Bad Emperors: Tiberius

Tiberius Claudius Nero (given name), aka Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus (emperor name), aka Poor Tibby (what I call him) was the successor of Augustus (aka The Best Roman) and ruled Rome for 23 years. Twenty three miserable years.



Poor Tibby, as with every other aristocrat of his and his parents' generations, lived an exciting life, none more exciting that when his mother - the 19 year old Livia - while heavily pregnant with his younger brother, suddenly divorced his dad and married Octavian taking 3 year old Tiberius with her. Tibby's dad's (also called Tiberius. Let's not get into the Roman names thing again) gentle acquiescence to this kid stealing his wife and sons (apparently he gave her away) is the absolute best evidence we have for how hardcore scary Octavian must have been.  And thus began a life of relentless misery for Tibby, as his every moment of happiness is crushed by his new stepdad. Forever.


Most of what we know about poor Tibby (no I will not stop calling him that) comes from Tacitus, a deeply grumpy man who would have been no fun at all at parties and who wrote a chronicle of Rome focusing very heavily on how much he really really really hated Tibby. I'm not exaggerating. He loathed him. Which is weird, given that Tacitus lived almost a century after Tiberius died and he had no direct experience of him. There's a bunch of theories as to why Tacitus so particularly loathed Tibby, please see your closest undergraduate or see this footnote (1). Nonetheless, even in Tacitus's deeply unkind account and Suetonius's deeply suspicious one it seems pretty clear that the last thing Tiberius ever wanted was to be emperor. And the last thing that Augustus ever wanted was to make Tibby emperor. Unfortunately, literally everyone else that Augustus attempted to make his primary heir dropped dead leaving only Tiberius standing.


This has led to the widespread belief that his mum, Livia, waged a campaign of poisoning and murdering to eliminate everyone who stood in the way of Tibby's entirely unwelcome ascension. This rumour was started by Tacitus, who hated her too. Because she was a woman, and the only thing Tacitus hated more than Tibby was women.(2) That's a lie. He hates Tiberius way more. Did she kill several members of her husband's family in order to manoeuvre her own son into position for her own gain? Who knows? Probably not. Plus Tacitus also accuses Livia of killing Augustus - an 80 year old man - in order to get Tibby to the throne, so I reckon he had no idea what he was talking about.


So poor Tibby. He doesn't want the job, no-one wants to give him the job, he tries to get away from Rome and move to Greece and when he comes back he's forced to divorce the woman he loves (Vipsania) and marry a woman he loathes and who loathes him (Augustus's biological daughter with his second wife) until she gets exiled for basically being too slutty for Rome. Then he's just all by himself, sadly following his first wife around parties and crying and probably hoping that he dies before Augustus does. He doesn't. Possibly because of his mum (probably not).


Augustus finally drops dead, and Tiberius takes on all the remaining powers of the principate (3). And this is where things start to go really wrong for his reputation. First off, it seems that he tried quite hard to force the senate to do their damn job and start governing, which they weren’t keen to do at all. After decades of civil wars, dictators, despots and Augustus with his velvet fist, the rank and file senators were terrified of taking any kind of responsibility and essentially refused to. “I don’t WANT to be in charge”, Tiberius said. “Tough titties, you are”, the senate replied. “Take these ridiculous honours back!” Tiberius protested “Shan’t” replied the senate. “Vote on this thing”, Tiberius would say, “how do you want us to vote?” the senate would reply. Tiberious rejected a collection of the highest honours in an attempt to not be emperor, none of which worked. Until one day, Tiberius lost his temper, called them men fit to be slaves and stormed out. This made the senate cross, and the senate writes the histories.


Secondly, he wasn’t an elegant man. He’s described as too tall, ungainly, gawky and shuffly. This leads to several embarrassing incidents, like falling over in public a lot. Falling over makes you a twat in Rome, especially falling over your toga in embarrassment when some random senator is trying to prostrate himself at your feet. Twat. Thirdly, he wasn’t keen on public games, either gladiatorial or racing, didn’t put many on himself and rarely attended. This is a MAJOR faux pas where games are fantastically important as a political tool. The modern equivalent is if the prime minister were responsible for funding half the weekly episodes of Eastenders and then one of them just couldn’t be bothered so there was only one episode every two weeks. This is the kind of thing that gets people suddenly very interested in politics.


Finally, Tiberius made the worst possible decision: he left Rome. For good. This blew people away. They couldn’t IMAGINE why anyone wouldn’t want to live in Rome, especially not a ruler. They were a lot like Londoners in that respect. Tiberius moved to Capri, a teeny tiny, barely accessible island off the Amalfi coast and stopped talking to anyone because he hated them all and they hated him. This gave rise to two big problems for him (if he cared). First, it allowed nefarious folk with designs on his power to place themselves as intermediaries between a disinterested Princeps and a cowed, pathetic senate. Nefarious folk like Sejanus, who appears to have tried to set himself up as a Princeps Regent, bump off Tiberius’s only son and marry his daughter-in-law in order to become Tibby’s heir. All of this reflects badly on Tiberius who is alternately seen as approving of Sejanus’s naughtiness, or being a rubbish, uninterested leader who lets things like this happen. Even worse, when Sejanus’s plot is revealed to Tiberius, he cleans house by having Sejanus and everyone associated with him put  to death for treason. This goes down VERY BADLY with the senate who generally think that other senators being put to death is VERY BAD. And so Tiberius also gathers a reputation for being a bloodthirsty, maniacal bastard who killed everyone he set his eyes on. Calmer estimates note that the death toll under Tiberius was very small, approximately fifty people over the whole reign. Much smaller that Augustus’s massive pogrom as a triumvir. But still. Reputation.


More importantly, however, Tibby has isolated himself on an inaccessible island from a rich, underworked populace who like to gossip. And MAN do they gossip. It is swiftly decided back in Rome, based on no evidence at all, that Tiberius is running a sex island where he engages in pederasty, fellatio (considered to be unbearably filthy in Roman culture) and various other things which were considered so rude up to the mid-twentieth century that they were never translated into English. Please see this footnote for a full translation.(4) All this survives to us in Suetonius’s bizarre biography of Tibby in which he maintains the classically Roman line or argument that the fact that Tibby had shown no weird sexual desires up to the point of his self-imposed exile was merely evidence that he was very good at hiding his weird sexual desires until he could have a sex island.


On top of the sex island, Tiberius is supposed to have also suddenly become terribly cruel, again for no good reason other than no-one knew what he was doing there and this is a better story than “reading”. So he spends all his time having people flung off cliffs for tiny slights, and grated with giant fish(5) for the fun of it. In between doing unspeakable things to the babies he gets from somewhere. It doesn’t help that Tiberius takes a sort-of-forced interest in his nephew Caligula, moves him to Capri and adopts him. This is because Caligula is one of the only two remaining male members of the Julio-Claudian line at the time, the other one is 12 and Tibby getting old and thinking of heirs. Caligula, as we’ll get to, has a very, very bad reputation and so Tiberius gets a lot of flak for making him his heir, despite his very limited choices.


This is partly because both contemporary and later senators totally believed that Tiberius had the means and the opportunity to dismantle the principate and restore the republic, despite the decades of evidence that the republic was long dead and the even clearer evidence that they were now fundamentally incapable of ruling by themselves. They explain that last one away by accusing Tibby of just pretending to be allowing them to try and make decisions by themselves (Tibby is the king of pretending in the imaginations of senators), and just decide to completely ignore all the wars and that. Because blaming Tiberius is easier, cleaner and he’s off in Capri being a sex person and can’t defend himself.


And so, after a decade of being generally bored and made uncomfortable by Rome, followed by another ten years of people bitching about him  and only reappearing to fix the odd crisis (mainly by exiling or executing people), Tiberius dies at the age of 77 and is mourned by absolutely no-one. His son is dead, both his wives are dead, his entire family is dead. The senate and Caligula don’t bother to have him voted any posthumous honours and refuse to deify him as they had Augustus and JC and there is apparently widespread jubilation about Caligula’s ascension. Poor Tibby is disposed of and everyone tries very hard to forget him.


So what have we learnt from Tiberius? First off, not wanting to be emperor is sometimes not an impediment to becoming emperor. Secondly, it doesn’t matter how well you hold borders, build nice things, maintain peace and prosperity and do generally competent empire ruling if you piss off the wrong people. None of it matters if you don’t play the senatorial games in the way the senate insist you play. Because the senate are responsible for your legacy and the senate will fuck you.


And that’s why he’s poor Tibby. Morose, miserable Tibby, alone on his (sex) island with nothing and no-one, after a lifetime of being shuffled about like a chess piece by his step-dad, had even his legacy trampled by politics.






(1) Theory 1. Tacitus thought that Tiberius had the opportunity to dismantle Augustus's principate upon his accession and restore the republic, and was very cross that he didn't. Theory 2. Tacitus believed that Domitian (the emperor under whom he worked and completely loathed) had a copy of Tiberius's diary and used them as a template for being evil. It's probably the former.


(2) Actually, there's a decent argument to be made that Tacitus attacks Livia as a proxy for attacking Augustus, because attacking Augustus is literally unthinkable. However, he does hate women.


(3) The Principate is the official name for the position of emperor at this time, because the idea of emperor doesn't quite exist in the way we think it does yet. Principate comes from princeps, meaning First Citizen or Best Citizen, which is one of the names that Augustus took for himself while he was persuading everyone that he was a kitten really.


(4) "Suetonius, Tiberius 43 "On retiring to Capri he devised a pleasance for his secret orgies: teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this "the old goat's garden," punning on the island's name.

44  He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed tiddlers) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles; and unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by both nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction. Left a painting of Parrhasius's depicting Atalanta pleasuring Meleager with her lips on condition that if the theme displeased him he was to have a million sesterces instead, he chose to keep it and actually hung it in his bedroom. The story is also told that once at a sacrifice, attracted by the acolyte's beauty, he lost control of himself and, hardly waiting for the ceremony to end, rushed him off and debauched him and his brother, the flute-player, too; and subsequently, when they complained of the assault, he had their legs broken." For the full life see here.


(5) Not a joke. Suetonius, Tiberius: 60 "A few days after he reached Capri and was by himself, a fisherman appeared unexpectedly and offered him a huge mullet; whereupon in his alarm that the man had clambered up to him from the back of the island over rough and pathless rocks, he had the poor fellow's face scrubbed with the fish. And because in the midst of his torture the man thanked his stars that he had not given the emperor an enormous crab that he had caught, Tiberius had his face torn with the crab also."