Among the pantheon of the early Roman emperors, Tiberius hold pride of place as the most perverted. As a young man, amidst the prying eyes of the capital, he was relatively restrained. It was only during his self-imposed exile in the Villa of Jupiter on the island of Capri (where millions of tourists still flock every year) where he unleashed his depravity. The walls of the imperial palace were awash with pornographic imagery, much like that still on display inside the brothel (lupanar) in Pompeii. And with pornography as his backdrop, Tiberius would command his “tight bums”—groups of young boys whose “talents” are clear from the name—to perform threesomes in front of him in order to stimulate his flagging libido.
From sexually deprived to simply sadistic, during banquets Tiberius would fill his drinking companions with vast quantities of wine before tying ligatures around their penises, preventing them from urinating. But it was for pedophilia that Tiberius was most notorious. He trained infants he called his “little fish” to swim between his thighs when he took a bath and nibble on his genitalia. And that’s not even the most horrendous. We’re also told that he would take newborn babies from their mothers and hold them to his genitals as if to replicate the mother’s breast.
He buggered two boys during a sacrificial ceremony on the island, and when they complained he had their legs broken. He also sexually assaulted aristocratic women, causing one woman, Mallonia, such trauma that she was driven to suicide. In old age, he was hairy and pungent, and theatrical audiences would taunt him by chanting “the old goat is licking the old does’ asses”. Given that in Latin the word for goat is caprea, contemporary references to Tiberius’s twisted pleasure palace on Capri as “the old goat’s garden” is a pun that wouldn’t have been lost on anyone.
We’ll never know exactly to what extent these stories about Tiberius’s sexual depravity were accurate. There is, undoubtedly, a kernel of truth; the weight of sources and their cohesion make complete fabrication extremely unlikely. But Tiberius was hated by the Roman elite—far more so than his predecessor Augustus had been. And we’d do well to bear in mind that it was the Roman elite, their tradition coming down to us in the writings of Tacitus and Cassius Dio, who wrote the histories.
Suetonius is the source of the most deplorable information. He worked at the court of Hadrian around the end of the first century until being dismissed on murky grounds (probably for having an affair with the emperor’s wife, Sabina). It’s for this reason that his early biographies from Caesar to Nero are full, detailed and brimming with primary sources—letters, quotes, speeches—while the rest are shorter and much more vague. His “Life of Tiberius” was written while still at court, when he still had access to letters, memoirs and other court documents. And despite the clear bias, the disturbing truth is that Suetonius probably captures much more of the man than previously thought.
Also Read: The Troubled Reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius.