Tiberius: The Bloodless Bureaucrat
Posted on 11th March 2023
He was a good General but never popular with his troops, an able but unappreciated administrator, a bad husband and father, a sexual sadist, and a reluctant Emperor. He was according to the historian Pliny, “the gloomiest of men.”
Tiberius Claudius Nero was born in Rome on 16 November, 42 BC. Both his father Tiberius Nero and mother Livia Drusilla were of the Claudian Clan one of the oldest and most respected in the city, but they had chosen the wrong side in the Civil Wars, first in opposition to Julius Caesar and then later his great-nephew Octavian; and by the time Tiberius was born his parents were virtually penniless surviving on the family name alone and the goodwill of friends.
Considered pretty, if unfashionably thin and small bosomed Livia Drusilla nonetheless had a sharp intelligence and a caustic wit men found attractive. One of those men was Octavian Caesar, the soon to be Emperor Augustus. He was not only attracted to her wit but could also see the political dividend that would derive from a union with one of the noblest families in the city while Livia could only see a grim future for herself and her children in the current circumstance. As such, when Octavian demanded she divorce her husband and marry him she did so without hesitation.
Despite Tiberius only being three years old at the time of the marriage his new stepfather never grew to like him and their relationship would always be a fractious one. His mother was to spend the rest of her life promoting her son’s cause and though Augustus did nothing to hinder his advance he worked him hard with little thanks while all along looking elsewhere for his eventual successor.
The young Tiberius had the standard education expected of a child born to the Roman aristocracy he studied Greek, law, rhetoric, and the manly arts; but a sullen and gloomy child he made few friends preferring study to play. He gained many merits as a result though it was never enough to satisfy the exacting standards demanded by his mother.
Livia was determined to ensure her sons, Tiberius, and his younger brother Drusus, were early promoted to positions of power and influence before their time and ahead of others more qualified. As such, by the age of just 17, Tiberius was already serving as Quaestor, an official who supervised the financial affairs of the State. Not long after he entered politics for the first time when he ran for and was elected Praetor, an official responsible for presiding over disputes between citizens and non-citizens. But he had little talent for arbitration and rarely prospered in the world of politics. His ambition was to be a serving soldier and by 20 BC he was serving under Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in his campaign against the Parthians in Syria. He was to prove himself a brave and resourceful, if somewhat unimaginative, soldier rising rapidly through the ranks.
He enjoyed his time in the army and would later fight alongside his brother Drusus in his campaign of retribution against the Germanic Tribes that followed the disaster visited upon the Roman Legions in the Teutoburg forest; together they satisfied the desire for revenge and secured the border with Germania for which Tiberius received little credit. The plaudits went to the charismatic and popular Drusus. His was at best a reflected glory.
In 19 BC Tiberius married Vipsania, the daughter of Augustus Caesar’s right hand man Agrippa and unlike many marriages among the Roman nobility it was clearly a love match. Indeed, he so adored his wife that when seven years later he was ordered by his mother, and then Augustus himself, to divorce her and marry the Emperor’s daughter Julia who had recently been left a widow by Agrippa’s death, he was plunged into what can only be described as a paroxysm of grief. He begged not to be made to divorce his wife but was given no choice and so in the summer of 11 BC and in a sulk that did not go unnoticed he married Julia, a woman he had known since childhood but now blamed for ruining his life. He could barely stand to be near her and one night horrified at the prospect of having to sleep with her he followed Vipsania home and with tears in his eyes begged her to take him back. By doing so he was not only putting his own life in danger but hers also. She refused his advances and ordered him to leave and never speak of the incident. He didn’t but even, so it did not remain a secret for long.
When Augustus learned of the visitation, he flew into a rage berating Tiberius for more than an hour in the presence of Livia who while no less scathing of her son’s behaviour intervened on his behalf in an attempt to placate her husband’s ire. She succeeded in preventing Tiberius from being punished but Vipsania was exiled from the city, and he was ordered never to see her again - he never did.
On 14 September 9 BC, Drusus, who was married to Marc Antony’s daughter Antonia, died following a fall from his horse. It had been he, not Tiberius, for whom Augustus had some affection at least despite his criticism of the Emperor in the past and his barely concealed Republican sentiments. Livia, who sought nothing less than the succession for her sons, could not truly have trusted her ambitions to his care, though she would have liked to. She may in fact have been secretly relieved at his passing given his undue influence over his brother. Indeed, Drusus may have been the only friend Tiberius ever really had and he was suitably devastated by his death.
Prone to melancholy in any case Tiberius now became very dark indeed but his depression received little sympathy from his mother and none from Augustus. He had little time for such unmanly behaviour and simply expected his stepson to couple with his daughter and produce male heirs but such was the state of their marriage that by now Julia was doing her coupling elsewhere.
Her adulterous behaviour was hardly discreet, and it seemed that the only person in Rome unaware of it was her father, but Livia would soon change that. She would notify the Emperor of his daughter’s scandalous behaviour but she would have to find a way of doing so that did not implicate her son. But then she never lacked guile.
Julia was a noted beauty, popular with the people, and was often praised for having a good heart. She had never spoken out against Tiberius (at least in public) even on those occasions when he had taken his fists to her. Her father adored her grace and charm and was devoted to her as parents often are to an only child. It would not be easy to convince him that his daughter was anything but perfect. It would also make her betrayal all the greater to bear.
Livia was assisted in her accusations by the fact that Julia’s marriage to Tiberius had always been the subject of much gossip and that there was no lack of witnesses willing to testify to events if bribed or where necessary threatened to do so.
By now Julia and Tiberius rarely saw one another and when they did it invariably resulted in a furious row and threats of dire vengeance, though they tempered their behaviour in the presence of Augustus. To friends however, Julia regularly bemoaned her husband’s lack of affection and would often comment upon his unusual sexual practices. On one occasion she even wrote to her father demanding that he order Tiberius to spend more time with her. Her plea went unanswered and so she sought affection elsewhere.
The number of Julia’s lovers were said to be infinite and were not restrained by social convention ranging from Senators to shopkeepers, to slaves, and even gladiators. Augustus who had publicly condemned promiscuity and actively promoted family values working assiduously to create the image of the Imperial Family as the model to which all other Romans should aspire (he had even legislated for marriage and against divorce) now had to face his daughter being exposed as a whore.
Brought before her father, Julia put up a spirited defence of her behaviour; she was in a loveless marriage she said, and one that had been forced upon her. Many of the accusations made against her were false and others exaggerated. Livia, she said was plotting against her. But Augustus was in a rage and not listening. Nonetheless, and despite Livia urging him to do so he would not order the execution of his own daughter. Instead, he had her exiled to the tiny island of Pandetaria where she would be denied the pleasure of male company, music, and wine. All future visitors to the island would be vetted by him personally and in a final act of vindictiveness he forced Julia’s mother, his first wife Scribonia, to join her for having given birth to a whore.
After five years on Pandetaria and numerous pleas to her father Julia was permitted to return to Italy but not Rome. Instead, she was confined to the region of Reggio Calabria and not allowed to travel freely. She never saw the city or her father again.
Tiberius was delighted by the turn of events, but he heard about it from afar having four years earlier retired from public life and departed for Rhodes. Augustus had worked Tiberius hard for many years with little praise and no thanks despite the fact he had undertaken every task whether it be presiding over disputes in the Law Courts, supervising waste disposal, or organising the City Fire Brigade with a cold efficiency that had made him indispensable. Indeed, Augustus, had become so dependent upon Tiberius to do his dirty work, had begged him to remain in Rome even to the point of feigning illness but he was sick of being the Emperor’s workhorse and in one of his sulks could not be dissuaded. Moreover, despite Julia’s very public humiliation he had been demoted in the line of succession in favour of her sons by her previous marriage, Gaius and Lucius Agrippa. As if it wasn’t bad enough being the cuckolded husband now the interests of the adulterer’s children were being promoted over his own.
It wasn’t long however, before Tiberius realised his self-imposed exile had been a mistake and it was now he who was pleading with Augustus to be allowed to return, but having learned to cope without his lugubrious step-son he refused to permit it . He also partly blamed Tiberius for the events leading to Julia’s exile and would not relent despite Livia’s constant badgering on her son’s behalf.
In AD 2 however, an opportunity arose when Lucius died in somewhat mysterious circumstances. It was said the cause was dysentery but some suspected poisoning and with Livia’s shadowy presence lurking in the background such a scenario cannot be entirely ruled out; she certainly used Lucius’s untimely demise to pressure her husband into allowing Tiberius to return which he did but only in the capacity of a private citizen. Just two years after Lucius’s death Gaius also died in similarly mysterious circumstances, drowning while on active service with the army in Armenia.
Augustus was devastated he had showered honours upon his grandsons and groomed them for the succession, now they were gone. The only remaining alternative to Tiberius and possibility of maintaining the Julian bloodline was the crude, hard-drinking, womanising, and unpopular Postumus Agrippa. He was an unpromising candidate to represent the pristine image of the Imperial Family that Augustus had so carefully cultivated over so many decades. Yet such was his distaste for his step-son that even the dissolute and debauched Postumus was preferable but not long after his promotion to heir apparent he was accused by his cousin Livilla, the daughter of Drusus and Antonia, of trying to rape her. He denied the charge but it was easily believed and his pleas of innocence fell on deaf ears.
In AD 7, as his mother had been before him Postumus was exiled, this time to the tiny island of Pianosa. No longer able to secure the Julian bloodline Augustus sank into a deep depression wandering the corridors of the Imperial Palace late into the night unable to sleep and alone despairing of his family and their wicked ways. Livia by contrast was delighted, now no one stood in the way of her son inheriting the Imperial Purple.
On 19 August AD 14, Augustus died at the venerable age of 78. He had as he declared on his deathbed found a Rome made of mud and turned it into marble. He had ruled the city for 40 years ushering in a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Rome under his rule had become a great empire - truly had it been a Golden Age.
On 18 September, the Senate formally requested that Tiberius become Emperor. He refused just as Augustus had initially done all those years before. They repeated the request desperate to avoid a power vacuum and the instability that would invariably follow. He only reluctantly relented or so it seemed, but it had been a less than sincere self-denial.
The historian Suetonius provides us with a description of Tiberius from around this time:
“Tiberius was a strong and heavily built man above average height. His shoulders and chest were broad, and his body perfectly proportioned. His left hand was more agile than his right and so strong that he could poke his finger through a freshly plucked apple or the skull of a young man. He had a freshly complexioned face but one prone to rashes. He allowed his back hair to grow beyond the nape which was a Claudian trait. His eyes were remarkably large and his gait stiff but slightly stooped. If ever he broke his usual silence to address those accompanying him, he did so with great deliberate and an eloquence of gesture.”
Tiberius wanted to be Emperor no doubt, he had earned it after all, and had already ordered the murder of Postumus so as to pave the way for it, but he was also 57 years old and tired. He wanted to rule but not govern and was happy to let the Senate do so as long as he remained the final arbiter of their decisions. Whether they were capable of doing so however, was another matter.
In the meantime, he had not forgotten Julia. She had not been permitted to attend her father’s funeral now one of the first things he did as Emperor was to sever her allowance, but this was not enough to satisfy his desire for revenge. So, he later ordered her confined to a single room of her villa and be deprived of food until she starved to death.
Before sanctioning Tiberius as his successor Augustus had insisted, he adopt his deceased brother’s son as his own. The boy who had since become a man was named Germanicus in honour of his father’s military triumphs which he would more than emulate succeeding where his father had failed in retrieving the Eagle Standards that had been lost so many years before by Publius Quintilius Varus.
Germanicus was every inch the hero, tall, blonde, blue-eyed, handsome, and easy-going. He topped the guest list at all the best parties and was so popular with his troops they had sought to make him Emperor following Augustus’s death, but he declined the opportunity to seize the crown by force declaring that he would accept the decision of the Senate and do what was best for Rome. His admirable self-denial received little thanks from his adoptive father however, who not only feared his popularity but was deeply envious of his military success. Indeed, it was only public pressure that had persuaded him to award Germanicus a Triumph. Now back in Rome he wanted him out of the city.
In AD 17, Tiberius sent Germanicus to govern Asia Minor but even now so far from Rome he feared he might use his posting to establish a power base of his own though there was little evidence to suggest such ambition; but If the Emperor’s suspicions were groundless his resentment more than made up for it and he would take every opportunity to thwart his adopted son’s attempts to govern effectively.
When on 10 October AD 19, following a short illness Germanicus died the shock was profound. It didn’t seem possible, and few believed it could have been of natural causes. Rumours soon spread that as he lay dying, he accused the Governor of Syria Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, with whom he had been in dispute, of having poisoned him. As a close personal friend and political ally of Tiberius any accusation made against Piso would inevitably implicate the Emperor.
Germanicus’s widow Agrippina, the granddaughter of Augustus was in no doubt that her husband had been murdered and that Tiberius was behind it. She even suggested that he was a usurper who had, and would, stop at nothing to prevent her sons by Germanicus who were in the direct line of succession from inheriting the throne.
When she returned to Italy with her husband’s ashes people lined the route to Rome and gathered at every stop to look upon the cortege and pay their respects, but no member of the Imperial Family was among them. Agrippina seized the opportunity to speak passionately of how they had abandoned the children of Augustus. Once back in Rome, Agrippina demanded that Piso be prosecuted and appealed directly to the people for their support. Under pressure Tiberius had little choice but to agree even though he knew that if Piso were found guilty of murdering Germanicus, then he would be seen as the man who had ordered him to do so.
To guarantee his silence Tiberius had assured Piso that he would do all he could to ensure his acquittal but when it became clear that a conviction was likely he forced him to commit suicide before a verdict was reached. Agrippina was furious that Piso had escaped justice in the Courts where the verdict against him would have put the Emperor in a bad light and confronted Tiberius on the matter but he remained calm despite the tirade and her less than respectful invective merely remarking:
“And if you are not Queen, my dear, have I then done you wrong?”
Parsimonious both in his private affairs and with the public finances the blood of the bureaucrat ran in his veins even if he hated the tedium and drudgery of it all. He was happy to leave the day-to-day administration of his Empire to the Consuls and Magistrates, but he could not tolerate them acting contrary to his wishes. He needed to form the narrative even if others wrote the text. As such, he was constantly meddling but with directives and instructions that were often vague and open to interpretation. Many took advantage of this to enrich themselves, as long as they learned the lesson that was – please the Emperor and prosper. But Tiberius was no fool, as some became rich beyond their wildest dreams, so he re-introduced the Treason Trials – what had been so artfully gained could now be just as readily lost. But he wanted done with such things, what he truly required was a factotum, someone thorough and unquestioning, but who?
There was always his mother Livia, she had expected to rule alongside her son as she had her husband and in her frustration at not being permitted to do so she would often berate Tiberius for being half the man Augustus was, reminding him “Had it not been for me you would never have become Emperor.” He would remind her that as exalted as she was, she remained merely a woman.
Their relationship only worsened over time and though he wasn’t averse to approaching his mother for advice he resented her influence and was envious of the affection that was often expressed towards her. He would refuse all requests from the Senate and elsewhere to award her further honours and denied her use of the Imperial Seal.
In AD 22, Tiberius chose to share his authority with his son Drusus better known as Castor, a sarcastic, ill-tempered, and brutal man who lacked any sense of responsibility and preferred the wine-soaked bordellos of Rome to the rarefied atmosphere of the Senate House. The fact that Tiberius, who was as dismissive of his son’s talents as he was jealous of his lifestyle, was willing to hand administrative power to someone so clearly unfit to wield it was indicative of his desperation to do so.
Yet just a year after being elevated to a position of authority Castor was found dead in his bed. There were no marks on his body, so it was assumed he had died in his sleep. Suspicions would be aroused when it emerged later that Castor’s wife Livilla had been conducting an affair with the Commander of the Praetorian Guard Lucius Aelius Sejanus. But there was to be no inquiry, Tiberius had not been greatly upset by the death of his son and in Sejanus he had at last found his socius laborum, or the partner in his labours.
A man of unlimited ambition Sejanus was more than willing to undertake the minutiae of administration and to launder the Emperor’s dirty linen for him; but he suffered a setback in his power grab when in AD 25 he was refused permission to marry Livilla, Castor’s widow and the Emperor’s niece. Wisely he chose not to contest the decision and so with the Empire in seemingly safe hands the following year Tiberius retired to the island of Capri. It cannot be said that the Roman people were sad to see him go.
At the age of 64, he no longer possessed the military bearing of his youth, he was thinner, more stooped, brooding, and with a personality that bristled with malice. His sense of humour, for what it was worth, was sarcastic, cynical, and mean-spirited. His surly presence would not be missed among the social elite of Rome, but they had not taken into account the ambition of the man who had replaced him.
Lucius Aelius Sejanus had been Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, an elite Unit of 9,000 men who provided protection for the Imperial Family for more than 20 years now he had the complete trust of the Emperor and his authority to act on his behalf. He would carry out the orders of Tiberius without demur but also manipulate events to serve his own interests, which were no less than to succeed him as Emperor. The restored Treason Trials were just one means by which he eliminated those who stood in his way.
Sejanus strictly controlled access to the Emperor, he read his letters, and carefully vetted all documentation. At the same time, he whispered poison in the old man’s ear of plots and conspiracies constantly fuelling his already acute paranoia. And the focus of that paranoia remained Agrippina who was obsessed with her status and that of her sons Drusus, Nero, and Caligula. She insisted she was the First Lady of Rome but not as long as Livia had breath in her body she wasn’t. She loathed Agrippina but as the granddaughter of Augustus she would protect her. Tiberius would not move against Agrippina while his mother lived.
On 28 September AD 29, Livia died, and Rome was plunged into mourning as shops were closed, entertainments cancelled, and people wept openly in the streets. But the Emperor was absent, so the body was preserved in expectation of his return. He did not return either to view her body as it lay in state or attend the funeral. In the end she was buried in some haste due to the dire state of the corpse. From Capri, Tiberius refused to grant her deification as requested by the Senate and later annulled her Will.
Sejanus was now free to persecute Agrippina as Tiberius wished and he set about his task with relish; Drusus and Nero were arrested and charged with treason. Both pleaded their innocence but to no avail. Drusus was afforded a swift execution, but Nero was less fortunate. Imprisoned in a cell deep below ground he was left to starve, and his body was later found slumped over his mattress where he had been trying to eat its straw.
Agrippina was taken in chains to Capri where before ordering her exile to Pandetaria (the place of her mother’s isolation so many years before) Tiberius had her so badly beaten that she was rendered unconscious and lost the sight in one eye.
Caligula who was living on Capri was left unharmed mainly because he shared the Emperor’s sexual proclivities and was willing to indulge them but he was kept a close eye on and lived in constant fear of his life.
Tiberius’s time on Capri scandalised Rome and soured his relationship both with his own family and the Roman elite. According to the historian Suetonius his life was one of ceaseless sexual depravity:
“Upon retiring to Capri, he devised a pleasance for sexual orgies: teams of wantons of both sexes selected as experts in anal intercourse copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. His bedrooms were furnished in the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with an erotic library should a performer need illustration of what was required. In Capri’s woods naked young girls and boys posing as nymphs ran wild. This was known as the Old Goat’s Garden. Furthermore, he devised nooks of lechery and had boys dressed as Pan posted in front of caverns and grottoes. He acquired a reputation for still grosser sexual depravities that one can hardly bear to tell. For example, he trained little boys (he called tiddlers) to crawl beneath and between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles.”
Those who refused to submit to his passions were brutally punished, some were castrated (after all, if they were unwilling to make their sexual organs available to the Emperor then to whom exactly would they provide relief?) while others had their arms and legs broken. Women of noble birth who rejected his advances or denied him access to their children were often humiliated before being handed over to the care of Sejanus.
Suetonius described to experience of one such woman:
“How grossly he was in the habit of abusing women of high birth is very clearly shown by the death of a certain Mallonia when she was brought to his bed and refused most vigorously to submit to his lust, he turned her over to the informers, and even when she was on trial, he did not cease to call out and ask her whether she was sorry. Finally, she left the Court and went home, where she stabbed herself while openly upbraiding the ugly old man for his obscenity.”
In Rome meanwhile, the power of the aforesaid Sejanus continued to grow. Statues of him could be seen around the city and it was impolitic in any house of merit not to have a bust of the great man prominent. Cassius Dio wrote of Sejanus:
“He was so great a person both of his excessive haughtiness and of his vast power that to put it mildly he himself seemed to be Emperor and Tiberius but an Island Potentate."
In AD 31, Sejanus was made Consul and it seemed only a matter of time before the ageing Emperor died and he replaced him. Tiberius appeared oblivious to what was going on and no one could see him without going through Sejanus first, not even members of the Imperial Family. Those who objected would see themselves subject to a treason trial. It seemed as if Sejanus’s succession was inevitable.
Tiberius was eventually alerted to Sejanus’s machinations by the Lady Antonia, the widow of his brother Drusus, who adopting a clever ruse smuggled a letter to him hidden in a book of pornographic drawings which she addressed to Caligula. It was the only way of avoiding both the censor and ensuring that Tiberius would read it.
In the letter the Lady Antonia detailed how Sejanus intended to use the Praetorian Guard to seize power in Rome upon his death and arrest the Imperial Family. She also accused him of conspiring with her daughter Livilla to murder his son Castor.
But how was Tiberius to respond, he was isolated on Capri with no Legions to call upon and uncertain as to whom he could and could not trust. If Sejanus were to suspect that Tiberius knew anything of his plans, he might seize power immediately. So, Tiberius sent dispatches to Sejanus suggesting that he intended to name him his successor while at the same time circulating letters among prominent citizens condemning him as a traitor. In the meantime, he had to find someone he could trust. He turned to Naevius Sutorius Macro, Second-in-Command of the Praetorian Guard, a man no less ambitious than Sejanus but of more limited horizons.
On 18 October AD 31, Sejanus was summoned to appear before the Senate where he expected to be notified of his elevation to the line of succession. Instead, as the proclamation was read out it quickly became apparent that he was to be denounced as a traitor. Those Senators who had applauded as he entered the auditorium now turned against him. He looked to the Praetorians present to support him, but Macro had surrounded the Senate with troops loyal to the Emperor. As the order was given for his arrest, he tried to address the House but was shouted down. He did not resist.
Sejanus could have been in little doubt as to his fate and so it was when later that night, he was strangled to death in his prison cell and his body deposited unceremoniously on the steps of the Gemonian Stairs outside the Senate House. Macro now ordered that Sejanus’s young children be killed. When it was reported that his daughter was still a virgin and that it was illegal under Roman law to kill a virgin, he ordered her raped first before having her throat slit.
A mob now rampaged through the streets of Rome tearing down statues of Sejanus and attacking those known to be his supporters; learning of this Tiberius ordered that a general purge take place and it was said that blood ran through the streets of Rome as if the city sewers had been opened.
Sejanus’s lover Livilla was dealt with by her mother the Lady Antonia who had her barricaded into a single room and starved to death remaining within earshot until her screams ceased and were heard no more.
Following the fall of Sejanus, Tiberius retired from public life altogether leaving the Senate to run the Empire as they wished. As for his successor it would either be his grandson Gemellus or his nephew Caligula. He named them co-Emperor upon his death even though the former was still but a child.
Tiberius died at Misenum on 16 March, AD 37, aged 78.
The story later circulated that having been pronounced dead he came back to life and demanded his dinner. Caligula, who had already declared himself Emperor went a deathly pale, began to shake, and tried to flee. It was Macro who calmed him down after emerging from the Emperor’s bedchamber to declare him definitely dead.
Rome breathed a collective sigh of relief at the old lechers passing yet despite his melancholia, malevolence, and sexual depravity he had proven himself to be the bureaucrat without peer and Rome had continued to prosper throughout his reign.
Under Caligula, who would soon have the young Gemellus murdered, it would find itself sorely tested.
Tagged as: Ancient & Medieval
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