Tiberius: The Reluctant Emperor

Tiberius: The Reluctant Emperor


I know very well that we are not covering them
in chronological order, but one at the time we are covering the most interesting one. I am talking of course about the Roman Emperors. Roman Emperors were men who wielded immense
power in a wide variety of ways. Some were good military leaders. Some ruled fairly and openly, to the benefit
of their citizens. Some were a destructive force at the centre
of plots, conspiracies, and murder. Today’s protagonist was all of the above. In many ways a puzzling man, he was not born
to become an Emperor, and when he did become one, he appeared reluctant, and spent almost
half of his reign in self-imposed exile. This is the story of Tiberius, the second
Roman Emperor. Hardships and Difficulties
Tiberius Julius Caesar was born on November 16 in the year 42 BCE. This was two years after the assassination
of Julius Caesar, and young Tiberius’ childhood would carry on under the shadow of the civil
war that followed it. His father’s name was Tiberius Claudius
Nero, and his mother was called Livia Drusilla. Tiberius senior had been an officer under
Julius Caesar but had sided with Mark Anthony. For this reason, the young family lived in
exile, constantly in fear of having their hands, tongues or other body parts handed
back to them by Caesar Augustus. The Historian Suetonius, renowned for his
prose and body odour, wrote this of Tiberius’ early years:
“His childhood and youth were beset with hardships and difficulties because Nero and
Livia took him wherever they went in their flight from Augustus.” For example, when the family was hiding in
Naples, Octavian’s men broke into the city, and they had to make a quiet escape through
the port. But the infant Tiberius cried so loud that
he nearly betrayed the whole party. After Naples, the family moved to Sicily and
eventually to Sparta. but Augustus still would not let go, and during
a night time escape Livia scorched her hair while running througha forest fire. Luckily for the toddler, when he turned three,
Augustus proclaimed amnesty for the conspirators. The family returned to Rome in 39 BCE, upon
which Livia took a leaf from her husband’s book and pulled a switcheroo. She divorced Tiberius Nero and set her eyes
on a new husband that could grant a rosy future for her and her son: Emperor Augustus. Three months after their marriage, Livia delivered
another son: Drusus. If for a moment you thought that the father
was Octavian, that would make Livia a porcupine and Drusus a premature baby porcupine. [Caption: The gestation period of a porcupine
is 112 days] Tiberius’ baby brother had in fact been
conceived with Tiberius senior. This is important: Livia had no children with
Octavian, which meant that she had to work extra hard to secure the advancement of her
sons. In point of fact, Octavian Augustus had been
preparing for his own two grandsons, Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar to succeed him. Gaius and Lucius were the sons of Augustus’
daughter Julia and Augustus’ right hand man Marcus Agrippa. Even though the parents of the two boys were
alive and kicking, Augustus had decided to adopt them to better groom them for succession,
a common practice at that time. Livia’s efforts to supplant the order of
succession seemed to pay dividends. In his early adolescence, Tiberius had the
privilege to organise some gladiatorial games in the Forum. More importantly, he was allowed to ride on
Augustus’ chariot at his triumph following the Battle of Actium. At age 18, Tiberius was appointed quaestor,
an entry level magistrate with the responsibility of collecting taxes or even recruiting soldiers
in conquered territories. His skill and energy soon led to a military
command. A Tribunus and a Gentleman
In the year 22 BCE, a twenty-year old Tiberius was dispatched to Iberia as a Tribunus Laticlavius,
an officer who served as second-in-command to the Legatus, the head of a Legion. In this function, he served in the northern
region of Cantabria. The locals had rebelled against Rome, and
Tiberius restored peace by decimating them. This success in Spain granted him a more prestigious
assignment: Tiberius was now put at the head of a Legion and sent to Armenia in 20 BCE
to install a king friendly to Rome. The neighbouring Parthians, who would be modern-day
Iranians, were not amused and threatened war. Tiberius displayed some good negotiating skills,
agreeing to a compromise: a neutral king would rule Armenia, making it a buffer state between
Rome and Parthia. In exchange, the Parthians would return three
Legionary battle standards seized from Marcus Crassus at the battle of Carrhae. Tiberius returned to Rome with three Eagles
and was hailed as a hero. I did something similar yesterday. I returned home with three chickens and was
hailed by my cats. In 19 BCE Tiberius married his first wife,
Vipsania, whom he loved dearly. And I realise that by calling her ‘first’
wife I sort of spoiled what’s coming next. According to Suetonius, Vipsania was the daughter
of Marcus Agrippa. And who was Agrippas’ wife? Julia, daughter of Augustus. I have done some math, here:
Julia was born in 39 BCE and she married Agrippa in 21 BCE. Age 18. So far, so good. Agrippa died in the year 12 BCE. In those nine years they were married, these
two would have a total of five children, with one of them being Vipsania. Based on this timeline, Vipsania should have
been 2 when she married Tiberius. Suetonius does not offer clarity, so I am
going to assume, and hope, that Vipsania was a daughter from a previous marriage, and that
the name just ran in the family. Another name that ran in the family was Drusus,
Tiberius’ brother. When the newlyweds had a son, they, too, named
their child Drusus. Because why choose a new name and miss a chance
to complicate a historian’s work? What historians do get right is the military
campaigns. We know that Tiberius’ military adventures
continued in 15 BCE, when he joined little brother Drusus in Gaul, or as Suetonius called
it ‘the Long-Haired province.’ Here, feuds between the Gallic chieftains
had caused considerable unrest, but Tiberius brought his own brand of Iberian peace. After that he fought in the Alps, Austria,
and Germany. During these campaigns he ensured that the
local population bend the knee to Rome, securing the northern borders of the Empire. During his campaign in Germany he captured
some 40,000 German prisoners, whom he forcibly relocated in Gaul put an end to their constant
revolts. Eight centuries later, Charlemagne would apply
the exact same tactic to quash the Saxons. All the while, mother Livia had continued
her machinations to ensure the career progression of Tiberius. She had set her eye on the highest prize:
succession to the throne of Emperor. Tiberius went along with these schemes, though
we don’t know how much of it he participated in voluntarily. In 12 BCE, Augustus agreed to consider him
as a successor, but only if Tiberius would divorce his beloved wife and marry Julia,
recently widowed. Tiberius was not happy about this. First, Vipsania was pregnant again, and he
knew of Julia’s adulterous past. Even Augustus knew of her adulterous past. Heck, all of Rome knew of her adulterous past. Surely, men weren’t saints either, but hey,
double standards are not a recent invention. Julia, in fact, had even tried to seduce Tiberius
while she was still married to his father-in-law Agrippa. Wait! This makes of Julia … his step-mother-in-law. Trying to seduce him? We are in full soap opera mode now! The throne was the throne and eventually Tiberius
relented, marrying Julia. Neither of them was particularly happy about
this union, but initially, they tried to make it work. Over time, Tiberius began to loathe her. When their first and only child died in infancy,
he completely retreated from her. Bumpy Rhodes
Tiberius did more than just retreat. He went into a voluntary exile on the island
of Rhodes in 6 BCE. Julia went on to have an affair with Mark
Anthony’s son, and this was politically dangerous. Eventually Augustus banished her from Rome
in 2 BCE. The relationship with Julia may have been
the main reason for his exile, but even Suetonius is not sure. Another theory is related to Augustus’ grandchildren,
Gaius and Lucius. They had now come of age, and Tiberius did
not want to stand in the way of their lawful succession. The implication here is that he was a reluctant
aspiring Emperor, to say the least. During his self-imposed time in Rhodes, Tiberius
visited the sick, worked as a magistrate, and mingled with the locals. He also attended philosophy lectures and debates,
which could occasionally get loud and out of hand. During one of these debates, he was accused
by a student of supporting one philosopher over the other. Instead of mounting a well-reasoned comeback,
the normally-unflappable Tiberius went home, only to return with some guards. He had the loudmouth seized and sent to the
gaol. After the first few years of voluntary exile,
Tiberius started regretting his decision. He longed to return home. But Augustus would not give his permission. Slanderous rumours had started circulating:
apparently ‘The Exile,’ as he was now known, was plotting against the Emperor. Eventually it was Gaius who convinced his
grandfather to yield, and Tiberius was allowed back to Rome in 2 CE, on one condition: Tiberius
renounce all interest in politics and lead an apolitical life. This would prove to be difficult. He had barely set foot in Rome when Lucius,
younger of the Emperor’s heirs, died of an illness while travelling to Iberia. A year and a half later, the older Prince,
Gaius, died from wounds received in Armenia. Augustus was now left with only one male descendant,
Agrippa Postumus, youngest son of Julia, and still a boy. Four months later, Augustus formally adopted
Tiberius, a clear sign that Tiberius would be his principal successor. But for the moment, the Emperor had other
plans in mind: Tiberius was needed in Germany. In the ensuing campaigns, the valorous General
Tiberius quashed another rebellion, then moved to Bohemia, Pannonia and Dalmatia to deal
with further insurrections. When he was about to celebrate his well-won
triumphs, news reached Rome of the terrible catastrophe at Teutoburg Forest, 9CE, in which
Germanic tribes had annihilated the three legions of General Varo. Tiberius returned to Germany for two more
expeditions, alongside his nephew Germanicus, but Augustus had wisely decided not to expand
further into those lands. A reluctant Emperor
In the year 14 CE, Tiberius was about to depart for yet another campaign when he was summoned
by Augustus. The terminally ill Emperor asked him not to
leave. It was clear to Tiberius that succession was
around the corner: this was the moment that his mother Livia had been waiting for. Augustus clearly valued Tiberius administrative
and military skills, yet he disliked his dour, sombre character. Tiberius had a quiet, inscrutable demeanour,
but could unleash retribution when least expected. After their last meeting, Augustus gasped
‘”Poor Rome, doomed to be masticated by those slow-moving jaws!’ When Augustus died, apparently Tiberius and
Livia did not break the news immediately. This is disputed, but Livia may have ordered
the assassination of the young Agrippa, the remaining living grandson of Augustus. According to this version, after Livia got
rid of the competition, Tiberius summoned the Senate and announced the death of the
Emperor. This meeting was a strange affair. Tiberius started a speech, but could not go
on, claiming that ‘grief had robbed him of his voice and that
he wished his life would also be taken’. The Senate then read Augustus’ will, in
which he made it clear that Tiberius was only his third choice of Emperor behind Gaius and
Lucius. When the Senate formally asked him if he wanted
to take the mantle, he visibly hesitated and remained silent. He did accept eventually, becoming the new
Emperor but leaving an impression that he was doing so only reluctantly. This may be true. After all, it was Livia’s main goal, not
his. He had proved to be more at ease with military
rather than civilian life and was prone to seek isolation for long periods. According to other interpretations, Tiberius
was just trying to emulate Augustus. This is exactly what Augustus would have done
— feign humility before accepting the highest possible honours. As an Emperor, Tiberius’ first act was to
rescind the allowance for hjs estranged wife Julia. The results were brutal, and poor Julia died
of malnutrition as a result. This was a typical example of Tiberius’
ability to exact cold and calculated retribution on his enemies when he needed to. His first years in power, however, were stable,
prosperous and peaceful to Roman citizens. This may have been a consequence of Tiberius
getting rid of his scheming mother Livia. According to historian Cassius Dio, Livia
did not miss a chance to declare that it was she who had made Tiberius emperor; not only
did she wish to rule in equal terms with him, but she wanted her decisions to take precedence
over his. Tiberius, who had once been a pawn in her
hand, warned Livia not to interfere in the running of the state, removing her from public
affairs. He refrained from having any future contact
with her. Tiberius initiated a series of public works,
while always keeping an eye on expenses. He tried to maintain a good relationship with
the Senate, respecting their authority. But his cold and impenetrable personality
did not gain him any friends, and he became increasingly unpopular. His polar opposite was his nephew, Germanicus,
by now also his adopted son. Germanicus was popular, well-liked and apparently
would have been the choice for Emperor in many a General’s mind. Tiberius had reason to fear a coup from Germanicus. The young officer, however, always voiced
his support of Tiberius. Bad Company
The drama escalated in 19 CE. On the 10th of October, Germanicus died in
Antioch after a brief illness. His body showed potential signs of poisoning. His wife was Agrippina the Elder, who was
also a granddaughter of Augustus. Agrippina immediately accused Tiberius of
having ordered the assassination of Germanicus. According to her, Tiberius had exploited the
enmity between Germanicus and one Gnaeus Piso, a former governor of Syria who had been ousted
by the young General. Piso was tried in Rome, and despite his appeals
to Tiberius, he was forced to commit suicide. Forced suicide was a form of capital punishment
sometimes used in Imperial Rome, another notable victim being philosopher Seneca during Nero’s
reign. Agrippina was not satisfied with Piso’s
execution. She made it clear to the Emperor that with
Germanicus dead, her three sons, Nero Caesar, Drusus Caesar, and Gaius Julius Caesar, also
had a claim to the throne. True to character, Tiberius did not react
initially. He even took a liking to the boys. But in Suetonius’ version of the events,
he took action at a later stage. He first brought about all sorts of false
charges against the two eldest, Nero and Drusus. When they dared complain, he had them marked
as public enemies by the Senate. This led to their incarceration and eventual
death: Nero was forced to commit suicide and Drusus starved to death. The boy was so hungry that he had started
eating his mattress. Of Germanicus’ sons, only Gaius would survive,
and he was actually welcomed into Tiberius’ household. Gaius used to wear a miniature uniform, while
on campaign with his father, hence his surname: ‘little boots,’ or Caligula. We have a video about him, by the way, so
go and watch it later! Just not quite yet. There are more conspiracies coming. The death of Germanicus brought a change to
Tiberius’ personality; according to Cassius Dio, he became increasingly cruel
“… toward those who were suspected of plotting against him he was inexorable…slaves
were tortured to make them testify against their own masters…” Suetonius agreed with this change of demeanour:
“Tiberius did so many other wicked deeds under the pretext of reforming public morals,
but in reality (it was) to gratify his lust for seeing people suffer.” During this period, Tiberius became best buddies
with an officer of the legion, Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Eventually, he appointed him Prefect, or commander,
of the Praetorian Guard. This was the elite corps tasked with protecting
the Emperor and his family. Sejanus grew in standing, becoming the chief
adviser and confidante of Tiberius. Tiberius gradually withdrew from the day to
day running of the Empire, delegating many decisions to Sejanus. Sejanus started seeing himself as the next
Emperor and began to view Drusus, son of Tiberius and Vipsania, as a natural rival. In order to strike at him, Sejanus hit Drusus
where it hurt the most: he began an affair with his wife, Livillia. Drusus died in 23 CE by poisoning. It is very likely that he was killed by Sejanus
and Livillia. This was not immediately evident, though,
and the grieving Tiberius launched a harsh investigation to find the culprits. He became so enraged and ruthless that according
to Suetonius he once mistook a friendly visitor from Rhodes as a key witness. He had him seized, interrogated, even tortured. When it was clear that the poor guy had just
popped in to say ‘Ave’ {Ahh-Vay}, Tiberius had him executed to silence
the scandal. By 25 CE Sejanus had grown the strength of
the Praetorian Guard to 12000 men and had golden statues of him erected around Rome. Next, he embarked on a series of treason trials
to weed out any possible opposition. By this point, many Romans were living in
fear. At Livillia’s insistence, Sejanus divorced
his wife and left his children; the couple then appealed to Tiberius for permission to
marry, but Tiberius denied the request. A Second Exile
Tiberius grew more and more distant from the affairs of the Empire. As he had done years before, he decided to
withdraw into a second virtual exile, this time moving to the isle of Capri in 26 CE. This did not quell his thirst for blood, according
to Suetonius. I should specify that Suetonius himself used
as sources the memoirs of Agrippina the Younger. Who was she? She was the daughter of Germanicus, so her
writings may have been kind of anti-Tiberius … During the years in Capri, Tiberius had
countless alleged conspirators thrown to their death from the rocks high above the sea. In one famous incident, a fisherman with a
huge mullet visited Tiberius. Not the hairstyle, the fish. He was bringing the fish as a present. Tiberius was so scared and paranoid that he
ordered his guards to rub the fisherman’s face with the mullet. The scales skinned it raw, and the poor guy
shouted: ‘Thank Heaven, I did not bring Caesar that
huge crab I also caught!’ Tiberius sent for the crab and had it used
in the same way. In the year 29, news reached Tiberius that
his mother Livia had died, aged 86. She had been suffering from a long illness,
but Tiberius had never visited her. Even in death, he basically ignored her, and
made no arrangements at all in her honour, except for the bare minimum: a public funeral
… which he did not even attend! This is according to historian Tacitus – another
guy we should take cum grano salis [Caption: with a pinch of salt]
As he was staunchly pro-Senate and wary of Imperial power. He wrote that Tiberius excused himself from
the funeral “… on the ground of the pressure of business.” Two years later, Caligula moved to Capri to
live with Tiberius. If the reports from our ancient historians
are true, then we could say that the future mad ruler Caligula may have learned a trick
or two from the Tiberius Playbook of Cruelty. But in some cases, his ruthlessness may have
had a point. In the same year, 31 CE, Sejanus and Livillia
announced their betrothal – they would go ahead, with or without Imperial permission. Livillia’s mother, Antonia Minor, wrote
to Tiberius and informed him that the lovebirds had a plan to murder him and young Caligula. Tiberius rushed back to Rome and appeared
before the Senate, demanding that Sejanus be subject to trial. Sejanus was lured to the Senate and forced
to answer to the accusations of conspiracy to commit murder. Under the Emperor’s influence, it was a
swift trial: the Praetorian was found guilty and condemned to death. Not just any death. Sejanus was strangled and thrown onto an assembled
mob, who tore his limbs apart and fed his remains to the dogs. His sons and followers were also executed. Livillia was also put to death, with what
I now believe to be Tiberius’ favourite modus operandi: starvation. Her own mother Antonia made sure she did not
eat anything. Legacy
The reclusion of Tiberius in Capri became a full-time status in his later years. Now in his 70s and increasingly ill, he attempted
to return to Rome only twice after the trial of Sejanus. In the first occasion, he was travelling by
trireme up the Tiber, but upon seeing the City walls from a distance, he ordered the
captain to return to Capri. In the second occasion, he was travelling
by land when he noticed that his pet snake had been eaten alive by ants. Interpreting this as an omen of a mob rebellion,
he retreated once again. Tiberius died on March 16, in the year 37
CE, at the age of 77. It may have been illness; it may have been
poison administered by a new Praetorian prefect, with help from Caligula. Upon hearing of his death, the Romans, according
to Suetonius, yelled “To the Tiber with Tiberius”
Cassius Dio, in a more balanced account, simply wrote:
“Thus Tiberius, who possessed a great many virtues, and a great many vices, and followed
each set in turn as if the other did not exist, passed away in this fashion on the twenty-sixth
day of March.” Apart from getting the date wrong, Cassius
summarises the lights and shadows of the reign and personality of Tiberius. As we have seen today, Tiberius had a cold
and calculating intellect. He could be a good leader of men in the field,
but was often uneasy when it came to networking with the political class. He alternated periods of intense, paranoid
and psychotic activity with total withdrawal from society. He was a puzzle within a mystery to his contemporaries,
but can we do something more to better understand him? Two of his successors, Caligula and Claudius,
have been analysed and diagnosed as potentially having a bipolar disorder. Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius were all related,
having common ancestors in Livia and Tiberius senior. Considering that this disorder can be hereditary,
could it be possible that also Tiberius had the same affliction? I would not offer any conclusion — I’ll
leave it to you in the comments. I do hope you like today’s video. Please like, share and subscribe and as usual
… thank you for watching!

10 Replies to “Tiberius: The Reluctant Emperor

  1. Charlemagne never really "quashed" the Saxons, though, did he? A year before his death, they rose up again, causing trouble. It wasn't under Widukind anymore, but Saxony was never happy with Frankish rule.

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  3. Vipsania wasn’t the daughter of Julia, she was the daughter of Agrippa’s first wife Pomponia Caecilia Attica. Vipsania was born in 36 B.C so she was 17 when she married Tiberius is 19 B.C

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