In the footsteps of Germanicus – a Roman General’s journey to Egypt

Guy de la Bédoyère follows the first-century AD travels of Germanicus round the eastern Mediterranean and up the Nile

Bust of Germanicus, Roman General

The monuments of pharaonic Egypt have attracted tourists since ancient times – indeed, Romans from the Republic and early imperial eras recalled with wonder their visits to the tombs and temples along the Nile. One of the best-recorded journeys from that period was made by Germanicus – celebrated general, senior member of the imperial family and darling of the Roman mob – who voyaged to Egypt via the eastern Mediterranean in the years AD 17–19. His progress can be pieced together from the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus and some other broadly contemporary surviving documents.

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The trade route between Italy and Egypt was one of the greatest of the Roman era, operating in both directions. Ships poured into and out of the ports of Ostia (near Rome) and Puteoli (now Pozzuoli, near Naples) year round. Some of these had sailed from Egypt, arguably Rome’s wealthiest province, which had been seized by Octavian (later known as Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor) following his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. After that conquest, Egypt supplied vast quantities of grain to feed Rome, but it was already a tourist destination, having attracted enthusiastic Romans for centuries. Germanicus, however, took a circuitous route there.


Germanicus: who was he, and how is he linked to the Julio-Claudian emperors?

Germanicus (c15 BC–AD 19) was the golden boy of the Roman imperial family. His father was Nero Claudius Drusus, brother of Tiberius and younger son of Livia, wife of Augustus, by her first marriage. His mother was Antonia Minor, daughter of Augustus’s sister Octavia and Mark Antony; and his wife was Agrippina, Augustus’s granddaughter. With this impressive lineage, Germanicus was tipped for the top: it seems that Augustus hoped Germanicus would one day be emperor.

He fought wars in Illyricum (a province in the Balkans) and Germany, crushing a Roman army mutiny on the Rhine, and in AD 12 participated in Tiberius’s triumph in Rome. In AD 15, he added to his fame by recovering two of the three eagles (legion standards) that had been lost when three Roman legions were wiped out by German tribes in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9.

His appointment to supreme command in the eastern provinces – the reason for his journey in AD 17 – was his greatest honour, giving him power over all Roman governors and military commanders in the region. His ignominious death in Syria in AD 19 was followed by an outpouring of grief: monuments and honours to him were voted in communities across the empire. “Give us back Germanicus!” shouted the Roman mob after his death – to Tiberius’s chagrin.

Though Germanicus did not live to become emperor, others in his family did. His son, Caligula, took the imperial throne in AD 37, and his brother Claudius followed after Caligula was murdered in AD 41; Germanicus’s grandson Nero was the next and final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.


As the winter of AD 17 approached, Germanicus – nephew of the emperor Tiberius – set out to the eastern empire to act as an imperial deputy, taking his wife, Agrippina the Elder, and some of their children. They sailed on a leisurely route, setting off from eastern Italy – probably sailing from Brundisium (Brindisi) – to cross the Adriatic to visit Germanicus’ cousin Drusus, Tiberius’s son, then stationed in Dalmatia, roughly spanning what’s now Croatia.

Greek odyssey

It was probably the spring of AD 18 before Germanicus and his family continued on to Greece. But though winter was behind them, his fleet encountered fierce storms in both the Adriatic and Ionian seas; some of his ships were badly damaged, and the fleet docked in a port in north-western Greece for repairs. Germanicus took the chance to visit the relics and monuments of the great naval battle of Actium, victory at which had made Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world half a century earlier.

The Mediterranean was a super-highway that made it possible for the Roman empire to exist – but it was still extremely dangerous

After his vessels were repaired, Germanicus’s fleet continued on to Athens. In an era before proper navigation aids, his ships were forced to hug the coast as it negotiated the treacherous route round the Peloponnese, where shipwreck – with little or no chance of being rescued – was a very serious risk. By that time, the Mediterranean had become a superhighway that made it possible for the Roman empire to exist – but it was still dangerous.

  • Read more: Explore the Peloponnesian War, the bitter 5th century BC struggle between the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues, led by the city states Athens and Sparta.

Germanicus and his family were greeted by the Greeks at Athens, then crossed to the island of Euboea (Evia) and sailed across the Aegean to Lesbos, just off the coast of Anatolia, where his youngest daughter, Julia Livilla, was born. Ever the tourist, Germanicus headed north-west to visit the ancient site of Troy, which was the mythical home of Aeneas, ancestor of Romulus and Remus and thus progenitor of the Roman people.

In antiquity, a visit to the home of an oracle was a popular element of a journey. So Germanicus sailed south down the Ionian coast to the city of Colophon, to hear what the oracle of Clarian Apollo had to say. The news was typically ambiguous and impenetrable: Germanicus would, the oracle pronounced, make “an exit at the appropriate time” – in other words, he would die when it was the right time to do so.

Germanicus’s primary ostensible objective on this journey was to organise and resolve diplomatic problems in Rome’s eastern provinces. He encountered obstacles, notably in the form of a senator called Piso, who had been appointed as governor of Syria.

Though Germanicus rescued Piso after his fleet was wrecked in a storm off Rhodes en route to his new post, the latter continued to stir up trouble. Germanicus did, however, achieve success in resolving a succession dispute in Armenia, though it occupied the rest of that year, which he spent largely in the Armenian capital Artaxata (now Artashat, about 15 miles south of the modern capital, Yerevan).

Exploring Egypt

In January AD 19, Germanicus – escaping the ugly politics of Roman government in the east – set out on a passage to Egypt, apparently without Agrippina. Strictly speaking, he was acting illegally by going at all: Augustus had prohibited Romans of senatorial status from entering Egypt, hoping to prevent them from using the province’s wealth to blackmail Rome or mount a bid to become emperor. Germanicus’s intention, though, was – like so many travellers before and since – “to become acquainted with antiquity”. Determined to enjoy himself, he spent much of his time without an armed escort, dressing in Greek garb that would have been familiar to a people ruled for some three centuries by the Macedonian-Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.

Though few details of his itinerary survive, we can get an idea of his experiences thanks to an earlier account of a similar Roman tour. In 112 BC, in the days of the late Republic, a Roman senator called Lucius Memmius visited Egypt – then still independent and ruled by Ptolemy IX, Cleopatra’s grandfather. A papyrus planning his itinerary survived, suggesting how Germanicus’s journey might have progressed.

Illustrative map depicting the footsteps taken by Germanicus on his journey to Egypt
Illustrative map depicting the footsteps taken by Germanicus on his journey to Egypt (Illustration by Theresa Gribben)

We do know that Germanicus landed in Canopus, a town founded (according to legend) by the Spartan king Menelaus on his way home from the Trojan War, and named after his helmsman. He addressed the townsfolk, telling them how sad he was to be away from his extended family, and recounting the difficulties of the journey.

He then travelled about 15 miles south-west to Alexandria, established by Alexander the Great after his conquest of Egypt in 332 BC. There he visited the famous 110-metre-high Pharos (lighthouse), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which was by then well over 250 years old. He also gained popularity by opening state granaries and reducing the cost of grain.

If Germanicus followed in Memmius’s footsteps – and he almost certainly did – he then journeyed to the Fayum, an oasis region in a depression in the Western Desert about 100 miles southwest of Cairo. His route would have involved sailing south through the Nile delta and up the Nile, past the pyramids at Giza, before delving into the desert to reach the Fayum.

At Arsinoe, a pampered crocodile was kept in the lake, fed by the priests of the cult with meat and a honey cake

The ‘sights’ that Germanicus, like Memmius before him, would have wanted to see there included the cult of the crocodile god Sobek, known in Greek as Souchos, in the city of Arsinoe (called Krokodeilópolis, ‘City of the Crocodile’, in Greek). Here a pampered crocodile was kept in the lake, fed by the priests of the cult with meat and a honey cake; on his visit, Memmius – treated as an honoured guest – was provided with titbits to feed to the spoiled crocodile.

Not far away was the astonishing Labyrinth, the mortuary temple of Amenemhet III (ruled c1860–c1814 BC) near that pharaoh’s pyramid at Hawara, celebrated for its vast number of chambers and passages; it was so tortuous that it could be visited only with a guide. And a little to the north-west, Germanicus visited Lake Moeris, a natural hollow fed by a partially artificial canal that allowed the Egyptians to control the annual Nile flood.

  • Read more: Not everyone was mummified, plus 9 more things you (probably) didn’t know about Ancient Egypt

Germanicus certainly continued his journey upstream along the Nile to Thebes (now Luxor); we can date his visit with some accuracy, thanks to a surviving receipt of 25 January 19, recording the payment required by an Egyptian called Phatres for some of the Roman’s wheat.

In Thebes, Germanicus was fascinated by the hieroglyphs inscribed on temple walls, which he had translated by a priest. He learned that “once the city contained 700,000 men of military age, and with that army King Ramesses II [r 1279–1213 BC], after conquering Libya and Ethiopia, the Medes and the Persians, the Bactrian and the Scyth, and the lands where the Syrians and Armenians and neighbouring Cappadocians dwell, had ruled over all that lies between the Bithynian Sea on the one hand and the Lycian on the other.”

Perhaps Germanicus, observing the faded glory of Egypt in Thebes, wondered what would happen to Rome one day

According to Tacitus, “the tribute-lists of the subject nations were still legible: the weight of silver and gold, the number of weapons and horses, the temple-gifts of ivory and spices, together with the quantities of grain and other necessaries… revenues no less imposing than those which are now exacted by the might of Parthia or by Roman power.” Perhaps Germanicus, observing the faded glory of Egypt, wondered what would happen to Rome one day.

Song of stone

Next, Germanicus crossed the Nile to the West Bank, to see the Colossi of Memnon – two vast statues of Amenhotep III (ruled c1386–1349 BC) of the 18th Dynasty, carved from quartzite sandstone. These monuments, representing almost all that remains of the vast mud-brick mortuary temple of the pharaoh, are still among the great sights of Egypt, and look today much as they did when Germanicus admired them. One of the statues was famed for ‘singing’ at sunrise – a phenomenon described by Greek geographer Strabo (c64 BC–c24 AD) as “a slight blow”, probably caused when the rising sun heated dew within a crack, creating a whistling or groaning noise as it evaporated.

The spectacle was described by another Roman visitor, Julia Balbilla, a poet who experienced it while visiting as part of the retinue of the emperor Hadrian in AD 130. The four epigrams she inscribed in Greek on one of the statues to commemorate her visit can still be seen. They begin:

“Memnon the Egyptian I learned, when warmed by the rays of the sun, speaks from Theban stone. When he saw Hadrian, the king of all, before rays of the sun, he greeted him – as far as he was able.”

Another Roman, possibly visiting later that century, carved into one of its feet the memorable comment: Camilius, hora prima semis audivi Memnonii – “At half past the first hour [of the day] I, Camilius, heard the Memnon.”

Sadly, possibly as a result of reconstruction work ordered by Emperor Septimius Severus in AD 199, the Memnon no longer croons its eerie song.

Germanicus surely toured the ruins of the mortuary temples of Ramesses II and Ramesses III, some of the Tombs of the Nobles and others in the Valley of the Kings; certainly, surviving Graeco-Roman graffiti prove that visitors of his time explored the underground corridors and chambers in tombs that were still open in those days. We do know that Germanicus headed upstream all the way to Elephantine Island, home of the ram-headed god Khnum, guardian of the source of the Nile, and visited the nearby town of Aswan, on the southern border of Egypt.

Germanicus left Egypt some time in the spring of AD 19 to return to Syria, where his feud with Piso continued. He died there on 10 October, after falling seriously ill (allegedly poisoned by Piso), and his ashes were carried back to Rome to be interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus. His was a bright future that had been cut short – but before he died, he had at least witnessed some of the greatest wonders of the ancient world.

Guy de la Bédoyère is a historian and author specialising in the Roman world. His books include is Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome (Yale, 2018)

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This conetent was first published in issue 15 of BBC World Histories magazine