Was Emperor Tiberius Simply Destined to Rule?
Tiberius was a Roman emperor who ruled the empire during the first half of the 1st century AD. As he was the successor of Augustus Caesar, his adoptive father, he was the second ruler of the Roman Empire. He is remembered to have been a formidable general, and his early reign was a positive one. However, the emperor grew more and more unpopular, and he eventually decided to withdraw from Rome altogether for the island of Capri, where he died.
Tiberius was born on November 16, 42 BC and he was originally known as Tiberius Claudius Nero. His father was also named Tiberius Claudius Nero and was a Roman politician known for his service as a captain in the fleet of Julius Caesar, whilst his mother was Livia.
Roman emperor Tiberius and his mother Livia, AD 14-19, from Paestum, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Tiberius Reluctantly Reigns
According to Cassius Dio, the first time Octavian (later known as Augustus) saw Livia, he was struck by her beauty, and divorced his wife, Scribonia, on the very day she gave birth to their daughter. Tiberius’ parents were also eventually divorced, and in 38 BC Octavian and Livia were married.
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Although Tiberius succeeded his adoptive father in 14 AD, he was not Augustus’ first choice as heir. As a matter of fact, Augustus had a number of candidates to succeed him, though all of them died before him. For instance, one of Augustus’ first choices was his close friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. He was presented with the emperor’s signet ring in 23 BC. This may be taken as a sign that Agrippa was to succeed Augustus if the latter died.
Augustus, however, survived and outlived his friend. Other candidates for the succession were his male relatives; Marcellus, his nephew, as well as Gaius and Lucius Caesar, the sons of Agrippa, and Julia the Elder, the daughter of Augustus. All these candidates died before Augustus.
In the end, Augustus was left with no choice but Tiberius.
Tiberius himself was reluctant to become emperor, and it was his mother, Livia, who pushed for him to take the throne. Although Livia was removed by Tiberius from public affairs, she still had a strong influence, and it has been recorded that one of Tiberius’ reasons for retiring to Capri in 26 AD was to get away from his mother. When Livia died in 29 AD, Tiberius remained on the island and did not even attend his mother’s funeral.
Ruins from the Villa Jovis on the island of Capri, where Tiberius spent much of his final years, leaving control of the empire in the hands of the prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus. (Thomas Möllmann/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The period of Tiberius’ self-imposed exile on Capri is marked by the rise of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard. Before leaving Rome, Tiberius left the administration of the empire in the hands of Sejanus.
In the next few years, Sejanus came to view himself as emperor and did whatever he pleased. He even had an affair with Livillia, Tiberius’ daughter-in-law, and had Drusus, Tiberius’ son and Livillia’s husband, murdered. In 31 AD, Tiberius received a message that Sejanus was planning to have him and Caligula, his adopted grandson, murdered too. The emperor returned to Rome and Sejanus was executed after being found guilty by the Senate.
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Portrait of Roman Emperor Tiberius in Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. ( Public Domain )
Paranoia and Death
The final years of Tiberius’ reign was marked by an increase in the number of treason trials, as the emperor grew increasingly paranoid. Additionally, he also grew increasingly reclusive on Capri. He died in 37 AD at the age of 77.
There are a number of rumors regarding Tiberius’ cause of death, and some of these are given by Suetonius. These include being poisoned and being smothered to death with a pillow. Suetonius also records that when news of the emperor’s death reached the people, they began shouting ‘Tiberius to the Tiber!’, evidence of how much they hated him. Tiberius was succeeded by his adopted grandson, Caligula, who is rumored to have had a hand in his death.
Istanbul Archaeological Museum, room 5 - Reconstruction of the original polychrome of a Roman portrait of emperor Caligula (37-41 AD). ( Commons)
Top Image: Tiberius as Jupiter – II. Source: Egisto Sani/ CC BY NC SA 2.0
By Wu Mingren
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[Cary, E. (trans.), 1914-27. Cassius Dio’s Roman History .]
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Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tiberius
Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: The Life of Tiberius [Online]
[Rolf, J. C. (trans.), 1913. Suetonius’ The Lives of the Caesar: The Life of Tiberius .]
The BBC, 2014. Tiberius (42 BC - 37 AD). [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/tiberius.shtml