(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman emperor (r. 14-37 c.e.){$I[g]Roman Empire;Tiberius} As the second emperor of Rome, Tiberius solidified and firmly established the new system of power—but not without devastating impact on his personal life and the Roman upper classes.

Early Life

Tiberius (ti-BIHR-ee-uhs) Claudius Nero, the second emperor of Rome, came from a very ancient family of Sabine origin, the Claudians, who had moved to Rome shortly after the foundation of the city. Among the most patrician of Rome’s residents, the Claudians expressed an aristocratic disdain for the other, less ancient, less noble inhabitants of Rome.

Tiberius’s father, also named Tiberius Claudius Nero, was an associate of Julius Caesar and served as a quaestor (a sort of deputy) under him. The elder Tiberius fought with Caesar during the campaign in Egypt, which ended the civil war between Caesar and Pompey the Great, but after the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 b.c.e. he went over to the side of the republicans.

This decision made the Claudian family enemies of Octavian (later Augustus), Marc Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the three men who formed the so-called Second Triumvirate which succeeded Caesar in power. The triumvirs were anxious to eliminate any traces of republican sentiment, and Tiberius the elder, his wife Livia, and his young son were forced into flight, often coming close to capture and death.

When Tiberius was only four years old, even stranger events happened. Augustus imposed a divorce between Livia and her husband, and soon married Livia—although she was pregnant at the time. Despite the adverse early influences, Tiberius was reared to be a loyal and dutiful servant of Augustus, ready to serve him in civil, military, and personal capacities. For twenty-two years Tiberius was an associate of Augustus; Tiberius was to be emperor himself for an equal period of time.

He began his service early. In 26 b.c.e., while only a teenager, he was sent to Spain on military service. Two years later, he was made quaestor in charge of the grain supply in Rome. Later, he served primarily in military positions, commanding armies in the east and in Europe. During several hard-fought campaigns, Tiberius subdued Illyricum and Pannonia (modern Yugoslavia and Hungary) and helped secure the Empire’s northern border with the dangerous German tribes. For these efforts, he was awarded a triumph, the highest honor bestowed on a victorious general.

His personal life was less triumphant. He was forced by Augustus to divorce his beloved wife, Agrippina, and marry Julia, the daughter of Augustus. The match was arranged to strengthen the chance of succession of a descendant of Augustus to power; it failed, for Tiberius and Julia were incompatible and soon lived apart. For this reason, because Augustus was advancing his grandsons, and perhaps because of simple fatigue with his exhausting duties, Tiberius retired to the island of Rhodes in 6 b.c.e. He remained there for eight years, until the premature deaths of Augustus’s grandsons forced his return, and he was adopted by the emperor as his son and heir.

There followed more campaigns in the north, interspersed with time at Rome. During the latter years of Augustus’s reign, Tiberius seems to have been virtual co-emperor, and in 14 c.e., when Augustus died, Tiberius assumed sole power of the whole Roman world.

Tiberius was a large, strong man, well above average height. He had a fair complexion, which was sometimes marred by outbreaks of skin disease. According to the ancient historian Suetonius, he wore his hair long in back, an old-fashioned style perhaps adopted in memory of his distinguished ancestry.

For most of his life, Tiberius enjoyed excellent health, although he was reported to have indulged in excessive drinking and an astounding number and variety of sexual pleasures. He was stiff and formal in manner and seemed ill at ease in the senate chambers. He was quite well educated in Latin and Greek literature and was devoted to astrology.

Life’s Work

Tiberius came to the throne at the age of fifty-six. He had served Augustus all of his adult life, helping to establish the political system of the Roman Empire, also known as the principate (after one of Augustus’s titles, princeps, or first citizen). The new system was a delicate and highly personal one, in which Augustus balanced traditional Roman republican forms with the new reality of one-man rule; the creation and maintenance of this balance required considerable skill and tact.

Because of his nature, Tiberius found it impossible to adopt his predecessor’s role completely. Although he assumed actual power, he seemed to do so unwillingly and refused most of the titles that the senate offered him. Many, including the eminent Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, have seen this as hypocrisy; others believe that Tiberius was genuinely reluctant to become an autocrat. During the early years of his rule, he made a great show of consulting the senate on all matters, great and small. After years of Augustus’s rule, however, the old methods were simply inadequate to govern a worldwide empire, and increasingly Tiberius was forced to assume and exercise absolute powers.

At first, these powers were used for the common good. In matters of religion and morals, Tiberius took firm steps against foreign beliefs, which he believed threatened traditional Roman virtues: He expelled adherents of the Egyptian and Jewish religions from Rome and banished astrologers on pain of death—although he firmly believed in the practice himself. Perhaps he was protecting himself against possible conspiracies inspired by favorable horoscopes; such things were taken very seriously in ancient Rome.

Tiberius was also firm in his suppression of riots and other civil disturbances, which often afflicted Rome and the other large cities of the Empire. Many of these problems were caused by an excessively large unemployed population, which was fed by the public dole and amused by public games; with little to...

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(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)

Article abstract: Military significance: During his military career, Tiberius strengthened the Roman borders in the east, in the Balkans, and in Germany. His campaigns solidified Roman control of the border regions and produced a relative peace that lasted through his reign as emperor.

As Augustus’s stepson, Tiberius was given responsibility for expanding the Roman borders. His first battles were fought in Armenia against the Parthians in 20 b.c.e. His victory allowed Tiberius to place a Roman ruler in Armenia and avenge an earlier Roman defeat by Parthia.

Tiberius moved on to Germany. After a series of battles in the Tyrol section of the Alps, Tiberius shortened the Roman border with Germany. He also commanded troops in Germany that pushed the Germanic tribes back toward the Elbe.

Politics in Rome brought a premature end to Tiberius’s military career, and he retired to the island of Rhodes. He returned to active service in 4 c.e. His first action was in Germany, but then an attack in the Roman province of Pannonia threatened the Balkans. At the Battle of Bathinus on August 3, 6 c.e., Tiberius’s forces decisively defeated the invaders and reestablished Roman control over the Balkans. While campaigning along the Danube, Tiberius heard word of the defeat in Germany of Publius Quintilius Varus and the collapse of Roman power east of the Rhine. This event ended the official Roman policy of expansion under Augustus and ended Tiberius’s military career. However, his hard fought battles at the fringe of the empire ensured peace during his reign as emperor, from 14-37 c.e.

Further Reading:

Baker, G. P. Tiberius Caesar. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.

Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. New York: Penguin Press, 1985.

Wells, Colin. The Roman Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.