• Signifer, Legio XIV Gemina, Tiberian period • Centurio, Legio II Augusta, late Augustan to Tiberian period • Aquilifer, Legio XI Claudia Pia Fidelis, mid-1st C. AD, Ronald Embleton
The final testament to the political genius of Augustus is that the succession passed smoothly to Tiberius, his designated heir. It was far from certain that this would be so. For although Augustus’ long reign had accustomed the Romans to the rule of a single, pre-eminent citizen, this did not mean that control of the Republic could be passed on like a family heirloom. Some hoped that the death of Augustus would end the despotism of the Caesars, while others among the Roman elite considered that if Rome must be ruled by a single individual, they themselves had every much as good a claim to pre-eminence as the Caesars, for the principle of dynastic succession was far from established.
Against this, Livia, Tiberius and Augustus – mother, son and adoptive father – had each worked in their own way to make sure that Tiberius assumed power with a minimum of opposition. Augustus had publicly made Tiberius his successor and had already shifted much of the burden of government to his shoulders. He had also given Tiberius the powers to match, so that on his death Tiberius was already the most powerful man in the Empire. Furthermore, as Augustus’ adopted son, Tiberius became the paterfamilias (‘father of the family’) of the house of Caesar. This gave him control of Augustus’ fortune, but more importantly, Tiberius inherited the loyalty of Augustus’ numerous debtors and clients – and there were few, even among the Roman elite, who did not fall into one of these categories.
Livia had been with Augustus throughout his last days. She surrounded the house with guards, and issued bulletins intended to give the impression that Augustus was recovering. This gained Tiberius time to come to Augustus’ bedside, and afterwards to make sure of the loyalty of others who came to pay their respects.
The disloyal might have turned to Agrippa Postumus, natural grandson and adopted son of Augustus. But as soon as Augustus breathed his last, a body of picked soldiers attacked and slew the young exile, who, though alone and unarmed, reputedly put up a desperate fight and was only killed with difficulty. When the centurion who did the deed reported to Tiberius that his orders had been carried out, the discomfited Tiberius replied that he had given no such order. Fevered speculation was calmed by the announcement of a public inquiry into the matter (which was first postponed and then quietly forgotten).
Tiberius did not explain the matter to the senate in any other way, but pretended that his father [Augustus] had left standing orders that those in charge of the prisoner should slay him as soon as they heard of his own death. Undoubtedly Augustus had often complained about the young man’s character, and through these complaints had gained the acquiescence of the senate in his banishment. But Augustus was never so callous as to butcher his own kin, and he was not the man to condemn his grandson to death just so that his stepson might feel more secure. More probably Tiberius and Livia, through suspicion, and a stepmother’s jealous enmity, hastened to destroy the young man whom they feared and hated.
Tacitus Annals 1.6
Thus, almost from the beginning of his history, Tacitus’ animus against Tiberius is plain beneath the thinnest veneer of impartiality. In fact, the daughter and granddaughter of Augustus could eloquently testify to Augustus’ callousness towards his kin, as could the shade of Caesarion, Augustus’ stepbrother by adoption whom Augustus executed when he captured Egypt. Augustus had been merciless in winning the civil war which followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, and one might assume that he would be just as merciless, even with his own family, in ensuring that no such war followed his own death. Whatever faults his stepson possessed, Augustus knew that loyalty and durability were not lacking, and that the Empire would be safe in Tiberius’ hands. Yet he had plainly yearned for someone with more flair and charisma.
I know that it is commonly believed that when Tiberius left the room…Augustus was overheard by his chamberlains to say: ‘The poor Roman people, to be ground by those slow-crunching jaws!’ I also know that some writers say that Augustus so openly and unreservedly disapproved of Tiberius’ austere manners that he sometimes broke off his looser and more carefree conversation when Tiberius came in. Nevertheless, his wife’s persuasion caused his grudging adoption, or there may have been a yet more selfish motive, that with such a successor he himself [Augustus] might one day be missed all the more. But in the end I cannot be persuaded that an emperor of the utmost prudence and foresight acted so inconsiderately, especially in a matter of such importance. I believe that after weighing the faults and the virtues of Tiberius, he decided that the virtues were greater. In fact, he swore before the people that he was adopting Tiberius for the good of the state, and in various letters he refers to him as a thoroughly competent general and the sole defence of the Roman people.
Suetonius Tiberius 21
Suetonius did not need to say that in the absence of a Julian emperor, a Claudian was most likely to be accepted by the senate and people of Rome; and Tiberius was a Claudian through and through.
Livia, his mother, was a Claudian from both sides of her family, for all that she bore the name of Livius Drusus, the family into which her formerly Claudian father had been adopted. Livia had married another Claudian, Tiberius Claudius Nero, of the Neronian branch that had distinguished itself in the war against Hannibal more than two centuries before.
Tiberius was born on 16 November 42 BC, in an exclusive residential area at the foot of the Palatine hill in Rome. His future stepfather, then called Octavian, had just joined with Mark Antony and Lepidus to form the triumvirate, and Tiberius’ father was a praetor in Rome. Tiberius pater supported Mark Antony and therefore he also supported Antony’s wife and brother when they attempted a military coup against Octavian in 41 BC. When this failed, he fled to Sicily and Sextus Pompey, taking his wife and infant son with him. When peace was restored, he returned to Rome, perhaps already a sick man. He obediently divorced Livia when Octavian ordered him to and died soon afterwards.
Tiberius was only three years old, and consequently all his memories would have been those of an imperial prince, with Augustus as his step-father. Like most young aristocrats, he learned Greek and became fluent in that language. He developed a taste for literature, and was so knowledgeable in mythology that he gave his tutors extemporaneous quizzes on the subject. Among several attempts at Greek poetry, he wrote an Elegy on the Death of Lucius Caesar which has not survived, perhaps because Tiberius’ writing style was laboured, extravagant and pedantic, though he was considered a good extempore speaker.
He was a sturdy young man, taller than average. As a teenager he was grievously afflicted with pimples, but his health was generally sound. Suetonius tells us that he walked with a rigid gait, and that his left hand was strong enough for him to drive his thumb right through a fresh apple. Though he spoke seldom, his speech was vigorous and to the point, often accompanied by emphatic gestures.
We are given the impression of an intelligent, yet rather withdrawn young man who was overshadowed by a household of dominant personalities, and keenly aware of his lack of Julian charisma and mercurial talent. Perhaps as a reaction to this, Tiberius grew his hair long at the back, emphasizing his Claudian origins by adopting a hairstyle peculiar to his family.
Tiberius followed the tradition of aristocratic youths of the Roman Republic and joined the army while a teenager. In 25 BC, in his seventeenth year, he began his uniformly successful military career by fighting against rebels in Cantabria in Spain. In that year his stepsister Julia married another Claudius, Claudius Marcellus, whom Augustus adopted as a son (Marcellus died two years later from illness). Tiberius became a quaestor, and successfully prosecuted the aristocrat Fannius Caepio for conspiring against Augustus. His steadiness and aptitude for hard work made him a natural choice for Augustus to take on a tour of the Eastern provinces. In 20 BC following diplomatic negotiations, Tiberius took back from the Parthians the standards which Crassus had lost at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. Augustus also delegated to Tiberius the task of settling the Armenian succession, which he did efficiently and without fuss.
These diplomatic actions needed to be given to a subordinate who could credibly shoulder the blame if things went wrong, but who could not object if Augustus took the credit, as he did (Res Gestae 27, though Tiberius receives an honourable mention).
On returning to Rome, both Tiberius and his brother Drusus were married. Tiberius wed Vipsania, daughter of Augustus’ second-in-command Agrippa, and his younger brother married Antonia, daughter of Octavia (Augustus’ sister) and the ex-triumvir Mark Antony.
As with all Julio-Claudians, Tiberius enjoyed accelerated progress through the cursus honorum. Augustus took him and Drusus to Gaul, where over the next four years Tiberius first governed as propraetor, and then led a campaign against wild Alpine tribesmen. In the course of his campaign against the Rhaetian and Vindelician tribes Tiberius took to the waters of Lake Constance to oppose an enemy fleet in one of the very few naval battles ever to take place in Switzerland. In recognition of his efforts he was made consul in 13 BC. His colleague was Quintilius Varus, the man who, as we have seen, later lost three legions in the Teutoburg forest.
Tiberius’ future seemed reasonably clear. He was established as a conscientious administrator, diplomat and general, evidently suited to high command within the imperial system. He can hardly have expected to command the system itself, since Agrippa was Augustus’ probable successor, and after him, his children by Julia. Yet after Agrippa’s death in 12 BC Augustus chose Tiberius as the new husband of the twice-widowed Julia. Tiberius was compelled to divorce Vipsania and become Augustus’ son-in-law as well as his stepson.
Tiberius took this very badly. He was in love with Vipsania, and he knew, as did everyone else, that Julia had wanted to start an adulterous affair with him while she was still married to Agrippa. Tiberius deeply regretted his divorce. Once when he accidentally later caught sight of Vipsania, he followed her with tears in his eyes and such misery written all over his face that steps were taken to prevent the two ever coming into contact again.
Suetonius Tiberius 7
Tiberius had little chance of domesticity with Julia – Rome’s armies were on the move again, with the sons of Livia at their head. Drusus led a push to the river Elbe in Germany, and Tiberius undertook the dour struggle in the Balkans against the Illyrian and Thracian tribes.
Drusus defeated first the Frisians and then the Cherusci in 11 BC, bringing much of northwestern Germany under Roman control. Another successful campaign against the Chatti added middle Germany to Rome’s conquests, and in a final drive, Drusus reached the Elbe in 9 BC, taking the Roman eagles as far into Germany as they would ever get. But Drusus broke his leg when his horse fell and landed on him. His forces were already pulling back towards the Rhine, but they hastened that withdrawal when the broken leg became infected.
When word reached him that Drusus was ill, Tiberius hurried north to find his brother on his deathbed. Afterwards Tiberius accompanied the bier to Rome, walking in front of it for the whole way. Both Augustus and Tiberius delivered funeral eulogies for Drusus and laid his ashes to rest in the family mausoleum.
With Drusus gone, Tiberius took up his task in Germany, and did so all the more gladly since his marriage to Julia had degenerated into mutual loathing. The son Julia had given Tiberius had died in infancy and now Julia wrote to her father Augustus with bitter complaints and accusations, and began to spread rumours denigrating Tiberius among her many associates in Rome. This must have been doubly galling for Tiberius, since he could hardly insult Augustus by divorcing his daughter, yet he must also have been aware of Julia’s numerous adulterous affairs.
Among his legionaries Claudius Tiberius Nero became known as Biberius Caldius Mero (‘boozer flushed with strong wine’). Yet despite his domestic distractions, he was a commander of skill and discretion who governed the newly conquered people with moderation. Back from Germany he became consul for the second time in 7 BC, and thereafter he received the tribunician power, one of the main constitutional powers of the principate and the basis of Augustus’ own rule.