Germanicus: One of the Most Overrated Generals of all Time?

Jan 2008
Chile, Santiago
Julius Caesar Germanicus (15/16 BCE - 19 CE), the nephew and apoted son of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, has often been held up as one of the greatest of all Roman Generals. Tacitus compared him to Alexander the Great, with Alexander coming a poor second. Immensely popular with the Roman people, and respected even by such entities as the King of Parthia, when he unexpectedly died in 19 CE all hailed it as a tragedy. The myth of the immortal Germanicus has persisted today, and no better example can be provided than Stephen Dando-Collins, who declared that he considered Germanicus's death to have been the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire!

And yet for all the glowing flattery of the historic records when they speak of Germanicus, most seem to overlook that said records do not paint a very flattering portrait. His sole claim to military fame seems to have been the three campaigns he lead into Germania. They were not successes, and were highly costly in both manpower and supplies. He almost blundered into a trap similar to the one that had been the death of three legions under Varus in Teutoberg Wald, the three pitched battles he managed to bring on were indecisive and without any major result, and his third campaign in particular saw great losses in men, ships, and supplies. In the final analysis they were without result and in direct contradiction of the successful policy towards the Rhine adopted by Tiberius. For all Germanicus's insistences that he only needed "one more campaign" to completely subdue Germany, it seems highly likely that he could have lead many more campaigns and they would all have been quite fruitless.

Hailed as a great leader of men thanks to his quelling of a mutiny at the time of Tiberius's ascent to a position of sole power, reading the actual account gives the impression of rather weak leadership that was far inferior to that displayed by his brother Drusus, who quelled a similar mutiny at the same time but without needing to make the same concessions that Germanicus did.

In his tour of the East Germanicus showed little more than arrogance and an extreme lack of political accumen. It could be counted almost as a good thing that he died and never became Emperor if as Emperor he would have continued as his career as it had proceeded thus far. He probably would have been a better ruler than Caligula, but that is not really hard to accomplish.
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Jul 2009
In not accomplishing much in Germania, it might seem that his 'accomplishment' was demonstrating that Germany was not worth all the effort. From about the time of his demise, the limes Germanicus was basically the Rhine and never really extended much beyond it.
May 2015
villa of Lucullus
I know this is an old thread but I thought it should be resurrected. I think Germanicus may be getting underrated a bit. His campaigns in Germany did not utterly crush the Germans but he still seems to have had the better of the fighting and inflicted heavy losses. Concluding that he was overrated because of this seems like a bit of a reach.
Jan 2015
Don't want to get into it in depth right now, but I think he did well in Germany. If Rome had chosen to maintain it, they could have. Whether that was a sensible strategic decision is another matter, but then we're judging Germanicus as a general here, not a politician. He was motivated by a lot of ancient ideals that have nothing to do with long term sustainability, like honour and glory. In the context in which he launched his campaigns, they were a huge success. He crushed Germany without the need of further recruits, to the point he was committing flat out genocide against them. Arminus being assassinated by his own people after the retributions of Germanicus (and his defeat by him) is also probably not a coincidence. After Germanicus was done there were a lot fewer Germans to worry about.
Aug 2014
Why do you want to know?
I'm not sure I agree with the OP's hypothesis. Firstly, wasn't the force that was nearly surrounded by Arminius under Caecina's command, rather than Germanicus'? In which case, we can't really blame him for something that happened when he wasn't present! Also, I don't think Germanicus' campaigns were so indecisive after all. The purpose of his expeditions seems to have been to make Rome feared across the Rhine again, rather than to fully conquer Germania in its entirety. And this seems to have been accomplished.

Finally, its worth noting that Germanicus managed to defeat Arminius in two pitched battles. Given the latter's military record, I don't think this was a mean feat.


Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
He was certainly overrated in the sense that he was no Alexander, and his death hardly caused the death of the Roman Empire.

That being said, I'd disagree with his campaigns being failures. He defeated every tribe that had been involved at Teutoberg, including Arminius and his Cherusci at the Weser River and the Angivarian Wall, and shattered his alliance.

That being said, Tiberius was also right to reign Germanicus in, and could probably be said to have had greater strategic foresight. Avenging Roman honor and keeping the operations limited to punitive expeditions were sufficient. Another campaign to establish a permanent Roman foothold in the region would have been an error, and would have alienated and/or made enemies of allies. Often forgotten is that the Chauci were allied with the Romans against Arminius, and they supplied Germanicus with auxiliaries.

I'd rank Germanicus as being one of Rome's better commanders, but not the equal of Caesar or Scipio.
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