Early Empire

Tiberius: The Final Years

The fall of Sejanus and the subsequent treason trials marred the end of Tiberius' reign as much as allowing his Praetoian Prefect to take power in the first place. While, on the surface, Tiberius' later reign was described as a bloodbath and a reign of terror by Tacitus, relatively few lost there lives in comparison to the repeated disorders of the late Republic. Still, the Roman aristocracy hated him, perhaps in part due to his lack of decisiveness. Tiberius seemed always to be a Republican at heart and only wanted the Senate, or someone, to prove competent enough to govern. However, his greatest fault may have been that he failed to understand the truth; that the Republic was truly dead, and rule could only be achieved by a single man, or a select chosen few.

By 34 AD the trials of the 'maiestas' (Law of Treason) were over, and Roman aristrocracy may have returned to some sense of normalcy. However, normalcy under Tiberius was difficult to define. Since his retirement to Capri in 26 AD, the emperor never returned to Rome and seemingly rarely visited the Italian mainland at all. Hatred for him led to all sorts of accusations of perversion and sexual indulgence. Paranoia, fostered through years of Sejanus' various plots, and bearing witness to a lifetime of political wrangling and family dysfunction, did little to help his legacy, and kept some truths of Tiberius' last 12 years hidden from history. He certainly fell victim to the political propaganda of later historians, who in so doing granted support to the serving Emperor in their own era, but Tiberius was no model citizen. His choice of heir, Gaius (Caligula), (and Tiberius Gemellus, who wouldn't live to see his ascension to fruition) would later cast additional clouds on Tiberius' reign, despite the fact that the son of Germanicus was certainly a popular choice at the time. Caligula himself, though, made little mention of his uncle's activities while he stayed with him on Capri. Though the accuracy of Caligula's perceptions may have been clouded anyway, based on the activities of his own reign, his silence on the matter of debauchery on Capri seems to indicate that Tiberius' may have been unduly blasted by the historical record. Regardless, Tiberius was, by the end of his reign, a generally despised figure in the perception of the elite and the common Roman alike.

Despite his inadequacies in dealings within Rome, Tiberius' saving grace was in his seemingly capable abilities as an administrator. He generally followed the practices set down by Augustus and allowed his predecessors rules to continue and sink in. He wisely chose to adhere to Augustus' policy on non expansion, and except for some light campaigns in Germania (necessary to quell legionary revolt), did little in the way of foreign conquest. He suppressed a relatively minor revolt in Gaul under Julius Sacrovir and another more lasting affair under Tacfarinas in Africa. In Armenia, Tiberius efficiently handled political instability through diplomacy, never requiring the use of force. His provincial governors were mostly capable men who served admirably. With the one exception of Piso in Syria, whose rivalry with Germanicus may have cost the latter his life, provincial government ran smoothly and effectively. In fact, Tiberius was so willing to let effective governors stay in place that he left some in their positions for upwards of an unprecedented 10 and 20 years.

Whether Tiberius is remembered as a depraved pervert who reined using murder and mayhem and allowed the rise of Praetorian influence, or as an effective administrator with Republican leanings, the true result of Tiberius rule was the ironic total destruction of the Republican ideal. While Augustus allowed a facade of Senatorial governing to continue to exist, under Tiberius, that façade failed to continue, certainly in part due to Sejanus' rise. Tiberius also poorly prepared for the continuation of the Principate. His own involvement in the destruction of the imperial family, something Augustus would never allow while he lived, helped bring about a lack of quality in succession. Though the popularity of Caligula was certainly overwhelming at first, Tiberius did little to prepare his successor for the rule of the Roman world.

Rome's second 'Emperor' died at the port town of Misenum on March 16, 37 AD. At the age of 78 and a reign of 23 years Tiberius, despite all his faults, proved a successful continuation of the Augustan Principate. Later writers suggested that Tiberius was smothered at the behest of Caligula (who was never really sure if he was the official heir), but such accusations are to be expected in the political climate of the time. Regardless, Tiberius was 78 years and in poor health at his death. His complete unpopularity is proven by the absence of being voted divine honors by the Senate. Caligula never pushed for it, and his successor Claudius, who did force the deification of Tiberius' mother Livia, certainly wasted no effort on Tiberius's behalf. Tacitus, Dio Cassius and Suetonius certainly painted a bleak picture of Tiberius and his reign. According to Suetonius: "the people were so glad of his death, that at the first news of it some ran about shouting, "Tiberius to the Tiber," (a form of punishment reserved for criminals) while others prayed to Mother Earth and the Manes to allow the dead man no abode except among the damned."

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Did you know?

In the Bible, Tiberius is mentioned by name only once, in Luke 3:1 (stating that John the Baptist entered on his public ministry in the fifteenth year of his reign)