Tiberius: Ancient Rome’s Reluctant Emperor

From the lecture series: The Roman Empire — From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

Tiberius (42 B.C.-37 A.D.) had a grim, serious personality. He was coldly intellectual, socially awkward, and introverted. Right after Augustus’s death, he dithered and vacillated about what to do, and seemed reluctant to take on Augustus’s role.

Bust of Roman Emperor Tiberius
(Image: PLRANG ART Artur Furmanek/Shutterstock)

Tiberius Takes Over Rome

In this time of confusion, hoping to avoid more civil war, the Senate looked to Tiberius to assert himself. Tiberius’ first appearance in the Senate after Augustus’s death culminated in an almost comic moment. When Tiberius reluctantly agreed to play a part in government, a senator asked him, “Well, what part of the empire would you like?”

In the end, Tiberius did take over and the Senate voted to grant him all the same titles and powers that Augustus had possessed.

Though soldiers were compelled to swear an oath of loyalty to the new emperor, various resentments had been building in the army. This resulted in the first crisis of Tiberius’s reign when a number of the legions along the northern Germanic border mutinied.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Germanicus Versus the Germans

With his dour personality, Tiberius was ill-suited to win over the troops. But he did have a relative who was gregarious and popular: his brother’s son, Germanicus.

Portrait of Germanicus From Gabii, Italy displayed at the Louvre Museum.
Tiberius sent the charismatic Germanicus to soothe the legions along the northern Germanic border. (Image: photographed by Jastrow – Louvre Museum/Public domain)

Tiberius sent the charismatic Germanicus to soothe the legions—a task he accomplished so well that not only did he calm the revolt, Germanicus also invaded Germany and managed to recapture some of the legionary standards that had been lost in the disaster at the Teutoburg Forest.

Fresh off his success in Germany, the dashing young Germanicus was dispatched to another troubled frontier: the eastern border in Armenia. To match his military achievements, he displayed administrative skills in organizing the provinces there.

Considering his relatively advanced age, Tiberius had to quickly pick a successor. Germanicus would have made a logical, popular, and reasonably skilled heir. Unfortunately, he promptly fell ill and died in 19 A.D.

Tiberius did have a son named Drusus, however. Although not as popular as Germanicus, Drusus was an experienced leader, and now became the heir apparent. The situation seemed stable.

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Tiberius’s New Delegate

In Rome, it had always been forbidden to have troops in Italy. But under the emperors, a new group called the Praetorian Guard was established.

The guard was a contingent of elite soldiers stationed in the city of Rome who were supposed to serve as the emperor’s bodyguard. In reality, they far more often ended up assassinating an emperor rather than protecting him.

As early as Tiberius’s rule, the prefect, or commander, of the Praetorian Guard—a man named Sejanus—began to exceed his jurisdiction and assumed control over much of the government. Sejanus was ambitious and maneuvered to become not merely Tiberius’s right-hand man—an aim which he largely achieved—but to position himself as a potential heir to the emperor. This goal was advanced when Germanicus unexpectedly died and then truly became attainable when just a few years later in 23 A.D., Drusus suddenly fell ill and died at only 36 years old.

Sejanus Damnatio Memoriae. A coin from Augusta Bilbilis has the words L. Aelio Seiano erased.
Sejanus Damnatio Memoriae coin, featuring the commander who failed in his bid to become heir to Tiberius. (Image: Classical Numismatic Group/Public domain)

The conniving Sejanus began an affair with Drusus’s widow and sought permission from Tiberius to marry her—a move which would have made him a blood relative to Tiberius, and thus a legitimate candidate for the throne. Tiberius denied this request, but continued to allow Sejanus to exercise considerable power; Sejanus often effectively ruled on his behalf.

Tiberius never seemed to enjoy being emperor. He appeared glad to leave many of the day-to-day details of administration in his delegate’s hands.

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Tiberius Retreats to Capri

In 26 A.D., Tiberius left Rome for good and retreated to his pleasure villa located on the island of Capri, on a spectacular promontory overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. With Tiberius in semi-retirement on Capri, Sejanus was left in charge of Rome, and he began to abuse his power.

Tiberius was not a popular emperor. He was tightfisted, and in contrast to the extensive building projects of Augustus and Agrippa—many of which were constructed for the enjoyment of the populace of Rome—Tiberius built almost nothing, nor did he sponsor lavish public spectacles for the common people. Even when obligatory entertainments were given, he refused to attend—an action the people expected of their emperors.

In his relationships with the Senate and other aristocrats, Tiberius was suspicious and unfriendly. Thus, he was unpopular with both the lower and upper classes of Roman society. Although his policies did not earn him the favor of the people, the empire was nonetheless run fairly efficiently under his rule, and his miserliness had the positive result that by the time Tiberius died, the treasury had a surplus of several billion sesterces.

During the last years of his life, Tiberius stayed in seclusion on Capri. He had always been a superstitious man, and during this time he was particularly influenced by his personal astrologer, Thrasyllus. According to some sources, Tiberius also indulged in various sexual perversions.

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The Rise of “Little Boots”

Marble bust of Agripina displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain.
Agrippina actively campaigned to promote her son Gaius (Caligula) as Tiberius’s heir. (Image: Photographed by Luis García/Public domain)

Although Sejanus was working hard to set himself up to succeed Tiberius, Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina, was actively campaigning to promote her son by the popular deceased general as Tiberius’s heir.

Agrippina’s son was officially named Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, but was widely known by the nickname “Caligula.” He had acquired this name as a toddler in his father’s army camp in Germany when the soldiers had given him a miniature pair of army boots. The boots worn by Roman soldiers were called caligae; the nickname Caligula can be roughly translated as “little boots,” or “bootikins.”

The rivalry between Sejanus and Agrippina continued to escalate, eventually reaching a crisis point when Sejanus became impatient and openly plotted to harm Agrippina and Caligula. Tiberius could not tolerate such a direct threat against members of his family. Sejanus was abruptly denounced and executed. He was replaced as prefect of the Praetorian Guard by a man named Macro.

The candidates to succeed Tiberius were Caligula and Drusus’s son, named Gemellus. Both were still young, and they were appointed as coheirs. In 37 A.D., Tiberius finally died at the age of 77. Of the two rival heirs, Caligula appears to have been the more ambitious. He secured the backing of Macro, the commander of the Praetorian Guard. With Macro’s help, Caligula pushed aside the younger Gemellus and took power.

Common Questions About Roman Emperor Tiberius

Q: What were Roman Emperor Tiberius’ accomplishments?

In addition to being an apt military leader, Tiberius was most well-known for improving Rome’s civil services and financial condition.

Q: Who succeeded Tiberius as the next Roman Emperor?

Tiberius was succeeded by the infamous emperor Caligula.

Q: How was Tiberius killed?

Tiberius was smothered to death in bed by Praetorian commander Macro to keep order, as Caligula had already been made Emperor after they thought Tiberius was dying.

Q: How was Tiberius weak as an Emperor?

Tiberius had several downfalls. He was deeply insecure as a person and so lashed out at any challengers with imprisonment or death. Tiberius was a weak politician, incensed the Senate, made poor judgments of character in crucial leaders and chose to ignore his adulterous wife. At the last moment, he made Caligula his successor, which set Rome on a dark trajectory.

This article was updated on November 27, 2019

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