Biography of Tiberius, 1st Century Roman Emperor

Statue of Tiberius on Capri island, Italy
Flavia Morlachetti / Getty Images

The Roman emperor Tiberius (November 16, 42 BCE–March 16, 37 CE) was a very capable military leader and a sensible civic leader who tried to restrain Rome's out-of-control budget. But he was also dour and unpopular. He is known primarily for his trial for treason, sexual perversion, and eventually shirking his responsibility by going into seclusion.

Fast Facts: Tiberius

  • Known For: Roman Emperor in the first century CE
  • Born: November 16, 42 BCE on the Palatine Hill, Rome
  • Parents: Tiberius Claudius Nero (85–33 BC) and Livia Drusilla
  • Died: March 16, 37 CE in Rome
  • Education: Studied with Theodous of Gadara and Nestor the Academic
  • Spouse(s): Vipsania Agrippina (m. 19 BCE), Livia Julia the Elder, (m. 11 BCE)
  • Children: Drusus Julius Caesar (with Vipsania), Julia, Ti Gemellus, Germanicus (all with Julia)

Early Life

Tiberius was born on November 16, 42 BCE on the Palatine Hill or at Fundi; he was the son of the Roman quaestor Tiberius Claudius Nero (85–33 BC) and his wife Livia Drusilla. In 38 BCE, Livia was forced to divorce Tiberius Nero to become the wife of the first Roman emperor Augustus. Tiberius Nero died when Tiberius was 9 years old. Tiberius studied rhetoric with Theodorus of Gadara, with Nestor the Academic and perhaps with Athaneaus the Peripatetic. He became fluent in Greek and meticulous in Latin.

In his early civic career, Tiberius defended and prosecuted at court and before the Senate. His successes at court included the securing of a charge of high treason against Fannius Caepio and Varro Murena. He reorganized the grain supply and investigated irregularities in slave barracks where free people were detained improperly and where draft dodgers pretended to be slaves. Tiberius' political career soared: he became quaestor, praetor, and consul at a young age, and received the power of a tribune for five years.

Marriage and Family

In 19 BCE, he married Vipsania Agrippina, the daughter of the renowned general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (Agrippa); and they had a son, Drusus Julius Caesar. In 11 BCE, Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce Vipsania and marry his daughter Livia Julia the Elder, who was also the widow of Agrippa. Julia had three children with Tiberius: Julia, Ti Gemellus, and Germanicus.

Early Military Accomplishments

Tiberius's first military campaign was against the Cantabrians. He then went to Armenia where he restored Tigranes to the throne. He collected missing Roman standards from the Parthian court.

Tiberius was sent to govern the "long-haired" Gauls and fought in the Alps, Pannonia, and Germany. He subjugated various Germanic peoples and took 40,000 of them as prisoners. He then settled them in homes in Gaul. Tiberius received an ovation and a triumph in 9 and 7 BCE. In 6 BCE, he was ready to accept command of the eastern Roman forces, but instead, at what would seem to be a height of power, he abruptly retired to the island of Rhodes.

Julia and Exile

By 6 BCE, Tiberius' marriage to Julia had gone sour: by all accounts, he regretted leaving Vipsania. When he retired from public life, Julia was banished by her father for her immoral behavior. His stay on Rhodes lasted at least eight years, between 6 BCE and 2 CE, during which time he wore a Greek cloak and slippers, spoke Greek to the townspeople, and attended philosophical lectures. Tiberius tried earlier to return to Rome when his tribunician power ended, but his petition was denied: thenceforth he was referred to as The Exile.

After Lucius Caesar died in 2 CE, Tiberius' mother Livia arranged for his recall, but to do that, Tiberius had to renounce all political aspirations. However, in 4 CE after all other likely successors had died, Augustus adopted his step-son Tiberius, who in turn had to adopt his nephew Germanicus. For this, Tiberius received tribunician power and a share of Augustus's power and then came home to Rome.

Later Military Accomplishments and Ascension to Emperor

Tiberius was given tribunician power for three years, during which time his responsibilities would be to pacify Germany and suppress the Illyrian revolt. The German pacification ended in disaster in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 CE), when an alliance of Germanic tribes destroyed three Roman legions and their auxiliaries, led by Publius Quinctilius Varus. Tiberius did achieve complete submission of the Illyrians, for which he was voted a triumph. He postponed the triumph celebration out of deference to Varus' disaster in Germany: but after two years more in Germany, he settled things and put on a triumphal banquet with 1,000 tables. With the sale of his spoils, he restored the temples of Concord and Castor and Pollux.

As a result, in 12 CE, the consuls awarded Tiberius joint control of the provinces (co-princeps) with Augustus. When Augustus died, Tiberius, as tribune, convened the Senate where a freedman read Augustus' will naming Tiberius as successor. Tiberius called on the praetorians to provide him a bodyguard but didn't take the title of emperor immediately nor even his inherited title of Augustus.

Tiberius as Emperor

At first, Tiberius despised sycophants, intervened in matters of state to check abuses and excesses, abolished Egyptian and Jewish cults in Rome, and banished astrologers. He consolidated the Praetorians for efficiency, crushed city riots, and abolished the right of sanctuary.

However, his reign turned sour when informers accused Roman men and women of many, even silly crimes that led to capital punishment and confiscation of their estates. In 26 CE, Tiberius exiled himself to Capri, leaving the empire in control of his "Socius Laborum" ("partner of my labors"), Lucius Aelius Sejanus.

In Capri, Tiberius stopped fulfilling his civic obligations but instead engaged in licentious acts. Most notorious is his training of little boys to act as nipping minnows or "tiddlers," to chase him when he went swimming in the imperial pool, nibbling between his legs. Tiberius' mean and vengeful streak caught his erstwhile confidant, Sejanus, accused of conspiracy against the emperor. Sejanus was executed for treason in 31 CE. Until Sejanus was destroyed, people had blamed him for the excesses of the emperor, but with his death, the blame rested solely on Tiberius. The empire continued to run on without the direct input of the emperor, who remained in Capri.

During Tiberius' exile in Capri, Gaius (Caligula) came to live with Tiberius, who was his adopted grandfather. Tiberius included Caligula as joint heir in his will. The other heir was Tiberius' brother Drusus' child, still a teenager.

Death

Tiberius died on March 16, 37 CE, at age 77. He had ruled for nearly 23 years. According to Tacitus, when it looked as though Tiberius would die naturally, Caligula tried to take sole control of the empire. Tiberius, however, recovered. At the request of Caligula, the head of the Praetorian Guard, Macro, stepped in and had the old emperor smothered. Caligula was named emperor.

Sources