Friday, May 28, 2010

The Emperor's Library (III): Emperor Tiberius

Tiberius Claudius Caesar is one of the better known but still controversial Caesars which is probably to be expected given that he was only the second Roman Emperor and the successor of the deified Augustus. Considered a bloody tyrant by some, he was certainly, as papal Latinist Father Reginald Foster once said, “a hard man”. Like many ancient monarchs and Roman emperors especially he was a complicated man and something of a mixed bag who also evolved over the years. No one could deny that he was a great general and later a capable ruler. However, much of the criticism of him stems from his later years when he seemed to slip further and further into paranoia and depravity. However, one must also remember that, as with a great many of the emperors of Rome, we depend a lot on the accounts of others in our assessment of these men and all too often these accounts were written by political enemies who may have took liberties with the truth to make their subjects look as bad as possible. Nonetheless, as the heir of Augustus and Emperor of Rome he is significant to the world and Christians remember him as the Emperor who reigned during the ministry of Christ. When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar…” the Caesar he was speaking of was the Emperor Tiberius.

Tiberius was born on November 16, 42 BC as Tiberius Claudius Nero to his namesake Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla who later divorced his father and married the Emperor Augustus in 39 BC. Tiberius later married his step-sister Julia the Elder and was adopted by Augustus as his official son and heir after which he was known as Tiberius Julius Caesar. Nonetheless, despite these lofty family connections, Tiberius was not an ambitious man who desired power for its own sake. As a man who knew something of the world and the harsh realities of life he had no grand vision of power but realized that its glories came with dangers equally as great if not more so. He was a sober monarch who appreciated the weight of his authority and responsibility and eventually became known as a recluse and as his paranoia increased he became an awesome figure his people feared rather than loved or admired. When his death finally came many Romans rejoiced but given that he was succeeded by his adopted grandson Caligula, they may have eventually regretted their condemnations of Tiberius and happiness at his final end.

Emperor Augustus tried to prepare him for power by placing him in important government offices but he always hoped a candidate of his own bloodline would be his heir. Tiberius spent most of his time fighting on the Roman frontiers where he proved himself a very capable general and won a number of victories. He fought the Parthians in Armenia, married the daughter of Marcus Agrippa, fought Galls and Germans, fought barbarians in the French Alps and found the source of the Danube before returning to Rome in 13 BC to become consul and to welcome his first son, Julius Caesar Drusus into the world. When General Agrippa died in 12 BC Rome was stunned but Tiberius and Drusus moved up on the succession list. Great right? Not for Tiberius it seems. Emperor Augustus had him divorce his wife and marry his step-sister Julia the Elder -who turned out to be one of the most “horizontally accessible” women in the Roman Empire. It is really no wonder Tiberius came to associate power and prestige with personal pain and suffering.
Augustus was reportedly reluctant to name Tiberius as his heir but was compelled to for reasons of state. He considered Tiberius too austere and rather off-putting but after the deaths of the other potential heirs, Tiberius was ‘the only game in town’ as it were. He had an excellent military record but no administrative experience when Augustus died and Tiberius became Emperor in 14 AD. This was the first time power in Rome had changed hands based on the hereditary succession of one emperor after another and it was a little tricky. There were rivals to be dealt with, the Senate, which had to bestow the titles of Augustus on his successor and the legions who, in some cases, mutinied and had to be put down. Tiberius dispatched his adopted son Germanicus to handle this, which he did and went on to lead the frontier legions deeper into Germany. Tiberius finally halted any further expansion and called back Germanicus who was still treated to a triumph upon his return. When Germanicus, who was very popular, later died some suspected Tiberius of complicity.

One of his biggest problems was his mother, the Dowager Empress Livia. At one point, he left Rome and went to his island-fortress of Capri just to get away from her. When she died he refused to attend the funeral, stopped the effort to deify her and refused to implement her will. That was in 29 AD, the same year he arrested Agrippina (Germanicus’ widow) and her son Nero after Sejanus (basically Tiberius’ right-hand-man after he left Rome and moved to his pleasure grotto on Capri) accused them of plotting against him. Conspiracies were everywhere and Sejanus himself was later killed for allegedly plotting against Tiberius and replaced by Naevius Sutorius Macro. He would be a key player for the rest of Tiberius’ reign and would play a controversial part in the change of monarchs when Tiberius died. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It is easy to forget that Tiberius was an effective emperor. At the start of his reign he tried to follow the example of Augustus as best he could. He was attentive in his duties, presided at the senate, attended games and sporting events, handed out gifts and gave charitably on occasion. He took his job seriously but he lacked the social skills of his step-father. He tended to come off as distant, arrogant and intolerant. Eventually he became rather unpopular, especially after his austerity cut into the public entertainment budget. The Romans may have had their bread but they felt cheated on the circus front. When it came to government, although he retained final authority, he largely let the provinces govern themselves and did not interfere in the administration very much. He tried to get along with the senate but was unsuccessful and came to see most of them as potential rivals.

His unpopularity increased after he went into seclusion on Capri and had more senators and so on put to death as he feared conspiracies against him around every corner. His actions on Capri would become legendary and may be somewhat exaggerated but suffice it to say he was in a pretty bad place toward the end of his life and had little hope for the future with his only remaining heirs being his grandson Gemellus, who was too young, and his adopted grandson Caligula -who even early on tended to scare people. His tax increases helped put Rome on firmer financial ground but angered the populace and the constant treason trials made him hated by the senate and probably contributed to stories that his death on March 16, 37 AD may have been unnatural (Macro was accused of suffocating him). When news of his demise reached Rome many people rejoiced and shouted “to the Tiber with Tiberius!” His body had to be taken to Rome under armed escort and cremated by the troops away from public view.

In the end Emperor Tiberius was not deified as Augustus had been but neither was he officially criticized. Despite his unpopularity he had governed effectively. There were no major disasters or problems during his 23 years on the throne and when looked at objectively he seems to have been a basically good ruler who was simply not likeable. One has to wonder if those who criticized him came to miss him after he was gone and Caligula was Emperor. Supposedly, Tiberius spoke of his successor when saying that he was “nursing a viper in the bosom of Rome”. At the start of his reign he said that he would consider himself a success if he governed well and did what was right even if it was unpopular. In that regard history has largely vindicated him though it would be a while before the Romans themselves could see it.


  1. There's a great novel which strikes me as accurate, though who can say from this great distance of time?
    I have to get the name but it was written by a Norweigian author who was fascinated with this Julia. She wrote a highly sympathetic story of Julia's entire life which struck me as much more true than all these mean tales about this Augustus' only daughter.
    I have to put this in there for balance. Actually in the novel, Julia and Tiberias were childhood sweethearts! How's that for a creative possibility?

    I happen to be in the Anti-Livia camp, so this author's version of Livia as her step-daughter Julia's enemy bears weight for me.
    In the book, Livia is always maligning Julia to Octavian - Augustus - and perhaps jealous of his attention for his daughter, convinces him of her immorality, upon which Caesar is forced to show the public that even his daughter can be removed for going against the new laws against immorality he had instituted.

    Hence, about Julia, Tiberias and so many others, it's very true what was said in the post that gross exaggerations, if not entire fictional stories, were introduced into the historical texts read for 2000 years and too easily accept as fact.
    It's tragic that there weren't a plethora of writers at the time, so we could discern the wheat from the chaff.

    Good writeup.

    Anybody been to Villa San Michele, built by Swedish doctor Axel Munthe [author of "The Story of San Michele"] purposely on the very site of Tiberias' palace atop Capri?

    I don't believe the lies propagated at the time even about Tiberias. How did anyone hear such garbage when he was so far removed from all? Take a hydrofoil trip out there and see how relatively remote it is even now.
    What about at that time?

  2. I tend to agree and that is why I did not go into detail about his alleged activities -they are simply too lurid to be easily believed. And Capri is a remote place, as I recall there is only a single beach where boats can land, otherwise it is entirely rock.

  3. Yes! Even those claims against later Emperors have fallen under suspicion as embellished from some lesser transgressions. Probably even Elagabalus wasn't THAT depraved.

    Also, it gives Monarchy and Empire a bad name. especially when ground in by Hollywood where every Roman Emperor is a terrible Nero. None chosen for film stories have any real personality or positive traits, notice?

    I'm not saying they were perfect, but probably nowhere near as bad as depicted.
    Readers for two millenia should never have been SO uncritical and unquestioning. They should have demanded better interpretations and the search for lost manuscripts which might balance out the one-sided pictures shown.

    Plus it's unfair to the actual people: if slandered unfairly, these Emperors and Empresses and similar Roman notables may not be able to rest in peace!

    The more TRUTH or approximations of Truth that gets promulgated, the better it is on all levels. And at least those poor souls may have some peace at las.! Think how you might feel with all that malicious stuff circulating about you through the Ages...!

  4. As a matter of fact the next Emperor to be covered in this series will be the notorious Nero himself...


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