What was the impact of the Emperor Tiberius on the Roman Empire?

A bust of Tiberius

Emperor Tiberius is not one of the better-known emperors (42 BCE-37AD). He was not as influential as Augustus, as great a commander as Caesar or as grotesquely cruel as Nero. However, he was a very important figure in the development of the Roman Empire. He was the second Roman Emperor and safeguarded the legacy of Augustus and did much to define the role of the emperor and especially the Imperial cult.

Tiberius was also a talented administrator and did much to stabilize the empire and give it a good government. The heir of Augustus was also a brilliant military commander who expanded the empire and provided it with a defensible border. However, in his later years, he set precedents for future emperor’s that were to have negative consequences for Roman society and its politics. Tiberius helped to turn the Imperial system into an autocracy, by his treatment of the Senate and through his expansion of the treason laws.

Background

Tiberius was the adopted son of Augustus and he was a member of one of the most important Roman families the Claudians. His biological father died when he was nine. Tiberius was not at first the designated heir of Augustus but it was expected that he would play a role in the public affairs of Rome. Tiberius proved to be very capable and he was appointed by Augustus to a series of military and political offices.[1] He achieved a string of military and diplomatic successes in Germany, Armenia, Raetia and Illyria. During this time, the succession became an issue and there was some concern as to who would succeed Augustus. Deaths in the family and internal family politics resulted in Tiberius emerging as a potential heir of Augustus.

Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce his beloved wife and marry Julia, the daughter of the first Emperor. Many historians believe that this changed Tiberius character forever and that he became increasingly gloomy and misanthropic after his forced divorce. Tiberius marriage to Julia was an unhappy one and she shamelessly committed adultery in public.[2] This was a public humiliation for Tiberius. Augustus was not aware of his daughter’s adultery and scandalous behavior. Tiberius retired to the island of Rhodes and here he studied rhetoric and philosophy. By now he had been marginalized and he was no longer considered a candidate to succeed Augustus. However, there were another series of deaths and Tiberius was left as the only mature male of the House of the Julian-Claudins, who could succeed Augustus.

Tiberius was summoned back from Rhodes and he was announced as the successor of Augustus. The emperor was believed to have been influenced in his decision by Tiberius mother, the formidable Livia. Tiberius was appointed to several roles such as consul and he succeeded Augustus after his death with little opposition in 14 AD. There was a mutiny in Germany that Tiberius had quelled by his nephew Germanicus.[3]

Reign as Emperor

A bust of Augustus

Tiberius was emperor from 14 BCE to 37 AD. He was a reluctant emperor and never really wanted the role. He followed the advice of Augustus and did not try to expand the borders of the Empire. His heir was Germanicus his nephew. Tiberius had none of the charm or the authority of his predecessor and he had a poor relationship with the Senate.[4] Soon he was very unpopular but his position was secure. He was a dedicated administrator and in the early years of his reign, he was a conscientious ruler.

The popularity of Germanicus apparently troubled him and many believe that he had a hand in the suspicious death of his nephew in 19 AD.[5] As a result, Tiberius could appoint his own son from his first marriage as his heir. However, Drusus died in 23 AD and after this many believe that Tiberius became even gloomier and began to hate the intrigues that he saw everywhere in Rome. He became even more haughty and he referred to the Senators as ‘men fit to be slaves’. [6] In 27 BC Tiberius retired to Capri to his private villa. Some believe that he spent his time in perverse sexual orgies, while others maintain that he spent his days with a few friends discussing philosophy [7]. In his absence, he appointed Sejanus the Praetorian Guard (the Imperial bodyguard) as head of the Roman administration. Sejanus came to dominate the Roman government and he acted in a tyrannical manner, even having members of the elite murdered on trumped up charges [8] He restricted access to the Emperor and Tiberius was unaware of the nature of Sejanus’ rule.

The Praetorians commander was widely believed be having an extramarital affair with the son of Tiberius who died, it was alleged he was poisoned by Sejanus. It seemed that Sejanus plotted to have himself made Emperor and to kill Tiberius. When he heard this the old emperor left Capri and had Sejanus arrested and executed.[9] Tiberius appointed Gaius Caeser, the son of Germanicus as his heir. It was widely believed that Caligula had the elderly Tiberius murdered to ensure his own succession. His ashes were interred in the same Mausoleum as Augustus.[10]

Administration of the Empire

Tiberius was an experienced soldier and politician by the time he became emperor. After Germanicus, had quelled the mutiny among the German legions he crossed the Rhine and inflicted several heavy defeats on German tribes. Tiberius did not annex Germania and instead was content with allowing the Germans to recognize the authority of Rome.[11] Tiberius rather than seeking to expand the empire sought to strengthen the Roman frontiers. He was reluctant to engage in military adventures, possibly because Augustus had strained the financial resources of Rome and that any future conquests were of little value. The Roman treasury was depleted after the reign of Augustus. The treasury had been mismanaged and a lot of corruption had crept into the system during the later years of Augustus. The first Emperor was not the most financially prudent and he left his successor with a serious deficit.[12]

Tiberius developed a new bureaucracy to manage the treasure on a professional basis. He cut down on unnecessary expenditure and he ended Augustus’ ambitious building program in Rome. Tiberius developed an Imperial fiscal system that ensured that the Empire stayed solvent and critically that the legions were paid. He was also eager to end abuses in the administration and he cracked down on corruption. Tiberius ordered the governors of the Roman provinces to ‘shear my sheep don’t flay them’.[13] By this, he meant that he did not believe that they should make excessive taxation demands. This and his other measures ensured that most Roman provinces prospered and that Tiberius helped to lay the foundation for the great economic and social flourishing of the Empire in the First Century AD.

Military Record

The popular view of Tiberius as a gloomy tyrant who was depraved in his personal life has obscured the fact that he was a very successful military commander. As a young man, he was entrusted by Augustus to deal with the Eastern frontier. Tiberius was able by simply displaying his legions and diplomatic negotiations to deter the Parthians from attacking Armenia in 20 BC. He was so successful that he could make Armenia once more a client kingdom of Rome and secure legionary eagles that had been captured by the Parthians when they had defeated Roman invasions.[14] Tiberius along with his brother Drusus campaigned in Germany and on the Rhine. He won several notable victories over the local tribes. Rhaetia was a mountainous region in modern Switzerland and South German, the local mountain tribes were fierce fighters and notorious bandits. Tiberius launched a counter attack against the Rhaetians and was so successful that he turned the region into a province of Rome. Next Tiberius was ordered by Augustus to deal with Pannonia, which is today in western Austria. The legions under Tiberius conquered Pannonia.[15]

The German Marcomanni confederation had established a strong kingdom in modern Bohemia. Tiberius and another Roman general launched a two-pronged attack that devastated the Marcomanni. In 6 AD Tiberius was called away from the Danube to prevent a German breakthrough after the Roman defeat at Teutoberg Forest. He accomplished this mission and was then called back to the Danube frontier. The Great Illyrian Revolt of 6-9 AD, saw all the tribes in the western Balkans rise in rebellion.[16] This was one of the greatest revolts against Rome in the history of the Empire and the rebels could muster an army of 100,000 men. Tiberius and his nephew Germanicus eventually suppressed the rebellion, which earned them both the gratitude of Augustus and Rome. Tiberius was a great commander and his accomplishments have been neglected by historians.[17] He annexed two new provinces, established a frontier on the Danube that was not penetrated by invaders for almost two centuries. Tiberius greatest military achievement was his role in the suppression of the Great Illyrian Revolt.

Tiberius Tyranny

Ruins of the villa on Capri where Tiberius lived

Augustus had been able to manage the Senate and ensured that the Roman elite cooperated with his plans. Tiberius did not manage the Senate very well even though he frequently attended it. The man who did not want to be Emperor at first tried to work with the Senate and even encouraged them to have a greater role in the rule of Rome.[18] He was disappointed by the bickering and intrigues of the Roman elite. Under Sejanus many senators were executed and after Tiberius returned to Rome, he used laws passed by Augustus to begin a series of Treason Trials. Tacitus depicts Tiberius unleashing a reign of terror on Rome and ordering the judicial murder of countless of innocent people, all the victims of his paranoia.[19] There are those who claim that this is an exaggeration.

However, it seems certain that Tiberius treated the Senate in a very high-handed fashion and executed many Senators for real and imagined crimes. This was to change the relationship between Emperors and the Senate. Instead of the Senate being a partner in the government of Rome as envisaged by Augustus it increasingly became subservient to the Emperor.[20] In effect, this meant that the Senate was unable to check the power of the Emperor. This is seen in the contempt of Caligula and Nero for that body and its members. Tiberius played a part in the development of Imperial autocracy. This helped to change the system envisaged by Augustus, from one that was a partnership between the Emperor as the first of citizens to one where they were the absolute rulers of the Roman World.[21]

The other way that Tiberius helped to create an autocracy was the changes that he introduced to the treason laws. Any offense or threat against the Emperor, by word or deed, was a ‘crime of majestas’ or treason.<Tacitus, iv</ref> Under Tiberius anything could be construed as an act of treason, even defacing a coin with the portrait of the Emperor was considered an act of treason[22]. To enforce the laws of treason, an army of informers were paid to spy on the citizenry, these were the notorious ‘delatores.’[23] The expansion of the treason laws stifled dissent but also all debate. The treason laws led to a series trials and the executions of many prominent Romans.[24]

Imperial Cult

From the First Century AD until the conversion of Constantine, the Emperor after his death was worshiped as a God. Augustus was the first Emperor to receive divine honors in his lifetime, something that was unprecedented in Rome but common in Hellenistic Kingdoms. Augustus after his death was accorded divine status and temples were built to celebrate his cult all over the Empire. Tiberius was reluctant to receive divine honors during his lifetime and he rejected proposals to build temples to honor his divinity. However, he appeared to have realized the importance of the Imperial cult as a means of social and political control.[25]

Tiberius encouraged the worship of Augustus and helped to create a religious brotherhood of freedmen (freed slaves), who tended to the cult of the First Emperor.[26] Tiberius established the precedent whereby the Emperor if deemed worthy, was to be worshiped as a God after his death but not during his life. This was more acceptable to Roman sensibilities that the Hellenistic model, whereby Kings were worshiped as Gods in their lifetime. Tiberius deliberately cultivated the Imperial cult in order to safeguard and extend Imperial authority.[27] This cult also helped to turn future Emperors into absolute rulers.

Conclusion

Tiberius was not a popular figure in his time and his portrayal by historians such as Tacitus portrayed him as a gloomy tyrant. He was more than this. Tiberius was one of the most important military commanders during a critical time. He expanded the Empire and helped to secure its frontiers for many decades. Tiberius as the second Emperor did much to strengthen the Imperial office by promoting the cult of the Emperor and by ensuring the Senators were subordinate to Primus Princeps. He was also a talented administrator who reformed the civil service and the Imperial fiscal system. However, his transfer of power to Sejanus was unforgivable and he left Rome to the mercy of a tyrant and this detracts from his reputation for providing good government. Tiberius treatment of the Senate and his treason laws were an important step away from the system developed by Augustus. The second Emperor helped not only to strengthen the position of the Emperor but he also made it more autocratic.

References

  1. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Life of Tiberius, ii
  2. Suetonius, iii
  3. Tacitus, Annals, ii
  4. Shotter, David. Tiberius Caesar. (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 115
  5. Tacitus, Annals, iii
  6. Tacitus, Annals, iv
  7. Suetonius, iii
  8. Tacitus, Annals, iv
  9. Shotter, p. 213
  10. Suetonius, iv
  11. Tacitus, Annals, ii
  12. Cassius Dio, Roman History Books 57–58
  13. Tacitus, Annals, II
  14. Shotter, p 113
  15. Suetonius, iv
  16. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, v
  17. Seager, Robin. Tiberius (London, Blackwell Publishing, 2005), p 78
  18. Shotter, p 118
  19. Tacitus. Annals, iii
  20. Tacitus, Annals, iv
  21. Shotter, p. 115
  22. Tacitus, iv
  23. Suetonius, iii
  24. Shotter, 134
  25. Gradel, Ittai. Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 116
  26. Tacitus, Annals, iv
  27. Gradel, p. 11

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