His mother Livia was taken as wife by Augustus whilst she was still pregnant of Drusus Nero: Tiberius was aged 4. When he was 9 he is remembered for having given the public speech from the rostra in the Forum in his father’s memorial service (as was custom in Roman high ranking funerals). He rode before Augustus’ carriage at the public triumph for the victory at the battle of Actium against Mark Anthony and Cleopatra.
As soon as he was of marital age the political-dynastic game began: Augustus married Tiberius to Vipsania Agrippina who was daughter of Augustus’ right hand man Agrippa. The historian Suetonius tells us (Vita Tiberii chapter 7) that Tiberius was very much in love with Vipsania and suffered endlessly when some years later he was ordered to divorce her in order to marry Augustus’ own daughter Julia. The loss of his brother Drusus who died in 9AD whilst campaigning in Germany also caused Tiberius great suffering which he tried to alleviate by restoring the temple of Jupiter’s inseparable sons Castor and Pollux in the Forum.
Tiberius filled all the high ranking city magistrate offices early on in his career (quaestor, praetor and consul) fulfilling his duties very well. His military career was perhaps even more successful and he can be considered as the artifice of the Roman empire’s northern confines, partly as a result of having to take his brother’s place when he died.
After some years of voluntary exile in Rhodes he returned to Rome and distinguished himself for his military campaigns in Germany which earned him more than one public triumph.
Tiberius was also known for his construction work: we have already mentioned the restoration of the temple of Castor and Pollux to which we should add his work on the temple of Concord which he turned into a veritable museum for Hellenic sculpture. Most importantly he is remembered as the first to have transformed the imperial household on the Palatine hill into a proper imperial palace, the nucleus of which is still little known as it is nowadays covered by the Farnese gardens and hence hasn’t been excavated. It was likely of the same style of the country Roman villas facing out over the Forum.
Emperor Tiberius succeeded Augustus on the 19th August 14AD. At first his reign was considered as wise and just but it eventually gave way to excesses and mad violence. The start of the decline was around 21AD when elected consul together with his son Drusus he decided to leave command in the hands of his son whilst he take some leave at Nola, near Pompeii. On his return to Rome his son Drusus was poisoned – yet a further loss and furthermore leaving Tiberius with a difficult situation in terms of succession.
In the mean time a new and dark figure had emerged as the head of the imperial praetorian guard Sejanus: a ruthless meddler who gained Tiberius’ trust and aimed at gaining the imperial throne, possibly by marrying Livilla, wife of the recently murdered Drusus. It is not surprising that by 27AD Tiberius decided to abandon himself to a life of unruly sadistic leisure on the island of Capri whilst Sejanus did his worst to imprison, torture and murder those who might stand in his way; not to mention imprisonment of innocent people in order to confiscate their wealth and make it his own. His ascent to the top might well have been completely successful (many had been done away with) had it not been for a letter written by Antonia Minor: Tiberius’ sister in law, step-cousin, daughter of Marc Anthony, greatly trusted.
It was at this point that Tiberius brought Caligula to Capri and named him as successor before moving to have Sejanus eliminated: imprisoned and strangulated on the very same day he believed he was going to be named co-regent. Many in the emperor’s entourage either committed suicide or were put to death for their involvement in the conspiracy, leaving the emperor increasingly isolated and alone. He eventually fell ill during his numerous travels between Rome and his Campanian holiday villas and on 16th March 37AD was helped to pass away aged 78, likely by Caligula.
Tacitus gives us the following harrowing report of Tiberius’ repression of those he felt were conspiring against him:
“Executions were now a stimulus to his fury, and he ordered the death of all who were lying in prison under accusation of complicity with Sejanus. There lay, singly or in heaps, the unnumbered dead, of every age and sex, the illustrious with the obscure. Kinsfolk and friends were not allowed to be near them, to weep over them, or even to gaze on them too long. Spies were set round them, who noted the sorrow of each mourner and followed the rotting corpses, till they were dragged to the Tiber, where, floating or driven on the bank, no one dared to burn or to touch them.”
The Capri days (salad days!)
Tiberius’ period at Capri is remembered for its infamy. There are various accounts by writers such as Pliny the Elder, Tacitus and Suetonius which provide us with a broad spectrum of curious details….
Tiberius built twelve villas, each with the name of a different divinity (the remains of two are still visible today).
He liked cucumbers: Pliny tells us he even had greenhouses constructed in order to have a continuous supply of the vegetable through the year (perhaps some cure for his hangovers??)
He was reputedly a devoted drinker of wine, so much so that he handed out some nominations on the basis of the candidate’s ability to stand their drink.
He was jealous and this drove him to do unspeakable acts such as repress the production of a newly invented mould blown glass because of the negative effects it might have on the use of precious metal drinking and eating vessels: he had the inventor taken away and executed.
But perhaps most abominable were his pastimes on the island: mindless orgy, libidinous feasts, torture of convicts which once done with would be thrown down the cliffs into the sea to be finished off by men in boats with harpoons. Ample description of Tiberius’ atrocities is given by Suetonius in the lives of the Caesars.