Tiberius: the man who didn't want to be emperor

Roman statue on the Isle of Capri
Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/capri-roman-italy-4895720/

Tiberius was born on November 16th in 42 BC and reigned as Emperor from AD 14 until his death in AD 37. 


During his time in power, he struggled with the constant comparison that was made between himself and his predecessor, Augustus.


The pressure may have been too much for him and he became a recluse, potentially destabalising the new peace that had been created under the imperial system of government.

Early life

Tiberius was born into a patrician family with close ties to the Julii Caesares, the first Imperial family of Rome.


His father, Tiberius Claudius Nero, had served as quaestor under Julius Caesar during the civil war with Pompey the Great.


Following Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BC, Tiberius' father returned to political life in Rome under the Second Triumvirate and became praetor in 42 BC.


In that same year, young Tiberius was born, but the family had to go into temporary exile from Rome because Tiberius' father supported Mark Antony against Octavian when the Second Triumvirate broke down.


During the fighting between these two men, Tiberius and his family. For three years, they lived in different parts of Italy and Sicily to avoid Octavian.

Upon returning to Rome, Octavian (who would later become emperor Augustus) is said to have fallen in love with Tiberius' mother, Livia Drusilla, on first sight.


Tiberius' father was forced to divorce his wife so that Octavian could marry Octavian instead.


So, when Tiberius was almost four years old, his parents divorced, and Octavian became his stepfather.


Livia and Tiberius would move into Octavian's household while Tiberius' father would die six years later. 


The young Tiberius, who would be nine years old at the time, would deliver the eulogy at the funeral.

Joining the imperial household

Livia and Octavian married in 39 BC, while she was pregnant with a second child to her first husband.


She gave birth to Tiberius' brother, named Nero Claudius Drusus, in 38 BC.


In 31 BC, Augustus defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Following their defeat, Mark Antony and Cleopatra both committed suicide, which left Octavian as the most powerful man in the Roman world.


Then, in 27 BC, Octavian was granted the title of 'Augustus' to Octavian, which effectively made him the first emperor of Rome.


The change from a republic to an empire meant a great deal for the political power in Rome.


The emperor now held supreme power and, rather than seeking election every year to gain prominence, individuals had to seek the approval of Augustus himself.

Despite his mother's marriage to Augustus in 39 BC, Tiberius was not considered to be the heir to the imperial throne. 


Augustus wanted a direct blood relative to promote to the position. He turned to his nephew (the son of his sister, Octavia), Marcellus, to be the heir.


To further strengthen the blood claim, the 23-year-old Marcellus was forced to marry Augustus' 14-year-old daughter, Julia in 25 BC.


Unfortunately, Marcellus fell ill and died in the same year, once more leaving the emperor without an heir.


In 23 BC, Augustus fell ill and the Roman world worried that upon his death, their empire would once more fall back into civil war.


Thankfully, Augustus recovered and had time to decide on a new succession plan. He married his daughter again, but this time to his best friend, Marcus Agrippa, in 21 BC.


Julia was 18 years old, and Agrippa was 42.

Agrippa and Julia had five children, two of which were boys, which made them Augustus' grandsons: male blood relatives of the emperor.


The first was born in 19 BC and named Gaius Caesar, while the second, Lucius Caesar, was born in 17 BC.


Augustus formally adopted his two grandsons, legally making them his sons, in order to solidify the succession plan. 


Agrippa died in 12 BC. Augustus mourned the death of his old friend but was confident that his sons would take the throne.


However, tragedy would strike both children. In AD 2, the 19-year-old Lucius fell ill and died while on a journey to Spain.


Then, around 18 months later, in AD 4, the 23-year-old Gaius was injured during a battle in Armenia.


The wound became infected, and he also died. Neither of the two men had produced a male son either, which effectively ended the Augustan blood line.


By this point, Augustus had no more male blood relatives remaining. So, he had to look to his adopted children to take over from him.


This is where Tiberius, and his brother Drusus, finally became important.

Becoming heir

Thankfully, Augustus had invested in the political and military experience of both men. in 24 BC, Tiberius had become quaestor with Augustus' support.


He had also served time in the army in 20 BC under Agrippa as part of a miliary campaign in Armenia.


In 19 BC, Tiberius married Vipsania Agrippina, the daughter of Agrippa. The two seemed to genuinely love each other and they had one child together.


Tiberius served on military campaign in Germany with his brother Drusus, and then became consul in Rome in 13 BC.


However, following the death of Agrippa in 12 BC, Augustus ordered Tiberius to divorce Agrippina and marry his daughter Julia.


Tiberius is said to have deeply upset by the order but complied as Augustus deemed it politically necessary.

Then, in 9 BC, Tiberius' brother Drusus died after falling from a horse. Tiberius was sent back to Germany to continue his military campaign, but by the end of 7 BC, he had had enough.


In 6 BC, to the shock of many, Tiberius announced his retirement from the military and politics and moved to the island of Rhodes to relax.


However, when news had arrived of the deaths of Augustus' grandsons in AD 2 and AD 4, the imperial household was in crisis.


Tiberius was the only person left who could take the place of the aging Augustus. Tiberius was ordered to end his retirement and return to Rome.


Tiberius was immediately adopted as Augustus' son and declared the imperial heir. To ensure future succession, Tiberius had to adopt his nephew, the son of his brother Drusus, known as Germanicus.


Tiberius was then assigned the same tribunician power as Augustus. So, by AD 13, Tiberius had exactly the same power and authority as Augustus, which essentially made him co-emperor.

Becoming emperor

Augustus finally died in AD 14 and the 52-year-old Tiberius was at his villa in Campania when he received the news. 


He returned to Rome where the Senate confirmed him as the new emperor. 


However, in his speech to the Senate, Tiberius indicated that he was only becoming emperor reluctantly.


He mentioned several times that he intended to allow the Senate to be the main decision-making body in the empire.


Despite these comments, Tiberius did accept the role and took Augustus' powers.

Death of Germanicus

However, when Tiberius became emperor, the Roman legions in Germania revolted.


They were upset about missing back-pay. Tiberius' heir, Germanicus, was sent north with more troops to quell the uprising.


With surprising diplomatic skill, Germanicus convinced the revolting troops to join him on a military invasion of Germanic tribal areas with a promise of keeping whatever goods they captured.


This invasion was a military success and, in AD 17, Germanicus was awarded a military triumph through the streets of Rome.


As a propaganda victory, this was also a success. The Romans grew to love the young, successful, military commander, and Tiberius' succession seemed secured.


However, in AD 19, Tiberius' much-loved and popular nephew died suddenly of illness.


There were rumours that the Roman governor of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, had poisoned him, and during his trial, Piso committed suicide.


The death of Germanicus, and a few years later his own son, was a great blow to Tiberius.


He was so grief-stricken that during the years AD 22 to 25, he gradually withdrew from public life and political involvement.

Retreat to Capri

As Tiberius got older, he became more reclusive and paranoid. In AD 26, he once more entered a form of retirement and began living on the island of Capri, off the coast of Italy.


He built himself a villa on the island and surrounded himself with personal favourites and entertainers. He would remain there for the rest of his reign.

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Sejanus conspiracy

Tiberius left the city of Rome in charge of a man named Lucius Aelius Sejanus. 


Sejanus had become the Praetorian Prefect in AD 15, which was the military commander of the elite military unit called the Praetorian Guard.


This unit was tasked with being the emperor's bodyguard and for ensuring peace in the city of Rome. 


In AD 18, Tiberius had set up a permanent camp for the praetorians within the city walls of Rome which housed up to 9000 soldiers.


As Tiberius gradually removed himself from the expectations of his role, he began to rely more and more on Sejanus to do the job.


When Tiberius retired to Capri, Sejanus was now the most powerful man in Rome.

Initially, Sejanus appeared to act as Tiberius' spokesperson in Rome. Whenever the emperor wanted to communicate with the Senate, he would send a letter to Sejanus.


If Tiberius wanted an update on what was happening in the city, Sejanus would write a letter back.


This made the Praetorian Prefect very powerful: he was in charge of what people heard from Tiberius and was the only person's perspective that Tiberius heard in return.


So, after AD 29, Sejanus began to act separately from Tiberius' direct orders. The Roman people assumed it was by Tiberius' command, and Tiberius was never told about Sejanus' actions because it wasn't in his letters.

Sejanus launched trials against senators and rich enemies in Rome. This allowed him to increase his own power and wealth.


Even Germanicus' widow and children were exiled from Rome in AD 30, followed shortly after by their deaths.


Then, in AD 31, Sejanus sought to overthrow Tiberius and become emperor himself.


However, other people finally got to Tiberius and warned him of the plot. Sejanus was summoned to the Senate where a letter from Tiberius was read out which ordered the immediate execution of Sejanus.


As a result, Sejanus was arrested and executed in AD 31.

Later years

The Sejanus affair seemed to have significantly impacted Tiberius and he grew distrustful of people, and often doubted their honestly.


Tiberius' later years were marked by paranoia, cruelty, and suspicion. He suspected everyone around him of conspiracies against him and had many people put to death or exiled.


He also had a habit of falsely accusing people of crimes they did not commit in order to have them put to death. 


Tiberius died on March 16th in AD 37 at the age of 77. His death was most likely due to natural causes.


However, some historians believe that he may have been killed by the new prefect of the Praetorian guard, Nevius Sutorius Macor. 


Tiberius had not invested as much effort into securing his succession as Augustus had. However, upon his death, Caligula became the emperor of Rome.


When Tiberius died in AD 37, Rome was a very different place than it had been when he first became emperor.


Augustus had built an empire that had centred on his own power and authority. However, Tiberius had been happy to hand power back to the Senate.


As a result, when he died, there was confusion about where the true power in the empire lay: with the emperor or the Senate. 


For the next seventy years, there would be ongoing tension and conflict between the Senate and the emperor, as each one tried to reassert itself as the supreme authority in Rome.

Further reading