Roman Emperor Tiberius: History, Facts & Major Accomplishments
Augustus, Nerva, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and Domitian might be the first names that come to mind when the subject of Roman Emperors comes up. But there are other brave men and military commanders that rose to the throne. One of such men was Tiberius, the Second Roman emperor whose reign lasted from 14 AD to 37 AD.
Born Tiberius Claudius Nero, this Roman emperor was the adopted son and stepson of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Tiberius was an astute military commander who at just the age of 22 helped Rome to bring back the revered Roman legionary standards. And upon succeeding Augustus as emperor, Tiberius began his 23-year reign with a host of reforms, which were then marred by his increasing use of violence and tyranny against his opponents towards the latter period of his reign.
What else was Emperor Tiberius most known for? Why was he such an important figure in history? Finally, what were some of his major contributions to the Roman Empire and the world at the time?
WHE presents the life, family history, and 7 major achievements of Tiberius – Rome’s second emperor.
Quick facts about Emperor Tiberius
Names: Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus; Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar Augustus, Tiberius Claudius Nero
Date of birth: November 16, 42 BC
Place of birth: Palatine Hill, Rome
Died: March 16, 37 AD
Place of death: Island of Capri, near Naples, Italy
Cause of death: Assassination
Buried: Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome
Religion: Ancient Roman religion
Father: Tiberius Claudius Nero
Mother: Livia Drusilla
Siblings: Nero Claudius
Spouses: Julia the Elder (11-2 BC); Vipsania Agrippina (19-11 BC)
Children: Drusus Julius Caesar (14 BC – 23 AD), Tiberillus
Reign: 17 September, 14 AD – 16 March 37 AD
Birth and parents
Tiberius was born in 42 BC to parents – Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla. His father, a high priest and magistrate, wielded considerable influence in Rome. Tiberius’ father also served as a captain for Roman dictator and general, Julius Caesar. Tiberius’s mother, Livia Drusilla, on the other hand is said to have given birth to Tiberius around the age of 13 or 14. Livia was the cousin of Tiberius’s father.
Life in exile in Sicily and Greece
The events that followed the assassination of Rome’s celebrated statesman and general, Julius Caesar, in 44 BC resulted in a power struggle between Caesar’s ally Mark Antony and Augustus, Caesar’s heir. Tiberius’ family cast their lot with Antony. After Antony and his love flame Queen Cleopatra of Egypt defeated at the Battle of Alexandria (also known as the Battle of Actium) in 31 BC, Augustus became the undisputed leader of Rome. Owing to their support of Antony, the Tiberius family were forced to go into exile abroad – first to Sicily and then later to Greece.
How Augustus forcefully married Tiberius’ mother
Following his inheritance of Caesar’s estates and position in Rome, Augustus in effect became a kind of emperor in Rome, although he still did not have the official title yet. Around 39 BC, he used his influence to force the elder Tiberius to divorce his pregnant wife, Livia Drusilla. Augustus then parted ways with his own wife, who at the time many believed was pregnant as well, in order to marry Livia, Tiberius’ mother.
Education and training
Tiberius lived with his father and younger brother Drusus until his father’s death in 33 BC, at which point the two boys went to live with Augustus in Rome. Tiberius grew up with Augustus’ daughter, Julia, whom he ultimately married in 11 BC after divorcing his first wife, Vispsania Agrippina. More on this below.
In Rome, Tiberius, his brother Drusus, and his cousin Marcus Claudius Marcellus were given the best of civil and military education. The three boys were carefully prepared to one day succeed Augustus as emperor of Rome. They received instruction in subjects mainly in natural philosophy, diplomacy and rhetoric.
Being the oldest among the three, Tiberius was given the chance to ride with Augustus in a magnificent procession following Augustus’ victory over his rival Mark Antony in 30 BC. A bit reserved, Tiberius was still able to carry himself properly in many state occasions, considering the fact that he had been instructed by the best tutors from around the Empire. The teenaged Tiberius was allowed to sit with Augustus during ceremonies that saw important political figures and kings from all over the empire participate.
Growing up, Tiberius did not really see himself becoming an emperor one day. What he aspired to be was to be a very competent general, and perhaps later occupy a high-ranking government position in Rome.
He and his stepfather Augustus went to many parts of the empire on official business, including one time in the year 27 BC when they went to Gaul to inspect an outpost.
At age 17, Tiberius was appointed to the position of quaestor, a kind of ordinary magistrate office that allowed him to lead the imperial council and respond to people’s petitions. He was also allowed to be elected a praetor (an elected magistrate) and consul (a chief magistrate) even though he was way below the minimum age required by law. He also gained further political experience as an advocate in the court.
Marriage to Vipsania Agrippina
By Vipsania Agrippina, Tiberius gave birth to a son called Drusus Julius Caesar. It’s said that he married Vipsania in 19 BC. The marriage lasted until 11 BC when Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce Vipsania and marry Julia the Elder, Augustus’s recently widowed daughter.
A couple of years after his divorce from Vipsania, Tiberius bumped into her at the home of a Roman Senator that Augustus had forced Vipsania to marry. It’s been said that the future-emperor was extremely shaken from that particular encounter and then begged for forgiveness. When news of this event reached Augustus, the emperor made sure that the two former lovers never met again.
Marriage to Livia Julia the Elder
The marriage was rocked by scandals after scandals. It was rumored that Julia had given up on Tiberius and began having numerous extramarital affairs.
Apart from the political damage those affairs inflicted upon Tiberius and Augustus, Tiberius was not one bit perturbed by Julia’s infidelity. The marriage to begin with was one that was imposed on Tiberius. Perhaps this explains why the marriage was childless and anything but an unhappy one.
After gathering enough evidence of Julia’s numerous affairs, her mother-in-law and stepmother Livia presented those proofs to Augustus. Though he was angry, the emperor could not bring himself to execute his beloved daughter. Therefore, Augustus exiled Julia to the island of Pandateria.
Withdrew from the political affairs in Rome and went into a self-imposed exile on the island of Rhodes in 6 BC. Latin historian and politician Publius Cornelius Tacitus (simply known as Tacitus) described this period of Tiberius’s retirement from politics as Tiberius’ intima causa.
After receiving the position of tribune in 6 BC, he went into exile on the island of Rhodes. Perhaps he wanted a breather from his very unhappy wife Julia, whose promiscuous lifestyle had become the talk of the town. It was also said that Tiberius was unhappy in spite of all the successes he had garnered on his various military campaigns against Germania. There were some who speculated that Tiberius felt that he could take a breather from all the politics in Rome as Augustus had adopted his grandchildren Gaius and Lucius Caesar.
Tiberius is said to have taken this hiatus from politics despite the desperate pleas from Emperor Augustus, who at the time feared that Tiberius absence could jeopardize the peaceful transfer power as his two other heirs – Gaius and Lucius – were not old enough.
It was during his time in exile that he is said to have developed a hedonistic lifestyle. This future Roman emperor became obsessed with many immoral and perverse activities.
With Augustus still sour over Tiberius self-imposed exile, Tiberius could not go back to Rome without Augustus’ approval. Therefore, he spent about a decade on the island of Rhodes.
Tiberius’s rise to the throne
During Tiberius’s exile, Augustus considered picking all three sons of Julia as his heirs. However, a series of misfortunes forced Augustus to stick with Tiberius. Agrippa Postumus, one of the sons of Julia, fell out with the emperor and was immediately shipped off to live with his mother in exile in Painosa. The two other boys, Gaius and Lucius, died at a young age.
Following the deaths of Augustus’s grandchildren, Tiberius was given permission to return to Rome. Augustus had no other choice than to adopt Tiberius as a son and make him his heir.
Tiberius’s rise in reputation and prominence allowed him to take charge of the Roman army that defeated Arminius at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Steadily, he began to perform many of the official functions on behalf of Augustus, whose health at the time was dwindling. In 13 AD, Tiberius was made a kind of co-emperor, i.e. co-Princeps with Augustus. This was done to prevent a succession crisis in the event of the death of Augustus.
On August 19, 14 AD, Emperor Augustus passed away of natural causes. The deceased 75-year-old emperor was succeeded to the throne by Tiberius, who at the time was 54 years old.
Emperor Tiberius’s reign
As it was typical of any new emperor, Tiberius began his reign by take measures to consolidate his new position, often times resorting to the use of violence to quell dissenting politicians. For example, it was alleged that Tiberius had a hand in the murder of Postumus in 14 AD.
Barring those few cases where he used violence, his first few years on the throne was said to be a very moderate affair. The policies he introduced were not draconian. On the foreign front, he did not pursue massive expansionist policy. However, he was quick to quell any form of rebellion within the boundaries of the empire. Often times, he used brutal means to suppress those rebellions. This was to serve as a deterrent to anyone thinking of fermenting trouble in the empire. A minor blip in his early reign came when he expelled all Jews from Rome under the pretext that the Jewish community was a bunch of thieving businessmen.
During his reign the number of “delation” cases skyrocketed. The term delation refers to the practice where any citizen of Rome could act as a prosecutor. Should the accused be convicted, the prosecutor was entitled to a share of the penalties that the convict paid. The remaining portion of the penalty went to the state. Often times, many of those volunteer prosecutors (delatores) fabricated stories in order to secure a guilty verdict for the accused. The frequent nature of delation brought in quite a lot of money to the imperial treasury.
Read More: 5 Absolutely Bad Roman Emperors
The onset of Tiberius’ reign of terror
After the loss of his son, Drasus, in 23 AD, Tiberius became less interested in running the empire, instead delegated many of his duties to Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a close associate of the emperor. His two designated heirs – his nephew Germanicus and his son Drusus – had died, leaving Tiberius undecided about who his successor would be. In 26 AD, the emperor took a break from politics and retired temporarily to his imperial villa on the island of Capri, just off the coast of Campania.
Beginning around the final decade of his reign, his leadership is said to have taken a huge turn for the worse as he became very tyrannical. Historians believe that this change had to do with his deteriorating physical looks. The emperor, who was never the handsomest of individuals in Rome, had started to have very bad skin irritations, with sore appearing all over his skin. To make matters worse, the irritations had pus in them, causing the emperor a lot of pain.
It was out of this pain that the emperor’s reign descended into a brutal one. Tiberius spent a great deal of resources building new prisons and torture chambers as he found new ways of inflicting misery on thousands of people. For some strange reason, Tiberius took immense joy in torturing and executing people randomly. This period also saw Tiberius spend quite a lot of his time pursuing deranged sexual orgies. A different account states that Tiberius rather lived a conscientious lifestyle in Capri, advancing his knowledge in philosophy and rhetoric.
His reign of terror created an imperial autocracy
His reign of terror also included going after persons accused, whether rightly or falsely, of murdering his son, Drusus. It was alleged that Drusus was killed by agents of praetorian prefects Sejanus, who connived with Drusus’s own wife Livilla. Tiberius is believed to have put many Senators and leading politicians of Rome on charges of treason, some of which were absolute fabrications.
As a result those moves by Tiberius, the Senate became a body that was completely under the control of Roman emperors rather than being a partner to the Imperial crown as hoped for by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. In other words, Tiberius ushered in a political system that prevented the Senate from going against Roman emperors. This was very much evident during the reigns of Tiberius’ successors, Caligula and Nero, who in effect were absolute kings.
Tiberius is infamous for beginning a system whereby any kind of dissent against the Emperor could be seen as treason or ‘crime of majestas’ (“a crime committed against the Roman people or against their safety”). Such were the ridiculousness of those treason laws that defacing the Roman coin could be misconstrued as treason. Out went debate and the little free speech that Rome once had, and in came censorship, spying and abuses of all kinds on the citizenry.
Tiberius and Sejanus
His delegation of many official duties to Sejanus, the Praetorian Prefect, resulted in him losing real power. At some point in time, Tiberius was only emperor by name, as Sejanus and the Praetorian Guard appeared to have all the power in Rome. This situation further placed a huge strain on the already disoriented mind of the emperor, who had grown very fearful of Sejanus and the power base that the Praetorian Guard had built in Rome. A man that Tiberius had once described as “Socius Laborum” (“partner of my labors”), Sejanus had started aligning himself with the Julian family in an attempt to sideline or even worse depose Tiberius.
It was also alleged that Sejanus had a hand in the deaths of two of Tiberius’s grandnephews – Nero Julius Caesar and Drusus Caesar – and their mother Agrippina the Elder. In an expertly crafted maneuver, Tiberius successfully convinced the Senate to denounce Sejanus and then after a trial was sentenced to death for treason in 31 AD. Following the execution of Sejanus, Naevius Sutorius Macro was appointed Praetorian Guard.
Tiberius’ problem of finding a successor
In his final few years on the throne, he had grown very concerned about his pick for successor. There was no clear-cut individual who wielded enough claim to be fill the position. The choice was between his grand-nephew Gaius Caesar and his grandson Tiberius Gemellus.
After a careful thought, he chose Gaius Caesar, a rising military commander and one who had the respect of the Roman legions. Gaius was the son of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, the granddaughter of Augustus. Gaius Caesar commonly went by Caligula, a nickname that he had received from the Roman legions.
How did Tiberius die?
Tiberius fell ill and ultimately into a coma after a ceremonial game in 37 AD. His doctors gave him a grim outlook, as everyone expected the emperor to die in a few weeks. Therefore, Caligula, Tiberius successor, was invited to Rome. And just as it appeared as if Caligula was about to become emperor, Tiberius made an unexpected recovery. Caligula, who had the full backing of the Praetorian Guard, was disappointed with Tiberius’s recovery. It’s been stated that Caligula connived with Macro, the Praetorian commander, to carry out the assassination of Tiberius. The frail emperor was murdered in his bed.
According to one rumor, Caligula ordered the poisoning of Emperor Tiberius, who was then smothered with a pillow.
Emperor Tiberius passed away on March 16, 37 AD in Misenum (present-day Miseno in the Italian Province of Naples). He died just a few months before his 78th birthday. His body was cremated and then his ashes laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Augustus. He was given a funeral befitting his position.
7 Major achievements of Emperor Tiberius
During his reign between 17 September, 14 – 16 March 37, Emperor Tiberius was able to accomplish a lot of outstanding things, especially in the first half of his reign. Some of his major life accomplishments are as follows:
Crushed the Great Illyrian Revolt (6 AD – 9 AD)
Beginning around 6 AD, Emperor Augustus had to quickly dispatch Roman troops, under the leadership of Tiberius and Germanicus, to quell a rebellion started by the Pannonians and the Dalmatians. Both of those provinces were supported by a number of Illyrian tribes in the region. In what historians like to call the Great Illyrian Revolt, Tiberius and his nephew Germanicus spent about four years crushing the fierce rebellion, which was led by Bato the Daesitiate, a powerful chieftain of the Daesitiatae. Following the victory, the province of Illyricum was dissolved and their lands were split among the new provinces of Pannonia in the north and Dalmatia in the south.
Secured the empire’s northern frontier by temporary defeating parts of Germania
In 6 BC, Tiberius was involved in a fierce military campaign in some part of Germania. The goal was to secure the empire’s northern frontier. This future-emperor is famed for leading a double envelopment (i.e. the pincer movement) against the Marcomanni, a group of powerful Germanic people north of the Danube River. He marched his legions through Quadi territory from the east, while General Gaius Sentius Saturninus attacked the west. The campaign in Germania, which lasted between 6 BC and 1 BC, was a big success for Tiberius.
Recaptured the Roman standards from the Parthian Empire
Around the age of 22, Tiberius was skilled enough to go on a military expedition with General Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’s son-in-law to bring back lost Roman standards from the Parthian Empire. The Roman standards of the legions had been lost (at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC) by Roman general and statesman Marcus Licinius Crassus in a disastrous campaign in Syria against the Parthian Empire. The presence of troops under the leadership of Tiberius was able to convert Armenia into a client state of the Empire, thereby putting enough buffer zone between the Parthian Empire and the Roman Empire.
Did you know: The campaign to recover the Roman legiions standards was Tiberius first military command. The 22-year-old young general distinguished himself brilliantly during the campaign?
Led Roman troops to conquer Raetia
Following his elevation to the position of praetor (an elected magistrate of the Roman Empire), Tiberius was dispatched to the western boundary of the Empire to shore up support for his brother who was by then campaigning against a number of tribes in the region (what is now Languedoc and Provence, in southern France). Tiberius courageously led his troops against Germanic tribes in the Alps and moved all the way to Raetia. His campaigns, combined with that of his brother’s, in that region allowed the empire to secure its borders and to gain greater control of the Alps.
Dispatched to Pannonia on the Adriatic Sea
Shortly after his return from Raetia, he was appointed to the position of consul. The death of Agrippa, Augustus’s son-in-law and heir, meant that Tiberius and his brother Drusus moved up the line of succession to the throne. This was further confirmed by the forced marriage between Tiberius and Julia, Agrippa’s widow and beloved daughter of Emperor Augustus.
Tiberius as military commander had the ability to move into areas that were rife with rebellion and restore order and trust in the people. He was praised for showing tremendous concern for this men.
Received a Roman triumph – an ancient roman honor
A few years before ascending to the throne, Tiberius was given the highest honor any Roman general could receive. He was given the Roman triumph by the Senate. The triumph, known in Latin as “Io triumphe”, is given to generals that had distinguished themselves brilliantly by winning a major land or sea battle as well as killing at least 5,000 of the enemy’s troops or ending the war.
During the ceremony, a procession was organized by the Senate, which saw Tiberius don a royal purple and gold tunic gown. He held a laurel branch in his right and an ivory scepter in his left.
He left the imperial treasury with a lot of money
It’s been stated that Tiberius’s reign was quite good for Rome in terms of its finances as the imperial treasury had 20 times more money at the time of his death than when Tiberius ascended to the throne. Sadly majority of those reserves were squandered by his successor Caligula, who had quite a thing for building spectacular buildings. He also could save a lot as he preferred strengthening the empire’s frontiers instead of expansion.
Another thing worth mentioning is that Tiberius’s reign saw the growth of the Roman navy. This navy complemented very well the might of the Roman legions during campaigns abroad. Even though the military might of Rome was very high, Tiberius chose not to engage in huge military campaigns and foreign conquest. Rather he chose diplomacy and sometimes used coercion and threats in his foreign policy. Tiberius was described as a skilled administrator who did a lot in maintaining the positive legacy of his predecessor, Emperor Augustus. However, he was financially disciplined enough to end the unnecessary spending that had characterized Augustus’ reign. Tiberius’s reign also witnessed the drastic fall of corruption.
More Emperor Tiberius facts
Here are 12 other important facts about Emperor Tiberius, Rome’s second Emperor.
- Tiberius was a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had five Roman emperors – Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The dynasty, which was founded by Augustus in 27 BC, lasted until 68 AD, when Emperor Nero committed suicide.
- Both his mother and father were said to have hailed from the highly influential patrician family called the gens Claudia. Tiberius’s mother, Livia Drusilla, was a member of the Livii family, an influential dynasty of ancient Rome that could boast of having produced many consuls, censors, and a dictator for the Republic.
- His father died when he was 9 years old.
- Tiberius’s brother, Drusus, died in 9 BC after falling from his horse during a campaign in Germany
- His second wife, Julia, was widowed twice. Julia’s first husband was Marcellus and her second was Agrippa, the father of Tiberius’s first wife, Vipsania. Augustus then remarried Vipsania to a senator. The emperor also barred Tiberius from ever reaching out to her.
- He was forced by Augustus into marrying Julia in 11 BC. Therefore he had to divorce Vipsania. It was rumored that Julia was an extremely promiscuous woman. It is possible that it was simply a fabrication by her opponents to tarnish her reputation. Rumor mongering was not uncommon in Rome. Granted those rumors were true, her father, Emperor Augustus, did not have the will to denounce her as she was his favorite child. Besides, shunning Julia would have harmed Augustus and Tiberius politically.
- At the time that he married Julia, Tiberius was around 30. His new wife was 27 and she had given birth to five children, with none surviving. It’s been said that Tiberius’s mother, Livia, and Julia did not see eye to eye on a number of times.
- In 6 BC, Tiberius was given the powers of a tribune. The position, which was known as tribunus in Latin, was one that military and civil officials held in Rome. Appointees were nominated by the emperor.
- Up until AD 23, Tiberius was a very capable Roman emperor; however that all changed after the death of his son Drusus in AD 23. Roman historian Tacitus describes the years that followed after the death of Drusus as one sharply different from the early period of Tiberius’ reign. The emperor became unhinged and autocratic, expanding the treason laws and squabbling with Senators, who he described as ‘men fit to be slaves.’
- Based on the Gospels, Tiberius’s reign witnessed the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judaea province. And when Jesus’ famous speech “Render unto Caesar…” was referring to Tiberius. The penny (the Roman denarius), that was brought to Jesus had the image of Emperor Tiberius. According to the King James Version of the the Gospel of Mark, the Pharisee brought a silver Denarius coin of Tiberius to Jesus, hoping that Jesus would make a statement critical of Tiberius and/or taxation. Instead Jesus responds to the Pharisee by telling the listeners to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” (Mark 12: 17). The Gospel goes on to say that the crowd was absolutely stunned by Jesus’ wise statement.
- Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and Perea, named a Tiberias (in modern Israel) after Tiberius. Tiberias is located on the western shore of the Sea of Galileee. It’s unknown whether a connection exists between Tibarias’ neighboring city to the south, Hammat Tiberias, and skin care. For many centuries, it was believed that the hot springs in Hammat Tiberias had the ability to heal skin diseases and other forms of illnesses.
- By his second wife Julia the Elder, Emperor Tiberius also fathered a son called Tiberillus who died in infancy.
Family Tree of Emperor Tiberius
How did Tiberius look like?
Tiberius was not the most handsome of men of in Rome. He was described as a tall man with very broad shoulders. His skin complexion was certainly not something that ancient Rome approved of. He also had a kind of nose that accentuated his Roman origins. And when he spoke, it is said that he took his time, as if he was trying to hide the true meaning of his words. He might have not been extremely easy on the eye, but he was a praised for his hardworking attitude and fiscal discipline.
Other notable achievements
Tiberius was noted for not persecuting the Christians in Rome. But then again, Christianity was barely a full-fledged religion at the time. Therefore, it’s difficult to say. What we do know for a fact is, he did go after the Jews in Rome.
He built a temple in Rome in honor of his predecessor and adoptive father Emperor Augustus. He also promoted the cult of his predecessor Augustus. He used this Imperial cult to maintain his grip on the Empire. Future emperors of Rome used this Imperial cult system to absolute perfection in making themselves despots.
Emperor Tiberius restored the theater of Pompey, which was built by the renowned Roman general and statesman, Pompey the Great.
Tiberius ended the practice of naming a month after him. His predecessor Augustus and Julius Caesar both were honored with divine status after their deaths. The months, August and July, were named after those two men. Unlike those men, Tiberius did not receive divine honor from the Senate.
Though he was not as self-confident as his predecessor Augustus, Emperor Tiberius was certainly a skilled administrator. However, his relationship with the Senate was fraught with problems as he came to believe that the Senate wanted his downfall. This nudged him even further into a reclusive lifestyle, with tendencies of acting in a very tyrannical matter. Some historians have stated that Tiberius never wanted to be an emperor. Pliny the Elder, a Roman natural philosopher and author, described Tiberius as “the gloomiest of men.”