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. Okay...so 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.