In a television film the Empress Livia, announcing to her son Tiberius that the Emperor has just died, is made to say, in an aside, ‘and by the way, don’t touch the pears’. But she had no reason to want to poison her husband. Their relations had cooled over fifty years of marriage but he was more use to her alive than dead and she didn’t hate him. Augustus had never liked his stepson, son-in-law and, faute de mieux, heir to the imperial throne he had consciously (dissembling heavily the while) created, and Tiberius’ succession was not in his mind a foregone conclusion. Indeed, towards the end of his life he amused himself with guessing games, out loud, as to the identity of the next emperor – who was able and willing, who was willing and not able, who was just greedy for power – and the name of Tiberius was not mentioned. Tiberius, of course, heard of this and the names of the other candidates were lodged in his savagely retentive memory.
Further, at the death of each Emperor of the Julio-Claudian line – Tiberius brought in the gens Claudia, prouder and grander than the Julians – patrician Romans persistently fancied that the Senate might take the opportunity to re-establish consular government with the republican system of checks and balances and its attendant perks and jobs for the boys.
Finally, did Tiberius really want total authority?
He appeared before the Senate, emphasized his own unpretentiousness, compared to the gloire of the instantly deified Augustus, and proposed power-sharing with others. Tiberius was genuinely modest, hating crowds, fuss, pomp, ‘fearing freedom but hating flattery more’. He was also prone to say the opposite of what he meant. At the end of the debate, however, stung in a sensitive part of his psyche, perhaps the only one, by Gallus, who had married his beloved former wife, Vipsania, and by another senator, Arruntius, whom Augustus had admired, who both implied he was evading responsibility, he yielded and accepted the throne. Tiberius was consistent only in being contrary, but was in fact the best candidate, trained for the job, a successful and economical commander in the field, having served as Augustus’ number two for years and shared his tribunicial and proconsular powers. In the event, he ruled impeccably, if without charm or panache, until his unchecked misanthropy turned him into the sadistic and paranoid old tyrant on Capri – in which role he is, unfairly, mostly remembered.
Livia had always been determined that her son should succeed, but not to the point of disposing of the grandsons or of her husband. Neither action had been necessary. She lived to a great age and was rewarded by Tiberius with dislike, his standard response, salted with respect, for he had loved one person only in his life – Vipsania. She was the daughter of Augustus’ favourite man of action, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and Tiberius’ marriage to her had been in the nature of a political alliance; but he had loved her, and when told to divorce her and marry Augustus’ only child, Julia, for a closer, dynastic bond, what heart Tiberius had was broken and never mended. Suetonius tells how seeing Vipsania by chance in Rome he ‘followed her with tears in his eyes and intense unhappiness written on his face; arrangements were made so that he never saw her again’. Tiberius became the dutiful son-in-law, trying to like Julia, but when their child died he turned to loathing her, to war and bibulous evenings in the mess.
His first campaign was against the Cantabrii, a resourceful and dangerous tribe (the Basques?) which Julius Caesar thought he had subdued by sending their men of military age into slavery; but six years later they had simultaneously murdered their masters and reconvened for another rebellion, and they had to be attended to. Then Tiberius crowned a king in Armenia, recovered the standards lost by poor, or rather rich, old Crassus in Parthia, commanded armies in Pannonia (Dalmatia) and in Germany, where he marched to the Elbe and back, taking 40,000 prisoners-of-war to colonize Alsace.30
Although a young man Tiberius became a workhorse of a general and was appropriately honoured, being elected quaestor, praetor and consul before he was really eligible, due to his lack of years. At this point, on the crest of a spectacular career, Tiberius announced his intention to retire to the island of Rhodes, as a private citizen. This cold, gaunt, bitter man, never loved and never understood, with a strong sense of justice and responsibility, was also impulsive, and, as has been said, contrary. He longed to be accepted by men of learning and this was his reason for choosing Rhodes, a beautiful place favoured by Greek scholars, which was for Romans what Florence became for the English, somewhere to imbibe an older and superior culture. The Romans, to whom he had not bothered to say goodbye, said that his self-exile was to avoid his appalling wife and to remove himself from the competition of his stepsons, Gaius and Lucius, then considered by their grandfather, the Emperor, and the Empire most likely to succeed. In Rhodes Tiberius played the modest scholar, wandering round the forum chatting, dressed like an ordinary citizen; but his astrologer, Thrasyllus, was also there, reminding him he could not avoid his destiny. (This all-knowing fellow knew his employer’s mind so well that when asked once why he looked so gloomy, admitted apprehensions that Tiberius wanted him out of the way. He was forgiven.)
Tiberius’ stock in Rome was falling. Like Louis XIV (their only similarity), Augustus did not like absentees. It was assumed that ‘the exile’, as he became known, must be into some kind of conspiracy. He wasn’t, and when Gaius visited nearby Samos, Tiberius attended his court to throw himself at the feet of his stepson and protest he wasn’t. Suspicion still increased and Tiberius, realizing he had been out in the cold long enough, wrote to his mother asking her to plead with the Emperor that he be welcomed home. Augustus never liked Tiberius and after the death of the grandsons, when Tiberius had become his heir, forced himself, for reasons of state, to be civil, even intimate, but his letters to Tiberius glow with insincerity. Augustus was exceedingly vain, as his Res Gestae, the account of his achievements, dictated by himself and engraved on an enormous tablet for all to applaud, clearly and precisely shows. Not an aqueduct or temple built or restored, not a benefaction, not a province conquered or a law initiated is omitted from this self-satisfied recital. But he was anxious to be loved as well as revered by posterity. Like many cruel men he was sentimental. Suetonius suggests that one reason for Augustus’ choice of Tiberius was that his stepson was so unpleasant that his own reign would be remembered with even greater affection.
In his early days as Emperor, Tiberius was circumspect. He consulted the Senate on every matter, encouraging debate. Not he but Augustus or Livia had arranged for his possible rival, Agrippa Postumus, Julia’s remaining son who was regarded by all as a bad hat, to be put to death. He obeyed Augustus’ instructions – he left a lot – in naming Germanicus (the nephew of whom he was jealous, popular son of a popular father) his heir, and while this young man and his mother were alive Tiberius behaved well. Indeed during these years, described by Tacitus as mitia tempora, Italy and the Empire prospered, conscientiously monitored by an Emperor who respected the laws and the constitution, rose in the presence of consuls, gave way to them in the streets, kept a modest household with few slaves, spent no money on himself (or anybody else), refused grandiose titles and deferred to the Senate, whose judicial powers were increased at the expense of the popular assembly. These good years, which were a blessing, did not last. Tiberius despised senators for their deference towards him. ‘Oh you lot, fit only for servitude’, he was heard to mutter, in Greek, after one session.31
The first bleak sign of tyranny – of the kind of tyranny Caligula was later to enjoy with such zest and caprice – was the re-establishment, in dangerously undefined terms, of the law of treason; originally designed to protect the Republic from subversion, by making maiestas (lèse majesté) a crime against the state, it became an excuse for the princeps, or anybody who wished to ingratiate themselves with him, to punish those who had offended him, however trivially. There was no public prosecutor in Rome and any citizen could bring a charge, so a whole new profession was born, the delatores, denouncers or informers. (Romans had a nomenclature for everybody; legacy hunters were captatores.) At first Tiberius resisted their uncongenial activities. The first accused was a knight, for allowing an actor (a synonym, as we have observed, for a male tart) to join the worshippers of a cult of Augustus and for selling, along with a garden property, a statue of the god, his predecessor. Tiberius reacted with scratchy propriety, writing to the consuls that Augustus had not been made divine in order to ruin Roman citizens, that the actor in question had been taken to Games given in honour of Augustus by his mother Augusta (Livia had been belatedly elevated to this honorific) and that selling a statue was not a sacrilege. So that was that.
Next, a governor of Bithynia was accused by his assistant and colleague, a man who ‘created a career which was to be made notorious by the villainous products of subsequent gloomy years’. ‘Needy, obscure and restless he wormed his way by secret reports into the grim Emperor’s confidence. ‘Then anyone of any eminence was in danger from him,’ wrote Tacitus of this early McCarthy. The charge was that the governor had bad-mouthed the Emperor, telling stories about his meanness, his fondness for wine, his dislike of his mother – stories serious (and accurate) enough to warrant a conviction. Tacitus continues that ‘the Emperor “lost his temper” and, voluble for once, exclaimed that he personally would vote, openly and on oath . . . Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso asked: “Caesar, will you vote first or last? If first, I shall have your lead to follow; if last, I am afraid of inadvertently voting against you.” This struck home . . . Tiberius voted for acquittal.’ (Tacitus, The Annals of Ancient Rome, tr. Michael Grant, Penguin.)
The new métier of delator appealed to an increasingly suspicious and sensitive Emperor, especially after his retreat from Rome to Capri, and his dependence on men without scruples is epitomized by the rise and fall of the favourite Sejanus, with whom the morale and morality of Rome hit a distressful low.
Caprae (Capri) was and is an enchanting island, opposite Baiae (Naples), where Augustus had built a villa, having exchanged it with the municipality for Ischia. The climate is balmy, the sea crystal and though tiny the landscape is varied. (Anacapri, where Axel Munthe lived at San Michele, has a feeling quite different from Capri, its inhabitants being still visibly of Greek descent.) The views are splendid and the dawn touching the cliffs between the twin rocks of the Faraglione – which Tiberius, from one of his twelve houses, must have seen often – is one of nature’s great polychromatic shows. More to the point, he could see who was approaching from afar and relished the economy of the small number of guards needed for his protection. The Emperor did not like unexpected callers – as the fisherman, who scaled the cliffs to present him with a mullet, found out; a langouste was rubbed in his face and he was thrown back into the sea.
From this natural fortress, where, it was hoped, he had gone to die, Tiberius ruled the Empire for the last eleven years of his life, the first five through Sejanus, who had talked him into this voluntary exile and had further strengthened his hold on the Emperor by saving his life when a grotto, in which they were dining on the journey south, had collapsed. Sejanus was the first adventurer to effect a (sort of) coup d’état in Rome without an army, for Augustus had succeeded in removing this opportunity from generals by regulating their commands and paying their troops direct. Power therefore was now centred on the imperial palace and the Praetorian Guard, which Sejanus had regrouped in one barracks under his sole command. People who mistrust everybody often trust one person too much.
Sejanus’ weapons were slander, intrigue and poison and his strength was his access to Tiberius, who trusted him and called him ‘the partner of my labours’. He was the son of a knight, who became a prefect of the Praetorian Guard and had made some money in his youth, it was said, out of a rich old queen, before joining the staff of Gaius, Augustus’ grandson and putative heir. He was strong, tireless and hard-working. A quiet exterior concealed implacable and indeed outrageous ambition, but Tiberius only noticed and applauded his conscientiousness – to such an extent that Tiberius’ son was once provoked to engage him in fisticuffs. That there were many legitimate heirs between him and the imperial purple did not daunt Sejanus. He began by seducing Drusus’ wife Livilla, sister of Germanicus, promising her a share in the Empire which one day would surely be his, and the death of her husband, who was a bad-tempered bully. In AD 23 Drusus suddenly died and everyone, except the grieving father, Tiberius, suspected poison. He leaned harder on Sejanus, who had divorced his own wife, but would not let him marry Livilla until some time later. He did listen, however, to his tales of conspiracy against him by his niece Agrippina, whose children now looked like his heirs. There were too many of them and they were too protected, or so it seemed, until Livia died, aged eighty-six, and Tiberius left Rome. In that year, through the influence of Sejanus, Agrippina and her son Nero (not the future Emperor) were banished and the other boy, another Drusus, imprisoned.
To Romans, Sejanus with his pride and power seemed to be Emperor, Tiberius a mere island potentate. He was poised to marry into the imperial family now that he had permission – his friends controlled the crucial provinces, he, the Praetorian Guard. In AD 31 he became consul with Tiberius and there seemed no limit to his ambition.
At last Tiberius, prompted perhaps by a warning letter from Antonia, widow of his brother Drusus and mother of Germanicus, stirred. He moved carefully, testing and muddying the waters. He sent for his young great-nephew Gaius (the future Emperor Caligula), whose brother Nero had died and who had been living neglected in Rome. He sent conflicting signals to Sejanus, that he was on the point of death, that he was well and coming to Rome, that Sejanus could be a priest with Gaius; and then, noticing how well this went down with the soldiery, who loved the memory of Gaius’ father, Germanicus, hinted that he might make Gaius his successor. The Emperor went on to support an enemy of Sejanus, blocking a prosecution, and referred to Sejanus in an offhand way in a letter to the Senate; he forbade sacrifices in honour of any human being, including Sejanus, whom he was reported as alternately praising and denouncing. Sejanus was rattled, wishing he had struck when he had been consul – but he still could, because he still had the Praetorian Guard.
Romans began to cut Sejanus. The crowd seeking favours at his doors thinned, and when this was reported back to Tiberius he decided to set his plan in motion. No conspirator moved more cunningly and, now, more swiftly than the Emperor in the destruction of his former favourite. First, to quieten him, he let it be known that he intended for Sejanus the tribunician power, that authority which guaranteed immunity from arrest. Then he wrote a long letter of denunciation to be read out to the Senate, which he entrusted to Naevius Sertorius Macro, the new confidant he had made commander of the bodyguard. (We now know from an inscription that he had once been a prefect of the Vigiles, so he was a good choice.) Macro entered the city at night, briefed one of the consuls – the other being on Sejanus’ side – and confided in the commander of the Night Watch. At dawn he climbed up the Palatine Hill to the Temple of Apollo, where the Senate was to meet.
Macro saw Sejanus pacing up and down outside, worried that he had no message from Tiberius. Macro told him (in the strictest confidence) that the Emperor had decided to give him the tribunician power, at which news Sejanus bounded happily into the Senate. Macro was then able to order the Praetorians (Sejanus’ men) to return to their barracks, having sweetened them with Tiberius’ promises of donatives. They were replaced by men from the Night Watch. At times of crisis, control of the guards outside the Senate was more important than the majority inside the chamber. Then the admirably efficient Macro hurried off to the camp to prevent any uprising, having handed over Tiberius’ letter to the consuls.
Tacitus tells how, as this tortuous and finally damning document was read out, the senators at first cheered Sejanus, believing, as he did, that more authority was to be given him, but as the tone changed and the intention of Tiberius to unmask him became clear, the senators seated near him moved away and praetors and tribunes moved in to prevent his leaving the chamber and creating trouble. But Sejanus stayed in his seat, unable to believe his ears. Once, twice, thrice the consul Regulus, pointing to him, summoned him. ‘Who, me?’ answered Sejanus, unaccustomed to being addressed in this way. Finally he stood up and was joined by the commander of the Night Watch, Laco. At the conclusion of what Juvenal described seventy years later (for the downfall of the tyrant became legendary) as ‘the long and wordy letter from Capri’, Regulus asked one senator if he thought there was any reason why Sejanus should not be imprisoned. When the answer was no, Laco led him off.
Each movement in this affair had been choreographed by the fearful old man on Capri; in one day, a figure who had been honoured as second only to the Emperor saw his images overturned and was reduced to having his face beaten as if he were a runaway slave, as he was led to his execution. His body was abused by the mob then thrown into the river and his children were put to death, his daughter being first betrothed then violated, for a virgin could not be executed – a convention still honoured, if that is the word, in some parts of the world to this day. The episode did not honour the Senate and People of Rome, even if the Emperor’s chief appetite, revenge, had been temporarily satisfied. The evil that Sejanus did lived long after his humiliating death. His first wife wrote to Tiberius how Sejanus had poisoned Drusus, slowly, over the years. Tiberius spared the second wife, Livilla, out of consideration for her mother, Antonia, who then starved her daughter to death.
Rome, thinking the Sejanus chapter was closed, breathed a sigh of relief, hoping for a balmier breeze from the sweet isle of Capri; it was not to be. For Tiberius the ‘conspiracy’ – there had not been one, as we have seen – was an opportunity for private revenge. He was quite selective,32 executing another twenty of Sejanus’ followers in AD 33 before amnestying the rest. That year is better known for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth under Pontius Pilate, Procurator or Prefect of Judaea.
Tiberius, with no need to justify himself militarily as Emperor, followed the injunction of Augustus about freezing the frontiers of Rome. He had only three small local difficulties in Thrace, Gaul and Africa (Libya and Tunisia) to deal with. His handling of the provinces was so sensible – ‘You should shear my sheep, not flay them’, was his rebuke to a greedy governor – that under him the Empire was peaceful. He chose intelligent governors like L. Vitellius, legate for Syria, into which province Palestine was subsumed. By the standards of the day, modern historians have judged Pilate to be ‘below average’ (vide H.H. Scullard quoted above) and even discounting the complaints against him from the Jews (who, alone of his clan, Tiberius had not favoured), the fact that his superior Vitellius sent him to Rome to stand trial for, amongst other offences, the unnecessary massacre of some Samaritans, suggests that the reputation of Pilate as a just man is more biblical than historical. The story that he reported the punishment of Jesus to Tiberius is equally untrue.
Tiberius’ resignation to a vicious old age on Capri was compounded by the death of his mother, his nephew Germanicus and his son Drusus, but when it was revealed to him that Sejanus, whom he had so trusted, had conspired with his daughter-in-law to poison his son, Tiberius collapsed and for nine months did not leave his villa. However, he never abandoned his duties – although these were less amply recorded than his debaucheries, because all Roman historians were nearer in spirit to Confidential and the News of the World than to the Wall Street Journal or the Economist. Details of public administration or private industry bored them. Tacitus, says Professor Reid (Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge), used as a (poisoned) source for his accounts of Tiberius’ sexual depravity and his ingenious, sadistic and, presumably usually unsuccessful, attempts to achieve orgasm the memoirs of the younger Agrippina. One can tell from the epigrams of Martial and the satires of Juvenal and even the letters of Cicero that Romans gossiped, lied and exaggerated a lot about each other’s private lives and especially about their Emperors. Tiberius, they said, used to boast about his ‘minnows’ who fellated him under water. One wonders how.33 He is also supposed to have obliged the noble youths of Rome to become his catamites. None of them, however, came to any serious harm, and one, Galba, became Emperor. It amused him to have people flogged – a constant Roman pastime but in his case often just for crossing his path and once a newborn babe, removed from its mother’s breast, for crying. This behaviour was rooted in hate, unleashed in the form of sadism, when there was no one left alive to restrain him. Professor Reid wrote of Tiberius: ‘It is a question whether he ever liked or was liked by a single being.’ The answer must be no, save for his first wife, Vipsania of course, whom he was forced to exchange for Augustus’ daughter Julia. Apart from the sexual, his consistent pleasure was in the company of what he would have called his fellow intellectuals, lawyers and men of letters whom he put up in his villas on Capri and who put up with him. Their continued, voluntary, presence suggests that Tiberius cannot have been totally, as he was often described, uncongenial, all the time and to everybody. He was the most unkindly represented of all our Emperors but his real crime was to have been depressed and depressing. Conscientious in the matter of bread for the people, mean over circuses, secretive, devious, calculating and lonely – and finally, like Hitler in his bunker, loathing his own people – he was, like Hitler, dangerous and powerful till his dying day.
His problem, solus et senex, alone and old, was the succession. His grandson Gemellus, the son of Drusus, was too young and his nephew Claudius was generally, but as we shall see, wrongly, thought to be feeble-minded, so the next Emperor had to be Gaius, nicknamed ‘Caligula’, from the soldiers’ leggings he had worn when displayed as an infant to the mutinous Roman army on the Rhine by his mother Agrippina. This young man, untrained, except in the art of dissimulation – and was there not a saying, ‘Who cannot dissemble will never be king’? – was recognized by Tiberius, with satisfaction, as a ‘serpent’ (his phrase) and as such the appropriate legacy to bequeath to an ungrateful Rome. He therefore made Caligula co-heir with Gemellus – at one moment taking that little boy in his arms and, with tears in his eyes, indicating Caligula and saying, ‘He will kill you.’
Tiberius’ later actions were worthy of the administrator who had always done the right thing. He solved a financial crisis with an interest-free loan to debtors, he paid for the restoration of buildings damaged by fire on the Aventine out of his own pocket, he reduced the sales tax and when he died there was a surplus of 2,700 million sesterces in the public treasury.
The manner of Tiberius’ death was characteristically tricky. Since the age of thirty he had disdained doctors and so issued his own bulletins as to his state of health. His ability to dissimulate was the last of his senses to go. On 16 March AD 37 he ceased to breathe, and Gaius began to breathe freely. Then suddenly he called out for something to eat. There was a general panic. Gaius was stunned. Nobody answered his call and Macro, the man he had trusted since the death of Sejanus, ordered him to be smothered with his own bedclothes and left alone. When the news reached Rome the people went wild with joy. ‘Tiberius to the Tiber!’ was the cry. But Tiberius had his revenge. He had left them Caligula.