Monday, 25 April 2005


One of my readers has kindly sent me his thoughts on the Roman Emperor Tiberius. I have to say that my personal view of Tiberius does not coincide with this one, but I nevertheless felt that the writer has researched his subject well and his enthusiasm is almost contagious. For this reason I am publishing the essay below.

The writer wishes to be identified by the pseudonym "Light".

Once more, I find myself reasonably bored. So, in the interests of keeping me sane, I'm going to tell you a story...

This is the story of the Poor Oppressed Victim and the Big Bad Roman Emperor. Just to somewhat confuse matters, they're both the same person. Tiberius (or to give him his full name, Tiberius Claudius Nero; bit of a mouthful...) gets something of a shitty deal in the history books. He's now known (when remembered at all) as an Olympic standard sexual pervert and sadist. And I suppose there's a grain of truth in that, but in the interest of striking a blow (or taking a blow; any offers? Any at all?) for historical fairness and showing off, it seems only right to give the opposing view. And besides, with luck you'll find it entertaining.

So, Tiberius was born in 42 BC to Claudius Nero and Livia, a stultifyingly awful woman and poisoner extraordinaire. In attitude, she wasn't a million miles away from her namesake in The Soprano's. He was born in what would politely be called interesting times, and realistically called incredibly scary times. Three gentlemen named Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar had just finished using the Roman Republic as the battleground for settling their long running game of one-upmanship (it was really rather silly;
"Caesar, the noble Pompey has conquered the Greeks and Armenians!"
"Hah! I'll see those countries, and raise him...conquering Gaul and the Britons! How d'you like THEM apples, motherfucker? What say you Crassus? Crassus? Oh...some Syrians seem to have rinsed his mouth out with molten gold...").

Unfortunately, 3 other chaps named Octavian (or Augustus), Lepidus, and Antony enjoyed the game so much that they carried it on. Rome degenerated into a bloodbath, with high society and the foremost Roman Citizens being especially at risk from the mob (it was sort of like the prototype version "I'm a Celebrity; Get Me Out of Here!", with rather more worrying penalties than putting ones hand in a box of centipedes).

Each side attracted supporters, and each side took great pains to cause great pain to the other team. Unsurprisingly, living out the first years of ones life in constant fear of being A: Brutally murdered by the nobles of Rome, B: Brutally murdered by the people of Rome, or C: Being handed over by ones own mother to be brutally murdered instead of her, had rather an adverse effect on the young man. He became quiet, sullen, and surly; think of Kevin the Teenager in a toga and you've got the right idea.

Livia, being wonderfully devious, not only ended up on the winning side of the Roman Civil War, she married the captain of the winning team, the Emperor Augustus (aka. the bad guy from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra). Tiberius was now the Emperors stepson. Huzzah for him, you may think; time to relax, to try (and fail) to build up a wine cellar. However, there's nothing like not knowing whether today will be the last day of your life to put a total dampener on ones celebratory mood. Tiberius wanted a peaceful life out of the public eye and (more importantly) the public lynch mob. He had married a lady named Vipsania, to whom he was devoted, and was spending much of his time studying Greek mythology and literature. If, he reasoned, he made it clear that he had no ambitions beyond academia and raising a family, he'd finally be safe from the assassin's knife.

And if he had a mother who didn't make Margaret Thatcher look like Snow White, he may have been allowed to do so. Livia wasn't satisfied with being the Cherie to Augustus' Tony. She wanted to be the Hilary to his Bill. And she wanted to start a dynasty of Emperors that would guarantee her immortality (literally; she wanted to be made a Goddess in the Roman religion. Not even Thatcher ever went that far...). Guess who her only child was? Yup. So, despite the fact that she and her confidants had used him as the butt of insult after insult during his life, Tiberius found himself being used by his mother as a means to an end for the next 30 years.

Firstly, he was forced to divorce his beloved Vipsania and marry his stepsister Julia (of whom historical records show that she was the first person to have been the subject of the comment "I wouldn't say she was easy, but she had a mattress strapped to her back"). Then he was dragged from his books, and signed up to the army. On the plus side, his elevated status meant he commanded armies rather than fighting in the front line. On the minus side, he had to fight the inhabitants of the Balkans.

In what was an eerie foretaste of every century to come, the people of the Balkans were doing their very best to kill anyone and everyone who wasn't a member of their tribe. Tiberius showed himself to be a superb military commander via the medium of annihilating anyone who crossed them (though curiously, Tiberius' army was once trapped in a valley, and the enemy commander allowed him to withdraw instead of ambushing and destroying the Roman army. I rather thought that was the point of warfare...). However, in deference to the fact that Tiberius did NOT want to be there, he was a strict general who was harsh with his troops. "Let them fear me, so long as they obey me" was his maxim.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, Livia was keeping herself busy. Tiberius' stepbrothers, stepsisters, and anyone else who could be a rival claimant to the Empire succumbed one by one to the numerous cheese and arsenic parties thrown by the evil queen. Thanks to Livia, some were poisoned, some were starved to death, some were exiled, and still others were just plain, old fashioned murdered. The upper classes of Rome were slowly thinned out, and it was all done in the name of making Tiberius the Emperor.

He returned to Rome in the midst of this, where the plots and machinations resembled an Eastenders storyline with additional orgies and murders. He loathed Julia (apparently, he felt that the woman one returns home to shouldn't have vaginal scars and rectal stretchmarks...). He was also afraid for his life; Livia was not the only powerful person who wanted a specific candidate installed as Emperor. With the dark and fearful memories of his childhood still haunting him, the last thing Tiberius wanted was to be put in a position where he was the target for ambitious men.

So he asked Augustus for permission to retire from public life to Rhodes, where he intended to devote the rest of his life to books and studies. Augustus, who had never really like his grim-faced stepson (he used to make jokes about Tiberius' slow chewing movement; I suppose if the Emperor makes a joke then everyone finds it funny) was only too happy to send him away from Rome. Livia, naturally, was furious at this uncharacteristic show of defiance. As a petty revenge, she spread stories about Tiberius' supposed sexual perversions (just how bad does one have to behave to be considered a pervert in a society where orgies were a social occasion?!).

Rhodes didn't provide the sanctuary the Tiberius had hoped. He still feared for his life; now that he was out of the public eye he could be easily disposed of. And he found that the Greeks poked fun at him and his dour manner. After a few years of unhappy retirement, he returned to Rome and public life, a rather more bitter man than he had been when he left.

By this time, Tiberius was the only realistic heir to Augustus. Sensing this, Livia poisoned Augustus (he was ready for her and only ate food he prepared himself; she however was ready for him and poisoned some figs whilst they were still on the tree. What a bitch, eh?) and had Tiberius installed as Emperor. He became the one of the few people to receive supreme power who didn't want it. However, he had spent a lifetime acquiring grudges against those who made fun of him, those who questioned his intellect, and those who had looked at him in a bit of a funny way. He was to be Emperor for 23 years, and by the time he died, not one of those people whom he bore a grudge against had died of natural causes.

At first, he was a slave to Livia's will. He was Emperor, but she ruled. Gradually however, he weaned himself away from her control, and by the time of her death he was pretty much his own man. Although he never felt entirely safe at Rome, he began to appreciate the benefits of power. He also developed a rather fun sense of humour. He delivered every speech and every statement in a deadpan manner, but would intersperse them with surreal and bizarre jokes. No one was ever sure whether he was joking or serious, and people were afraid to do laugh in case it was the latter. I always imagine him to be a bit like Jack Dee at this point. Well, Jack Dee with the power of life and death over millions anyway. maybe it's just me that appreciates his sense of humour! He, however, found their uncertainty and subsequent insecurity hilarious .

In all of this time, the Empire remained secure and stable. He was a fair Emperor to the people (he castigated any governors who set their taxes too high), though the whispers and rumours started by Livia et al never really died away. After 12 years of his reign, he decided to go on a little holiday to the island of Capri. He never came back to Rome for the remaining 11 years he was Emperor. He felt completely secure on his island, and so in the lap of luxury and with absolute power at his disposal, he began to enjoy himself.

I don't doubt that some of the enjoyment was gained from shagging anything with a pulse. By this time, Vipsania had died and he felt no need to restrain himself. He also harboured a hatred of the Empire itself. He never wanted it, and it had ruined his life. But by the same token, it allowed him to get revenge on those who had wronged him (you wouldn't have liked to have been the Greek scholar who had insulted Tiberius back in Rhodes...) and it afforded him a measure of security.

That said, his paranoia was still ever present; a fisherman surprised him on Caprii with a huge fish that he had caught and wanted to present to the Emperor. Tiberius had him beaten with it (inspiration for Monty Python's 'Fish Dance'?), jabbed and poked with crab claws, then threw him off a cliff. All in all, he was not a man to get on the wrong side of.

When he died in 37 AD, he was a mess of contradictions. The paranoia that haunted him from his childhood was now being inflicted on others in the form of treason trials, which saw many innocent people die. He wanted desperately to be a good person, but the disappointments of his life led him to become bitter and twisted; he cheerfully had his own son starved to death, allowed two thugs (Sejanus and Macro) to rule on his behalf. Above all, he hated Rome and it's people. By this time his maxim was "Let them hate me, so long as they obey me". His final revenge on Rome was to adopt the fiercely insane Gaius Caligula as his heir. He said that he was nursing a viper for the bosom of Rome. Caligula's time as Emperor is legendary for it's cruelty and barbarity.

But still, I find myself pitying Tiberius. He wanted a quiet life and because he didn't get it, he made damn sure that no one else did either. As far as I'm concerned, that doesn't make him a beast. It makes him endearingly human.

And thus concludes probably the most whistle-stop treatment that the life of Tiberius has ever been treated too. Now what do I do to stave off boredom?!

I will no doubt as well have something to say about Tiberius, very soon.


Light said...

Woo-hoo!! I feel like a proper historian now.

Thanks for posting it Alterior; very much appreciated! Could I ask; whats your view of Tiberius? My bias is that, basically, I've always felt rather sorry for him.

Alterior said...

Well, I am so glad I have made you so happy by publishing your essay. I really liked the fact that your essay was "real" and not "dry" as so many historical writings can be.

My main difference of opinion on Tiberius is that I have never felt sorry for him. Having had a nasty childhood and an upsetting life does not entitle anyone to psycopathic behaviour, even if it does somewhat give a reason for it. There are and have been plenty of people throughout history, who have been through much worse than him and yet have not resorted to bitterness, cruelty and a complete and utter disregard for the feelings and lives of others. Tiberius bears all the marks of a Callous Psychopath. People always have a choice in life and Tiberius made his.

Light said...

See, I don't think he really had the choice; I think the circumstances of his life made his choice for him. I would contend that many others have made exactly the same choices as him, it's just that he was in the position of power that magnified those severe character defects a thousandfold.

Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't have wanted to meet him! But unlike Caligula or Nero(the epitome of spoilt brats), I can't but help pity Tiberius. Even the anti-Tiberian historians begrudgingly admit that he tried to act as a good man. But the power corrupted an already shatterde psyche.

Alterior said...

I know what you are getting at. However, there is always a choice, especially for a man who is in a position of power and not under the power of others. Circumstances do not make your choices; you allow circumstances to justify your choices. Adolf Hitler is a great example too.

Light said...

But I would contend that, for the vast majority of his life (including a large part of his reign as Emperor) he was under the power of Livia. I found it telling that he left Rome for Caprii around the time of her death; he didn't want the Empire at all. She forced it on him. But once he had it, he made enemies (not to mention the enemies he had as a member of the ruling family), and so he felt he couldn't let go of it because that would leave him open to those enemies.

By contrast, Hitler wasn't under the malign influence of another for a long stretch of time; his malice was of his own creation.

I think we may have to agree to disagree on this one!

Alterior said...

I respect your right to have your opinion on the issue of Tiberius. After all, the world might not be so fascinating if everyone had always agreed on things. :-)

lenin said...

"By contrast, Hitler wasn't under the malign influence of another for a long stretch of time; his malice was of his own creation."

Hmmm. Take care with this, Light. Hitler, like Stalin, had the everloving shit kicked out of him day in and day out as a child by a tyrannical father. Similarly, his filthy ideology was not a psychopathy, but a cultural current.

This Tiberius sounds like he actually got off on watching some nasty shit. Of course, as a moral consequentialist, Hitler ended up being the worst of those two. But only because Tiberius didn't have gas chambers - if he did, he'd have had windows put in so he could watch, I reckon.

lenin said...

Should say "speaking as a moral consequentialist"...

Light said...

Tiberius did get off on that. But then, so did the entirety of Roman society; think of some of the stuff that was classed as "entertainment". The colisseum may not have been built by Tiberius' time, but the spectacles put on in other arenas were bloodthirsty and vile.

Tiberius' desire to watch horrors was shared by most of Rome. Hitler's desire to wipe out an entire race was not so widespread.

Alterior said...

So whatever is widespread is ok? Popularity justifies brutality?

Alterior said...

By the way, the Colliseum had a capacity of around 50,000 people. This did not consist of the entire population of Rome, so one must assume that there were people who did not particularly enjoy the "shows" at the arena, much the same as not everyone enjoys 'Big Brother' nowadays, even though its fame is widespread.

And with regards to your comment on Hitler's desire to exterminate the Jews, I would have to say that at the time, sadly, his desire to do so WAS shared by most of Germany. Did that make it ok?

lenin said...

Ah, now, be careful there, Alterior.

There have been sustained and rigorous studies of popular attitudes toward the Nazi regime and the Judeocide over the years, and the only 'historian' who has concluded that most Germans supported the genocide against the Jews (or the gypsies etc) is the notorious intellectual fraud, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

The evidence suggests a much more complicated picture, with many Germans being only dimly aware of what was being done in their name and few being in a position to stop it.

True, the process required the collaboration of millions who ought to have known something of what was happening. Certainly, Einsatzgruppen style killings were widely understood to be happening. But the gas chambers were understood only by a minority from what I can gather.

The main thing here is that your point is not necessary for your argument.

I *suspect*, though I don't *know*, that Light is in part being contrarian. But insofar as he is serious, he is partially correct. The general culture can enable all sorts of brutality. Still, I don't think we should be relativist about it - I'd personally rather kick the bucket than be responsible for such crimes.

Alterior said...

Lenin, I didn't really mean it that way. What I meant was that the mainstream ideology at the time in Germany was backing Hitler's ideas. I have no doubt that there were many, many Germans who disagreed and did not believe in such ideas. Th proof is in the pudding and the highest number of racists today, are found elsewhere in the world.

Light said...

Partly it's to do with being contrary. But mainly it's to do with context; no, I don't think the butchery was okay. That's my opinion based on my thoughts that are influenced by this society. However, large swathes of Rome clearly did think it was okay. So to criticise Tiberius excessively for something that was the norm in that society doesn't sit right with me. He was not a nice man, no. But I do find him more sympathetic than the majority of Roman leaders.

Okay, okay; it's more relativism...

lenin said...

I think it would be seriously worthwhile investigating just how much of a norm it was. Not being familiar with the scholarship, I can only take your word for it. But individuals have their own moral weight - they can make choices. Even in the most repressive societies, like under Stalinism or the Brehznev period, human beings have been known to fight back. Similarly, just as we know many Germans *refused* to support the Nazi regime and resisted, so we have to guess that some people in Rome might not have adored blood n guts with such alacrity.

Bloody Romans. What have they ever done for us?

Alterior said...


According to the essay on the link below, Tiberius "extinguished the political power of the people". It was apparently one of the first things he did.

Alterior said...

See link

lenin said...

Oh, he did, did he? We'll soon see about this - to the time machine!!

ResoluteReader said...

Slight point - there was a fundamental difference between the democracy that Tiberius extinguished and that destroyed by Hitler - Roman democracy by the start of the last millenium was a shadow of it's former self (which wasn't particularly universal anyway).

One a more general point, the rise and fall of Emperors Augustus, Tiberius & Caligulia can be followed in the entertaining and fascinating read "I, Claudius". Claudius' reign itself is dealt with in "God Claudius".

If you are after an interesting and fun introduction to this degenerate period of Roman history, it's well worth a read. Remember it's a novel though!

Alterior said...

Dear 'resolutereader', yes 'I Claudius' and 'Claudius the God' are fantastic novels by Robert Graves. I have to admit to 'consuming' them when I was 15 years old. I had seen the series re-run and wanted to read the real thing. (Books are usually better than the dramatised versions!).

ResoluteReader said...

Glad you spotted that I got the book title wrong. Claudius the God being it's correct title.

Alterior said...

Heh heh heh! :-)))

Light said...

I wouldn't be at all surprised if Tiberius did extinguish the political will of the people. However, I would contend that he was merely following on from the work of Augustus (and under the will of Livia)in doing so.

Anonymous said...

Tiberius's life didn't work out the way he wanted, his plans for the succession of his sons and adopted sons never worked out as planned and after years of frustrated maneuvering he got bitter and twisted on that Island of Capri where he could shut himself away from prying eyes and carry out the depraved acts of a cuel pervert.

Hitler was a bit like this too(Failiure at art school and the early death of his mother as well as having his beliefs shattered by the way World War One ended) except he loved being in charge whereas Tiberius didn't enjoy it so the ugliness they perputrated is a matter of scale.

Anonymous said...

Although I find this essay a very fascinating reading, I'ld like to dot the i's and cross the t's.

1. I think it is unfair towards Livia to consider her as "the bad mother". She had had her share too during the civil wars. She had to flee with her husband and Tiberius to escape from the assassins of the triumviri.

2. We mustn't forget that our main sources for Tiberius' reign (except for Velleius Paterculus) were written after the fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, so that it wouldn't be wise to depict them as good emperors. Beware of bias!

3. As a matter of fact, Tiberius didn't like the games at all! That didn't make him very popular with the plebs.

4. I would also like to point out that people whom he had trusted let Tiberius down (Piso who (almost certainly) poisoned Germanicus, Sejanus who betrayed him and had his son Drusus poisoned, ...). I think that after Sejanus, Tiberius started to mistrust everyone who came near him.

5. I agree with Light that the civil wars left a (mental) scar on Tiberius. I think that one of the reasons why he accepted the reign was that he wanted to avoid another civil war (Tacitus, Annales I 13.2-3. - there were enough candidates for the position).

Sairah said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this essay (and all 25 followup comments!), just thought I'd share that.

I personally do feel a tad sorry for Tiberius, because I can understand just wanting to be alone with my books as well. =) And then to be forced from the woman you love AND into noble society, well...

I don't think that justifies anything, but I do empathize.