Emperor Tiberius of Rome
Rome's second emperor, the first of many tyrants
Tiberius, the second Emperor of Rome, did not have the strength of character of the first (Augustus) and he set the pattern for tyrannical rule that was to become typical of many of his successors.
His rise to power
Tiberius Claudius Nero, who became the second Roman Emperor on the death of Augustus in 14 AD, was born on 6th November 42 BC, the son of Tiberius Nero and Livia Drusilla. When Livia was forced to divorce her husband and marry Augustus, in 38 BC, Tiberius became the future emperor’s stepson and a prime candidate to succeed him in due course.
Tiberius was well educated and groomed for high military command. He was active on a number of campaigns, together with his younger brother Drusus, including the subjugation of what is now Switzerland and southern Germany.
In 20 BC Tiberius married Vipsania Agrippina, the daughter of Augustus’s right-hand man Agrippa, but when Agrippa died in 12 BC Augustus insisted that Tiberius divorce his wife and instead marry Julia, who was Augustus’s daughter and Agrippa’s widow. Tiberius was decidedly unhappy about this, especially as he was very much in love with Vipsania and far from emotionally suited to be the husband of Julia, who was notorious for her sexual licence.
Augustus now seemed to be looking at the two sons of Agrippa and Julia as potential successors, so Tiberius, with the emperor’s permission, exiled himself to Rhodes for nine years (from 7 BC to 2 AD) to get away from both his wife and the apparently hostile atmosphere in Rome. However, Augustus recalled him when one of Julia’s sons died, by which time she had been banished for her promiscuous behaviour.
When Julia’s other son died in 4 AD, Tiberius was now the sole candidate to be Augustus’s heir. As Augustus got older and began to lose his grip on affairs, Tiberius took over more of the imperial role, especially in the campaign field. Indeed, by the time Augustus died in 14 AD Tiberius was virtually co-emperor in all but name.
Tiberius’s first problem as emperor was to deal with mutinies by four legions in Germany and three on the Danube. The latter were easily dealt with by Tiberius’s son Drusus and Aelius Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, but the German situation was trickier. The legions there were under the command of Tiberius’s nephew Germanicus, who handled the situation extremely badly and was lucky to be able to calm things down eventually. Despite this demonstration of poor management skills, Germanicus continued to be popular in many quarters, and Tiberius came to see him as a threat to his rule.
Tiberius soon showed that he did not have the same sure touch for government that Augustus had demonstrated for many years. He imagined enemies at every turn and trusted hardly anyone. He governed more by fear than by persuasion, using the tool of “lex maiestatis” to accuse anyone he disliked of treason, which was, understandably, punishable by death.
The death of Germanicus in 19 AD gave rise to all sorts of rumours, including that he had been poisoned on the order of Tiberius. It was certainly very convenient from the emperor’s perspective to have the only serious rival to his throne, and a popular one at that, safely out of the way.
The rise and fall of Sejanus
The rising power in the empire was now Aelius Sejanus, who probably had ambitions of his own to be named as Tiberius’s successor. If this was his plan, then the sudden death in 19 AD of Tiberius’s son Drusus, with whose wife Livilla Sejanus had been carrying on an affair, was extremely convenient, and therefore suspicious. However, Sejanus was thwarted in part of his plan when Tiberius refused to allow him to marry Livilla.
Tiberius came to place an increasing amount of trust in Sejanus at the same time as distrusting just about everybody else. For example, he had the widow of Germanicus and two of her sons banished to an island when they kept making accusations about the cause of Germanicus’s death. Only the third son, Caligula, remained in Tiberius’s good books.
Eventually Tiberius tired of governing and took up residence on the island of Capri, in the Bay of Naples, leaving Sejanus in Rome to take charge of day-to-day matters. Sejanus’s ambition eventually over-reached itself and he apparently hatched a plot to assassinate Tiberius and his immediate family. This was just the excuse that the hard-pressed senators were looking for and, with the emperor’s sanction, they strangled Sejanus and threw his body to the common people, who took great pleasure in tearing it to pieces.
The final years
The final years of Tiberius’s reign were a period of fear and inertia, with the emperor brooding in his villa on Capri and none of his governors or ministers daring to take independent action on any front for fear that it might be misinterpreted. The supine behaviour of the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, in agreeing to the execution of an unconventional teacher named Jesus, in 36 AD, may have been a result of the general attitude of the time within the Empire, but it was a decision that was to have profound consequences for many centuries to come.
Tiberius’s paranoia was coupled with a belief in astrology that came to dominate his decision-making. For example, although he had become convinced that his great-nephew Caligula would be a thoroughly unworthy successor, the stars told him that Caligula would indeed become emperor, so Tiberius did nothing to prevent that happening.
Tiberius died in March 37 AD at the greatly advanced age, for the time, of 79. There have been suggestions that his death was hastened either by Caligula in person or Macro, the commander of the Praetorian Guard who had taken over from Sejanus. However, there is no proof that this actually happened, just as there is no proof that Tiberius spent his last years on Capri indulging in all sorts of licentious behaviour with people performing sexual acts for his amusement on a daily basis. Such behaviour would have been quite contrary to his earlier repugnance at how his wife Julia had behaved, and at variance with his generally dour and gloomy demeanour. He was not a man who sought amusement of any kind, other than taking pleasure at the demise of anyone who crossed him, with people being thrown from the cliffs for causing him offence. However, when later writers wanted to find mud to throw at his reputation, anything would do.
Tiberius’s death was probably greeted with a sense of relief in many quarters, as the old, do-nothing emperor was now succeeded by a lively young man named Caligula. However, if the people and leaders of Rome felt the need to celebrate the tyrant’s passing they would very soon have realised that such rejoicing was premature, to say the least.
Augustus: the first of Rome’s many emperors