One of the interesting things about studying history is gaining the ability to discern points of origin and convergence in terms of leading personalities and important events. In the early Imperial period of ancient Rome, one of the most significant points of origin was a man who died before his thirtieth year but whose impact on government and history would extend to at least the third generation after him. The man I'm referring to never ruled the Roman world, published any great works, or built any great monuments. By all accounts, Nero Claudius Drusus would have been a pretty boring man if not for his genetic makeup.

Drusus, as he is primarily known, was born in the year 38 BC to Livia Drusilla, the wife of the first Roman Emperor Augustus. By all serious accounts, Drusus was the biological son of Tiberius Claudius Nero, a prominent politician of the late Republican period and the first husband of Livia. Tiberius Claudius Nero had been a close confederate of both Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar and though his political sympathies apparently lay more with the former than the latter in the civil war between the two, he ultimately sat the war out to avoid alienating either of his patrons. He then went on a spectacular losing streak after Caesar's death, siding first with his assassins (led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, known as the Liberatores) against the ultimately victorious Second Triumvirate and then with Mark Antony against Augustus during their original pre-Actium scuffle. Augustus evidently fell in love with Livia upon meeting her in 39 BC and as a result divorced his second wife Scribonia (on the very day of their daughter's birth, no less!) and subsequently compelled Tiberius to divorce Livia so the two of them could be married. Given that Tiberius probably had a very real fear for his life, he consented and even came to their wedding. The wedding occurred in 38 BC, incidentally, three days after Livia had given birth to her second son with Tiberius, Decimus.

After his birth, Decimus joined his elder brother (who, in keeping with Roman naming conventions, had been named after their father) at Tiberius' household. They remained there until Tiberius' death in 33 BC, at which point the boys went to live with their mother and stepfather. Decimus' praenomen had been changed to Nero, a name used exclusively by this particular branch of the Claudian line, called the Claudii Nerones, although for the purposes of simplicity, I will only refer to him as Drusus for the remainder of the write-up. As a brief digression, it was rumored in antiquity that Drusus was actually the biological son of Augustus, the revelation of which is said to have precipitated the divorce of Livia from Tiberius. This seems highly unlikely, however, since if this were the case, Drusus' birth would have been quite premature. In the ancient world, this would have meant almost certain death for the child, the mother, or both. Also, it seems clear that if Drusus were actually Augustus' son, he would have recognized him as such since his only natural child was his aforementioned daughter, Julia, who because of her lack of a penis was not an acceptable heir. Why, if Drusus were his son, would Augustus not have recognized him as such to keep his line intact?

Regardless of whether or not Drusus was Augustus' son (and he most certainly was not), Augustus surely showed favor to him as well as his brother Tiberius, being as they were his closest male family members. Livia, obviously, was well-suited to push her sons' interests with her husband. The two boys, Drusus and Tiberius, were as close as any two brothers could have ever been, though in character they seem to have been total opposites. In his entire life, Tiberius loved only three people: his brother, Drusus; his first wife, Vipsania, from whom he was forcibly divorced to make way for a political marriage to be described later; and finally his son with Vipsania, Drusus, whom he named after his brother in violation of the standard Roman naming convention of an eldest son being named after his father. Tiberius was dour and given to violent mood swings and debilitating bouts of depression; Drusus was gregarious and outgoing, and Augustus seems to have preferred him somewhat to Tiberius. Their marriages are a good example of this: Tiberius was initially married to Vipsania, the daughter of Augustus' powerful friend and ally Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa by his first wife; Drusus by contrast was married to Antonia, the daughter of his sister Octavia and the dead and vanquished Mark Antony. This is significant because Augustus had at first favored his sister's son, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, as his heir, demonstrated by the fact that he had allowed Marcellus to marry his daughter Julia. When Marcellus died, his preference passed to Agrippa, who married Julia and had five children by her: Gaius, Lucius, Agrippina, Vipsania Julia, and Postumus Agrippa. As Augustus now had three direct male blood descendants, Tiberius and Drusus were seen as somewhat ancillary to the future success of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.

This presumption, of course, could not have been more wrong. Tiberius and Drusus, though now clearly not Augustus' preferred successors, were still important members of the government. Both brothers were given important military commands on the Rhine (the de facto border between the Roman world and the barbaric Germania) and both excelled. Drusus dealt such a crushing blow to the Germans in 12 BC that he and his male descendants would all carry the agnomen "Germanicus" in recognition of the feat. Tiberius was every bit as competent a general as his brother, but he lacked the natural, unassuming charisma that allowed Drusus to be so beloved by his men. Perhaps sensing this, Augustus put Tiberius to work on diplomatic and administrative projects, which he hated. After Agrippa's death in 12 BC, Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce Vipsania and marry his twice-widowed daughter Julia in what was to be the unhappiest marriage either of them ever had. This was perhaps an indication that Augustus was coming around to the notion of seeing Tiberius as a partial heir if only to be a caretaker for his grandsons Gaius and Lucius (whom he had formally adopted as his sons after their father's death).

Between 16 BC and 10 BC, Drusus and Antonia had three children: a son Nero, a daughter Livilla, and another son Tiberius Claudius, who was born with a form of infantile paralysis. In 9 BC, Drusus was elected (or perhaps more appropriately, appointed) consul, the highest office in the empire after princeps (i.e. Augustus). Drusus was always bored by life in the city, however, and almost immediately left to return to the frontier to fight more Germans. While this show of derring-do went over well with his soldiers, it ultimately cost him his life: while riding back to camp from a particular engagement with the enemy, Drusus fell from his horse and badly injured his leg. The injury eventually became infected and then gangrenous. Drusus lay in pain for more than a month before finally expiring in the presence of his wife, his children, and his beloved brother.

While the stories of most men end with their deaths, Drusus' does not. His oldest boy, Nero, would eventually become an even more popular military leader than his father and would receive the title Germanicus (the name by which he is chiefly known) in his own right for his similar successes against the Germans. Augustus came to be more and more impressed with Germanicus' abilities and consented for him to marry his granddaughter Agrippina, and this union resulted in six children that survived infancy: Nero, Drusus, Gaius, Agrippina, Julia Livilla, and Drusilla. Augustus' grandsons Lucius and Gaius died in 2 BC and 4 AD, respectively, of arguably unnatural causes and Postumus had fallen out of favor, so the Emperor finally made Tiberius his principal heir with the provision that he adopt Drusus' son Germanicus as his own heir (despite the fact that Tiberius already had a natural son, the aforementioned Drusus). Tiberius succeeded Augustus upon his death in 14 AD and made Germanicus his heir, though the latter died of a suspicious illness in 19 and most suspected poisoning, including his widow Agrippina. Relations between Tiberius and Germanicus' family deteriorated to the point that he had Agrippina the Elder, Nero, and Drusus all killed. Gaius and the girls were allowed to live, but were obviously very careful about what they said and did around their extremely paranoid great uncle. Tiberius had previously let Drusus' daughter Livilla marry his own son, but this union ended when Livilla killed him in 23. Tiberius was forced to turn to Drusus' inexplicably popular only surviving grandson Gaius as an heir to rule jointly with his own grandson, the much younger Tiberius Gemellus.

We know Gaius Germanicus by his childhood nickname Caligula, and he succeeded Tiberius in 37 through some possibly nefarious means. Popular enthusiasm favored Caligula far more than Gemellus and it was easy to push him aside and then kill him before too long. After an unspecified illness in 38, Caligula went off the deep end and began a reign of terror that was as indiscriminate as it was comedic. One of Caligula's favorite relatives to play jokes upon was his uncle Claudius, the aforementioned youngest son of his grandfather Drusus. Claudius was a stutterer and walked with a limp and was frequently forced to play the part of Caligula's unofficial court jester. In Caligula's conception of himself and his family, the Julio-Claudians were deities with Caligula representing both the mighty Jupiter and the beautiful Venus, his sister Drusilla being the nurturing Juno (before being deified herself after her untimely death), and Claudius being Vulcan, the crippled blacksmith and industrialist. Like Vulcan, however, Claudius was far more intelligent than his contemporaries gave him credit for and intentionally cultivated an image of foolishness to avoid Caligula's unpredictable wrath much as Caligula had pretended to be meek and unpretentious under Tiberius to escape the same fate as his mother and his brothers. In 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a Praetorian prefect named Cassius Chaerea after he insulted him by making several crude references to a groin injury Chaerea had received in Germany during a campaign with Germanicus. Claudius succeeded Caligula and although he was a just and generally competent ruler, he found himself frequently controlled by his freedmen and his mistresses. He was eventually persuaded to marry his own niece, Agrippina, who had a son named Lucius from her previous marriage to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. She convinced Claudius to adopt Lucius as his heir in favor of his natural son Britannicus. Upon his adoption, Lucius became known as Nero. When Claudius came to have second thoughts about this, Agrippina poisoned his mushrooms, which killed him a day later in 54.

Nero was barely old enough to be considered a man by Roman standards, but he found himself the ruler of the most massive empire in the world at that time. Although Nero ruled the world, Agrippina ruled Nero. Nero resented his mother's interference in his affairs and eventually had her killed in an unintentionally hilarious sequence of events that started with a ceiling collapsing over her bed with her in it. After this failed, Nero modified her personal sailing barge to also fall apart in the deepest part of a lake and although it did this, Agrippina was able to swim to safety. Flustered, he finally had her beaten and stabbed to death. The rest of Nero's rule was characterized by Caligulan excesses and bizarre musical performances for the Roman people (it was a crime punishable by death to fail to show sufficient appreciation of his singing and lyre playing). Nero eventually killed himself in 68 after having been declared a public enemy by the Senate.

Drusus had a direct blood relation to all of the Julio-Claudian emperors after Augustus: Tiberius was his brother, Claudius was his son, Caligula was his grandson, and Nero was his great grandson. He is a fascinating figure whose life was unfortuantely cut short by the inadequate medical care of the time but who never the less exerted an important influence on early imperial politics in a way that neither he nor anyone else could have foreseen at the time. He is sometimes erroneously referred to as "Drusus Caesar," a name which is more appropriate for his grandson and to a lesser extent to his nephew.