caecina was a good if not a dashing soldier. Despite the efforts of Germanicus the dead of AD 9 were restless. While lying in an exhausted sleep, Caecina dreamt that he was standing by the mire that surrounded his force, when the ghastly spectre of Varus bubbled from the soupy mud and tried to drag him back down with him. When Caecina gasped awake he had all the impetus he needed to fight and he managed to break out; winning a surprising victory and eventually gaining an honorary triumph for his skill. Arminius had been beaten, and after two campaigns two of the Eagles taken from Varus had been recovered.

His miraculous escape was not known to the people of Vetera though. The town had been a Roman military base since 15 BC and had started to flourish with the revenue brought in by being a major base for troops heading in to ravage Germany. It’s bridge over the Rhine was Caecina’s gateway to safety. However the news came in dribs and drabs and the latest anyone in Vetera knew was that the entire army had been surrounded and that a huge Germanic column was marching towards Gaul. With their own army apparently defeated, and without enough men to defend the town the people asked for the bridge over the Rhine to be pulled down, the lifeline for over 25,000 men was about to be cut, the consequences of which would be disaster.

Luckily for Caecina’s army though, help was at hand, Agrippina was in Vetera. At the vital moment when command was breaking down and the magistrates looked to be giving in to the people’s panic she took action. First she used her influence with the inhabitants to calm their fears and preserve the bridge. Then she made very public display’s of organising what defences the town had been left with. There was allot of sick and wounded in Vetera, and she went amongst them issuing clothes and bandages, this show of strength and leadership; lacking in everyone else, restored morale and order. When the lead elements of the 1st, 5th, 20th and 25th legions, came marching over the Rhine bridge into the civilised world, the first they saw after their nightmare ordeal, was the Sweetheart of the Legion’s. Agrippina was standing proudly at the other end of bridge like Venus and Victory combined, as a descendant of Augustus himself she represented as much Rome as the Eagles they carried. She listened to their story’s and thanked and praised them for their bravery and courage, while handing out bandages and food. Then if we are to believe Tiberius, who was wary of anyone who got too popular with the army, they drew up in line and she approached their standard’s and inspected the men, joking familiarly with them, laughing with the soldiers of the 1st and 20th about the mutiny perhaps.

Agrippina was the victor here, not only had she saved Caecina’s command she had probably saved her husband’s reputation and likely the Rhine settlements from being laid to waste. Her spirited and heroic acts were not praised in some quarters though, indeed popular though she was with the Roman people and the army, her victory and the fame of her husband bought her enemies in high places. Tiberius noted ruefully that the mutiny had not been stopped by the Emperor’s name, but by a woman, and remarked disapprovingly about Agrippina and Germanicus encouraging a Caesar to be nicknamed Little Boot. General Caecina did not show much gratitude to her either, in fact, he seems to have been piqued by her success, embarrassed to have been saved by a woman, and felt she had stolen his thunder. Later he spitefully declaimed all women who followed their husband’s to the Provinces on official business, and moved that magistrates taking up post’s on the frontier should be banned from taking their families with them, with disgust he backed up Tiberius’ claim that she had inspired other wives of governors to preside over Cohorts drilling and Legions on parade, though he never mentioned her by name.

Tiberius, 2nd Emperor of Rome
Tiberius, 2nd Emperor of Rome

Germanicus went on to gain further fame and victory in Germany the next year, it was made possible in no small part thanks to his wife, but he was then prevented by Tiberius from finishing the war. The emperor still mistrusted him and under the pretext of attending his Triumph, and indeed letting his brother have a turn at glory, returned him to Rome and then packed him off to apparently supervise the east. Agrippina went with him and together they toured the eastern provinces. Germanicus however was soon at odds with Gnaeus Piso the governor of Syria, a trusted subordinate or Tiberius who was supposed to put him in his place. In AD 19 after antagonising Piso by being popular with almost every city he entered, Germanicus died under suspicious circumstances.

The wail that went up from the crowd at Brundisium when Agrippina and her children came ashore, was one not to be forgotten. Holding the urn containing the remains of her husband in her hands, Agrippina proceeded to Rome in one great funerary cortege. The rumour was that Germanicus had been poisoned either by Piso’s wife or by the order of Tiberius, he was after all under suspicion of killing his own brother. However despite his mistrust, especially after chanting crowds in Alexandria proclaimed Germanicus & Agrippina “Augustus”, Tiberius had yet to wish his nephew dead. Not even Piso, who openly wished Germanicus dead, or at least out of the way, could have arranged it. In the ensuing trial Piso was eventually cleared of the charge but, such was the public grief for Germanicus and so well did they want to believe Piso behind his death, that at one point on the verge of being convicted of treason he took his own life.

Because of her popularity with the people and the army due to the memory of Germanicus, Agrippina was constantly held as suspect by Tiberius, who probably feared that someone would try and use her to overthrow him. So he kept her where he could keep an eye on her, until eventually he decided that she was too much of a nuisance. She had never stopped probing about the death of her husband, nor stopped angling to provide her children with positions suitable to their rank. Her manoeuvrings ignored Germanicus’ parting advice not to make waves, and lead her into the path of the Praetorian commander Sejanus, who was angling to secure a more influential position and keen to obliterate perceived threats to his master. Eventually Tiberius and Agrippina fell out in a chilling scene when she interrupted him sacrificing to Augustus, and all bridges were burned when Sejanus’ agents informed Agrippina that Tiberius wished to poison her at dinner and she pointedly refused to eat. She was forbidden to remarry and eventually exiled with her eldest son from Rome, she was sent to the Island of Pandeteria, on a trumped up charge made by Sejanus that accused her of conspiring against Tiberius, where after maltreatment she died by starving herself to death in AD 33.

Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus by Benjamin West.
Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus by Benjamin West.

Agrippina the elder is one of those names almost lost to history. For that matter it would be hard to say whether the name Germanicus is well known. But her story is nevertheless one of great heroism, devotion and in the end tragedy, but tragedy in Ancient Rome was never far away from those who strove to achieve something, it’s dark touch did not discriminate between Emperor or pleb. At the height of her fame though, with a successful husband to protect her, far away from the backbiting in Rome Arippina was able to achieve a freedom to make a difference and be remembered. Her children would certainly be remembered. Sadly three of their nine children died young, a relatively typical statistic for child mortality in ancient Rome, but one, little Gaius, better known as the depraved Caligula, would in AD 37 become the 2nd Emperor of Rome, and one of her daughters was the mother of the infamous Nero, the last of the Julio Claudians, a lineage worthy of the old adage “Where did we go wrong” perhaps but hindsight is 20/20.

Long before Dame Vera Lynn sang her way into the hearts of the British army during world war two, Vipsania Agrippina was the Sweetheart of the Legions.

Thanks for reading.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.

Sources For You.
Tacitus Annals (Relevant passages to the Mutiny and Bridge being – 1:33, 1:40, 1:44, 1:69, 3:33)
Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesar’s (Chapter 4)
Roman Legionary 58 BC AD 69 Ross Cowan
The Complete Roman Army Adrian Goldsworthy.
Ancient Greece and Rome at War Peter Connolly
Agrippina Anthony A. Barrett.
The First Ladies of Rome: Annelise Freisenbruch.
Dynasty: Tom Holland.

One Reply to “Sweetheart of the Legions”

  1. amazing details and facts – thanks for bringing these things more into the open – an inspiring woman and courageous – always good to bring credit and honour to people in history, even if they were not recognised fully or appreciated in their own time. but then Roman hierarchy, it would seem, always seemed very paranoid.

Leave a Comment

Discover more from Adventures In Historyland

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading