Tiberius   [42 BCE - 37 CE; suffocated]

Second Roman emperor, who reigned throughout Jesus' adult years. When Tiberius Claudius Nero was only three (39 BCE), Octavian [Augustus] fell in love with his beautiful mother [Livia] & ordered his father to divorce her so that he could marry her. Six years later Octavian brought Tiberius & his younger brother into his own household, after Tiberius' biological father died (33 BCE). A serious, introverted youth, Tiberius was not popular in Rome but won admiration & public praise for several military victories on the frontiers. So, when Augustus' colleague Agrippa died (12 BCE), the emperor married Tiberius to Agrippa's widow: Augustus' own daughter, Julia. Their incompatibility & Julia's blatant infidelity, however, led Tiberius to abandon her & go into voluntary exile without the emperor's consent (6 BCE). But his mother Livia exposed Julia's adultery to Augustus. So the puritanical emperor, who had himself drafted laws outlawing adultery, was forced to send his own daughter into permanent exile (4 BCE).

After the death of Augustus' oldest grandson, Livia finally persuaded Augustus to recall Tiberius & pardon him. When Augustus' 2nd grandson died (4 CE), he was forced to adopt his stepson, change his name to Tiberius Julius Caesar, & designate him as his heir. Tiberius proved himself worthy of command by a decisive victory over the Germans who had devastated the Roman legions under Varus (9 CE). When he finally became emperor [at age 57], he administered the state with Spartan economy & military discipline. He trusted soldiers & thus was able to establish a stable military administration in the provinces. But his distrust of Roman aristocrats led him to concentrate power in the Praetorian guard [the imperial police] & to set up a system of informers designed to intimidate the Senate. As a result many Romans were sentenced & executed on rumors.

At age 65 (23 CE), after the death of his only son [Drusus], Tiberius lost all interest in governing & put the head of the Praetorian guard [Lucius Sejanus] in charge of Rome. He retired to Capri (27 CE) for a life of self-indulgence & sadistic pleasures. But fearing he had abdicated too much power to the ambitious Sejanus [who had married his son's widow], he charged him & his wife with his son's murder & ordered their execution (31 CE). The last six years of his life, Tiberius orchestrated a reign of terror in which informers were paid for denouncing prominent Roman citizens [including relatives of the emperor]. The whole Jewish community was (temporarily) expelled from Rome. Anyone who was accused was subjected to torture & execution without further proof.

Since few members of the imperial family were qualified to succeed him, Tiberius chose his wife's grandson, Gaius Caligula, whom he compared to a viper. But he imprisoned Herod's grandson Agrippa just for prematurely wishing that Caligula was already emperor. At age 79, the perverse emperor was beginning to recover from a shoulder injury when the head of his own Praetorian bodyguard suffocated him. His military & administrative achievements left Rome more prosperous & more secure than when he had become emperor. But his ultimate legacy was the creation of the police state.

References: Tacitus, Annals 1.1-16, 24, 42, 46, 50, 53-54, 58-59, 62, 69, 72, 74, 76-77.
                                              2.9, 26, 30-38, 40-44, 46, 50-51, 53, 65, 78, 88.
                                              3.3-8, 11-12, 17-19, 28, 31-32, 41, 44, 47, 56, 60, 64-68.
                                              4.1-4, 6-22, 30-33, 38, 40-42, 54-55, 60, 67, 70, 74-75.
                                              5.2-5; 6.2, 5-9, 20-26, 30-32, 38-40, 45-48, 50-51. 
                   Suetonius, Twelve Caesars: Augustus 51, 63, 65, 76, 97-98;
                                                                Tiberius 3-76; Caligula 1-2, 6-7, 10-16. 
                   Cassius Dio, Roman History 48.15, 44; 54.19, 22, 27, 31, 33-35;
                                                                   55.2, 6, 8-11, 13, 25, 28, 30-31;
                                                                   56.1, 12-17, 23-28, 31-42, 45-47.
                                                                   57.1-24; 58.1-28; 59.1-5, 7-9.
                   Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.94-107, 110-117, 120-130.
                  
Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.3; 4.2,4-6; 5.1,3; 6.4-6,8-10.

Other resources on line:

  • The Annals by Tacitus - Books 1-6 chronicle the reign of Tiberius & paint a sinister portrait of the emperor [archived in Bruce Butterfield's Ancient History & Archaeology].

  • Lives of the Caesars: Tiberius - Suetonius' hostile biography composed in 110 CE stresses emperor's perversity (in Paul Halsall's Internet Ancient History Sourcebook (Fordham U).

  • Tiberius - Garrett Fagan's balanced assessment in the inter-academic historical encyclopedia De Imperatoribus Romanis.

  • Tiberius - detailed, well-researched article in Wikipedia's web.

  • Tiberius - brief biography in BBC History's archive of Historic Figures.

Roman silver denarius bearing image of Tiberius. The Latin inscription reads [clockwise from left of emperor's ear]: Augustus Ti(berius) Caesar Divi Aug(usti) F(ilius) ["Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus"]. According to the synoptic gospels, it was a coin like this that prompted Jesus to say: "Caesar's things give back to Caesar and God's things to God" [Mark 12:15-17 & parallels]. This denarius' inscription identifying Tiberius Caesar as son of the divine Augustus magnifies the rhetorical irony of that saying.

For high resolution images of the Tiberian denarius & coins of other early Roman rulers see Sandy Brenner's vivid numismatic guide: Jerusalem Through Coins.

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