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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

p913 Tiberius

Tiberius [Tiberius Claudius Nero] (42 B.C.-A.D. 37), Roman emperor, was born on the 16th of November, 42 B.C. His father, who bore the same name, was an officer of Julius Caesar, who afterwards proposed to confer honours on the assassins, then joined Mark Antony's brother in his mad attack on Octavian, took refuge with Mark Antony, and returned to Rome when the general amnesty was proclaimed in 39 B.C. Livia, the mother of Tiberius, was also of the Claudian family, out of which her father had passed by adoption into that of the Livii Drusi. Early in 38 Livia was amicably ceded to Octavian (the future Augustus), and three months after her new marriage Drusus, brother to Tiberius, was born. Livia had no children by Augustus, and therefore devoted all her remarkable gifts to the advancement of her sons. Tiberius passed through the list of state offices in the usual princely fashion, beginning with the quaestorship at the age of eighteen, and attaining the consulate for the first time at twenty-nine. From the great capacity for civil affairs p914which he displayed as emperor it may be inferred that he applied himself with determination to learn the business of government.

But from 22 to 6 B.C. and again from A.D. 4 to 10 by far the greater part of Tiberius's time was spent in the camp. His first service was as legionary tribune in one of the desperate and arduous wars which led to peace in the Spanish peninsula through the decimation, or rather the extermination, of the rebellious tribes. In 20 B.C. Augustus sent Tiberius with an army to seat Tigranes of Armenia on the throne as a Roman vassal. When Tiberius approached the frontier of Armenia, he found its throne vacant through the assassination of the king, and Tigranes stepped into his place without a blow being struck. Tiberius crowned Tigranes king with his own hand. Then the Parthian monarch grew alarmed, and surrendered "the spoils and the standards of three Roman armies." The senate ordered a thanksgiving such as was usually celebrated in honour of a great victory. The following year was passed by Tiberius as governor of Transalpine Gaul. In the next year (15) he was despatched to aid his brother Drusus in subjugating the Raeti and Vindelici, peoples dwelling in the mountainous region whence the Rhine, Rhone and Danube take their rise.1 Drusus attacked from the eastern side, while Tiberius operated from the upper waters of the Rhine, and by stern measures the mountaineers were reduced to a state of quietude, and could no longer cut communications between northern Italy and Gaul, nor prosecute their raids in both countries. In 12 B.C. Agrippa, the great general of Augustus, died at the age of fifty-one, leaving Julia, the emperor's only child, a widow. Agrippina, daughter of Agrippa by an earlier marriage, was wife of Tiberius, and had borne him a son, Drusus, afterwards father of Germanicus. Livia, with great difficulty, prevailed upon Augustus to replace Agrippa by Tiberius, who was compelled to exchange Agrippina for Julia, to his bitter grief. During the year of mourning for Agrippa, which delayed his new marriage, Tiberius was occupied with a victorious campaign against the Pannonians, followed by successful expeditions in the three succeeding summers. For his victories in the Danube regions, the emperor conferred on him the distinctions which flowed from a military triumph in republican times (now first separated from the actual triumph), and he enjoyed the "ovation" or lesser form of triumphal entry into the capital. On the death of Drusus in the autumn of 9 B.C. Tiberius, whose reputation had hitherto been eclipsed by that of his brother, stepped into the position of the first soldier of the empire. The army, if it did not warmly admire Tiberius, entertained a loyal confidence in a leader who, as Velleius (the historian who served under him) tells us, always made the safety of his soldiers his first care. In the campaign of the year after Drusus's death Tiberius traversed all Germany between the Rhine and the Elbe, and met with slight opposition. But it would be too much to believe the statement of Velleius that "he reduced Germany almost to the position of a tributary province." He was rewarded with the full triumph, the military title of "imperator," and his second consulship, though the opposition of the powerful Sugambri had been only broken by an act of treachery, the guilt of which should perhaps be laid at the door of Augustus. In 7 B.C. there was another but insignificant campaign in Germany. Next year Augustus bestowed on his stepson the tribunician authority for five years. Tiberius was thus in the most formal manner associated with the emperor in the conduct of the government on the civil side; but Tacitus (Ann. iii.56) goes too far when he says that this promotion marked him out as the heir to the throne.

Tiberius now suddenly begged permission to retire to Rhodes and devote himself to study. He seems to have declined absolutely at the time to state his reasons for this course, but he obstinately adhered to it, in spite of the tears of Livia and the lamentations of Augustus to the senate that his son had betrayed him. The departure from Italy was as secret as it could be made. Years afterwards, when Tiberius broke silence about his motives, he declared that he had retired in order to allow the young princes, Gaius and Lucius, sons of Agrippa and Julia, a free course. There was perhaps a portion of the truth wrapped up in this declaration. Like Agrippa, who retired to Mytilene to avoid the young Marcellus, Tiberius had clearly no taste to become the servant of the two children whom Augustus had adopted in their infancy and evidently destined to be joint emperors after his death. But it may well be believed that Tiberius, unlike Agrippa, had no burning ambition to see himself in the place destined for his stepsons; and it may have been in his eyes one of the attractions of exile that it released him from the obligation to aid in carrying out the far-reaching designs which Livia cherished for his sake. But the contemporaries of Tiberius were no doubt right in believing that the scandal of Julia's life did more than all else to render his position at Rome intolerable. His conduct to her from first to last gives a strong impression of his dignity and self-respect. When at length the emperor's eyes were opened, and he inflicted severe punishment upon his daughter, her husband, now divorced by the emperor's act, made earnest intercession for her, and did what he could to alleviate her suffering. At Rhodes Tiberius lived simply, passing his time mainly in the company of Greek professors, with whom he associated on pretty equal terms. He acquired considerable proficiency in the studies of the day, among which was astrology. But his attempts at composition, whether in prose or verse, were laboured and obscure. After five years' absence from Rome, he begged for leave to return; but the boon was angrily refused, and Livia with difficulty got her son made nominally a legate of Augustus, so as in some degree to veil his disgrace. The next two years were spent in solitude and gloom. Then, on the intercession of Gaius, Augustus allowed Tiberius to come back to Rome, but on the express understanding that he was to hold aloof from all public functions — an understanding which he thoroughly carried out.

He had scarcely returned before death removed (A.D. 2) Lucius, the younger of the two princes, and a year and a half later Gaius also died. The emperor was thus left with only one male descendant, Agrippa Postumus, youngest son of Julia, and still a boy. Four months after Gaius's death Augustus adopted Agrippa and at the same time Tiberius. The emperor now indicated clearly his expectation that Tiberius would be his principal successor. The two essential ingredients in the imperial authority — the proconsulare imperium and the tribunicia potestas — were conferred on Tiberius, and not on Agrippa, who was too young to receive them. Tiberius' career as a general now began anew. In two or three safe rather than brilliant campaigns he strengthened the Roman hold on Germany, and established the winter camps of the legions in the interior, away from the Rhine.

In A.D. 5 it became necessary to attack the formidable confederacy built up by Maroboduus, with its centre in Bohemia. At the most critical moment, when Pannonia and Dalmatia broke out into insurrection, and an unparalleled disaster seemed to be impending, Maroboduus accepted an honourable peace. The four serious campaigns which the war cost displayed Tiberius at his best as a general. When he was about to celebrate his well-won triumphs, the terrible catastrophe to Varus and his legions (A.D. 9) turned the rejoicing into lasting sorrow, and produced a profound change in the Roman policy towards Germany. Although Tiberius with his nephew and adopted son Germanicus made in A.D. 9 and 10 two more marches into the interior of Germany, the Romans never again attempted to bound their domain by the Elbe, but clung to the neighbourhood of the Rhine. Tiberius was thus robbed in great part of the fruit of his campaigns; but nothing can deprive him of the credit of being a chief founder of the imperial system in the lands of Europe. From the beginning of 12, when he celebrated a magnificent triumph, to the time of the emperor's death in 14 Tiberius remained almost entirely in Italy, and held rather the position of joint emperor than that of expectant heir. Agrippa Postumus had proved his incapacity beyond hope, and had been banished to a desolate island. In all probability Tiberius was not present when Augustus died, although Livia p915spread reports (eagerly amplified by Velleius) of an affectionate interview and a lingering farewell.

Tiberius ascended the throne at the age of fifty-six. What struck his contemporaries most was his absolute impenetrability. All his feelings, desires, passions and ambitions were locked behind an impassable barrier, and had to be interpreted by the very uncertain light of his external acts. It is recorded of him that only once did he as commander take counsel with his officers concerning military operations, and that was when the destruction of Varus's legions had made it imperatively necessary not lightly to risk the loss of a single soldier. The penalty of his inscrutability was widespread dislike and suspicion. But behind his defences there lay an intellect of high power, cold, clear and penetrating all disguises. Few have ever possessed such mental vision, and he was probably never deceived either about the weaknesses of others or about his own. For the littleness and servility of public life in regions below the court he entertained a strong contempt. It is a question whether he ever liked or was liked by a single being; but he did his duty by those with whom he was connected after a thorough though stern and unlovable fashion. As a general he commanded the full confidence of his soldiers, though he was a severe disciplinarian; yet the men of his own legions greeted his accession to the throne with a mutiny. Tiberius proved himself capable in every department of the state more by virtue of industry and application than by genius. His mind moved so slowly and he was accustomed to deliberate so long that men sometimes made the mistake of deeming him a waverer. He was in reality one of the most tenacious of men. When he had once formed an aim he could wait patiently for years till the favourable moment enabled him to achieve it, and if compelled to yield ground he never failed to recover it in the end. The key to much of his character lies in the observation that he had in early life set before himself a certain ideal of what a Roman in high position ought to be, and to this ideal he rigidly adhered. He practised sternness, silence, simplicity of life and frugality as he deemed that they had been practised by the Fabricii, the Curii and the Fabii. That Tiberius's character was stained by vice before he became emperor, no one who fairly weighs the records can believe. The persuasion entertained by many at the end of his life that he had been always a monster of wickedness, but had succeeded in concealing the fact till he became emperor, has slightly discoloured the narratives we possess of his earlier years. The change which came over him in the last years of his life seems to have been due to a kind of constitutional clouding of the spirits, which made him what the elder Pliny calls him, "the gloomiest of mankind,"a and disposed him to brood over mysteries and superstitions. As this gloom deepened his will grew weaker, his power tended to fall into the hands of unworthy instruments, terrors closed in around his mind, and his naturally clear vision was perturbed.

The change of masters had been anticipated by the Roman world with apprehension, but it was smoothly accomplished. Tiberius was already invested with the necessary powers, and it may even be that the senate was not permitted the satisfaction of giving a formal sanction to his accession. Agrippa Postumus was put to death, but Livia may be reasonably regarded as the instigator of this crime. Livia indeed expected to share the imperial authority with her son. At first Tiberius allowed some recognition to the claim; but he soon shook himself free, and later became estranged from his mother and held no communication with her for years before her death. The history of Tiberius's relations with other members of his family is hardly less miserable. Perhaps with any other commander than Germanicus the dangerous mutiny of the troops on the Rhine which broke out soon after Tiberius's accession would have ended in a march of the discontented legions upon the capital. The perilous episode of Arminius caused the recall of Germanicus and his despatch to the East on an honourable but comparatively inactive mission. The pride and passion of Agrippina, the granddaughter of Augustus and wife of Germanicus, tended to open a breach between the husband and the emperor. In his Eastern command Germanicus found himself perpetually watched and even violently opposed by Piso, the governor of Syria, who was suspected to have received secret orders from Tiberius. When Germanicus died at Antioch in A.D. 19, the populace of Rome combined with Agrippina in demanding vengeance upon Piso; and the emperor was forced to disown him. The insinuation, conveyed by Tacitus, that Piso poisoned Germanicus on orders from Tiberius, will not stand criticism. The death of Germanicus was followed four years later by that of the emperor's son Drusus. These two princes had been firm friends, and Livilla, the wife of Drusus, was sister to Germanicus. Years afterwards it was found that Drusus had fallen a victim to the treachery of his wife Livilla, who had joined her ambition to that of the emperor's minister of State Sejanus. When Drusus died, Tiberius nominated two of Agrippina's sons as his heirs. But Sejanus had grown strong by nursing the emperor's suspicions and dislike for the household of Germanicus, and the mother and the princes were imprisoned on a charge of crime. In his memoirs of his own life Tiberius declared that he killed Sejanus because he had discovered that he entertained a mad rage against the sons of Germanicus. But the destruction of Sejanus did not save Agrippina and her two children. The third son Gaius Caesar (Caligula), lived to become emperor when Tiberius died in 37.

Throughout his reign Tiberius strove earnestly to do his duty to the empire at large; his guiding principle was to maintain with an almost superstitious reverence the constitutional forms which had been constructed by Augustus. Only two changes of moment were introduced. The imperial guard, hitherto only seen near the city in small detachments, was by the advice of Sejanus encamped permanently in full force close to the walls. By this measure the turbulence of the populace was kept in check. The officer in command of the guard became at once the most important of the emperor's lieutenants. The other change was the practically complete abolition of the old comitia. But the senate was treated with an almost hypocritical deference, and a pedantically precise compliance with the old republican forms was observed towards the senatorial magistrates. The care expended by Tiberius on the provinces was unremitting. His favourite maxim was that a good shepherd should shear his flock and not flay it. When he died he left the subject peoples of the empire in a condition of prosperity such as they had never known before and never knew again. Soldiers, governors and officials of all kinds were kept in wholesome dread of vengeance if they oppressed those beneath them or encouraged irregularity of any kind. Strict economy permitted light taxation and enabled the emperor to show generosity in periods of exceptional distress. Public security both in Italy and abroad was maintained by a strong hand, and commerce was stimulated by the improvement of communications. Jurisdiction both within and without the capital was on the whole exercised with steadiness and equity, and the laws of the empire were at many points improved. The social and moral reforms of Augustus were upheld and carried further. Such risings against the emperor's authority as occurred within the Roman domain were put down with no great difficulty. The foreign or rather the frontier policy was a policy of peace, and it was pursued with considerable success. With few exceptions the duties of the Roman forces on the borders were confined to watching the peoples on the other side while they destroyed each other. On the Rhine, at least, masterly inactivity achieved tranquillity which lasted for a long period.

The disrepute which attaches to the reign of Tiberius has come mainly from three or four sources — from the lamentable story of the imperial household, from the tales of hideous debauchery practised in deep retirement at Capreae during the last eleven years of the emperor's life, from the tyranny which Sejanus was permitted to wield in his master's name, and from the political prosecutions and executions which Tiberius encouraged, more by silent compliance than by open incitement. The stories of immorality are recorded chiefly by Suetonius, who has evidently used a poisoned source, possibly the memoirs of the younger Agrippina, the mother of Nero. Tiberius loved to p916shroud himself in mystery, and such stories are probably the result of unfriendly attempts to penetrate the darkness. If history ventures to doubt the blackness of Theodora, that of Tiberius grows continually lighter under the investigations of criticism. Suetonius makes the emperor's condition to have been one of mania, issuing frequently in the abandonment of all moral restraint. But in that case the authority of Tiberius, which was as firmly upheld during the years spent at Capreae as it had been earlier, must have fallen to pieces and come to an end. With respect to Sejanus, it is impossible to acquit Tiberius of blame. If he was deceived in his favourite he must have been willing to be deceived. He conferred on Sejanus a position as great as had been held by Agrippa during the reign of Augustus, and the minister was actually, and all but formally, joint emperor. Of the administrative ability of Sejanus there can be no question; but the charm and secret of his power lay in the use he made of those apprehensions of personal danger which seem never to have been absent from his master's mind. The growth of "delation," the darkest shadow that lies on the reign, was mainly a consequence of the supremacy and the arts of Sejanus. Historians of Rome in ancient times remembered Tiberius chiefly as the sovereign under whose rule prosecutions for treason on slight pretexts first became rife, and the hateful race of informers was first allowed to fatten on the gains of judicial murder. Augustus had allowed considerable licence of speech and writing against himself, and had made no attempt to set up a doctrine of constructive treason. But the history of the state trials of Tiberius's reign shows conclusively that the straining of the law proceeded in the first instance from the eager flattery of the senate, was in the earlier days checked and controlled to a great extent by the emperor, and was by him acquiesced in at the end of his reign, with a sort of contemptuous indifference, till he developed, under the influence of his fears, a readiness to shed blood.

The principal authorities for the reign of Tiberius are Tacitus and Suetonius. The Annals of Tacitus were not published till nearly eighty years after the death of Tiberius. He rarely quotes an authority by name. In all probability he drew most largely from other historians who had preceded him; to some extent he availed himself of oral tradition; and of archives and original records he made some, but comparatively little, use. In his history of Tiberius two influences were at work, in almost equal strength: on the one hand he strives continually after fairness; on the other the bias of a man steeped in senatorial traditions forbids him to attain it. No historian more frequently refutes himself. Suetonius was a biographer rather than an historian, and the ancient biographer was even less given to exhaustive inquiry than the ancient historian; moreover Suetonius was not gifted with great critical faculty, though he told the truth so far as he could see it. His Lives of the Twelve Caesars was written nearly at the time when Tacitus was composing the Annals, but was published a little later. Velleius Paterculus is by far the oldest authority for any part of Tiberius's life. He had been an officer under Tiberius, and he eulogizes his old general enthusiastically — feeling it necessary, however, to do less than justice to the achievements of Germanicus. To Velleius all defenders of Tiberius have eagerly appealed. In truth it is his silence alone which affords any external aid in repelling the charges of Tacitus and Suetonius, and the fact that Velleius published his work in the lifetime of his master deprives that silence of its value. The eulogy of Sejanus which is linked with that of Tiberius must needs shake faith in the scrupulousness of the author. It is still doubtful whether Dio Cassius (whose History ended with the year 229) in his narrative of the reign of Tiberius is to any great extent independent of Tacitus. In recent times a considerable mass of inscriptions has added to our knowledge of the administration of this emperor. The chief account of Tiberius in English is that contained in Dean Merivale's History of the Romans under the Empire.b Professor E. S. Beesly has written an interesting defence of him in his Catiline, Clodius and Tiberius (1878). The best recent history of this period is Hermann Schiller's Geschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit (Gotha, 1883). Much historical information is given in the editions of the Annals of Tacitus, of which the best in English is that of Furneaux (Oxford, 1884); Freytag, Tiberius and Tacitus (Berlin, 1870) (following Stahr, Tiberius, Berlin, 1863), exposes the inconsistencies of Tacitus' account. Many monographs have since appeared, written on similar lines, among which may be mentioned Ihne, Zur Ehrenrettung des Kaisers Tiberius (Strassburg, 1892); Gentile, L' Imperatore Tiberio secondo la moderna critica storica (1887); J. C. Tarver, Tiberius the Tyrant (1902). The principles of the imperial administration of the provinces by Tiberius have been treated by Mommsen in the fifth volume of his History of Rome, translated into English by W. P. Dickson (1886).

[J. S. R.]


The Author's Note:

1 Horace, Odes, iv.14.


Thayer's Notes:

a Pliny calls him the gloomiest of men: NH 28.23.

b recent works on Tiberius: An extensive, updated bibliography of modern literature on him can be found at the De Imperatoribus Romanus page linked in the navigation bar below.


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