The Troubled Reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius

The Troubled Reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius

Patrick Lynch - August 1, 2017

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.

Early Life

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 Troubled Reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius
Tiberius once again as Jupiter.

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.

The Troubled Reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius
Busts of Livia and Tiberius. Pinterest

A Reluctant Leader

Tiberius had never shown any level of excitement about becoming the ruler of Rome. His mother, Livia, on the other hand, was ecstatic that her son had absolute power. There is a suggestion that Livia had a hand in the death of Augustus, but this notion appears to be speculative. Certainly, Livia wanted a share in the running of the Empire, and there is a possibility that she had Agrippa Postumus, the last surviving grandson of Augustus, murdered without Tiberius’ knowledge.

According to Cassius Dio, Livia was not content to share power with the Emperor; she wanted to take precedence over him because she had made him Emperor. Eventually, Tiberius grew tired of her interference and removed her from public affairs. There is even a suggestion that he exiled himself to get away from her. It is telling that when she died in 29 AD, Tiberius did not attend the funeral.

False Promise

For a man that didn’t want to become emperor in the first place, Tiberius started in encouraging fashion. In his youth, he was an outstanding military commander and also enjoyed an excellent administrative career. By 6 BC, he was on the cusp of accepting command in the East and becoming the second most powerful man in Rome. However, he retired to Rhodes and only returned to Rome when summoned by Augustus.

Tiberius improved the civil services and strengthened Rome’s economy. Initially, he aimed to play a similar role to Augustus; Tiberius hoped to come across as the humble public servant who only wanted to serve the state. However, he lacked the self-confidence and prestige of his predecessor, and his orders came across as being rather vague. The result was confusion in the Senate. Add in Tiberius’ dour, introspective and melancholic character, and you had an emperor that quickly became unpopular with the Senate and the people.

In the increasingly paranoid mind of Tiberius, his adopted son Germanicus was becoming a threat. However, Germanicus silenced opponents of his adopted father and was vocal in his support of the Emperor. The young commander did an excellent job of dealing with the mutiny of Roman legions in Pannonia and Germania who rebelled after they didn’t receive bonuses promised by Augustus. Germanicus rallied the men and brought them on a short campaign into the Germanic territory. He invited them to take whatever booty they wanted during conquests.

The already popular Germanicus earned even more acclaim for these actions, and he celebrated a triumph in Rome in 17 AD; the first full triumph since Augustus’ in 29 BC. The following year, he was given control of the Empire’s territory in the East. However, he died suddenly in 19 AD from an illness. Some historians believe that Tiberius ordered the death of Germanicus via poisoning to ensure that his son Drusus could become the new heir. When Drusus died in 23 AD, Tiberius’ succession plans were thrown into chaos; the deaths of Germanicus and Drusus also changed the Emperor’s personality for the worse.

The Troubled Reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius
Tiberius’ fortress on Capri. Curbed

The Island Emperor

By 23 AD, Tiberius’ successors were Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar, the two sons of Germanicus. According to Cassius Dio, Tiberius became increasingly cruel and saw enemies everywhere. He even tortured slaves to death to force them to testify against their masters. Bizarrely, he would pretend to mourn those who died at his behest while continuing to hold grudges against those who were not purged.

In 26 AD, Tiberius had enough of Rome and moved to Capri. He left the daily running of the Empire in the hands of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus was, by all accounts, a disreputable character who used every trick in the book to gain power. He reportedly had an affair with Livillia, the wife of Drusus (Tiberius’ son), and perhaps had a hand in the young man’s death since Drusus’ wife poisoned him.

While Tiberius remained in Capri, Sejanus began taking steps towards absolute power. His request to marry Livillia was denied by the Emperor, but he grew the Praetorian Guard to a formidable force of 12,000. His next move was to murder any potential rivals. His modus operandi was to claim an opponent was guilty of maiestas (treason). Sejanus eliminated Nero Caesar by ordering him to commit suicide and Drusus Caesar by starvation. By 31 AD, Sejanus was a consul and was hoping to gain the tribunician power that Drusus held in the year before he died.

As a result of Sejanus’ machinations, Gaius (Caligula), the remaining son of Germanicus, was the only heir left in the picture. Sejanus moved to get rid of him too, but it proved to be a fatal error. Tiberius’ sister-in-law, Antonia Minor, wrote to the Emperor and told him of Sejanus’s intention to kill him and Gaius. The Emperor returned from exile and summoned Sejanus to the Senate under false pretenses. Once there, he was forced to answer the allegations. He was found guilty and strangled; then his limbs were torn from his body and fed to a pack of starving dogs. Sejanus’ sons and followers were also executed, and Livillia was forced to starve to death.

The Final Years

Tacitus claimed that Tiberius ordered a large number of executions; a view challenged by modern historians. According to Edward Togo Salmon, only 52 people were accused of treason throughout the Emperor’s entire reign. Moreover, only half were executed, and of the four innocent men who died according to Salmon, the Senate shouldered more of the blame than Tiberius.

Whatever happened after the death of Sejanus, Tiberius’ reputation was ruined and he retreated to Capri once again; he left the Empire in the hands of the bureaucracy established by his predecessor. Caligula and Tiberius Gemellus emerged as the only viable successors, and the latter was ruled out due to his young age. There was a cursory attempt made at giving Caligula the role of quaestor and thus offer some credibility to his future role as Emperor.

News of Tiberius’ death was heard on March 16, 37 AD and Caligula, who was in the Emperor’s villa at the time, was proclaimed the new ruler of Rome. However, Tiberius was apparently still alive, and there is a suggestion that Caligula ordered the death of Tiberius to ensure he became the new Emperor. Within a few months, he had Gemellus executed and went on to become one of the most notorious emperors in Roman history.

As for what went on in Tiberius’ villa at Capri, there are rumors abound. According to Suetonius, the Emperor engaged in all manner of sexual depravity including child molestation. In reality, Suetonius’ account is probably an exaggeration of what happened. Other reports claim that Tiberius lived on Capri with a handful of people and sought the companionship of Greek intellectuals.


Sources For Further Reading:

ThoughtCo – Biography of Tiberius

Ancient Origins – Livia Drusilla: Imperial Wife of Rome and Emperor Maker

Classical Wisdom – Tiberius: Great Emperor or Monster?

History Extra – What Was The Roman Empire’s Greatest Defeat? It Might Be Teutoburg Forest In AD 9

Smithsonian Magazine – The Ambush That Changed History

History Extra – In The Footsteps Of Germanicus – A Roman General’s Journey To Egypt

Penn State University – The Fall of Tiberius: Sejanus

University Of Nottingham – On This Day In AD 31 The Praetorian Prefect Sejanus Was Executed

University Of Nottingham – On This Day In AD 41, The Roman Emperor Caligula Was Murdered In Rome