Tiberius Caesar Augustus (November 16, 42 BC- March 16, 37 AD), was the second Roman emperor. Being the adopted son of Augustus, he succeeded him in 14 AD and reigned until 37 AD.
Early Life and the Succession Question
Tiberius was born in Rome on 16 November 42 BC. His parents were Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla, who belonged to the gens Claudia, an ancient patrician family. In 38 BC, his mother was forced to divorce his father to marry emperor Augustus. A few years later, his father passed away and Tiberius and his brother Drusus went to live with Livia and Augustus. As no successor of Augustus had yet been chosen, they received an education that would prepare them to be the next emperor.
In 24 BC, Tiberius entered politics under the emperor’s guidance. His career was full of successes: he became quaestor, praetor and consul at a very young age and received the power of a tribune for five years. In 19 BC he married Vipsania Agrippina, daughter of Agrippa, with whom he had a son, Drusus Julius Caesar. When Agrippa died in 12 BC, Tiberius was forced to divorce Vipsania and marry Augustus’ daughter Livia Julia the Elder, who was also Agrippa’s widow. This elevated Tiberius with respect to the succession and, following Drusus’ death in 9 BC, it became clear that he would be Augustus’ heir. As a result, he received military commissions in Pannonia and Germania.
During these campaigns, Tiberius achieved several victories and succeeded in subjugating various Germanic tribes. Consequently, he was offered control of the eastern Roman forces. However, on the verge of accepting to command them, he announced his retirement to Rhodes. This posed a threat to Augustus’ succession plan, as the emperor’s grandsons (Gaius and Lucius) were still teens and this left him with no successor. Although Tiberius requested to return to Rome several times, Augustus rejected his requests. However, the situation changed when Lucius and Gaius died, and the emperor had no choice but to allow Tiberius to return and adopt him as full son and heir.
When Augustus passed away in 14 AD, Tiberius became emperor. During his first years of reign, he proved himself to be an effective and wise administrator by intervening in matters of state to put a stop to abuses and excesses. Still, he had a difficult relationship with the Senate, which was the only threat to his power, and tried to intimidate it by concentrating the Praetorian Guard in Rome.
Tiberius’ reign was also marked by acts of repression, such as the abolition of Egyptian and Jewish cults in Rome and the practice of the delation. The latter consisted of accusations of crimes mainly against well-to-do citizens and established large fines which went to the imperial treasury and to the prosecutor. As there were no paid prosecutors, any citizen could volunteer to act as it and collect a share of the fine.
After his son Drusus died in 23 AD, Tiberius began to delegate his authority to Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard. Thus, Tiberius was emperor only in name. A few years later, in 26 AD, Tiberius retired to Capri and never returned to Rome. During this time, rumours started to spread about his luxurious lifestyle and licentious acts. In the meanwhile, Sejanus was named Socius Laborum and began a series of purge trials to get rid of those members of the Senate and society who could be a threat to his power.
However, Tiberius soon realized how weak his position was and in 31 AD accused Sejanus of conspiracy. Soon afterwards, Sejanus was executed for treason and Tiberius began a reign of terror that lasted until his death six years later. Still, Tiberius’ main concern was deciding who would be his successor. His choice was Gaius (Caligula), his adopted grandson, who became heir to the throne.
Death and Legacy
On March 15, 37 AD, Tiberius suffered an injury during a ceremonial game and lapsed into a comma. Caligula was sent for and news of the succession spread to the world. However, Tiberius recovered consciousness and everyone was thrown into confusion. The following day, the Praetorian Guard commander, Macro, murdered the emperor by smothering him with his bedsheets.
In spite of Tiberius’ negative characterization left by Roman historians, he left the empire prosperous and stable, which allowed it to survive the excesses of his successors. Moreover, he strengthened it by ensuring that the institutions introduced by Augustus remained for centuries. All in all, historians agree that without him the empire would probably have been far shorter.
- roman empire
- roman emperor
- the twelve caesars