The Troubled Reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius
The Troubled Reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius

The Troubled Reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius

Patrick Lynch - August 1, 2017

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