Emperor Tiberius

Life: 42 BC-AD 37

Tiberius Claudius Nero Bust
  • Name: Tiberius Claudius Nero
  • Born on 16 November 42 BC
  • Son of Tiberius Claudius Nero (d. 33 BC) and Livia Drusilla (c.58 BC – AD 29), who married Augustus in 39 BC.
  • Became emperor in AD 14.
  • Married (1) Vipsania (one son, Drusus 13 BC – AD23); (2) Julia, daughter of Augustus.
  • Died at Misenum, 16 March AD 37.

Tiberius’s Early Life

Tiberius was born in 42 BC, the son of the aristocratic Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla. When he was two, his father had to flee Rome from the second triumvirate (Octavian, Lepidus, Mark Antony) because of his republican beliefs (he had fought against Octavian in the civil wars). When he was four, his parents got divorced, and his mother instead married Octavian, the later Augustus.

Tiberius’s Path to the Throne

Though Tiberius, a large, strong man, had been groomed by Augustus as his successor, he was actually the fourth choice after Agrippa, husband of Augustus’ only daughter Julia, and their sons, Gaius and Lucius, all three of whom died in the lifetime of Augustus. Thus, being obviously a second-rate choice as heir to the throne, Tiberius was laden with a feeling of inferiority.

He enjoyed good health, though his skin sometimes suffered from ‘skin eruptions’ – most likely rashes of some sort. Also, he had a great fear of thunder. He profoundly disliked gladiatorial games and made no attempt to pretend to do so in order to win popularity with the ordinary people of Rome. In 25 BC, he already held his first post as an officer in Cantabria. By 20 BC, he accompanied Augustus to the east to reclaim the standards lost to the Parthians by Crassus thirty-three years earlier.

In 16 BC, he was appointed governor of Gaul, and by 13 BC, he held his first consulship. Then, after the death of Agrippa in 12 BC, Augustus forced a reluctant Tiberius to divorce his wife Vipsania in order to marry Julia, Augustus’ own daughter and widow of Agrippa. Then, from 9 BC to 7 BC, he fought in Germany.

Emperor Tiberius

In 6 BC, Tiberius was granted tribunician power, but he very soon retired to Rhodes, as Augustus was grooming his grandsons Gaius and Lucius to become his heirs. Alas, by 2 BC, the unhappy marriage to Julia had broken down completely, and she was exiled, supposedly for adultery but very likely due to the deep dislike Tiberius felt for her.

Then, with the death of the two apparent heirs, Gaius and Lucius, Augustus called Tiberius out of retirement, reluctantly recognizing him as his successor. In AD 4, Augustus adopted him, adding the words ‘This I do for reasons of state.’ If these words proved anything, then it was that Augustus was as reluctant to make him his successor as Tiberius appeared to be reluctant to become it. In any case, Tiberius was granted tribunician powers for ten years and was handed command of the Rhine frontier. As part of the deal, though, he was required to adopt his own eighteen-year-old nephew, Germanicus, as heir and successor.

German Campaign

So, from AD 4 to 6, Tiberius again campaigned in Germany. The next three years he spent putting down rebellions in Pannonia and Illyricum. After this, he restored the Rhine frontier after Rome’s defeat at the Varian disaster. In AD 13, his constitutional powers were renewed on equal terms with those of Augustus, making his succession inevitable, as the elderly Augustus died in AD 14. Tiberius was summoned back not by the senate but by his elderly mother, Livia, widow of Augustus.

Now approaching or in her seventies, Livia was a matriarch and wanted to share in ruling the country, too. Tiberius, though, would have none of it. But, in order to secure his position he had Agrippa Postumus, the exiled, last surviving grandson of Augustus, murdered, though some said it was organized by Livia without his knowledge.

Troubles with Danube and Rhine legions

At the very beginning of his reign, the powerful Danube and Rhine legions mutinied because some of Augustus‘ promises regarding their terms of service and benefits were not met. Also, they had sworn allegiance neither to the state nor to Tiberius but to Augustus. However, after initial difficulties, these disturbances were eventually quelled.

What followed were several years of intrigue at court, as candidates to succeed Tiberius (and their wives, daughters, friends, etc.) manoeuvered for the position. Tiberius had probably no part in any of this. But sensing it happening around him unsettled him and only further contributed to his indecision in matters of government.

Emperor Tiberius
The Bridge at Rimini, built by the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius

Germanicus then tried to bring back the German territories lost in the Varian disaster with three successive military campaigns but failed in achieving this. In AD 19, Germanicus died in Antioch, where he by then held a high command in the east. Some rumors state that Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, governor of Syria and confidant of Tiberius, had poisoned him. Piso was tried for murder and ordered to commit suicide, but the suspicion remained that he had been acting for the emperor.

The death of Germanicus would have left the way open for Tiberius’ own son Drusus to succeed as emperor, but by AD 23 he too was dead, possibly poisoned by his wife Livilla. The two apparent heirs were now the sons of Germanicus – seventeen-year-old Nero Caesar and sixteen-year-old Drusus Caesar.

Tiberius’s Departure from the Power

Finally, in AD 26, he had had enough. Because he had probably always been happiest when away from the capital and its everlasting intrigue, Rome’s emperor simply departed to his holiday mansion on the isle of Capreae (Capri), never to return to the city.

He left the government in the hands of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the praetorian prefect. Sejanus believed himself a potential successor of the emperor and was conspiring against Tiberius while removing any other possible candidates for the throne. In one historic move, Sejanus had earlier, in AD 23, moved the nine praetorian cohorts from their camps outside the city into one camp within the confines of the city itself, creating a vast power base for himself.

Enjoying near unlimited power in Rome, Sejanus was free to act and moved the two immediate heirs to the throne, Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar, aside from what were most likely fictitious charges of treason. Nero Caesar was banished to an island, and Drusus was imprisoned in the cellar of the imperial palace. It was long, and both were dead. Nero Caesar was ordered to commit suicide, and Drusus Caesar was starved to death. This left only one more surviving son of Germanicus as heir to the throne, the young Gaius (Caligula).

Sejanus’ power reached its high point when he held consular office in the same year as Tiberius (AD 31). But then he brought about his own downfall by plotting the elimination of nineteen-year-old Gaius. The key moment was the arrival of a letter sent to the emperor by his sister-in-law Antonia warning him of Sejanus.

Tiberius might have retired to his island for his dislike of politics and intrigues. But when he saw the necessity, he could still ruthlessly exercise power. Command of the praetorian guard was secretly transferred to one of his friends, Naevius Cordus Sertorius Macro, who, on 18 October AD 31, had Sejanus arrested during a meeting of the Senate. A letter by the emperor to the Senate was then read out expressing his suspicions. Sejanus was duly executed, and his corpse was dragged through the streets and thrown into the Tiber. His family and many of his supporters suffered similar fates.

Joint Heirs

Tiberius then drew up his will, indecisive to the very end, he left Gaius and Gemellus (his own grandson) as joint heirs, but it was obvious that it would be by now twenty-four-year-old Gaius who would truly succeed him. For one, Gemellus was still an infant. But also because Tiberius appeared to suspect that Gemellus was, in fact, an adulterous child of Sejanus.

There were many rumors suggesting that his retirement home on Capri was a palace of never-ending sexual excesses, however, other reports state that he had moved there ‘with only a few companions’, who consisted mainly of Greek intellectuals whose conversation Tiberius enjoyed.

Tiberius’s last years were still fraught with morbid mistrust, and an increase in treason trials gave this time the air of terror. It was in early AD 37 that Tiberius fell ill while traveling in Campania. He was taken to his villa in Misenum in order to recover but died there on 16 March AD 37.

If Tiberius, aged 78, died naturally or was murdered is uncertain.

He either died of old age or was suffocated on his deathbed with a cushion by Macro on behalf of Caligula.

Emperor Tiberius

People Also Ask:

What is emperor Tiberius known for?

Tiberius had a brilliant military career and, with his younger brother Drusus, helped carry out the expansion of the Roman empire along the Danube and into modern-day Germany (16 BC – 7 BC, 4 AD – 9 AD).

Why did Tiberius get assassinated?

The senate hated Tiberius Gracchus’s bill as it would affect their land ownership and wealth. He was subsequently murdered during a riot brought about by his enemies. The senate feared his growing powers and had him killed.

What kind of person was Tiberius?

Tiberius was one of Ancient Rome’s greatest generals whose campaigns protected the northern frontier. He reigned for 22 years, and the first part of his imperial work was excellent. Later, he came to be remembered as a dark, reclusive, and somber ruler.

Was Tiberius a good leader?

Augustus gave Tiberius many powers, but he most excelled during his military campaigns. He was a very successful military leader, quelling mutinies and strengthening the borders of the empire in successive decisive campaigns. He campaigned in Armenia to strengthen the Roman-Parthian border.