Tiberius - Roman Emperor (42 BC - 37 AD) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Tiberius - Roman Emperor (42 BC - 37 AD)

0 Conversations

The shield of the History, Philosophy and Spirituality faculty of the h2g2 University.
The Julio-Claudian Emperors
Augustus | Tiberius | Caligula | Claudius | Nero

Tiberius Claudius Nero was the second Roman Emperor, and as such the first 'outsider' to take over the system that Augustus had set up. It is commonly believed that he was not very skilled at stabilising Augustus' Empire, though whether this is in fact true or rather a result of the biased account of Tacitus1 is not clear. The fact remains, however, that Tiberius was considered a last resort to succeed Augustus, and his mental imbalance and general lack of interest in the Empire resulted in a highly disorganised reign.

Pre-Imperial Life

Tiberius was born in 42 BC, the son of Livia Drusilla and Tiberius Claudius Nero. Both his parents belonged to prominent Roman families that were very involved in the upper-class public sphere, so it was taken somewhat for granted that Tiberius would grow up to a career in the public eye. That future was assured when, in about 38 BC, his mother divorced her husband and married Augustus, who adopted the young Tiberius. Tiberius began to carry out public duties from a young age, making appearances and riding in triumphs as his adoptive father took over the state in 29 BC.

As Tiberius grew up he was advanced quickly through the chain of command. He assumed various public offices, from judge to provincial governor, at an unprecedented young age. He also began a happy marriage to a woman called Vipsania, and at about the same time was granted the consulship — the highest public office available to a Roman citizen (other than that of Emperor).

But Augustus was not satisfied with Tiberius' achievements thus far, and required that Tiberius divorce his wife and marry Julia, Augustus' only daughter, adopting her children in the process. In this way, Augustus intended to solidify Tiberius' connections to the Imperial family, for it was Julia's sons whom Augustus intended to be his successors. Tiberius was frustrated by the enforced marriage to Julia, and it is believed that he still attempted to see Vipsania. When their affair came to light, much scandal ensued, and in the aftermath Tiberius withdrew from public life and went to live in Rhodes, accompanied by a few friends.

Augustus was insulted by Tiberius' desertion of his duties, and removed him from all positions of power. By this time, though, many of Augustus' options for a successor had died. Tiberius, as a last resort, was recalled to Rome in 2 AD. Augustus slowly built up Tiberius' power, so that eventually the power was shared equally by both men. It was hoped that, when Augustus did die, the transfer of power would be smooth.

Rise to Power

When Augustus died in 14 AD, the Senate convened in order to formally transfer power entirely to Tiberius. But the situation proved a difficult one to get around. Tiberius, not wanting to seem overbearing, pretended not to be interested in assuming sole power. This confused the Senate considerably. One of the Senators was forced to ask Tiberius point-blank if he was planning to be Emperor before the façade finally fell and Tiberius just got on with it. But the relationship between the Emperor and the Senate remained troubled. Tiberius seemed to expect the Senate to anticipate his requests and act on them. The Senate was baffled by this unreasonable expectation, and Tiberius was further baffled by their apparent incapability to act on it.

On top of everything else, mutinies were sprouting in the provinces — particularly in the Rhine area in present-day Germany. There was little money in the public treasury, and the taxes and reduction of public spending that Tiberius was forced to introduce made him unpopular very quickly. Tiberius had been favouring his nephew2 Germanicus, who was Augustus' choice for the next Emperor. But when Germanicus died while campaigning in the Rhine area in 19 AD, it was believed that Tiberius had poisoned him. Germanicus had been very popular among the Roman people and this rumour did nothing to help Tiberius' chances. To be fair, Tiberius did his best to mend the circumstances, elevating his own son Drusus as a potential successor, but it was now difficult for him to please the people and his actions continued to make matters worse.

Tiberius' Reign

In 23 AD Drusus died and (partly as a result) Tiberius began to establish himself as a tyrant. In an effort to root out the 'murderer' of Drusus3 a total of 63 treason trials took place. Many false denunciations and wild rumours resulted in the execution or enforced suicide of prominent citizens. And then Tiberius made another poor choice, which more or less spelled his defeat as a decent imperial candidate.

The 'Rule' of Sejanus

Lucius Aelius Sejanus4 was already a prominent figure when he became Tiberius' most trusted adviser in the early 20s. Sejanus was the Praetorian Prefect5 and as such was in a position that held great authority. He first began to undermine the Emperor when, in 23 AD, he embarked upon a scandalous relationship with Drusus' wife, Livilla. After Drusus died, Sejanus asked for Tiberius' permission to marry Livilla — which, due to previous marital ties, would effectively make Sejanus Tiberius' son. The permission was refused, but Sejanus was not discouraged from his attempts to gain power. In 26 he was able to persuade Tiberius to retire to his villa on Capri6, leaving Sejanus in sole charge. Granted the command of the armies and all of Tiberius' influence, Sejanus exacted a petty revenge on many of the Senators and their families, persecuting some for fabricated crimes and forcing the rest to bow down to him. By 31, Sejanus had done away with several members of the Imperial family and had gained permission to become betrothed to Livilla's daughter. Now Sejanus' connection to the Imperial line was assured, and by all accounts Tiberius began to treat Sejanus as a potential successor.

The Decline and Fall

Later that year, everything was turned on its head when Tiberius sent a letter to the Senate denouncing Sejanus as a traitor, accusing him of the murder of Drusus (which Sejanus had supposedly done in order to better carry on his affair with Livilla) and asking that he be arrested. The Senate was confused at Tiberius' request, since as far as they knew Sejanus was still the Emperor's favourite. But the Praetorian Guard, whom Sejanus had once commanded, saw where their duty lay and arrested Sejanus. He was executed shortly thereafter and an imbroglio of treason trials and denunciations followed, as everyone who had in any way been linked with Sejanus was tried and for the most part executed. By 33 AD what amounted to a purge of the Roman noble houses had taken place and the Empire was looking very shaky indeed.

The End of Tiberius' Reign

Tiberius, apparently deeply depressed by the Sejanus affair, resolved to have no more to do with the public. The bureaucracy that Augustus had installed kept the Empire running while Tiberius spent his last few years poring over pornography with his nephew Gaius Caligula. It is possible that Caligula hastened Tiberius' death in 37 AD, immediately proclaiming himself Emperor thereafter. Upon Tiberius' death the people of Rome rejoiced. The Senate refused to vote him a god (as they had done for Augustus) and the Roman working classes ran through the streets demanding that Tiberius' body be thrown into the Tiber River.

1A prominent Roman historian who, a century after Tiberius' reign, wrote a fairly damning biography of the Emperor.2And adoptive son.3Tiberius was unwilling to attribute the death to natural causes.4Classical Latin would likely favour the spelling 'Seianus', but as he is known primarily as 'Sejanus' that is how he will be referred to here.5The commander of the Praetorian Guard, a special regiment of the army loyal only to the Emperor.6He would remain there for the rest of his reign.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

There are no Conversations for this Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more