Ruling over such a tract of territory as vast as the Roman Empire is challenging enough; doing so when your predecessor is regarded as one of the greatest emperors ever is especially daunting. This is the situation Tiberius walked into in 14 AD when he succeeded the legendary Emperor Augustus. Although he had excellent military credentials, Tiberius went on to have an unsuccessful reign. His last years were spent in exile on an island where he would reportedly murder anyone he didn’t like by having them thrown off a cliff.
Tiberius Claudius Nero was born on November 16, 42 BC. His childhood was a difficult one as his mother quickly became estranged from his father. The couple divorced soon after Tiberius’ birth and in 39 BC, his mother, Livia Drusilla, married the future Emperor Augustus. Although this ultimately placed him in line to the throne, he was by no means a favorite of Augustus.
In fact, he was fourth in line (some historians say fifth) behind Augustus’s two grandsons Lucius and Gaius and Admiral Agrippa. Tiberius married Vipsania Agrippa (daughter of the famous Admiral) in 19 BC. By all accounts, the couple was in love, but in 12 BC, Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce the pregnant Vipsania and marry his daughter Julia who was recently widowed. Tiberius hated his new wife, but she fell afoul of Augustus who sent her into exile. Julia died from starvation in 14 AD.
The Accidental Emperor
A series of deaths moved Tiberius up the ladder in terms of becoming Emperor. There is a suggestion that Augustus wanted his nephew M. Claudius Marcellus as his successor, but Marcellus died in 23 BC. Agrippa was the next candidate and married Julia; she bore him five children. Augustus clearly groomed Agrippa for power as the admiral received tribunician power for five years which was renewed in 13 BC. However, Agrippa died the following year aged 50.
Gaius, born in 20 BC, and Lucius, born in 17 BC, became next in line. Alas, Lucius died from illness in 2 AD, and Gaius also succumbed to illness in 4 AD. Reluctantly, Augustus turned to Tiberius as there was no alternative. He adopted Tiberius in 4 AD with the words: “This I do for reasons of state.” Tiberius was given tribunician powers for 10 years and adopted his nephew, Germanicus as his heir and successor.
Despite his new found status, Tiberius left Rome to campaign in Germany. He spent three years putting down rebellions in Illyricum and Pannonia. After achieving success, his next step was to restore the Rhine frontier after the disaster of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. In 13 AD, Tiberius’ constitutional powers were restored on equal terms with the Emperor; there was now no question about Augustus’ successor. Augustus died on August 19, 14 AD. The former leader was deified, and his will was read; it confirmed Tiberius as emperor, and it became official on September 18, 14 AD.