Ancient History & Civilisation





Taking the Wolf by its Ears

Until Augustus built him one, Mars had never had a temple within the sacred limits of Rome. The pomerium, ploughed by Romulus and consecrated by the blood of Remus, had always served to mark the border between the twin worlds of war and peace. Only when celebrating a triumph were a general and his army permitted to enter Rome; otherwise, it was sternly forbidden soldiers to trespass on land consecrated to Jupiter. The realm of Mars lay instead in an expanse of flat land that stretched between the western course of the pomerium and the curving of the Tiber. It was here, in ancient times, that the Roman people had convened in times of war; here too that they had gathered every year, in an assembly known as the comitia centuriata, modelled on the primordial army of the kings, to vote for their senior magistrates. A fitting place, then, to consign to the heavens a man who had secured more conquests for the Roman people than any citizen in history, and served them a record thirteen times as consul. Ascending from the flames of his pyre, the divine Augustus would have gazed down upon a plain long sanctified by the primordial rhythms of the campaigning season and the electioneering of statesmen: the Campus Martius.

Much had changed, though, over the course of his long supremacy, on the field of Mars. Even before his first appearance on the political scene, the ambitions of rival warlords had seen the ancient parade ground of the Roman people starting to vanish beneath marble and parkland. It was on the Campus that Pompey had planted his vast stone theatre; it was on the Campus that Antony had boasted a notoriously luxurious garden.1 Both, inevitably, had ended up under the wing of Augustus – who had then, as was his habit, trumped them with spectacular developments of his own. Presented with a greenfield site right on the doorstep of Rome, he had naturally seized the opportunity to set his stamp on it once and for all. Mourners, as they gathered on the Campus to witness the final journey of the Princeps to his funeral pyre, had been able to admire an assemblage of his grands projets. Altars, temples, obelisks: all redounded to his glory. Particularly imposing was the mausoleum in which Livia had reverently deposited his ashes. Though it was common for tombs to line the approaches of Rome, none could possibly compare for sheer scale with that of Augustus. Built in the early years of his supremacy, it provided him in death with the kind of ostentatious residence that he had always been chary of in life. Certainly, no other citizen had thought to commission for himself a vast tumulus, complete with a marble base, a ring of poplars, and a gilded self-portrait on the top. A worthy resting place for the mortal remains of a god.

All of which, from the perspective of his adopted son, only made it the more intimidating to follow in his footsteps. Already, reading out Augustus’s will to the Senate, Tiberius had choked, begun to sob, then handed over the document to Drusus to complete on his behalf. A revealing moment. Flinty as Tiberius was, and contemptuous of histrionics, he was hardly the man to fake a breakdown. A veil had briefly been lifted on the ferocious stresses that came with being the heir of Augustus. A fortnight later, on 17 September, the pressure had been ratcheted up even more. The Senate’s decision to confirm the divinity of the dead Princeps meant that Tiberius, just like Augustus, had become divi filius, ‘the son of a god’. A glamorous-seeming promotion, to be sure – but not one that necessarily worked to his advantage. Even though Ovid, desperate enough by now to try anything, would soon be lauding Tiberius from the distant shores of the Black Sea as ‘equal in virtus to his father’,2 such praise was off-key, sycophantic, embarrassing. No one could equal Augustus. He had saved the Republic, redeemed the Roman people. Tiberius, no less than anyone else, had grown up in his shadow – and everybody knew it. The mould of what it meant to be an imperator, an ‘emperor’, had been irreducibly set. Even dead, Augustus continued to set the standard. Lying on his deathbed, he had demanded applause for his performance in ‘the comedy of life’;3 but his heir, never a good actor, was now being obliged to take on the role of Augustus himself. Trapped on a stage-set not of his own making, the new Princeps had no choice but to act out a part already scripted for him by a god. The more that Tiberius Julius Caesar laid claim to the inheritance of his adoptive father, the less he could be himself.

‘Only the deified Augustus had the strength of mind to cope with the burden of his responsibilities.’4 Addressing the Senate in the wake of its confirmation that the dead Princeps had indeed ascended to the heavens, Tiberius spoke plainly. He was in his fifties. His eyesight was going. It was out of the question that he do as invited, and adopt the title of ‘Augustus’. If anything, Tiberius informed his fellow senators, he would like to retire and live as a private citizen. Let the Senate rule. Patently, this was an attempt to play the same game that Augustus, veiling his dominance behind a show of false modesty, had always exploited to such brilliant effect – but it was also something else. Oppressed by the obligation to dissolve his identity into that of someone who had just been declared a god, Tiberius was making one last, despairing attempt to be his own man.

In his heart, after all, he remained what he had always been: an aristocrat among aristocrats, and proud of it. The dying Augustus, after his last conversation with Tiberius, was said to have expressed pity for the masses, fated ‘to be ground between such remorseless jaws’.5 The ideals with which the new Princeps identified were those of his ancestors from the upright, primeval days of the Republic: Claudians who, in the conflict between aristocracy and plebs, had stood resolute for the interests of their class. It was Tiberius’s intention, in his first policy statement to the Senate, to present a measure that not even the most reactionary of them would have contemplated. A few decades earlier, out on the Campus, the old wooden voting-pens where the Roman people still gathered to elect their consuls had been given a comprehensive makeover. What had originally been nicknamed the ‘sheepfold’ was now, thanks to the sponsorship of Agrippa, an array of marble porticoes and colonnades: the Saepta. So beautifully did it gleam, indeed, that elections seemed rather wasted on it. With the voters of the comitia centuriata only meeting on an irregular basis, the complex had come to serve as one of Rome’s premier venues for extravaganzas and luxury shopping. Now, in his address to the Senate, Tiberius took the final, logical step. Elections in the Saepta, he announced, were terminated. No longer would thecomitia centuriata be assembling to vote for magistrates. Competition for the consulship was henceforward to be confined to the Senate House. Why should the plebs, raucous and vulgar as they were, be trusted with a responsibility that properly belonged to their betters? Only senators, those repositories of all that was best and noblest about the Republic, could be permitted to exercise it. The age-old dream of Roman conservatives down the ages seemed fulfilled at last. ‘The lower orders, while not cringing before their betters, were to respect them; the mighty, while not despising their inferiors, were to keep them under their thumb.’6

A manifesto calculated to enthuse the Senate, it might have been thought. Tiberius was banking, though, upon two mutually exclusive fantasies: that senators would prove worthy of the great charge laid upon them; and that they would willingly and without compulsion do so by acknowledging him as Princeps. Three-quarters of a century before, returning home in triumph from his pacification of the East, Pompey had nurtured a similarly fond hope: that the Senate would recognise its duty to the Republic by freely doing as he said. The challenge of squaring that particular circle had helped to precipitate civil war and the ultimate dominance of Augustus; now, as senators listened to Tiberius in bemused silence, it resulted only in awkward squirming. The subtlety of what he wanted was far too knotted for them to unpick. That they should cast off the habit of obedience to an autocrat and reclaim their ancestral liberties, only then to demonstrate their principles by hailing him as Princeps: here was a paradox that few of them could fathom. The more that Tiberius insisted upon the pre-eminence of the Senate, the more the Senate insisted upon his. They understood – or rather, they thought they understood – the rules of the game. ‘How long, O Caesar, will you suffer the Republic to lack a head?’7

Sure enough, by the evening of the 17th, a long, exhausting and fractious session had arrived at its foregone conclusion. Tiberius, frustrated in his attempt to emerge from Augustus’s shadow, had reluctantly accepted, if not the supremacy pressed on him by the Senate, then at least that he would no longer refuse it. Yet the senators too, bemused by their dawning realisation that his hesitancy had been more than just a show, were left unsettled. The genius of Augustus had been for veiling the compromises, the contradictions, the hypocrisies of his regime. But Tiberius, racked by self-contempt, lacked a ready facility for putting his fellow senators at ease. He had been too long away from Rome – in Rhodes, the Balkans and Germany – to have anything like an instinctive command of their various factions and cliques. Augustus, sensitive to the problem, had attempted to ease it shortly before his death by formally ‘entrusting the Senate to Tiberius’8 – just as an anxious parent might make provision for his sons. This, though, when the new Princeps was reminded of it, and urged to accept the title of ‘Father of his Country’, only compounded his embarrassment. How was the founding claim of the new order, that the supremacy of Rome’s first citizen was not equivalent to that of a monarch, to survive such a blatant transfer of title? Unsurprisingly, Tiberius turned it down. After all, had the new Princeps simply done as the Senate urged, and accepted that ‘he had succeeded to the station of his father’,9 then the façade of a free republic would have sustained catastrophic damage – perhaps beyond repair.

All the same, the price paid by Tiberius was crippling. Rigid of principle, awkward of manner, hypocrisy did not come nearly as naturally to him as it had done to Augustus. The result, paradoxically, was to make him seem all the more a hypocrite. ‘In his speeches, he never articulated what he really wanted, and when he did express a desire for something, invariably he did not mean it. His words only ever conveyed the opposite of his true purpose.’10 A damning, but not unjustified, verdict. The bewilderment that senators felt in trying to fathom Tiberius’s enigmatic silences, his muscle-bound circumlocutions, was due reflection of the Princeps’s own tortured conscience. No matter how genuine the respect he felt for the Senate’s venerable heritage of free speech, no matter how unvaryingly he showed his respect for the consuls by rising to his feet at their approach, there was one tradition that he would not, could not, honour. Tiberius, who had been leading his fellow citizens into battle since his early twenties, had spent many decades watching them bare their teeth and extend their claws. He knew what milk had been imbibed by the infant Romulus. To lead the Roman people, so he declared, was ‘to hold a wolf by its ears’.11 That being so, he was not prepared to take any chances. Even before he could move to deprive the comitia centuriata of their votes, he had already trampled upon another cherished tradition. Arriving in Rome with the corpse of Augustus, he had done so accompanied by a large retinue of troops. In the Senate House, in the Forum, in all the various places consecrated to the ancestral right of the Roman people to express themselves as they pleased, there had sounded the clattering of caligae, hobnailed military boots. Pomerium or not, spears and swords were everywhere in evidence.

True, there was something of a costume drama about many of these weapons, the parade-ground touch of a vanished era. The guards who attended the Emperor, when they walked the streets of Rome, sported arms reminiscent of the days of Pompey and Julius Caesar. They also made sure to wear civilian dress. Innovation fused with heritage, and menace with reassurance: here, unmistakably, was the touch of Augustus. Almost half a century before, during his heroic defence of the Roman people against Cleopatra, he had been guarded, as was the right of any magistrate on campaign, by a cohors praetoria, a ‘commander’s unit’. Rather than disband this on his return from Egypt, as custom would have dictated, he had discreetly maintained it. Although he had stationed some of the Praetorians outside Rome, others had been billeted in various unobtrusive locations within the city itself. By 2 BC, the Roman people had become sufficiently habituated to these guards that Augustus had felt able to formalise their existence. Prompted, perhaps, by the shock of his daughter’s downfall, he had instituted an official command.12 Clearly, it was out of the question for a senator to be entrusted with such a sensitive responsibility; and so Augustus had appointed two equestrians. Neither he nor Tiberius would ever openly have admitted it, of course, but both men, in their preparations for the transfer of power, had realised that ensuring the loyalty of the Praetorians was now the key to securing Rome.

Sure enough, a few months before his death, Augustus had given his guards a massive pay rise; and in due course, when the oath of loyalty to Tiberius came to be sworn, only the consuls had taken precedence over their commander. Seius Strabo, the Praetorian prefect, was an Etrurian from the determinedly provincial town of Volsinii, famous for the invention of the hand-mill and not a great deal else; but he was competent, cultured and, crucially, an equestrian. He also had a son, Aelius Sejanus, who, despite an early posting on Gaius’s ill-fated expedition to the East, had since become a much-valued partisan of Tiberius. The new Princeps did not take long to demonstrate his appreciation. One of his first appointments was to promote Sejanus to the joint command of the Praetorians alongside his father. Those alert to the substance of power, rather than to its show, had no doubt as to the implications. Tiberius’s agonising in the Senate House was, to all intents and purposes, an irrelevance. ‘In the military sphere, there had been no prevarication; instead, he had immediately adopted and begun exercising the powers of a Princeps.’13

Except that the military, of course, were not confined to Rome. Out on the frontiers, the perks and donatives lavished on the Praetorians had not gone unnoticed. In Pannonia and Germany, where the desperate efforts of the previous decade had required conscripts to be force-marched to the front and reservists chivvied out of their retirement, resentments ran particularly deep. ‘Floggings and injuries, harsh winters and summers on manoeuvre, grim war and peace without profit – all relentless!’14 No sooner had tidings of Augustus’s death reached the northern front than mutterings like these were flaring up into direct insubordination. With startling speed, the flames of mutiny began to spread along the Danube and the Rhine.

Brought the news, Tiberius was appalled. He knew, none better, the vital importance of keeping the frontiers secure. It was the measure of his dismay that he sent as his emissary to Pannonia both his only natural son, Drusus, and his most trusted lieutenant, Sejanus. The mission was to prove perilous. Riding into the very heart of the camp, Drusus found his attempts at negotiation confronting a firestorm of rage. When his withdrawal was blocked, it seemed, as dusk fell, that he and his whole escort might be lynched. Drusus, though, was not his father’s son for nothing: obdurate and untiring in equal measure, he spent the night working on the mutineers, summoning them, by the pale light of a full moon, to a sense of their duty. Gradually he worked them round. When, by lucky chance, a lunar eclipse cast the camp into sudden darkness, the soldiers took it for an omen, wailing that the gods were sickened by their crimes. By daybreak, the mutiny was effectively over. Two of the ringleaders were put to death that same morning, and others hunted down. Steady rain then extinguished the final embers of revolt. Drusus, who had never before been inside a legionary camp, let alone been given responsibility for three legions, had risen to a mortal challenge with courage and skill. He could be well satisfied with his efforts. So too, back in Rome, could Tiberius.

Nevertheless, the jolt given to his confidence was a jarring one. As a general, he had always set a premium on obligation and commitment. The oath of duty spoken by a legionary, the sacramentum, was of a peculiarly fearsome order, and to break it a terrible thing. The men who swore it, although granted by its terms a licence denied civilians to fight and kill, were simultaneously deprived of rights that were the essence of citizenship. There was nothing of Rome’s chaotic snarl of streets in the measured grid of a legionary base. No matter where it might be planted, whether beneath the grey clouds of the North or the broiling African sun, its plan would be identical to that of every other camp across the empire. Within its ditches and palisades, discipline was absolute. Everyone, from general to lowest recruit, knew his place. The self-description of one particular centurion might well have applied to all. ‘For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, “Go,” and he goes; and to another, “Come,” and he comes.’15 It was the pledge of the citizen who swore the sacramentum that he would readily commit himself to obedience. The sanctions against insubordination were correspondingly ferocious. Not for nothing was the emblem of the centurion a vine-stick. So notorious was one particular martinet for breaking his on the backs of his men that he was nicknamed ‘Bring Me Another’.16 Cornered by the mutineers in Pannonia, he had been torn to pieces. In Germany too, it was the centurions who bore the brunt of the soldiers’ hatred. In Vetera, a huge legionary base standing guard over the confluence of the Rhine with the Lippe, many of the officers were pinned to the ground and given sixty strokes with their own rods, before being flung into the river. Then, drunk on their own violence, the mutineers began to contemplate savageries better suited to the barbarians they were supposed to be standing guard against: the abandonment of their positions, the sacking of the Altar of the Ubians, a bare sixty miles to the south, the despoliation of Gaul. Such, it seemed, was the menace of a wolf that had tossed off its rider.

In the event, although the mutiny in Germany was on a much graver scale than that in Pannonia, it too was suppressed – and by a son of Tiberius to boot. Germanicus, adopted by his uncle a decade earlier, had followed his first consulship in AD 12 by travelling north of the Alps, there to serve as governor of Gaul and commander-in-chief of the German front. News of the mutiny reached him hot on the heels of the announcement of Augustus’s death; and so naturally he headed directly to the Rhine. There, lacking the helpful intervention of an eclipse, and desperate not to risk the frontier firmed up with such effort by Tiberius, he adopted a number of expedients. Concessions were combined with executions, histrionic appeals with threats. Sure enough, by mid-autumn, order had been restored. The legionaries of Vetera, in a violent spasm of repentance, first massacred the more mutinous among their own comrades, then demanded of Germanicus – who with his customary showiness had affected to be appalled by the slaughter he found in their camp – that he lead them against the barbarians. A quick strike across the Rhine, the incineration of fifty square miles’ worth of villages, and the soldiers were left much cheered up. ‘Returning to camp for winter, it was with their confidence boosted, and recent events quite forgotten.’17

But Tiberius did not forget them. There had been a sinister dimension to the mutiny in Germany lacking in Pannonia. The concentration of troops along the Rhine, as Tiberius himself knew better than anyone, was easily the most formidable in the entire empire – and Germanicus, on his first arrival in Vetera, had been pressed by the mutineers to ride at their head on Rome. That Germanicus himself had reacted with horror to the suggestion, displaying throughout an unimpeachable loyalty to his uncle, had not set Tiberius at rest. Reports of the events in Vetera provided an uncomfortable parody of his own coming to power. The stilted expressions of support that he had received from the Senate seemed mocked by the violent enthusiasm of the legionaries for his nephew; his own agonised prevarications, when set against the flamboyant shock displayed by Germanicus at the soldiers’ urgings, could not help but seem the more insincere. Most unsettling of all, to a man appalled by any hint of mob rule, were the reports of the mutineers’ ultimate ambitions. ‘They wished to have a new leader, a new order, a new system of government; they presumed to threaten the Senate, even the Princeps, with new laws – laws which were to be dictated by themselves.’18 Nothing, to the man who had just terminated centuries of voting on the Campus, could possibly have appeared more monstrous.

It did not, though, come as a total shock. Tiberius had painful memories of the irresponsibility of the masses: of their scorn for the discipline and self-control that were properly the virtues of the Roman people; of their shiftless enthusiasm for the young, the glamorous, the wilful; of their identification with his former wife and her children. All the more alarming, then, that the canker of insubordination should have infected soldiers he had personally trained, in camps he had buttressed himself. Indeed, it had seemed, during the worst moments of the mutiny, that very little was sacred. Visiting senators had been manhandled, a former consul almost lynched. Even Germanicus himself, defying the mutineers’ demands, had at one point been jeered and menaced: for when he had declared, with a typical flourish, that he would rather stab himself than betray Tiberius, a soldier had drawn a sword and offered him the loan of it. Popular though he was among the legions in Germany, there were others more popular yet. Germanicus had a woman of radiant glamour present with him on the frontier. Not all Julia’s children were dead or exiled. Agrippina, the last of Augustus’s grandchildren still at liberty, had been married to Germanicus a decade earlier – and during the mutiny had accompanied her husband to the Rhine. A bold step for a pregnant woman, but Agrippina was of a fiery and martial disposition, and had known what she was doing.

For many decades now, the legions had been encouraged ‘to display a particular fidelity and devotion to the August Family’.19 Who were senators, then, to command their loyalty, compared to a woman whose grandfather had for so long been their paymaster, and whose mother was still hedged about with tragic glamour? The two emotions of self-interest and sentimentality had combined to ensure a warm welcome for Agrippina on the Rhine. It helped too that she had brought with her the youngest of her three sons, a precocious infant by the name of Gaius. Kitted out in a miniature soldier’s uniform, the toddler had fast become the idol of the camp. Caligula, the legionaries nicknamed him, ‘Military Bootikins’. As the mutiny reached its climax, Germanicus had capitalised upon the affection in which the boy and his mother were held by ostentatiously sending the pair of them to a local tribe of Gauls for safekeeping. So upset had the soldiers been by this reproach to their honour, and so ashamed, that they had promptly submitted. The suppression of the mutiny had been Agrippina’s as well as her husband’s.

The news, lapped up by an adoring public back in Rome, endowed the city’s golden couple with a more aureate glow than ever. Just a hint of the cutting-edge as well. Wives did not normally accompany magistrates of the Roman people abroad. ‘Not only are women frail and and ill suited to hardship, but when they slip the leash they become vicious, scheming and hungry for power.’20 Such had long been the considered wisdom of moralists. But there were other traditions as well. In the stirring tales of heroism that the Roman people never tired of relating, even in an age when most of them had never been in a war, women too had their roles to play. The presence on the Rhine of Augustus’s granddaughter had something of a scene conjured up from a nobler, remoter age. In the earliest days of Rome, after all, when the tides of war had often reached the city’s gates, women had been no less on the front line than Agrippina was now. They too had heard the blast of trumpets; they too, standing on battlements, had watched the glinting of iron as their husbands marched off on campaign. It was not wholly unknown, in the stories told of Rome’s early days, ‘for a girl to serve as a beacon of courage to men’.21 Past and future; duty and dash; fortitude and flamboyance: Germanicus and Agrippina seemed to offer the Roman people a taste of everything they most admired.

The next two years of campaigning would set the seal on this mystique. Whereas the measure of Tiberius’s success as General of the North had been that he gave people back in Rome nothing to talk about, his nephew’s ventures across the Rhine provided them with a constant adrenaline rush. There were ghosts stalking the untamed forests and bogs of Germany – and Germanicus, with his taste for the grand gesture, his relish for taking chances, his inimitable capacity for avoiding disaster by the skin of his teeth, was set on staring the spectres in the face. For two years, he committed himself to a cause that Tiberius had scorned to make his priority: vengeance. Arminius, the treacherous schemer who had brought three legions to their ruin, was relentlessly harried. His wife and unborn son were captured; his allies suborned; his forces cornered, after two long summers of campaigning, and put to the sword. A monument fashioned out of captured arms was raised to Tiberius on the battlefield, while archers busied themselves shooting down the numerous fugitives who had attempted to hide in trees. Germanicus, it seemed, had proven himself worthy of his admirers’ most heated expectations.

Except that there remained much to be done. The victory was incomplete. Arminius, elusive as ever, had managed to hack his way to freedom after disguising himself by smearing his face with gore. Such a camouflage was fitting. Everywhere beyond the Rhine, it had sometimes seemed, was streaked with his bloody fingerprints. During his first summer of campaigning, Germanicus had made a point of visiting the Teutoburg Pass, where there were still great piles of whitening bones to be seen, and rusting spear-tips, and skulls nailed to trees – and then, after touring the scene of horror, had laid the first turf of the funeral mound with his own hand. The dead, though, were not easily confined to their graves. Shortly after the burial of the slaughtered legionaries, Severus Caecina, Germanicus’s deputy in northern Germany, had found himself trapped by Arminius between forest and bog; and that night, as the darkness thickened and Caecina tried to snatch some sleep amid the howling and chanting of the expectant barbarians, he had dreamed that the blood-boltered Varus rose from the marshes, summoning him and trying to take him by the hand. Frantically, Caecina had thrust the spectre back into the swamps; but although the next day he had succeeded in extricating his men from the trap and breaking free for safety, rumours of his annihilation had already reached the Rhine. Panic had duly swept the camp on the western bank. Cries had gone up to demolish the bridge. Only Agrippina had stood firm. When Caecina and his exhausted men finally reached the river, it had been to find Augustus’s granddaughter waiting at the bridgehead, ready with food, bandages and congratulations. Such was the measure of Germanicus’s charisma that even a near-disaster could add to his legend.

By the autumn of AD 16, two of the three eagles lost by Varus had been redeemed. ‘One more summer of campaigning, and the war will be over!’22 So Germanicus promised. One last stiffening of the sinews; one final push. The Roman people, seduced as they were by the record of their hero’s exploits on the eastern front, and by their city’s birthright of victory, were more than happy to rally behind such slogans. Not Tiberius, though. Yes, honour had demanded that fire and slaughter be visited upon the contumacious Germans, and that Germanicus, as the man destined to rule the Roman world, be given experience of what it meant to lead legions in war – but enough was enough. The lure of ultimate victory was as insubstantial as a mist over a German bog. Not only that – it was cripplingly expensive. Braving a return along the North Sea coast after his victory over Arminius, Germanicus and his fleet had been caught up in an autumn storm and suffered devastating losses. Every brush with disaster, no matter how thrilling it might be to follow from a distance, could not help but remind Tiberius of the fate of Varus. Accordingly, despite Germanicus’s frantic insistence that one final season of campaigning would ensure that Roman rule was extended once and for all to the Elbe, the hero of the hour was summoned home.

There, signal honours awaited him: a second consulship, a triumph. Tiberius, determined to banish any whisperings of a breach between him and his prospective heir, lavished gold on the cheering crowds. His nephew’s youth and magnetism were actively trumpeted. An arch built in the Forum hailed the recapture of the eagles lost by Varus. No matter the Emperor’s private conviction that the campaigning had in reality been a waste of effort and expense, he made sure to welcome home Germanicus as ‘the conqueror of Germany’.23

Not everyone was convinced by this display of family affection. Some, puzzled as to why the General of the North should have been recalled just as victory seemed within his grasp, freely attributed it to his uncle’s jealousy. The charge was venomously unfair – and yet, for all that, not lacking an element of truth. Though Tiberius had been obediently following the wishes of Augustus in grooming Germanicus for greatness, it would have been hard for him to track his nephew’s progress and not feel a stirring of envy. He remained what he had been since his first awkward speeches to the Senate as Princeps: a man profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin. The task of taking on the semblance of Augustus had not grown any easier with time. Oppressed by its demands, Tiberius had begun to live in shadow. The comet-blaze of his nephew’s celebrity increasingly gave to his own reticent and withdrawn nature the quality of enigma. ‘What a contrast there was between the young man’s easy manner, and his exceptional good humour, and the haughty and opaque reserve which characterised how Tiberius spoke and appeared.’24 While Germanicus roamed the wilds of Germany and sailed the northern Ocean, Tiberius skulked in Rome, never once in two years setting foot outside the city. The austere aristocrat who had been testing himself since the age of sixteen in combat against Rome’s foes, who had once turned his back on Augustus rather than compromise his dignity, who had always scorned the smooth and practised hypocrisies of the fashionable elite, now found himself obliged to negotiate a swamp more treacherous than any he had faced beyond the Rhine. Such a world was better suited to the talents of his mother than to his own; and when his enemies, sneering at him behind his back, jeered that it was the Augusta who had secured him his rule of the world, rather than his own record ofvirtus, the mockery stung. Not surprisingly, then, when senators proposed with practised malice that the title ‘Son of Livia’ be included on his inscriptions, Tiberius responded with fury. Rather than risk substantiating the charge that he had profited from her influence, let alone that he remained under her thumb, he made a point of avoiding his mother’s company whenever he could. Repeatedly he warned the Augusta: ‘do not meddle with affairs of importance inappropriate to a woman.’25

He still needed her, though. Reports from the Rhine of Agrippina’s performance in the mutiny had served as a salutary reminder to Tiberius that the bloodline of Augustus, charged as it was with a mystique that he could never hope to share, retained its hold upon the affections of the Roman people. Agrippina herself, though a rogue and unwelcome presence in the house of which he was now the head, was married to the hero of the hour, and therefore in effect beyond his control. Not so her mother. Julia’s final ruin had been sealed by her father’s death. By the terms of Augustus’s will, everything permitted her in her exile – her allowance, her household, her possessions – had become Livia’s. The Augusta, although by now formally a Julian, had shown the woman who was simultaneously her stepdaughter and adoptive sister not a shred of family feeling. Instead, chill and implacable, she had ordered all supplies to the wretched exile cut off. Julia, deprived of all hope, had starved herself to death. No one doubted that Livia, in the exercise of this cruelty, had been serving her son’s interests. Clearly, people presumed, ‘he had calculated that the sheer length of her exile would prevent her death from being noted.’26

In the clandestine and increasingly murderous battle between the bloodline of Augustus and that of his wife, it was Livia who had triumphed. Her son ruled as emperor; her grandson had no conceivable rival as his heir. In the great mausoleum of Augustus, whose priest and daughter Livia had become after the reading of his will, no space was given to the ashes of the disinherited Julia. Claudians had become Julians, and Julians, purged amid conditions of squalor and secrecy, had vanished altogether from the roster of the August Family. The blaze of the deified Augustus’s glory illumined only the single daughter: Julia Augusta, the woman who had previously been his wife. It shed its lustre upon only the single son: Tiberius Caesar Augustus. To those who gazed full upon the brilliance and did not think to shade their eyes, there seemed no shadows, no hint of darkness, only gold. Tiberius, as Augustus had been, was ‘the very best a Princeps can be’. The son of a god, he served as a model fit to be copied by all mankind. ‘Great though he is as the ruler of the Roman world, he is greater still as an example to it.’27

Praise that would have brought a bitter smile, perhaps, to Julia’s pinched lips as she lay starving, or to Agrippa Postumus, as he rotted on Planasia, dreaming of freedom, fated never to leave. Except that the obscurity of their deaths, veiled as they were from the gaze of the world, encouraged people to wonder. Two years after Agrippa’s supposed execution, a remarkable rumour began to sweep Rome. ‘The news was only whispered at first – as forbidden stories always are.’28Augustus’s grandson, so it was reported, had cheated death. ‘Preserved by the heavens’,29 he had slipped his guards, procured a boat, reached the mainland. The Roman people, their love for Julia’s children undimmed, began to speak of it in ever more breathless tones. Senators and equestrians, too, so it was said, were rallying to Agrippa’s cause – even members of the imperial household itself. They were sending the young man funds; they were sending him inside information. The whole of Italy seemed to be yearning for the story to be true.

Few, though, ever saw the man who claimed to be Agrippa. He was constantly on the move, avoiding public spaces, keeping to the night. When at last he was captured, it was by subterfuge. Tiberius’s agents themselves had been operating in murk and shadow; and when they tricked their elusive quarry into believing them to be his supporters, and met him in conditions of strictest secrecy, there was no one to witness his abduction to the Palatine. There, in the house of Caesar, the truth soon came out. The man whose claims had set all Italy seething was an imposter, a former slave of Agrippa’s by the name of Clemens. Obdurate in the face of torture, he refused to betray his associates; and so Tiberius, who had no wish to give the affair any further publicity, decided to let sleeping dogs lie. He instructed that no further inquiries were to be held. The whole business was to be covered up. As for Clemens himself, he was naturally to be executed, and his body covertly dispatched.

First, though, so it was reported, Tiberius himself made sure to study the imposter; and then, marking the slave’s close resemblance to his dead master, even down to the styling of his hair and beard, addressed him directly. ‘How did you manage it? How did you make yourself into Agrippa?’

Back came the mocking answer, as though from the depths of the Emperor’s most private fears. ‘Why – in the same way that you transformed yourself into Caesar.’30

The People’s Prince

When Tiberius persuaded Germanicus to return from the German front, it was partly by appealing to his sense of fraternal affection. ‘Leave your brother, Drusus, the chance to win some glory of his own’31 – so the Emperor had urged. It was an effective tactic. The bond between the two young men was a close one. Cousins as well as adoptive brothers, both were capable of taking pleasure in the achievements of the other. While it had been essential that Germanicus, as the elder and the chosen heir of Augustus, be trusted first with the command of legions in war, now that he had been successfully blooded, and had burnished his name to a dazzling sheen, it was Drusus’s turn. Tiberius was worried that his son was altogether too fond of his pleasures. He needed toughening up. Accordingly, with the Germans too busy licking their wounds to be any further trouble, Drusus was given an immense command spanning the whole of the Balkans. Here, he proved as deft and effective an operator as he had done on his previous trip to the region. Tribes beyond the frontier were successfully destabilised, various warlords brought to sue for asylum, Roman power further entrenched. Tiberius, surveying the achievements of Germanicus and Drusus along the vast sweep of the northern frontier, could justly feel that the future was bright.

Romulus and Remus were not the only models of brotherhood to be found in the annals of the Roman people. More positive exemplars were also to hand. Tiberius himself, who had braved peril and exhaustion to be at his brother’s side as he expired, served as stirring proof of that. ‘Affections later in life ought never to diminish such a primal love.’32 Indeed, the bonds of fraternity could link even those who did not share the same blood. Ferocious though competition among the Roman elite was, it did not always have to result in enmity. Shared experiences could on occasion serve to foster a sense of mutual loyalty. For the ambitious, after all, there was only ever one ladder to climb; and a high achiever, as he mounted rung after rung, might repeatedly find himself on campaign or in office with the same colleague. Memories of comradeship might well reach all the way back to adolescence. Tiberius’s own experience was typical. His colleague during his second consulship in 7 BC had been a man he had first served alongside when he was sixteen, during the war fought by Augustus in the wilds of northern Spain.33 Forty years on, the two seasoned servants of the Roman people had many memories in common. Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso was someone whom Tiberius was proud to call a friend.

It took a special kind of breeding for a man to be treated by a Claudian as a peer. Piso’s ancestry blended descent from the second of Rome’s seven kings with a record of achievement that even Tiberius could rate. The commitment of his family to the traditional values of the Republic was of a famously obdurate order. His father, unlike Tiberius’s own, had consistently opposed the ambitions of the House of Caesar – and as a result, had found himself again and again on the losing side. Only in 23 BC, when Augustus persuaded him to serve as consul, had he finally been reconciled to the new regime. That same June, with the Princeps so ill that he had summoned Agrippa to his side, and handed over his ring in the belief that he was dying, he had also given Piso’s father a book carefully detailing his stewardship of Rome’s military and financial resources. A telling gesture. It had mattered profoundly to Augustus that men of pedigree and principle be suborned to his cause – and Piso’s father had been as prized a catch as any.

Piso himself was very much his father’s son. ‘A man of few vices, he had only this flaw: that he mistook inflexibility for constancy.’34 Whether this did qualify as a flaw was, of course, a matter of opinion. What might appear rigidity and arrogance to those outside the ranks of the ancient nobility was prized by men such as Tiberius and Piso as essential bulwarks of their city’s greatness. ‘Just as following the customs of our ancestors produced outstanding figures, so did these same excellent men make sure to preserve our traditional way of life, and the institutions of their forefathers.’35 Now, more than ever, amid all the bewildering sea-changes of the new age, it was the duty of those who led ancient houses to maintain the moorings that anchored their city to the bedrock of the past.

This was why, during his joint consulship with Piso, Tiberius had funded the restoration of a monument in the Forum that for a century and more had served as its most notorious shrine to reaction. There was no building in Rome more ironically named than the Temple of Concord. Originally built in 121 BC, it commemorated the bloodiest outbreak of class warfare in the city’s history. Conservatives in the Senate – an ancestor of Piso’s prominent among them – had waged an ultimately murderous campaign against those two doughty tribunes of the plebs, the Gracchi. It was not only the two brothers themselves who had been murdered; thousands of their followers had ended up as corpses in the Tiber. Tiberius, by ostentatiously repairing the monument built to this repression, had been laying down a marker. To be sure, that his gesture had infuriated the great mass of the Roman people was regrettable – but it could not be helped. The existence below the Capitol of the beautifully refurbished Temple of Concord, complete with his own name over the doorway and a lavish complement of artworks, made a statement that no one could mistake. Endowed though he had been with a tribune’s powers since AD 4, Tiberius continued to identify himself with the oldest, sternest, stiffest values of his class. ‘Worthy of my forebears, careful of the Senate’s interests, steadfast in danger, and fearless of such resentment as I may incur serving the public good’:36 his was a manifesto worthy of Appius Claudius the Blind. That his first dealings with his fellow senators as Princeps had been awkward in the extreme had done nothing to shake his resolve. Concord between the Senate and the People of Rome, yes – but on the Senate’s terms. There was to be no pandering to the masses on Tiberius’s watch.

The backing of men like Piso, however, was crucial. The failure of most senators to meet his high expectations of them continued to nag at the Princeps. As on the Rhine, so in the Senate House, he trod a slow but determined step. Although senators down on their luck might well be given a helping hand if he judged them deserving, those who sat silent and nervous in debate, waiting for him to take a lead, were rarely so blessed. Though Tiberius was a masterly orator, endowed with tremendous qualities of sarcasm and dignity, of irony and power, the effect of his presence on those intimidated by his greatness was only to make them shrink all the more. Sometimes he would keep silent; at other times intervene abruptly; at other times yet lose his temper altogether and erupt. Many senators, unsure what rules they were meant to be playing by, found themselves lost and bewildered; and there were occasions when Piso, habituated as he was to his friend’s way of thinking, would publicly alert him that he had placed them all in an invidious situation. Such interventions, far from provoking the Princeps, invariably struck home. Independence of mind was precisely what Tiberius wished to foster – provided, of course, that it conformed to the ideal which men like Piso, of proven pedigree and record, so notably embodied. Genuine debate, under such circumstances, was not out of the question. Sometimes, it was almost possible to believe that the Princeps did indeed take his place in the Senate merely as one among many. Once, Piso even won backing for a motion that Tiberius and Drusus had both publicly opposed. No matter that it was then promptly vetoed, all the senators could briefly feel good about themselves. It was, everyone in the House had been able to agree, ‘a particularly good illustration of the democratic form of government’.37

Not that anyone outside its walls greatly cared. After all, the vast mass of the Roman people, denied by Tiberius their right to a meaningful vote, no longer had a stake in the election of their magistrates. Instead, they had other favourites. They had not forgotten their devotion to the glamorous and tragic family of Julia. The same star quality that had seduced mutinous legionaries on the Rhine now had the crowds swooning in Rome. On Germanicus’s return from the front, the whole city had streamed out to welcome him, Agrippina and their children. Little Gaius, not yet five years old, and whose nickname of ‘Caligula’ appealed to everything that was most sentimental about the Roman people, was their particular darling. During Germanicus’s triumph, he had ridden proudly beside his father. Also present in the chariot had been his two elder brothers, Nero and Drusus, and their baby sisters, Agrippina and Drusilla. Everything about the spectacle might have been calculated to delight the cheering masses – and appal Tiberius. Germanicus, it seemed, could not help but cut a dash.

All of which placed the Princeps in a quandary. Clearly, with the wishes of Augustus still sacrosanct, Tiberius remained committed to grooming his nephew for the succession – and Germanicus’s apprenticeship was far from over. Now that he had completed his term of office north of the Alps, it was time to broaden his horizons and send him east. There, trouble was brewing again. The flashpoint was one that had long been a cause of tension between Rome and Parthia. The kingdom of Armenia, a land of icy mountains, thick forests and notoriously effective poisons, lay sandwiched uncomfortably between the rival empires: too indigestible to be swallowed, too tasty to be left alone. Tiberius himself, almost forty years before, had been sent there by Augustus on his first independent mission – and a great success it had turned out to be. A puppet king had been imposed at the point of a sword; the right of Rome to meddle in Armenian affairs triumphantly affirmed. Where there was opportunity, though, there inevitably lurked peril. It was in Armenia, after all, that Gaius Caesar, Augustus’s precious grandson, had received his fatal wound. Tiberius, whose own rise to greatness would never have happened without Gaius’s untimely death, had good reason to appreciate the disaster that might overtake a headstrong prince. Nor was it only Germanicus’s personal safety at stake. The annihilation of Crassus and his legions at Carrhae still cast a long shadow. Embark on too madcap an adventure, and the entire Roman order in the East might be put in peril. Tiberius knew, as he weighed up his options, that whatever he did would be a risk.

In AD 17, shortly after celebrating his triumph, Germanicus was formally appointed by the Senate to the command of the eastern provinces, with an authority over the region’s various governors equivalent to Tiberius’s own. ‘There can be no prospect of a settlement there,’ the Princeps informed the House with a perfectly straight face, ‘unless his wisdom be brought to bear on it.’38 Shortly afterwards, Germanicus set out on his mission. With him went the seemingly ever-pregnant Agrippina and the young Caligula. First stop was a courtesy call on Drusus’s headquarters in the Balkans; second, the bay of Actium. Almost fifty years had passed since Germanicus’s two grandfathers, the one natural and the other adoptive, had met on its waters to decide the fate of the world; and the young man’s imagination, as well it might have done, ‘conjured up for him vivid scenes of tragedy and triumph’.39 Then, like so many pilgrims before him, he headed on eagerly to the Greek world’s most celebrated tourist attraction. Crowned by the Parthenon, garlanded and perfume-hung with memories of past achievement, Athens had always shimmered in the yearnings of Roman romantics. Horace had studied in its schools; so too Ovid, who on his journey into exile had found himself haunted by memories of his happiness there as a young man. History and philosophy, art and savoir faire: the city had it all. ‘Athens, once mistress over waves and land, has now made Greece a slave to beauty.’40 The highly cultured Germanicus, whose idea of relaxation was to pen a Greek comedy or two, was duly smitten. So too were the Athenians. They may have fallen from their past greatness, but they had no rivals when it came to buttering up dignitaries. To a man such as Germanicus, who liked nothing better than being liked, it was heaven. Sailing on from Athens, his spirits were much buoyed. When Agrippina, just before landing in Asia Minor, paused on the island of Lesbos to give birth to a third daughter, Julia Livilla, it seemed that the gods were smiling on him and his mission.

Trouble was already brewing, though. Not far behind, blunt and unaccommodating where Germanicus himself had been emollient and affable, travelled a legate with a very different take. Piso, who regarded rudeness to foreigners as one of the primordial virtues which distinguished a Roman aristocrat from lesser men, had no time for diplomatic niceties. Arriving in Athens, he delivered a speech that was pointedly rude. The Athenians were unworthy of their heritage; they were scum, the dregs of the earth. Chauvinism such as this, a bristling contempt for the Greeks as a conquered and decadent people, was the reverse of the cultural cringe so recently displayed by Germanicus – a cringe, Piso informed his hosts, that was incompatible with Roman dignity. His point made, he continued on his way – only to be caught in a storm off Rhodes. Saved in the nick of time by a warship doubling as a lifeboat, Piso’s mood was hardly improved by discovering that the man to whom he owed his life was Germanicus. The meeting between him and his rescuer was as stiff as it was brief. Only a day after he had narrowly avoided shipwreck, Piso was on his way again. His destination: the province which more than any other served as the key to Roman security in the East, a land of famous and teeming cities, fabulous wealth, and a frontier directly abutting the Parthians. Piso was heading east as the new governor of Syria.

That Tiberius, like Augustus, thought long and hard before appointing anyone to a military command went without saying. Syria, which had a garrison of four full legions and lay many weeks distant from Rome, was a more sensitive command than most. Delegation did not come easily to the Princeps. As a general in the field, his attention to detail had been remorseless – but as emperor, with the whole world his responsibility, he had reluctantly accepted that he could no longer afford to micromanage. True, he often seemed on the verge of surrendering to temptation, of setting off on a grand tour of the provinces, of attempting to monitor every last aspect of Rome’s dominions; but again and again he would cancel his travel plans. ‘Callippides’, men began to call him, after a famous mime whose party trick had been to imitate the sprinting of an athlete while staying rooted to the spot.

The dispatch of Piso to Syria was Tiberius’s most Callippidean manoeuvre yet. Chopping and changing governors was not his normal style. His preference was for keeping them in place. ‘Even corrupt legates?’ he was once asked. ‘Better blood-glutted flies on a wound than thirsty ones,’ came the mordant reply.41 The circumstances now, though, were exceptional. Despite having brought himself to trust Germanicus with the administration of the East, Tiberius could not bear, in the final reckoning, to leave his nephew unsupervised. He needed someone in Syria he could trust. The loyalties of the incumbent governor, whose daughter was due to marry Nero, Germanicus’s eldest son, were far too split for comfort. Only a man in whom the Princeps had absolute confidence, who shared his values, his instincts and his background, would do. So it was, as Germanicus made his way to Armenia, there to follow in Tiberius’s own footsteps and impose Rome’s choice of a king, that Piso, after landing in Syria and travelling some fifteen miles upriver, arrived in the great metropolis which served the whole of Roman Asia as its cockpit: Antioch.

Like Alexandria, the city had originally been a capital of kings. Founded in 300 BC by a general of Alexander the Great, the sway of its rulers had once reached as far afield as India. Although it was a parvenu among the ancient foundations of Syria, Antioch had long since outgrown them all. Laid out by its founder on a grid pattern between the river Orontes and the towering peaks of an adjacent mountain, peopled by transplanted Athenians, and endowed with every appurtenance of a Greek city, from theatres to gymnasia, it had firmly stamped the Levant with the brand of Macedonian ownership. For two and a half centuries, fatted on the riches of Asia, it had served as a showcase for royal excess. Ivory tusks and huge silver dishes, jewel-encrusted diadems and immense public banquets, golden jars filled to overbrimming with cinnamon, and marjoram, and nard: ‘to gaze at all the wealth on display was to be struck with wonder and stupefaction.’42 With avarice as well, of course, in the case of a man like Pompey; and sure enough, in 63 BC, the vain and venal conqueror had no sooner appeared with his legions in Syria than he was swallowing it up. Almost eight decades on, the new governor, as he arrived to take up his post, would have seen reassuring marks of Rome’s dominance everywhere in the erstwhile seat of empire. To enter Antioch was to be left in no doubt that it lay now beneath the claws of the wolf. Above a gleaming new gateway in the eastern wall was set a statue of Romulus and Remus, complete with lupine wet-nurse; midway along its central thoroughfare, gazing serenely out across the city from atop a column, stood a statue of Tiberius. Meanwhile, in the governor’s headquarters, where soldiers were garrisoned, tax records stored and law courts established for the brisk and ready sentencing of criminals, Roman supremacy had its intimidating apparatus. Nowhere else in the city, nor in the province beyond, was there any conceivable rival to Rome’s monopolisation of force. A governor had the right to crucify, or burn, or throw to beasts anyone he pleased. Piso, as the man who commanded such terrifying powers, was aptly a figure of dread and awe.

Which said, the presence on the scene of Germanicus naturally complicated matters. Piso’s authority was not as absolute as it would otherwise have been. Confident that Tiberius intended him to serve as a counterbalance to the young prince, he duly set about shoring up his support among the province’s garrison. Although, on previous tours of duty, he had shown himself a ferocious martinet, he now relaxed the leash restraining the legions under his command, and granted his men licence to throw their weight around even more brutally than they were normally permitted to do. Provincials, of course, already knew to tread carefully with their occupiers. A legionary might well force a civilian to serve him as a porter or provide him with a billet – and no woman, certainly, ever met a Roman soldier without a certain measure of dread. Now, though, with the slackening of their discipline, the military were given the run of both towns and countryside. The new governor was hailed appreciatively by his men as ‘the Father of the Legions’.43 Meanwhile, his wife, an intimate of Livia’s by the name of Plancina, aped the role played by Agrippina in Germany. Attending manoeuvres, she paraded her own interest in the welfare of the troops. Piso began to grow in confidence. When orders arrived from Armenia for reinforcements, he felt sufficiently sure of himself to ignore them. Germanicus, embroiled as he was in settling the frontier to the north, had no choice but to swallow this insubordination; and in the event, displaying an acumen and a diplomatic finesse that made a mockery of his uncle’s forebodings, he was able to achieve with his own resources all that he had been sent to do. Unsurprisingly, though, when he and Piso met again in the winter quarters of one of the four Syrian legions, relations between the two men were frostier than ever. ‘When they parted, it was in open enmity.’44

Yet there was more to this clash of egos than the awkward circumstances of their mutual appointments. Deep issues of principle, reaching to the heart of Rome’s new order, were at stake. Twenty-five years previously, Tiberius had retired to Rhodes rather than endure the presumptions of a jumped-up princeling; but then, when Gaius had come to the East armed with powers equivalent to those wielded by Germanicus now, the older man had been left with no choice but to bite his tongue and swallow repeated snubs. Piso, a man of Tiberius’s own generation and background, was determined not to suffer a matching humiliation. Like his friend, he scorned the notion of monarchy; like his friend, he cleaved to the virtues and principles defined for him by his ancestors. Tiberius himself – who twice, first in Pannonia and then in Germany, had saved the Republic – Piso was willing to acknowledge as Princeps; but not Germanicus. It was as a Roman aristocrat that he intended to govern his province.

Matters came to a head at a banquet hosted by the king of Nabataea, a land ruled from the rose-red city of Petra, and which had long been subordinated by treaty to Rome. When the king, as a gesture of hospitality, presented his guests with golden crowns, a heavy one for Caesar’s son and a lighter one for everyone else, Piso snorted in derision. Who did Germanicus think he was – a Parthian? Ever since the time of Scipio Africanus, it had been a point of principle among the Roman elite that they were the superiors of even the showiest Oriental. The dignity of the Republic, Piso believed, obliged him to maintain a principled contempt for everyone and everything in his province. Degenerate though Athens might have been, it was as nothing compared to the degeneracy of Antioch. The city’s Greek façade did not prevent its Roman masters from rating its inhabitants as, at best, mere imitations of Greeks. The crowds thronging its streets had long since come to possess a mestizo quality. Descendants of the Athenians settled there by its founder mingled with natives from across the entire Near East. In Rome, where unguents from Syria were highly prized, the oil with which dandies would perfume and anoint their hair struck moralists as repugnantly suggestive of the country as a whole. To men such as Piso, everything about the Syrians was unsettling. Their merchants were too smooth-tongued; their priests too effeminate; their dancing girls altogether too depilated. From the tops of mountains, where ecstatic worshippers would offer up sacrifice to eerily formless gods, to the depths of Antioch’s bars, where bodies moving to the sound of tambourines would writhe in the deviant fashion for which Syrians were notorious, the province seemed to fester with slavishness and immoderation. Confronted by such a country, what was a Roman to do but cling all the more tightly to the standards of his own?

Except that Germanicus, whose courtesy and grace towards a whole assortment of foreigners had so provoked the ire of Piso, could legitimately point out that xenophobia was not the only tradition inherited from the great men of their past. The same Scipio Africanus who had always sternly upheld the majesty of the Republic in the face of Oriental monarchy had also, while touring the Greek cities of Sicily, done the locals the courtesy of copying their fashions. Now, as Germanicus continued his tour of duty by travelling from Syria to Egypt, he repeated the trick. Arriving in Alexandria, he dismissed his guards, put on sandals and dressed up as a Greek. This, to the inhabitants of a city founded by Alexander the Great, whose incomparable library boasted more volumes of Athenian literature than Athens herself, and who bitterly resented that a palace once occupied by their own monarchs should have ended up the headquarters of a foreign governor, was a wildly popular gesture. As in the capital, so in the Roman world’s second city: Germanicus’s easy charm proved adept at winning hearts and minds.

This was a considerable feat. No Roman had matched it since the time of Antony. The Alexandrians were notoriously hard to please. Perverse and flighty, they were so prone to street brawling that even a woman might think nothing of ‘grabbing a man’s genitals in a fight’.45 Now, though, when the Alexandrians rioted, it was out of enthusiasm for their guest. He and Agrippina, the crowds began to chant, were both of them ‘Augustus’. Germanicus, appalled, promptly ordered the demonstrations broken up. It would not do, as he was all too painfully aware, to be hailed by a title that ‘only his father and grandmother were entitled to wear’.46

But too late. News that Germanicus was playing to the gallery in Alexandria could hardly help but reach Tiberius – and it did not go down well. However sensitive a posting Syria might be, Egypt was even more so. Such was its wealth, after all, that it had effectively bankrolled Antony’s bid for world domination – a detail that no Caesar was ever likely to forget. Augustus, for all his boast that he had ‘added Egypt to the empire of the Roman people’,47 had kept such a vice-like grip upon the new province that it had ranked, in practice, as his own personal fiefdom – a display of neurosis that Tiberius had naturally made sure to emulate. No members of the Roman elite were permitted to enter Egypt without his express permission; only equestrians were ever appointed to govern it; even a hint of uppitiness, and a governor would ruthlessly be removed from office. Indeed, it was the measure of Tiberius’s anxiety to secure the province that within months of succeeding Augustus he had appointed as his legate in Alexandria none other than Seius Strabo, erstwhile prefect of the Praetorians, and father of his most trusted partisan. Meanwhile, beyond the purlieus of the great harbour-city, along the banks of the Nile, where ancient, animal-headed gods were still worshipped by Egyptians who might not speak a word of Greek, nor ever have seen a Roman, the distant Princeps was being honoured in primordial fashion. Just as once, back in the fabulous mists of time, Egyptian scribes had chiselled into temple walls the names of their own native kings, carefully set within regular ovals, so now, whenever fresh ovals came to be engraved, they would contain within them the name of Tiberius. In Egypt it was less as the first citizen of the Roman people that he ruled than as a pharaoh.

Nothing, then, could have done more to set the Princeps twitching than to have the grandson of Antony and the granddaughter of Augustus hailed as gods in Alexandria. When Germanicus returned to the city from a Nile cruise, it was to find a furious missive waiting for him from Rome. Had the terms of Tiberius’s criticisms not chimed so readily with those of Piso, then the contretemps would doubtless soon have been forgotten – for Germanicus, after all, had never intended to step on his uncle’s toes. As it was, he returned to Syria to find its governor newly emboldened. The campaign of insubordination waged by Piso had hit fresh heights of insolence during his absence – and Germanicus, when he discovered that his every last order had been countermanded, decided that enough was enough. Silver-haired Piso may have been, of an ancient family, and seasoned in the service of the Republic – but Germanicus tore a strip off him nevertheless.

The governor, his dignity fatally injured, resolved to depart Antioch. Before he could leave, though, news came that his adversary had fallen ill. Piso’s spirits duly soared – only to be dashed by an update, which reported a recovery, and that the whole of Antioch was offering up sacrifices in relief. Piso, whose judgement was by now fatally clouded by the sheer intensity of his loathing for Germanicus, sponsored his lictors to break up the celebrations, and then retreated down the Orontes to await further developments. These, as it turned out, were already spiralling out of control. Antioch was rife with talk of poison and sorcery. Not only, it seemed, had Germanicus suffered a relapse, but his servants, pulling apart his bedroom, had discovered marks of witchcraft secreted in the walls and under the floorboards: bones, dried blood, smears of ash. Germanicus himself, as he lay dying, had specifically fingered Piso as the man responsible.

So it was, for the second time, that the journey of a young Caesar to the East ended in calamity. Yet though the loss of Gaius had certainly been a grievous blow to Augustus, and though Livia’s hand in it would subsequently be darkly suspected, it had not set off such reverberations as the death of Germanicus now threatened. His last words, delivered with his customary heightened emotion from the capital of Roman Asia, could hardly have been less helpful to Tiberius. First, he had openly accused the Princeps’s legate and friend of plotting his murder. Then, even while urging Agrippina to rein in her instinctive tendency to grandstand, he had simultaneously instructed everyone else gathered around his deathbed to take full advantage of it. ‘Display before the Roman people the granddaughter of the deified Augustus, and recite to them the names of my children!’48

Such an appeal embodied everything that the Princeps had always most mistrusted in his nephew; yet even as Germanicus was delivering it, the man sent to Asia to serve as a check upon his instincts, and to embody the stern and flinty instincts of Tiberius himself, was only stoking the flames. Piso remained too blinded by the insult done his honour to let it lie. At the news of his rival’s death he flung open temples in his joy, raising sacrifices to the gods and lavishing fresh donatives on his men. Then, when the senators in Germanicus’s train appointed one of their own number, a former consul by the name of Sentius, to serve as governor in his place, Piso resorted to force in defence of what remained, after all, legally his office. Citizen faced citizen: ‘Pisonian’ took up arms against ‘Caesarian’.49 Fifty years after the battle of Actium, it seemed that the evils of civil war, ‘long since laid to rest by the divine will of the deified Augustus, and by the virtues of Tiberius Caesar Augustus’,50 were returning to plague the world.

The human face of the crisis, as the dying Germanicus had known it would be, was provided by Agrippina. Rather than wait for spring, she embarked for home the moment that the ashes of her husband’s pyre had cooled. Pausing only to swap insults with Piso after an inadvertent brush with his flotilla, she set sail across the wintry seas for home. When she finally docked at Brundisium, it was as though the whole of Italy had massed to greet her. As the pale-faced widow appeared on the gangplank, the urn containing her husband’s ashes in her hands, and Caligula and little Julia Livilla by her side, the sobs and wails of the crowd blended into a single animal howl of pain. Ever since the definitive confirmation of Germanicus’s death, Rome had been sodden with grief. ‘Not an honour that love or wit could devise but it had been bestowed upon him.’51 Now, in the slow and stately journey of his ashes towards the city, there was the flavour of one final tribute: not merely a funerary procession but a triumph. Praetorians provided the fallen hero with his escort; lictors reversed their fasces and standards were stripped of their adornments; incense burned by mourning bystanders wreathed with its bitter perfumes the entire length of the Appian Way. Forty miles south of the capital, the ashes were met by Germanicus’s brother, the shambling and decidedly unheroic figure of Claudius, by his adoptive brother, Drusus, and by the four children that he and Agrippina had left behind them in Italy. Then, on reaching Rome, the procession was joined by the two consuls and an array of senators. Through packed streets muffled save for the wailing of mourners it continued along its way. Only out on the Campus did it finally come to a halt. Illumined by the blaze of a multitude of torches, and watched by the black-mantled silhouette of Agrippina, Germanicus’s mortal remains were reverently consigned to their final resting place: the great Mausoleum of Augustus.

Meanwhile, of his uncle, the First Citizen of the Republic, there was not a sign. As ever, Tiberius regarded the parading of grief as beneath his dignity. Neither he, nor Livia, nor Germanicus’s mother were glimpsed in public. Who were any of them, as they mourned their loss, to be dictated to by the lachrymose self-indulgence of a mob? The mood of the city, though, was turning ugly. The absence of the Princeps from the very public displays of mourning was read as an insult. Worse – as a confession of guilt. Germanicus’s dying charge, that Piso had poisoned him, was on everybody’s lips. Such an accusation was not easily rebutted. For Tiberius to have pointed out, as he might well have done, that the climate of the Levant was notoriously unhealthy, that many there had succumbed to disease, that the supposed marks of witchcraft found under Germanicus’s floorboards might just as plausibly have been animal remains, would have been insufferably demeaning; and yet his silence hung heavy in the air. The Roman people, in their grief and their anger, did not find it hard to adduce a motive. Gazing on their hero’s widow, they hailed her as the last grandchild of Augustus left standing. Raising their hands to the heavens, they prayed that her children ‘would outlive their foes’.52

Tiberius was bitterly stung. Although he had always been contemptuous both of the plebs and of those who sought to woo them, it did not stop him from flinching on occasion at the consciousness of his unpopularity. To be scorned as a cuckoo in the nest, streaked with the blood of innocent fledglings, threatened damage to more than his reputation. The Princeps was not alone in being menaced by the crisis. The Senate, whose authority and values Tiberius had always aspired so dearly to uphold, had begun to feel threatened too. There was an acrid flavour to the city’s mourning for its favourite. It was widely believed out on the streets that Germanicus had been murdered because of his friendship for the masses. He had favoured equal rights for all, so it was rumoured, and aimed to restore to the Roman people their lost liberties. The crowds, when they gathered with their torches on the Campus to greet the funeral procession, had done so ranged as though in assembly, ready to vote. Clinging as he was to the ears of the wolf, Tiberius could feel the rising of its hackles, sense the baring of its teeth, smell the hunger on its breath. He knew that it wanted meat.

Nothing for it, then, but to toss it prey. The sacrificial victim, as Tiberius was painfully aware, selected himself. Piso’s attempt to clutch onto his province had not gone well. Routed in battle and flushed out from his bolt-hole by Sentius, he had been left with no alternative but to sue for terms. The best he could obtain was a safe-conduct back to Rome. Sailing up the Tiber into the eye of the storm, he and his wife settled for a calculated display of sangfroid. Rather than cringe before the fury of the Roman people, he opted to dock, at the busiest time of day, directly opposite the Mausoleum of Augustus, where Germanicus’s ashes had only recently been laid; and then, that same evening, to host a slap-up dinner party. Down in the Forum, where the garlands adorning Piso’s villa could clearly be seen, the crowds seethed in disbelief. Next day, to no one’s surprise, an official indictment was registered with the consuls.

Still Piso’s peers shrank from applying the coup de grâce. The consuls referred the investigation to the Princeps; the Princeps to the Senate. Piso, indomitable as ever, refused point-blank to confess the crime of which everyone outside the courtroom had already convicted him: he had not, he insisted over and again, poisoned Germanicus. True, this did nothing to exonerate him from the other accusations; for it could hardly have been more self-evident that he was guilty of rank insubordination, and of fomenting civil war. Yet even in pressing these charges, the prosecution had cause to hesitate. Not a senator but he was uncomfortably aware that Piso had been the legate of Caesar. Correspondence between the two men, despite requests, remained strictly embargoed. As for Tiberius himself, he was the most uncomfortable of all. The Princeps remained on the horns of a truly agonising dilemma. Spare Piso, and the darkest suspicions of the Roman people would be confirmed; wash his hands of an old friend, throw a trusted ally to the wolves, permit a man of ancient and distinguished family to be lynched by a mob, and the betrayal would be devastating. So Tiberius havered; and out on the streets the fury and indignation grew.

The climactic eruption, when it finally came, forced everybody’s hand. Demonstrators toppled Piso’s statues, hauled them to the base of the Capitol, then dragged them halfway up the flight of steps that led to the summit of the hill. Here, in full view of the Forum, they set about smashing them to pieces. The symbolism could hardly have been more pointed. On one side of the Gemonian Steps, as they were known, loomed the city’s only prison, where criminals were held before execution; on the other, the Temple of Concord, recently and controversially renovated by Tiberius. The Princeps, recognising the direct challenge to his authority, sent in the Praetorians to save and restore the statues, then to escort Piso himself in a litter back to his house. The next morning, in a gesture of continued defiance, the accused returned to the Senate House; but he knew, the moment he walked in, that the game was up at last. Not a sympathetic look; not a voice that wasn’t raised in anger. Most chilling of all was the expression of Tiberius: ‘pitiless, passionless, closed to all emotion’.53 That evening, when Piso returned home, he readied himself for bed as he had always done; and then, while his wife was out of the room, ordered the doors to be closed, and cut his throat.

In death as in life, the vengeance of the bereaved plebs pursued him. The Senate, obedient to their hatred, declared it a crime for any to mourn Piso, ordered all portraits of him destroyed, confiscated half his property, and commanded his son to change his name. Copies of their decree were dispatched to cities and camps across the known world. Simultaneously, with unctuous formality, senators expressed their gratitude to the Princeps for avenging Germanicus. The Roman people, though, remained contemptuous and unconvinced. They knew that Tiberius, rather than permit the total ruin of Piso’s family, had expressed pity for it in its disgrace, and for the terrible end of Piso himself. Their suspicions of the Princeps still festered. An opponent of their interests, yes – but a murderer of their champions too. To be branded with such a reputation was grim enough. But there was worse. The Senate, the body in whose interests Tiberius had been willing to sacrifice his popularity with the plebs, had been left badly bruised by the crisis. The fate of Piso, who had first been recruited by the Princeps as an ally and then abandoned, struck many senators as salutary. Far from serving them as a model of antique rectitude, Tiberius appeared to many in the wake of events in Syria a veritable monster of hypocrisy. The scorn with which he had always regarded those who did not adhere to his own stern codes of morality was now met in the Senate House by a matching suspicion of him. Inexorably, even those allies whom Tiberius most needed were starting to worry whether he could be trusted at all.

And perhaps, among their number, in the wake of so toxic a crisis, was Tiberius himself.


Rome was a city crowded by the dead. Even though ascension into the heavens, whether on a comet-blaze or the beating of an eagle’s wings, was an apotheosis granted only a Caesar, there were other ways of becoming a god. The blood of pigs, spilt over the earth of freshly dug graves, could serve to consecrate the spirits of even the humblest. Raise prayers to the departed, scatter violets on their tombs, make them offerings of meal, and salt, and wine-soaked bread, and they in exchange would stand guard over the living. Manes, these shades were called: spirits who could be summoned from the underworld to extend the lives of those who mourned them, to offer advice in dreams, to protect the harvest in the fields. Back in the days of Rome’s rise to greatness, during the terrible war that had finally witnessed the annihilation of Carthage, they had even fought by the side of the Roman siege force, after its commander had dedicated the city to them as a blood-offering.54 The living were keen, therefore, to honour the Manes with appropriate festivals. In February, for ten whole days, temples would be closed, fires extinguished on altars, and magistrates appear only in the plainest of clothes. It was perilous to deny the dead their due. One year, it was said, feeling neglected, they had risen from their tombs. As funeral pyres blazed eerily across Rome, a phantom throng of the departed had filled the city with their howling.

‘Actually, I find this quite hard to believe.’55 Ovid was not alone in his scepticism. Anyone with intellectual tastes, and the money to afford their cultivation, was liable to dismiss the Manes as superstition. Some philosophers, fashionable and bold, went so far as to teach that nothing of the spirit survived the grave. Nevertheless, even among the smartest of the smart set, the yearning for immortality abided. Ovid himself, whose exile to the Black Sea had offered him a grim taste of what it might be to descend into the underworld, had grown far too familiar with the threat of oblivion not to fight it to the end. Back in AD 17, amid the various excitements of Germanicus’s triumph and his departure for the East, news of the poet’s death had created barely a ripple in Rome. His voice, though, had not been wholly silenced. One last collection of poems, one final testament, had remained to be published. ‘Time erodes both steel and stone.’ So Ovid had written in the months before his death. Nevertheless, from beyond the grave, he continued to defy its corrosive power. So long as he had readers, he was not, perhaps, wholly dead. Time, to that degree, had been cheated. ‘The written word defies the years.’56

Poets were not alone in appreciating this. The great knew it too. Their names were inscribed everywhere in Rome: on the pedestals of statues, on monuments in the Forum, on publicly displayed lists of consuls and priests, and generals awarded a triumph, reaching way back to the origins of the city. The surest punishment was not death but to be consigned to oblivion. In Spain, the awareness of this had prompted the widespread vandalising of Piso’s monuments, while onthe Greek island of Samos, in a burst of misapplied enthusiasm, the locals had chiselled out the name of his brother by mistake. In Rome too, the people had clamoured for Piso’s name to be erased from every inscription in which it appeared; but this Tiberius had refused. Content though he was to license its removal from a statue of Germanicus, he would go no further. Something more than pity for his old friend had stayed his hand. Rome would no longer be Rome without the record of all that its great families had achieved. The Princeps knew himself the guardian, not just of his city’s future, but of its past.

Tiberius had no illusions as to what this might mean in practice. Bleak, sardonic and much schooled in ambivalence, he was the opposite of naïve. Once, when an acquaintance of his youth attempted to remind him of times gone by, he cut the man off in mid-flow: ‘I do not remember what I was.’57 Much the same might have been said of the vanished Republic. The virtues and ideals to which Tiberius remained emotionally committed were no longer what they were – and Tiberius knew it. The last generation that remembered them as more than quaint anachronisms was inexorably passing away. In AD 22, sixty-three years after the slaughter at Philippi, a particularly venerable mooring to the past was snapped when Junia, the aged sister of Brutus, died. Her brother, who had assassinated one Caesar and perished fighting another, had continued to rank under Tiberius as what he had been ever since his death: a non-person. ‘The best cure for a civil war is to forget that it ever happened.’58 Silence, though, could sometimes be deafening. At Junia’s funeral, the effigies of her ancestors, fashioned out of ‘shining stone and ingenious wax’,59 had accompanied her to her tomb – but of her brother, the most celebrated of all her relatives, there was no portrait to be seen. Neither was there one of her long-dead husband, a second conspirator against the Dictator by the name of Cassius – and who also, like Brutus, had perished by his own hand on the battlefield of Philippi. Two conspicuous absentees. Watching the procession, no one could fail to be aware of the twin assassins, risen from the land of the dead to greet Junia, prominent among theManes. The old lady’s will, when it was read, turned out to contain a second, even more pointed omission. All the leading citizens of Rome were saluted – all save one. Of the Princeps there was not a mention.

Tiberius disdained to show resentment. Women, in his bitter experience of them, were most trouble when closest to home. Rich and well-connected though Junia had been, she was neither the richest nor the best-connected woman of her generation. That honour, as Tiberius knew none better, rested with a very different widow. In AD 22, the same year that saw Junia make her departure for the underworld, the equally venerable Augusta had herself fallen ill – only to stage a full and sprightly recovery. No one was much surprised. Livia Drusilla, as she had once been called, was well known for her mastery of drugs. There was more, though, to her aura of indestructibility than a well-stocked medicine box. The Augusta, who had cloaked herself in the privileges bequeathed her by her deified husband much as she had always draped herself in her stola, was a woman like none in her city’s history. Everything about her was exceptional. Priest, tribune, even princeps: never before had male rank worn such disorienting female form. All that, and a mother too. ‘How excellently the Augusta served the Republic by giving birth to its Princeps’:60 so the Senate had formally pronounced. A story told of the tree sprung from the laurel sprig dropped decades before into Livia’s lap repeated the compliment in eerier form. It was said that its leaves had begun to wither just before Augustus breathed his last – even as one of its branches, carried by Tiberius in his triumph and then planted next to the original tree, had begun to flourish. It was as though the line of the Caesars itself had become the Augusta’s to nurture, tend and own. Genetrix orbis, people had begun to call her – ‘procreatrix of the world’.61

Not, of course, that this did much to improve her son’s mood. There was more at stake for Tiberius than personal resentment. He could not help but view the abiding influence of the Augusta on affairs of state, despite his best efforts to rein her in, as a standing menace to his own authority. Her meddling in the trial of Piso had been particularly toxic. Plancina, the condemned man’s wife, had been a favourite of the Augusta’s – and the Augusta made sure to look after her favourites. Even as Tiberius was washing his hands of Piso, he had been obliged to come to the Senate and appeal to them for Plancina’s life. A mortifying experience. The crimes of which Plancina had stood accused, from poisoning to witchcraft, could not have been more sordidly feminine – nor could the spider’s web of the Augusta’s intrigues, long kept hidden from public view, have been more embarrassingly laid bare. Tiberius, whose distaste for the company of women was matched only by his disapproval of their involvement in affairs of state, had been left doubly besmirched. The dark insinuations of Agrippina that the Princeps was a schemer of murderous hypocrisy, implacably hostile to her and to her children, appeared, to her many admirers, substantiated. Agrippina herself, cheated of her vengeance on Plancina, was left all the more embittered. Relations between her and the Augusta went from bad to worse.

Tiberius, trapped as he was between his mother and his stepdaughter, found himself hopelessly entangled in the meshes of court gossip. On a previous occasion, rather than tolerate the various compromises and humiliations of dynastic manoeuvring, he had walked out on Rome altogether. As Princeps, of course, he could hardly retire to Rhodes – but with Drusus, his son, now seasoned in the demands of leadership, a man with both a triumph and two consulships to his name, Tiberius could at least contemplate a measure of retirement. Anything to get away from the two importunate widows in his life.

Except that soon there would be three. Livilla, the sister of Germanicus and Claudius, was a woman whose husbands had always been characterised by their great expectations. The first had been Augustus’s grandson, Gaius; the second her own cousin, Drusus. An ugly duckling as a child, she had grown up a famous beauty, commended to the Senate by her husband as his ‘best beloved’.62 Tiberius too had reason to value her: in the grim weeks that followed Germanicus’s death, she had provided her uncle with a brief respite from the crisis by giving birth to twin boys. Livilla, though, was decidedly not a woman to bring harmony where there was discord. As a child, she had been notably spiteful, mocking her younger brother Claudius for his disabilities – and as an adult, she would prove no less malevolent. Fractious, flighty, and bitterly resentful of anyone who threatened her children’s prospects, she combined a roving eye with a deep capacity for hatred. By AD 23, only a couple of years after her husband had publicly praised her to his fellow senators, their marriage was in crisis. Drusus himself, whose taste for fast living had never left him, and whose brutality was so pointed that sharp swords were called ‘Drusian’ in his honour, appeared to be entering into a sharp decline. Hot-tempered and violent, he was increasingly the worse for drink. At one point, at a party with Sejanus, his erstwhile partner in the suppression of the Pannonian mutiny, he had lost his temper and punched the Praetorian prefect in the face. His father, alarmed, began to worry for his health. Then, in September, Drusus fell seriously ill. By the 14th, he was dead.

Twice, first with the loss of Agrippa, then with that of Gaius, Augustus had been poleaxed by such a blow. Tiberius, frozen-faced as ever, scorned to betray his grief. Arriving in the Senate House, he calmed the ostentatious displays of mourning. ‘I look for a sterner solace. I keep the Republic in my heart.’ Even so, there could be no disguising the scale of the calamity that had befallen him and his plans. Bluntly, the Princeps spelt out the implications to his fellow senators. He had been banking upon Drusus, he explained, to mould and train Germanicus’s sons, who bore in their veins, thanks to their mother, the blood of the deified Augustus. Ushering in Caligula’s two elder brothers, Nero and Drusus, Tiberius commended them to the House. ‘Adopt and guide these young men – these offspring of an incomparable bloodline.’63 It was a raw and painful moment. Tiberius’s increasing sense of exhaustion; his longing for a partnership that might help to alleviate it; his yearning to believe that loyalty to Augustus might yet be squared with the traditions of the Republic: all were laid bare. When the Princeps ended his address by promising, in a tone of high emotion, to restore to the consuls the reins of power, he may even have believed what he was saying.

If so, however, it was only for a moment. Tiberius’s words were met in the Senate House with sullen scepticism. His listeners had heard it all before. Tiberius too, after a decade of struggling to educate senators in what he expected from them, had begun to despair of their partnership. ‘Men readied for slavery,’64 he had taken to muttering under his breath as he left the House. Hardly surprising, then, with Drusus dead and the Senate a broken reed, that Tiberius should have begun to cast around elsewhere for support. Heir of the Claudians though he might be, he did not scorn the ambitions of the upwardly mobile – provided only that they were able. Men of the meanest origins imaginable, even men rumoured to have been fathered by slaves, had been known to get Tiberius’s backing. ‘His achievements,’ so the Princeps observed of one such parvenu, a gladiator’s son who would eventually rise to become governor of Africa, ‘are paternity enough.’65 The more isolated and weary Tiberius came to feel, the more cause he had to value such servants. This was why, in the desolating aftermath of Drusus’s death, he did not turn to one of his own bloodline for succour, nor to one of the companions of his youth, nor to anyone in the Senate House, but to a mere equestrian, an Etrurian from a drab and provincial background: Lucius Aelius Sejanus.

Even while Drusus was alive, Tiberius had been honouring the Praetorian prefect with marks of favour. Other people brought him problems; Sejanus brought him solutions. When Pompey’s great theatre caught fire, it was the Praetorians who rushed to fight the flames and prevent them spreading; in recognition of this, and in obedience to Tiberius’s evident wishes, the Senate voted to honour the Prefect with a bronze statue in the rebuilt complex. Naturally, the majority of senators did so through gritted teeth, but there were sufficient of them alert to the shifting tides of influence, or who had been admitted to the Senate by Sejanus’s influence, to provide the Prefect with a potent faction. By AD 23, the year of Drusus’s death, he had begun to establish himself even more decisively as the coming man. In the north-easternmost corner of Rome, on one of the highest vantage points in the city, workmen had been labouring for two years on a massive construction project. Walls of brick-faced concrete and gateways bristling with towers sheltered within them a massive grid of barracks: the unmistakable stamp, branded onto the very fabric of Rome, of a legionary camp. No longer, under Sejanus’s prefecture, were the Praetorians to be scattered across the city. The days of veiling their existence were over. Instead, concentrated within a single fortress, and commanded by officers appointed by the Prefect himself, they were now directly in the capital’s face. Equestrian Sejanus may have been, but what magistracy was there open to a senator that could compare for sheer intimidating menace with command of the Praetorian camp?

Sejanus himself, though, was painfully aware that his power as yet rested on shifting sands. He held no magistracy, was not even a senator. His authority was no more legally grounded than that of Maecenas had been. Without Tiberius he would be nothing – and Tiberius was sixty-five. The death of Drusus, though, had enabled Sejanus to glimpse a dazzling opportunity: the chance to establish himself, not as a Maecenas, but as an Agrippa. The August Family, now that Tiberius had lost his son, consisted principally of untested boys. Were the Princeps himself now to die in turn, there would be an urgent need for someone to serve as regent to his heir. After all, as Tiberius himself had openly acknowledged to the Senate, Germanicus’s sons would never prove worthy of their descent from Augustus without attentive grooming. Sejanus, skilled as he was in the near impossible task of reading his master’s thoughts and fathoming the many ambivalences that characterised them, had long since recognised the paradox that lay buried in their depths. Between Tiberius’s devotion to the Senate as he imagined it should be, and his contempt for it as it actually was, existed an irreconcilable tension. To an operator as penetrating and subtle as Sejanus, there lurked here a tantalising opportunity. The faith that Tiberius had so publicly expressed in the Senate as the guardian of young Nero and Drusus was a precarious thing. Confidence and suspicion, in the Emperor’s mind, were merely different sides of the same coin. Admiration for the codes of his class, for the traditions of the Senate, for the legacy of the Republic: all might easily be corrupted. The task of perverting Tiberius’s instincts, and playing upon all that was most paranoid in his complex and mistrustful mind, was one for which Sejanus, in the event, would prove lethally fitted.

The key to the Prefect’s strategy was Agrippina. Haughty, combustible, and impatient to see her sons elevated to the rank that she believed appropriate to their lineage, everything about her served to rub Tiberius up the wrong way. When Sejanus whispered in his master’s ear that her ambitions were breeding factionalism in the Senate, just as those of her mother had once done, the Princeps was inclined to believe it. The first open flashpoint between the two came early in January 24. It was the turning point of the Roman year, and Janus, the god after whom the month was named, served as its gatekeeper. Two faces he had: one gazing backwards, at time past, and one looking fixedly into the future. An appropriate moment, then, for priests to offer up prayers for the safety of the Princeps. That particular year, though, there was a change to the formula. The names of Agrippina’s two eldest sons, Nero and Drusus, were mentioned alongside that of the Emperor. Tiberius exploded. When he demanded to know of the priests whether the boys had been included at their mother’s request, they flatly denied it; but the Princeps was barely mollified. The sinister precedent of the teenage Gaius and Lucius, shamefully over-promoted decades previously, still weighed on his mind. In a speech to the Senate, Tiberius sternly warned against spoiling the young princes. Agrippina, meanwhile, was only confirmed in her resentment of him. Relations between the two turned icier still.

Sensing his opportunity, Sejanus made sure not to waste it. His priority, if he were to isolate Agrippina and weaken her hold over her sons, was to destroy her allies in the Senate. Naturally, under a Princeps as respectful of legal proprieties as Tiberius, there could be no question of resorting to open violence in pursuit of this goal – but Sejanus had no need to do so. It was the law itself which constituted his weapon of choice. Over the course of the year, a number of prominent men who had seen service with Germanicus were brought to trial by the Prefect’s allies in the Senate. The charges ranged from extortion to maiestas. One committed suicide before a verdict could be reached; others were dispatched into exile. Nothing about the process ranked remotely as unconstitutional. The law courts had always been an arena in which the great manoeuvred for advantage. The ability to sway judges was a talent that had been the making of many an ambitious senator. Although to defend a man from the hounding of his enemies was traditionally regarded as the more honourable course for an orator to take, no disgrace attached itself to prosecution. Tiberius, who had himself secured the conviction of a would-be assassin of Augustus when only twenty, certainly saw nothing untoward about it. ‘It is perfectly acceptable to bring prosecutions, just so long as it is done as a service to the Republic, in the cause of bringing down its enemies.’66How, then, could the Princeps fail to approve what was hallowed by both tradition and his own example?

Sejanus, though, with his pathologist’s eye, had penetrated more deeply into the changed circumstances of the age than his master. The law, long cherished by senators as the bulwark of their liberty, now promised the man ruthless enough to exploit it the perfect opportunity to terrorise even the boldest among the elite into abject submission. The irony of this was peculiarly bitter. What had delivered the Senate into Sejanus’s hands was an innovation originally designed to enhance its dignity. Once, back in the rumbustious days of the Republic, trials of the great had been a public entertainment, staged before the full gaze of the Roman people – but no longer. Instead, under Augustus, senators had been granted leave to sit in judgement on their own, in the privacy of the Senate House. At the time, they had greeted this as a novel and welcome burnishing of their status. Now, too late, they found that it had been a trap. The senator sitting in judgement on a peer accused of treason against the Princeps could not help but feel exposed. His vote was bound to be monitored. So too the enthusiasm with which he pushed for conviction. The more splenetically he demanded punishment, the more would his loyalty be noted. Sejanus had no need to bully his enemies into silence. He could leave senators themselves to do that. Paranoia and ambition would combine to keep them all at one another’s throats.

Nevertheless, keen to rub his message home, the Prefect made sure to demonstrate what the penalty for any outspokenness would be. First, the inveterately abrasive Cassius Severus, who had been exiled to Crete in the dying days of Augustus’s reign, was retried and sentenced to an altogether bleaker prison: a tiny rock in the Aegean. Then, the following year, came an even more ominous development. Back in 22, when the Senate had voted to place a statue of Sejanus in Pompey’s theatre, only one senator, a noted historian by the name of Cremutius Cordus, had dared to protest. Now, three years on, the Prefect unleashed his attack dogs. The charge against Cremutius was a novel and chilling one: that in his history he had praised Brutus and Cassius, and named them ‘the last of the Romans’.67 When the wretched historian, rising to his feet, protested to his fellow senators that the liberty to praise the dead, no matter who they were, was an ancient birthright of their city, and one that Augustus himself had personally sanctioned, Sejanus’s agents howled him down. ‘And as they barked at him, he knew himself cornered.’68 Leaving the Senate, Cremutius headed directly home. There, he starved himself to death. An application by the prosecution that he be force-fed, the better to inflict on him an edifying punishment, was registered too late with the consuls to be put into effect. His books, by official decree of the Senate, were burned.

The fate of Cremutius, destroyed because of what he had written about the past, offered to senators the glimpse of a terrifying future. It was one in which every bond of citizenship, every link of friendship, every web of favour and obligation, threatened a snare. A shared confidence at a dinner party, a snatch of conversation in the Forum: risk suddenly lurked everywhere. ‘To comment on anything was to risk prosecution.’69 Familiarity, in such a world, was a kind of infection.

The gods clearly agreed. As though in mockery of the new spirit of dread abroad in the Senate, they now sent to Italy a disease that spared the masses, and women of every class as well, but struck devastatingly at men of the elite. Manifesting itself first as an inflammation of the chin, before going on to cover the entire face and upper body ‘with a hideous scale’,70 it was spread by their habit of kissing. Mentagra, Tiberius termed it, grimly humorous as ever – ‘gout of the chin’.71 By an official edict, he forbade citizens to give one another even the most innocuous peck upon the cheek. Gestures that once had served to celebrate a shared union now spelt only danger. The more intimate a relationship, the more it threatened calamity. The Roman upper classes knew themselves disfigured, blighted, sick.

So too, looking in the mirror, did the Princeps himself. Bald and bent with age, his face had grown ulcerous with sores. Whether it was mentagra itself that had come to afflict him, or some other ailment, Tiberius needed no reminder of how treacherous close contacts might be. Within his own household, attempts to patch over the various rivalries and hatreds festering within the August Family were barely more effectual than the plasters that speckled his face. No moment so sacred, no moment so intimate, that it might not start to suppurate.

Even a sacrifice raised to Augustus was capable of being ruined. It was Agrippina, bursting in on her uncle as he was seeking the favour of his deified predecessor, who desecrated one such ritual. Distraught that yet another of her intimates was being brought to trial, she laid the blame, not on Sejanus, but on Tiberius himself. The sight of her uncle standing before a statue of her grandfather, his head piously covered by his toga as befitted a priest, drove Agrippina into a paroxysm of fury. ‘A man who offers up victims to the god Augustus,’ she spat, ‘ought not to be persecuting his descendants! You think that his divine spirit has been interfused into mute stone? No, if you want his true semblance, then look for it in me – a woman with his heavenly blood in her veins!’ Tiberius only fixed Agrippina with a baleful gaze, then reached out and held her with his skinny hand. ‘So,’ he hissed, ‘you think that your not being in power means you suffer persecution?’72

It still needed one final confrontation, one climactic insult, before the breakdown in relations between the two could be rendered terminal; and it was engineered, inevitably, by Sejanus. The Prefect, who had his agents everywhere, even among the circle of Agrippina’s friends, employed them to deliver a fatal warning: that Tiberius was planning to poison her. The charge could not have been more grotesque – but Agrippina believed it. Invited to dine with her uncle, she ostentatiously refused to touch her plate. When Tiberius, scarcely able to believe his eyes, directly offered her an apple, she passed it to an attendant uneaten. That a man who had first drawn his sword in defence of Rome while he was in his teens, who had twice saved his city’s dominions from implosion, who over the course of his long and incomparably distinguished career had fought many a battle, staring into the whites of his adversaries’ eyes, meeting their steel with his own, and washing himself in the gouts of their blood, should now be charged with so underhand, so offensively feminine a crime: here was a mortal slight.

And not only to the Princeps. To the Augusta as well. The rumours reported of her activities had, if anything, grown only darker since her elevation to near-divine status. It was whispered, and widely believed, that Augustus himself had been the victim of her lethal facility with poison. On the last day of his life, it was reported, Livia had gone out into the garden of the villa where they were staying, and smeared the fruit of the fig tree that was growing there with venom – which Augustus, whose love of figs was well known, had promptly devoured. Now, by spurning Tiberius’s offer of fruit so blatantly, Agrippina was raking up the embers of this slander, insulting the mother as well as the son. The Princeps, scorning to dignify his step-niece’s gesture with a direct acknowledgement, turned instead to the Augusta. ‘Who can blame me,’ he demanded, ‘that I should contemplate stern measures against a woman capable of alleging that I would poison her?’73

He had already put in place one particular measure. He flatly refused to grant Agrippina permission to remarry. So badly had this gone down with her that she had ended up sobbing into her sickbed. Surely, she had pleaded, there were men in Rome who would reckon it no dishonour to shelter the wife of Germanicus and his children? Indeed there were – which was precisely why, of course, Tiberius refused to countenance it. A widowed member of the August Family was dynastic gold. It did not help that rumour linked Agrippina to a man the Princeps particularly detested: an able and ambitious ex-consul by the name of Asinius Gallus, whose contributions to debates in the Senate had always been reliably snide.74 Worse, Gallus had been married to Vipsania, the woman divorced by Tiberius many years previously on the orders of Augustus, and who had always remained the one true love of his life. The prospect of welcoming such a man into the August Family was too monstrous to be borne. Gallus’s personal failings, though, were not the principal stumbling block. Had he never been a trouble-maker, had he instead been a loyal and supportive ally, the Princeps would still have refused permission. Agrippina, and Livilla as well, were far too valuable to be sprung from their widowhood.

Even Tiberius’s most trusted deputy had been unable to shake him from this resolution. Agrippina was not the only person in his immediate circle with marriage on the mind. Back in 23, the year of Drusus’s death, Sejanus had divorced his wife, Apicata. Despite giving him three children, her rank had failed to keep pace with the Prefect’s ambitions – and so, naturally, she had had to go. For two years, Sejanus had bided his time. When he finally made his move, in 25, his aim could hardly have been set higher. Writing to Tiberius, it was to make a formal request for the hand of Livilla. A rare false step. Taken by surprise, the Princeps prevaricated. Reluctant though he was to deliver Sejanus a direct snub, he made clear his reservations. Allowing Livilla to marry, he explained, would inevitably intensify the rivalry between her and Agrippina. The two women already detested each other. To worsen their mutual hatred was a risk not worth the payback. ‘It would effectively split the House of Caesar in two.’75 Sejanus, taking the hint, had beaten a retreat.

The episode, though, had not been without value to the Prefect. Tiberius, normally so close and secretive, had revealed depths normally kept well concealed. Sejanus appreciated better than anyone else in Rome the full degree of his master’s exhaustion: with the women in his household, with the various factions in the Senate, with the capital itself. ‘So it was that Sejanus began to cast the drudgeries of the city, its jostling crowds and all the people endlessly pestering Tiberius, in the worst light possible; and to speak in praise of calm and solitude.’76 These sentiments were nothing radical. Retirement was not an alien principle to the Roman elite. The citizen who had served his fellows well was rarely begrudged his withdrawal from the political rough-and-tumble. Just as Horace had revelled in the charms of his Sabine farm, so would distinguished senators retreat from Rome to enjoy the out-of-town leisure activities appropriate to their rank: chatting with philosophers, showing off priceless works of art, adding extensions to their already massive villas. Swanky estates were to be found dotted across the Italian countryside; but the largest concentration lay along the coast south of Rome. In the Bay of Naples, which boasted real estate more expensive than anywhere save the most exclusive quarters of the capital itself, so numerous were the villas lining the coast ‘that they gave the impression of forming a single city’.77 Some might hug the shoreline, others perch on cliffs – but all bore dazzling witness to the premium set by eminent Romans on a sea view. A high-end property overlooking the Bay of Naples had long been an accepted mark of greatness. The villa left by Julius Caesar to Augustus, perched as it was on a rocky promontory, was renowned as a particular beauty spot. Augustus himself, by dying after a pleasant few days on Capri, had enjoyed what many Romans would have regarded as the perfect send-off.

Loyalty to him in Campania, the region which boasted the Bay of Naples, had been particularly strong. Back in the dark days of the civil wars, when Italy had been menaced by pirate fleets, Agrippa had moored his ships directly among the bay’s most famous oyster beds, in a sheltered stretch of water named the Lucrine Lake, not caring what damage they did. The civil wars, though, had ended, and the fleet had been moved to a new base on a nearby promontory, where any damage to shellfish could be kept to a minimum. The Bay of Naples, beautiful and deliciously expensive, had come to serve as the principal ornament of the peace presided over by Augustus. Even the beasts of the deep had arisen to applaud it: a dolphin, as though sent by the gods to proclaim the new era, had befriended a boy who lived beside the Lucrine Lake and carried him every day to school. The story, which seemed conjured from a vanished world of myth, exemplified the distinctive appeal of the Bay of Naples, combining as it did the height of fashion with a distinctively antique feel. Certainly, to a man of Tiberius’s sophisticated cultural tastes, the region offered more than just baths and oysters. If not quite as Greek as Rhodes, the island to which he had retired many years previously, it preserved a flavour of something inestimably precious: a touch of the settlers from Greece who, many centuries before, had come sailing into the bay and founded Naples. Nowhere, in short, promised the grim and weary Princeps a more tempting refuge. Naturally, it was out of the question for him to relinquish the charge entrusted him by the gods and the deified Augustus – but this did not have to be an insuperable problem. Campania was only a single day’s ride away from Rome. A Princeps of sufficient acumen could certainly look to rule the world from there. It would need only one thing: a deputy back in the capital able and loyal enough to merit his trust.

Already, in AD 21, Tiberius had tested the waters by spending much of the year in Campania. Now, five years on, he planned an even lengthier stay. Setting out from Rome, he travelled relatively light. Only a single senator accompanied him. Also in his train were an assortment of literary scholars, men who shared Tiberius’s fascination with abstruse details of mythology, and who could cope with the fiendishly difficult quizzes that the Princeps was in the habit of springing on his guests. Sejanus too, ever the devoted deputy, rode with the party. Although, as his master’s proxy in the capital, he could hardly be spared for long, he and the rest of the party made a leisurely speed. Sixty-five miles south of Rome, Tiberius turned off the Appian Way and headed along a side-road for the coast. Here, waiting for him on the seafront, stretched an enormous estate: the villa of Spelunca. Sheer scale, though, was not the only aspect of the complex appropriate to his greatness. Beyond the residential quarters, up hills and past promontories, amid arbours and pavilions, in gardens, by walkways and on cliffs, works of art had been placed with masterly precision, so as to seem almost alive when illumined by torches and framed by the twilight. Some were antiquities, some freshly sculpted – but all bore witness to their owner’s distinctive interests. Holding up a mirror to his fascination with the dimensions of myth, Spelunca served the Princeps as a landscape of fantasy – peopled by gods, and heroes of epic, and fabulous beasts. An emperor in such a theme park of wonders might well feel, even if only for an evening, that he had left the pressures of the capital far behind.

Once, back in the time of Aeneas, a second hero – a Greek – had come sailing past Spelunca. Although called Odysseus by his own people, in Latin he was known as Ulysses. Famously crafty and famously long-suffering, he had spent ten long years struggling to get home from the sack of Troy – fighting off monsters and negotiating with witches as he did so. Tiberius, who knew for himself what it was to struggle against debacles and domineering women, clearly felt an affinity with the hero.78 Down by the sea, where a natural cave looked out onto the waters once plied by Ulysses, Tiberius had fashioned the most remarkable dining space in the world. Haute cuisine was one of the few extravagances on which the notoriously stingy Princeps delighted in lavishing his wealth. A noted wine snob, with a taste for vintages that had been treated with smoke, he also took a particular interest in vegetarian cooking – whether it was discovering a new variety of asparagus, sourcing exotic root vegetables from Germany, or insisting over the heads of rival gourmands that cabbage was far too delicious to rank as vulgar.

Nowhere, though, had his fascination with the arts of the table expressed itself more innovatively than at Spelunca. Pools washed with sea water enabled fish to be cooked fresh on site; pontoons over the shallows permitted guests to enjoy their banquet directly in the mouth of the cave, to the lapping of the sea all around them; flickering torches lit the inner depths of the grotto. ‘There, nature had ingeniously imitated art’79 – but not so ingeniously as art had then embellished nature. Immense statues illustrating various exploits of Ulysses provided diners with an incomparable tableau. A monster rose out of a pool inside the cave; a one-eyed giant sprawling on his back filled its innermost recess. Fine food, spectacular sculpture and a setting pregnant with myth: even Tiberius could feel happy at Spelunca.

Perhaps, though, it was possible to be too close to the world of epic. The giant eerily illuminated by torches in the rear of the cave had been the son of Neptune, god of the seas, who was known, thanks to his habit of lashing out periodically with his trident, as ‘Earth-Shaker’. The tremor, when it came that evening, hit Spelunca without warning. Boulders began to fall, crashing down onto the mouth of the grotto. Numerous attendants bringing food were crushed in the avalanche, while the guests, rising in panic, fled for safety across the shallows. The elderly Tiberius, struggling to his feet, was unable to make his escape from the cliff-face – and the Praetorians, when they came hurrying to the scene of disaster and saw only rubble where the Princeps had been lying, inevitably feared the worst. Clambering over the debris, they heard the voice of their prefect calling out to them; and when they pulled away the boulders, it was to find Sejanus crouching over his master on hands and knees, the embodiment of a human shield.

A miracle – and pregnant with meaning, clearly. Tiberius himself took away two lessons from the episode. First, that he had in Sejanus an incomparably trustworthy servant, a man who could be trusted with anything. Second, that the gods had delivered him a warning never again to set foot in Rome.


AD 28. The first of January. A propitious and joyous time. It was a day when the perfume of burning saffron hung heady over the Forum; when temples were unbolted and altars reconsecrated to the gods; when fat bullocks were led up to the summit of the Capitol and their necks bent to the axe. Meanwhile, in the Senate House, a letter was being read out from the Princeps, offering the traditional season’s greetings. Few senators were expecting any surprises. It was a holiday, after all.

This time, though, there was to be a twist. A year and more Tiberius had been absent in Campania – but he still had his eyes and ears in Rome. The man he had taken to calling ‘the sharer of his cares’80 was tireless in his cause. Sejanus had his spies everywhere – sniffing out subversion, keeping track of sedition. Now, Tiberius informed the Senate, a particularly shocking instance of maiestas had been uncovered. An equestrian by the name of Titius Sabinus had spoken blatant treason to one of Sejanus’s undercover agents. Three more of them, squeezed into Sabinus’s attic, had overheard every last word. Since all four of the Prefect’s agents were prominent senators, there could be no disputing their evidence. Sabinus had slandered the Princeps, suborned his servants, plotted against his life. Clearly, then, his fellow senators knew what they had to do. And do it they duly did.

When the Praetorians came for Sabinus, they jerked a hood down over his head, then slung a noose around his neck. His despairing protest, bleak and punning, was worthy of Tiberius at his most sardonic: a muffled lamentation that sacrifice was being offered up, not to Janus, but to Sejanus.81 Then he was hauled away, his destination the city’s prison. Unbolted that same day as Rome’s temples had already been, it swallowed up Sabinus into its bowels. Soon afterwards, a limp bundle was slung out onto the Gemonian Steps. There, where Piso’s statues had been vandalised eight years earlier, the corpse of the executed man was exposed to the gaze of the Forum. As crowds gathered, drawn by the spectacle, his dog stood guard over the body and howled inconsolably. When people tossed it scraps of food, it would carry them back to its master and lay them beside the corpse’s mouth; and when, in due course, men came with hooks to drag Sabinus to the Tiber, the dog followed the body all the way to the river, then jumped in after it, ‘trying to keep it from sinking’.82

Ever given to sentimentality, the Roman people could recognise in the misery of this faithful hound a mirror of their own grief for the family of Germanicus. Sabinus had been a close associate of their dead favourite, and in his fatal discussions with Sejanus’s agent provocateur had aggressively expressed his pity for Agrippina. Tiberius’s departure from Rome had done nothing to ease the pressure on the unhappy widow. Just the opposite. Operating on the presumption that the Princeps had washed his hands of Agrippina once and for all, Sejanus had felt licensed to work ever more openly for the downfall of her family. His particular target was her oldest son, Nero – who, as the heir apparent, represented the most immediate threat to the Prefect’s own prospects. It helped that Nero himself was brash and headstrong; helpful too that Drusus, the next in line, was so consumed by envy of his elder brother that he preferred to side with Sejanus.

Only Caligula, the youngest of Agrippina’s three sons, was too clear-sighted to play the Prefect’s game. Still in his mid-teens, the travails of his family had already bred in him a pitiless appreciation of how capricious and cruel the workings of power could be. Certainly, he felt no obligation to share in the doom closing in on his family – not if he could possibly help it. Accordingly, when Agrippina was obliged by Sejanus to leave Rome, and found herself placed under effective house arrest in Campania, Caligula turned for sanctuary to the one person with sufficient authority still to defy the Prefect. ‘Ulysses in a stola’,83 he nicknamed the Augusta – high praise indeed, coming from an operator of his already seasoned aptitude for cunning. She in her turn delighted in her great-grandson as a chip off the old block. Caligula – for the moment, at any rate – could reckon himself safe.

Which was just as well. The noose was tightening all the time. With Sabinus dead, Tiberius wrote again to the Senate, praising it for its prompt action in keeping the Republic from danger, and hinting darkly at further plots. Even though he mentioned no names, everyone knew whom he meant. When Sejanus, in his regular briefings, warned his master of the iniquities of Agrippina or the thuggishness of Nero, there was no one now to contradict him. So determined had Tiberius been to leave behind the gossip and importunities of court life that even Campania had proven inadequate to his purposes. Within a few months of his arrival there, he had abandoned its various pleasure resorts, evacuating himself and his retinue to Capri, the private island bequeathed him by Augustus. There, where no one could approach its two jetties, let alone land on them, without his express permission, he could feel far from the madding crowd at last. From his family too. Decades previously, campaigning in Pannonia or Germany, Tiberius had always been a general to put a premium on security. The man who on his campaigns had invariably slept without a tent, the better to avoid the risk of assassination, now lived in dread of his own relatives: a frightened and unhappy woman, a gauche and inexperienced boy. What had once been a healthy instinct for self-preservation was darkening, in old age, into paranoia.

Tiberius’s retreat to his cliff-girt island, though, was no abdication. He remained too much a man of duty to turn his back entirely on the charge bequeathed him by Augustus. The Princeps held true to his responsibilities both to the August Family and to the Roman people. So it was, even as Agrippina found herself placed under ever stricter supervision, that he arranged to provide her daughter and namesake with a match worthy of her status: Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, impeccably aristocratic son of the first Roman commander to cross the Elbe. So it was too, whether by inviting privileged guests over to join him on Capri, or by going on the odd foray to the mainland, that the Princeps set limits on his isolation. He would still, every once in a while, make himself available to the privileged few. Those who wished to see him, though, had no alternative but to do so fully on his terms. Tiberius had not the slightest intention, as yet, of headingback to Rome. Even the grandest senators were obliged to beat a path to Campania – where they might well find their access to the Princeps held up or even barred by Sejanus. Many, to their indignation, were reduced to camping out on the Bay of Naples, among the various other suitors. The shame of it was deeply felt. To be reduced to crawling before a mere equestrian; to begging him for favours; to serving his interests in exchange for his patronage, like the humblest, most cringing of spongers: these, for the elite of Rome, were unconscionable humiliations. Yet what was the alternative? Senators found themselves stumbling through a strange and terrifying world – one in which everything seemed turned on its head. Honours, once the badges of glory and achievement, now served to brand those who gained them as crawlers. Pedigree and independence of mind, the qualities most admired by Tiberius in his fellow senators, seemed ever more likely to spell their ruin. ‘As for a famous name – that threatened death.’84

And, of course, it threatened no one more than Augustus’s descendants. A year on from the execution of Sabinus, and two deaths served to herald the endgame. The first was that of Agrippina’s wretched sister Julia, exiled more than twenty years by her deified grandfather, and breathing her last on the tiny island where she had been languishing ever since. She had been a prisoner so long that it came as news to many people in Rome that she had not died years before – but the same could hardly be said of the second loss suffered by the August Family in 29. The death of the Augusta, whose father had perished at Philippi, who had shared the bed of a god, and who had been awarded more titles, honours and tokens of rank than any other woman in her city’s history, was experienced by the Roman people as a fateful moment, one last farewell to a past already becoming legend. So moved were senators that they even voted to raise an arch in her honour. Tiberius, whose grief at the loss of his mother appeared decidedly muted, did not approve. The proposal was quietly buried. So too, with the stern admonition that the Augusta herself would never have been so vain as to lay claim to divine honours, was a senatorial vote to declare her a goddess. The funeral itself was a modest affair. Tiberius, who had been vacillating for days about whether to leave Capri for the ceremony, did not in the event appear. The Augusta’s body had already begun to stink by the time it was finally consigned to the flames. The funeral address was delivered, to universal praise, by the seventeen-year-old Caligula.

Who was painfully aware, of course, even as he gave his speech, that the future had just turned a little more uncertain. Others too had good cause to be nervous. Over the next few years, many of the Augusta’s protégés would be brought to ruin. These ranged from consuls to women such as Piso’s widow, Plancina. Most prominent of all, though, was Agrippina. No matter that she and her grandmother had never got along, the Augusta had always been a woman to hold Tiberius to his obligations. For as long as he had been Princeps, she had served him as a living reminder of his duty to Augustus – who had never left anyone in any doubt that the sons of Germanicus were his appointed heirs. Certainly, in the minds of their devoted admirers, it was no coincidence that a letter from the Princeps denouncing both Agrippina and her eldest son, Nero, should have arrived in the Senate House almost the moment that the Augusta’s funeral was done. As crowds massed in the Forum, brandishing likenesses of Agrippina and Nero and chanting that the letter was a fake, the senators squirmed. Unclear what it was exactly that the Princeps intended them to do, they did nothing. Menaces from Sejanus, and a second letter from Tiberius, left them no room for doubt. Obediently, the Senate then did as prompted. Agrippina and Nero were both condemned as conspirators against the Princeps, and Nero, for good measure, declared a public enemy. But were these measures really sufficient to the horror of their crimes? If only, the Senate added unctuously, they could be sentenced to death! Tiberius, though, had other plans. As ever, he was guided both by what was strictly legal, and by the example of Augustus. Nero and his mother, shackled and under heavy guard, were transported to separate prison islands off Italy. Agrippina, in a twist typical of Tiberius’s baleful humour, was sent to Pandateria, where Julia, her mother, had long before been sent by Augustus.

For the Princeps, ever one to savour a grudge, the official condemnation of his ex-wife’s daughter was a delicious vindication of his darkest suspicions. For Sejanus too it was a mighty triumph. He knew, however, to a degree unsuspected by Tiberius, how foully he had played in framing Agrippina; and he knew as well, high though he had mounted the ladder, how parlous were the rungs he still had left to climb. Two goals remained to be met: the final elimination of Germanicus’s heirs; and the establishment of a right of guardianship over Drusus’s. Of the two sons that Livilla had delivered her husband back in 20, only one now remained to her, a nine-year-old nicknamed in memory of his dead sibling ‘Gemellus’ – ‘the Twin’. Were Germanicus’s two remaining sons to be declared public enemies, as Nero had already been, then Gemellus, as Tiberius’s grandson, would be the only heir left standing.

Not that Sejanus was alone in appreciating this. Livilla, who had enjoyed Agrippina’s downfall as much as anyone, was fully alert to the ally she had in the Prefect. The prospect of seeing her son as Princeps, over the heads of Nero, Drusus and Caligula, was one calculated to delight her envious and ambitious spirit. Already she had played an enthusiastic part in Sejanus’s schemes. Her daughter, Gemellus’s elder sister, had been married to Nero, and on Livilla’s instructions had served the Prefect as his eyes and ears. Just as Sabinus had been doomed by spies in his attic, so Nero had been betrayed in his bed. There was nowhere, it seemed, beyond the Prefect’s reach.

Yet even as his fellow citizens, cringing before his fame and power, began to pay him honours so extravagant that they seemed to cast him, not as the servant of the Princeps, but as his partner, Sejanus never forgot how precarious the foundations of his greatness remained. That his statues were paired with those of Tiberius; that formal delegations had taken to meeting him at the city gates whenever he returned to Rome; that some had even begun to offer sacrifices to his image, almost as though he were the DeifiedAugustus himself: none of this deceived the Prefect. His fortunes still hung by a thread. Without the favour of Tiberius, he would be nothing. A year on from the downfall of Agrippina, a fresh triumph over her sons served, by a frustrating irony, only to emphasise this all the more. The same dirty tricks that had done for Nero now secured the condemnation of Drusus as well. The suborning of the young man’s wife, the briefings against him by security agents, the slanders whispered in his grand-uncle’s ear by Sejanus himself, proved more than sufficient to doom him. Proclaimed by the Senate a public enemy, as his elder brother had been, Drusus was immured in a dungeon on the Palatine. Now, with only Caligula standing between Gemellus and the succession, Sejanus had ultimate victory almost in his grasp. Almost – but not quite. Caligula, who had been staying with his grandmother, Antonia, after the death of the Augusta, was summoned by Tiberius to Capri. There, of course, he was effectively beyond the Prefect’s reach. That Caligula himself was as much the hostage as the guest of his great-uncle helped Sejanus not at all. To frame a young man directly under Tiberius’s nose was an almost impossible challenge – even for a practitioner in the arts of disinformation as seasoned as the Prefect.

What, though, if he could end his dependence on the patronage of his master? In Rome, a shift in the balance of power between the two men was increasingly bruited. Tiberius, absent from the capital for four years, had begun to seem to many a shrunken and faded figure – ‘the lord of an island, nothing more’.85 The Prefect himself knew better; but he also knew that his patron, weary of Rome and weary of life, would not be around for ever. Time was running out. Having come so far, Sejanus could no longer depend for his future prospects upon the favour of a sick and aged man. To win he would have to dare.

When news reached Rome that Nero, transported to a penal island the year before, was dead, few failed to detect the hand of the Prefect in his miserable and squalid end. A guard, it was rumoured, had appeared before the prisoner, brandishing a noose and a butcher’s hook; and Nero, rather than suffer himself to be murdered, had committed suicide. Whether true or not, it added to the aura of menace that clung to Sejanus: the man who commanded access to the Princeps, who had built a legionary camp directly overlooking Rome, who had deployed terror more blatantly in the city than anyone since the darkest days of the Triumvirate. Yet even as he intimidated the Roman people, he made sure to woo them as well. When Tiberius, in a telling mark of favour, arranged for him to become consul and agreed to serve as his partner, Sejanus naturally revelled in his official status as the colleague of the Princeps. Now at last he was a senator; now at last he wielded power that was legally sanctioned. Simultaneously, though, as a man who had risen from provincial obscurity to dizzying heights, his election provided him with the perfect opportunity to pose as something more: as a man of the people. After the formal vote in the Senate House, the new consul-elect staged a flamboyant parade around the Aventine, the hill of the plebs. Here, in a pointed echo of the elections on the Campus banned by Tiberius, he hosted an assembly. The potential insult to his master was massive – but Sejanus was content to take the risk. Princeps, Praetorians, people: he needed them all.

By 31, the year in which he entered his consulship, the Prefect could feel confident that all his schemes, all his manoeuvrings, all his ambitions were close to fruition. Although Caligula, infuriatingly, remained at liberty, the sense that Tiberius was finally ready to take the decisive step and reveal his long-term plans for his ‘partner in toil’86 began to build with the heat of summer. That spring, bidding his deputy farewell after a consultation with him on Capri, the Princeps had freely expressed his devotion, hugging his deputy tightly and declaring that he could as easily spare his own body and soul as Sejanus. Still, though, even as rumour and counter-rumour swept Rome, no definitive statement arrived in the sweltering city.

Summer turned to autumn. The Prefect continued to sweat. Finally, on 18 October, the long-awaited moment arrived. It was dawn. As Sejanus, standing on the steps of the great temple of Apollo, where the Senate was due to meet that day, gazed out from the Palatine at the waking city, he was joined by a fellow prefect. One-time commander of the city’s firefighters, the Vigiles, Sutorius Macro had just come from Capri – and he bore with him a letter from the Princeps. It was addressed to the new consul, Memmius Regulus, a trusted henchman of Tiberius who had taken office only three weeks before, and was presiding over the Senate that same morning. In strictest confidence, Macro revealed the letter’s contents to his commander. Sejanus was to be given the tribunicia potestas, the privileges of a tribune. Momentous news indeed. Back in the days of Augustus, first Agrippa and then Tiberius himself had been granted the identical bundle of powers – and on both occasions, it had served to mark the respective men as the partner of Augustus’s labours. Unsurprisingly, then, Sejanus was as delighted as he was relieved. As he hurried inside the temple, the look on his face was one that everyone could read. Cheers greeted him, and bursts of applause. When he took his place, senators flocked to sit beside him, eager to bask in his glory. Macro, meanwhile, handed over the letter from Tiberius to Regulus. Then he turned and left. Sejanus, listening impatiently to the letter as the consul began to read it out, did not bother to wonder where he might be headed.

Tiberius, of course, had never been a man to cut to the chase. Nevertheless, as senators listened to Regulus read out his letter, they found themselves growing perplexed. Far from praising Sejanus, the Princeps seemed to have only criticisms of his colleague. The placemen who had bunched themselves around him began to inch nervously away. Sejanus himself, listening in consternation, could not move – for various magistrates had stepped forward to block his path. Only after Regulus had ordered him three times to stand did he finally rise to his feet – by which stage it was clear to everyone that Tiberius had cut his deputy loose. When the consul ordered Sejanus to be led from the chamber and incarcerated in the same prison that had once held Sabinus, no one attempted to defend him. As news of the Prefect’s downfall swept across Rome, crowds began to mass in the Forum, booing and jeering the prisoner, and toppling his statues as he was dragged past them in chains. When Sejanus sought to cover his head with his toga, they yanked it off him and began punching and slapping him about the face. So much for his attempts to woo the Roman people. Worse than a failure, they had cost him the backing of his patron.

That afternoon, with Sejanus languishing in the city prison, senators reconvened amid the splendour of the building opposite, the Temple of Concord. There, in the supreme monument to the suppression of uppity commoners, they voted for him to be executed. He was garotted that same evening, and his corpse slung out, as Sabinus’s had been, onto the Gemonian Steps. For three days, teeming crowds of those who had detested the Prefect for his arrogance, his cruelty and his ambition gleefully kicked and trampled it to a pulp. Only once it had been reduced to an unrecognisable mess was the body finally dragged away on a hook. Slung into the Tiber, the man who had aspired to govern the world ended up as food for fishes.

Meanwhile, flashed along a chain of bonfires, the news was being brought to Capri. As he waited on the island’s highest cliff to receive it, Tiberius had been taking nothing for granted. A ship lay at anchor, ready to evacuate him to a legionary base in the event of his plans going wrong. Dread of Macro failing to seize command of the Praetorians, of Sejanus defying the attempts to topple him, of losing his hold on Rome: Tiberius, whose suspicions of Germanicus’s family had induced in him such creeping paranoia, had suddenly realised the full, appalling scope of his error. Obsessed as he was by scotching Agrippina, he had failed to consider that he might all along have been nursing a viper at his breast.

It was Antonia, the grandmother of Caligula, who had opened his eyes to the danger. The old woman, having already watched two of her grandsons destroyed by the Prefect, had been frantic to stop him framing a third. Accordingly, in a letter sent to her brother-in-law by her most trusted slave, a Greek by the name of Pallas, she had spelt out her suspicions. To the naturally secretive and suspicious Tiberius, who for so long had cherished his deputy as the one man he could trust, the realisation that Sejanus might have been playing him for a fool was devastating. Even the possibility that the Prefect might pose a menace had been sufficient to doom him. Slowly, surely, inexorably, Tiberius had drawn up his plans. Consummately skilled though Sejanus was in the arts of guile and conspiracy, his master had outsmarted him. The Prefect, taken wholly by surprise, had found himself entangled in a web more lethal than any that he had spun. The spider had ended up a fly.

Nor was Sejanus the only one to perish. Many others were dragged down with him. Some – his eldest son, his uncle – were formally sentenced to death, others lynched by vengeful mobs. The Praetorians, who felt a particular need to demonstrate their loyalty to the Princeps, did so by rampaging through the city, burning and looting as they went. ‘Not a person of Sejanus’s faction, but he was trampled down by the Roman people.’87 The deadliest vengeance of all, though, was taken by Apicata, his abandoned wife. Writing to the Princeps, she levelled allegations against Sejanus so monstrous, so unspeakable, that she killed herself the moment she had made them.88 Tiberius, having unsealed the letter, read with mounting horror of just how far, and how terribly, he had been deceived. For a decade, Apicata claimed, his most trusted servant had been having an affair with Livilla. Together, the pair of them had poisoned Drusus. There had been no limit to the ambitions, the depravity and the treachery of the couple. Remembering how Sejanus had once requested the hand of his niece, Tiberius could feel the scales dropping from his eyes. A eunuch of Drusus’s, a physician of Livilla’s: both, when they were tortured, confirmed the truth of Apicata’s claims. Tiberius was duly convinced. Handed over to her mother, Livilla was locked up in a room and starved to death. Her statues, her inscriptions, her very name: all were obliterated. Senators, frantic to demonstrate their loyalty to the vengeful Princeps, queued up to damn her memory. Meanwhile, with Sejanus’s eldest son already put to death, orders were given for his two youngest children to be taken to the city prison. One, a boy, was old enough to understand what lay ahead; but his little sister, bewildered and not knowing what she had done wrong, kept asking why she could not be punished like any other child – with a beating? Since it would naturally have been an offence against the most sacred traditions of the Roman people to put a virgin to death, the executioner made sure to rape her first. The bodies of the two children, once they had been strangled, were dumped on the Gemonian Steps.

So many judicial murders, so many corpses left to the gaze of the Forum. When Agrippina perished on her penal island, two years to the day after the execution of her deadliest enemy, Tiberius made great play of his mercy in not having had her strangled or exposed on the Gemonian Steps. The downfall of Sejanus had done nothing to ease his mistrust of her. She and Nero had remained in captivity. So too had Asinius Gallus, the man suspected by Tiberius of plotting to marry Agrippina, and whose condemnation a cowed and compliant Senate had been nudged into pronouncing back in 30. For three years the wretched man had been kept in solitary confinement, given just enough to keep him alive, and forcibly fed whenever he attempted to go on hunger strike. To Tiberius, torn between a vengefulness grown more cruel and fearful with old age, and an abiding instinct to procrastinate, such a punishment – a living death – had represented the perfect compromise. Gallus, Agrippina, Drusus: all three, when they finally perished, did so of hunger. Drusus’s end was particularly terrible. Like his mother, who had lost an eye during the course of one beating, he had been in the charge of brutal gaolers, soldiers and ex-slaves, who did not hesitate to use the whip on the son of Germanicus at the slightest hint of disobedience. In the final week of his life, he was reduced to gnawing on the contents of his mattress. When he died, it was with screams and imprecations. His final curse on Tiberius was a chilling one: as a monster who had drowned his own family in blood.

When these details were reported to senators, they listened in perplexity, puzzled that a man as secretive as the Princeps should ever have permitted the reporting of such horrors. Tiberius, though, felt no compunctions. The eyes of the Roman people had to be opened. Menace lurked everywhere. Even among his closest advisors, his own family, treason was a constant. It gave Tiberius no pleasure to acknowledge this. He had loved Sejanus, and he had loved his brother – two of whose grandsons had ended up starving to death in his prisons. The Senate too, that body in which the Princeps had always placed such trust, and in whose interests he had always laboured so hard, had shown itself rotten with ingratitude. To purge it of the taint of collaboration was a murderous task. On one particularly fell day, twenty senators, Sejanus loyalists all, were executed in a single dispatch. Guards ringed the corpses, forbidding relatives and friends to display any marks of grief; and when the bodies were finally hauled from the Gemonian Steps and dumped into the Tiber, they drifted away ponderously on the currents, a rotting tangle of carrion. Yet Tiberius, when he felt that his own security was not at stake, was still willing to grant mercy to a colleague – and to confess to the Senate his state of anguish. ‘Every day, I feel myself succumbing to misery.’89

Most rife of all with treachery, though, and most seductive, was the capital itself. Every year, in the wake of Sejanus’s downfall, the Princeps would set out for home; and every year, rather than enter the city, he would wander the countryside beyond it, or else make camp in the shade of its walls, before scuttling crab-like back down the coast to Capri. To be a permanent exile from Rome was more than he could bear; to return there, impossible. It was a torture that might have been designed by the gods. Certainly, there could be no doubting their hand in Tiberius’s reluctance to pass the city gates. The earthquake at Spelunca had been only one of many portents sent to ward him from the city. On one occasion, as he approached Rome, he went to feed his pet snake and found it dead, devoured by ants. So transparent a warning of the menace presented to him by the mob was this that he had immediately turned round in his tracks. Tiberius was skilled in the reading of such signs. Right from the earliest days, they had accompanied his career. While he was a student, ‘a donkey had given off large sparks as it was being groomed, thus predicting his future rule’;90 while a young officer, ‘altars consecrated by victorious legions in times of old had blazed into sudden fire.’ An adept of primordial wisdom, of veiled mysteries, of the science of the stars, Tiberius knew how to trace the patterns cast on mortal affairs by the shadow of the heavens.

Such learning, of course, could be dangerous in the wrong hands. Back in 12 BC, Augustus had confiscated and burned more than two thousand books which claimed to reveal the future; two years into Tiberius’s reign, the Senate had ordered all astrologers out of Italy. Particularly prominent ones risked being thrown off a cliff. Knowledge of where the world was heading had become far too sensitive to be permitted the average citizen. A Princeps, by contrast, needed all the guidance he could get. Tiberius’s own instructor in occult studies was an astrologer by the name of Thrasyllus, whose talents had first impressed him during his exile on Rhodes, and who had since become a bosom companion.*1 The presence by his side of such a seasoned observer of the constellations was a great reassurance to the Princeps. The pulse of things still needed to be kept. Quarantined as he was from the sordid mass of humanity, Tiberius aimed to fix his gaze instead on higher things, upon wonders untouched by equivocating senators, fractious mobs and ambitious widows.

Even Augustus had found Capri a fitting home for marvels. His villa had been liberally adorned with them: the bones of giants, the skeletons of sea monsters. Tiberius too had a fascination with such treasures – so much so that his curiosity about them was celebrated across the world. Brought the tooth of a colossal hero whose remains had been exposed by an earthquake in Asia Minor, he had reverently measured it, then commissioned a full-scale model of the dead man’shead.*2 Such attention to the details of the fantastical was typical of Tiberius. When a merman was spotted playing a conch shell in a Spanish cave, or a mysterious voice was heard crying out from a Greek island that Pan, a god with the legs and huge genitals of a goat, was dead, the Princeps demanded a full report. Witnesses were grilled, official inquiries set up. Nowhere, though, did the Princeps’s obsession with squaring the rival dimensions of the earthly and the heavenly, the mortal and the supernatural, express itself to more spectacular effect than on his island retreat. Twelve separate villas, some converted by the Princeps and some built from scratch, dotted the island in transparent homage to Mount Olympus, home of the twelve most powerful gods of Greece. Some of these complexes stood perched on cliffs, louring over sea-lanes once navigated by Ulysses and Aeneas; others led down to caves, where, set amid the lapping of blue waters, statues of mermen and sea-nymphs adorned the flame-lit depths. Everywhere, grottoes, gardens and porticoes, graced by the Princeps with learned, teasing names and fashioned in obedience to his immaculate taste, provided the perfect setting for young actors to pose as Pans and nymphs. As at Spelunca, so on Capri: Tiberius dwelt amid a mythological theme park.

And by 37, eleven years after his departure for Campania, he was coming to seem almost a figure of myth himself. It was inevitable, in a city as addicted to scandal as Rome, that the Princeps’s lengthy absence on a private island should have fuelled the rumours told of him. His brooding shadow still lay heavy over the capital. The plebs had neither forgotten nor forgiven his haughty contempt for them, nor the Senate his brutal purging of the supporters of Agrippina and Sejanus. The smears of blood on the Gemonian Steps were not easily washed away. Tiberius had come to seem, in his old age, a ghoulish figure of dread: embittered, paranoid and murderous. Of what hellish cruelties he might be capable away from the public gaze, amid the seclusion of Capri, was a question fit to send shivers up the spines of eager Roman gossips. Many stories were bandied about. It was claimed, for instance, that a few days after the Princeps’s first arrival on the island, while he was standing on a cliff, a fisherman had clambered up the rocks, bringing with him a huge mullet as a gift for Caesar; and that Tiberius, the man whose fearlessness in the service of Rome even his bitterest enemies acknowledged, had been terrified by the intruder. So terrified, in fact, that he had ordered his guards to seize the wretched trespasser and scrub his face with the mullet. The man, screaming, was said to have cried out in the midst of this torture, ‘I only thank the stars I did not give him the huge crab I also caught!’91 And so Tiberius ordered him scrubbed with the crab as well. Rome too, so many had come to believe, had been similarly treated by the Princeps. She had become, under his rule, a face shredded and bloodied to the bone.

That Tiberius was capable of being vengeful hardly came as news. More unsettling, perhaps, were the vices that he had previously kept concealed. To the Roman people, privacy was something inherently unnatural. It permitted aberrant and sinister instincts free rein. Only those with sexual tastes they wished to keep veiled from their fellow citizens could have any reason to crave it. Hostius Quadra had indulged his unspeakable perversities in the isolation of a mirrored bedroom – but Tiberius, for eleven years, had enjoyed the run of an entire island. People in Rome were not fooled by his high-flown pretensions to scholarship. They suspected that his claims to an interest in the arcane details of mythology were merely an excuse to indulge in pornographic floor-shows. Decades before, when the future Augustus had celebrated his marriage to Livia, crowds in the streets below had rioted when news broke that the wedding guests were dressed up as gods. Now, though, in the playground that Tiberius had made of Capri, there were no censorious mobs to keep the Princeps’s fantasies in check. The nymphs and Pans with which he peopled his grottoes were not there merely to pose. Rapes and fantastical copulations were rife in the tales told of the gods. What greater pleasure, then, for an old man fascinated by their doings than to watch their couplings being graphically restaged?

The frisson derived not just from the performances but from the cast. All his life, Tiberius had been pledged to certain fundamentals: the dignity of the Senate, the ideals of the aristocracy, the virtues of his city’s past. Yet as Ovid, left to die by the Princeps at the ends of the world, had always understood, ‘desire is fuelled by prohibitions.’92 Tiberius’s choice of performers could hardly have been more transgressive. Young and attractive, many were not merely paragons of modesty but children of the Princeps’s own class. ‘Beauty and good bodies; uncorrupted innocence and distinguished ancestry: these were what turned him on.’93 Obliged to pose as prostitutes, to hawk for business like the lowest class of sex worker, to perform sometimes three or four at a time, the offspring of the nobility summoned to Capri could hardly have been more humiliated. The spectacle of their degradation was a hideous desecration of everything that the man watching it had always held most dear. But that, of course, for the Princeps, was precisely what made it so exciting.

Naturally, he despised himself for it. Tiberius, heir to the Claudian name, the greatest general of his generation, a man who by virtue of his many services to the Republic would have deserved to rank as Princeps even had his divine father not adopted him, knew the standards by which he would be judged – for he shared them. But he was weary. Twenty long years he had been holding the Roman wolf by its ears. Almost into his ninth decade, he felt himself a man out of time. His best hopes for his city had turned to dust. The Senate had failed him. Indeed, it was the measure of his peers’ depravity that so many had become complicit in his own. Men whose record of service to Rome reached back to the days of the kings, when gods had still walked the earth, now competed to pimp their children to him. Faced by the evidence of such degeneracy, Tiberius no longer felt any great concern to secure the future of his fellow citizens.

Which was just as well – for the ruin that had left the August Family maimed and bleeding spelt potential calamity for the Roman people as well. The House of Caesar would soon need someone new at its head – but who? No one seasoned in the arts of war and peace, as Tiberius himself had been when he succeeded Augustus, was ready to hand. Indeed, male heirs of any description were decidedly thin on the ground. There was Claudius, the twitching, stammering brother of Germanicus – but a man with such literally crippling disabilities was never going to make a Princeps. Then there was Gemellus – but he was still very young, and Tiberius himself, painfully conscious of Livilla’s affair with Sejanus, could hardly help but wonder whether his grandson truly was his grandson. That left Caligula, the people’s favourite. His popularity – owing as it did everything to his parents, and absolutely nothing to any actual record of service – was a perilous attribute to have, of course. There were plenty in Tiberius’s train who thought it inconceivable that the grim old man would ever permit a son of Agrippina to succeed him. Caligula, so Thrasyllus prophesied, was as likely to become emperor as he was to ride a horse across the sea. No one, though, was more alert to the perils of his situation than Caligula himself. He knew better than to give his great-uncle the slightest cause for resentment. His face remained a mask. ‘Not a peep was heard from him at the condemnation of his mother, the destruction of his brothers.’94

Such a display was sufficient for Tiberius. As a man who in his old age had surrendered to the pleasures of hypocrisy, it amused him to wonder what emotions his great-nephew might be veiling behind his inhuman show of composure. Caligula, if truth be told, did not seem a man much given to grief at the suffering of others. Quite the contrary – he gave every impression of enjoying it. Slavishly obedient to the Princeps in everything, it was the darker dimensions of Tiberius’s whims and pleasures for which he showed the greatest enthusiasm. The horrifying fate of Agrippina and his brothers did not inhibit him from taking an intimate personal interest in the punishment of criminals. He was also more than happy to keep pace with his great-uncle’s relish for mythological re-enactments. Ever since his childhood, when the soldiers of the Rhine had strapped him into the miniature pair of boots that gave him his nickname, Caligula had displayed a taste for dressing up. Capri, that wonderland of stage sets, enabled him to give it free rein. Wigs and costumes of every kind were his to try on, and opportunities to participate in pornographic floor-shows freely granted. Tiberius was happy to indulge his great-nephew. He knew what he was leaving the Roman people in the form of their favourite – and he had ceased to care. ‘I am rearing them a viper.’95

Many, of course, in Rome, would have retorted that it took one to know one. Memories of the man the Princeps had once been were long since faded. As tales of the great war hero who had twice hauled the Republic back from ruin gathered dust, fresher stories told of Tiberius now had currency among his fellow citizens. No rumour of his perversities was so hideous that it could not be believed in Rome. That he had trained little boys to slip between his thighs as he went swimming and tease him with their licking; that he had put unweaned babies to the head of his penis, as though to a mother’s breast; even, most repellently of all, that he enjoyed cunnilingus. Yet beyond the streets and taverns of Rome, where slanders of the mighty, and mockery of their pretensions, had always bred, there were others who saw Tiberius in a very different light. In the provinces, where the twenty-three years of stability that he had provided the world might win him praise even among the notoriously snippy intellectuals of Alexandria, he had ended up widely admired as a prince of peace. ‘For wisdom and erudition,’ one declared flatly, ‘there is nobody of his generation to compare.’96Bloodstained pervert and philosopher-king: it took a man of rare paradox to end up being seen as both.

By March 37, though, it was clear that Tiberius’s long and remarkable career was nearing its end. After one last abortive attempt to enter Rome, he had returned to Campania, where storms and a stabbing pain in his side prevented him from crossing back to Capri. Despite a customarily stern-willed attempt to pretend that nothing was wrong, he was eventually forced to retire to bed. Shortly afterwards a terrible earthquake shook the Bay of Naples. On Capri, which for so many years had provided Tiberius with his home and his refuge, a towering lighthouse built on the island’s highest cliff was toppled into the sea, and its fires extinguished.97 The old man, skilled in the art of reading the purposes of the gods, had no need of Thrasyllus to tell him what the sign portended. Sure enough, from his bed, he made dispositions for the transfer of power. In his will, both Caligula and Gemellus were named as his heirs, but the Princeps had no illusions as to what his grandson’s fate promised to be. ‘You will kill him – and then someone else will kill you.’98 So Tiberius had once told Caligula. Unsurprisingly, then, as he felt death come upon him, he found it hard to let go of his signet ring. Even after removing it he could not bring himself to hand it over, but instead held it tight in his palm, and for a long while lay motionless. In time, many stories would be told of what happened next: that Caligula had assumed his great-uncle dead; that just as he was being hailed as the new emperor, news had been brought that the old man was still alive; that Macro, a seasoned operator who had long since attached himself to the rising, not the setting, sun, had ordered Tiberius suffocated beneath a pillow. The truth was less melodramatic. The Princeps, stirring at last, had called for his attendants. None had come. Tottering to his feet, he had called out again – then collapsed.

‘Reckon yourself happy only when you can live in public.’99 Such was the Roman conviction.

Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus had died alone.

*1 Various stories are told of how this particular astrologer passed the audition. According to one account, he accurately foretold that Tiberius was planning to throw him off a cliff; according to another, he correctly identified a ship approaching Rhodes as the bearer of a summons back to Rome.

*2 The ‘hero’ was almost certainly a mastodon or mammoth. See Mayor, p. 146.

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