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Tiberius, the adopted son of Roman Emperor Augustus, never aspired to follow in his stepfather’s footsteps -- that path was chosen by his domineering mother, Livia. His 23 year reign as emperor (14 CE to 37 CE) would see him estranged from his controlling mother and living in self-imposed exile from the duties of running an empire.

In 42 BCE Tiberius Claudius Nero and his wife Livia Drusilla welcomed the birth of a son, Tiberius Julius Caesar. The marriage was a rocky one: the family was forced to live temporarily in exile because of Tiberius’ father’s anti-Augustus views. Historian Suetonius wrote in his The Twelve Caesars, “His childhood and youth were beset with hardships and difficulties because Nero (his father) and Livia took him wherever they went in their flight from Augustus.” When the young Tiberius was almost four, his parents divorced (Nero would die six years later), and his mother set her sights on another husband and father for her son -- who better than the one-time enemy of her ex-husband, Augustus.

In 39 BCE Livia got her wish when she and Augustus were married. The marriage presented an opportunity for Tiberius to be in line for possible succession to the imperial throne, but at the time of the marriage, he was neither Augustus’ favorite nor the next in line. Augustus had groomed his two grandsons, Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar, by his troublesome daughter Julia (her mother was wife number two, Scribonia) to succeed him. Later, however, to ensure his possible ascension to the imperial throne, Tiberius was forced to divorce (at Augustus’ orders) his beloved, pregnant wife Vispania Agrippa (the daughter of Admiral Marcus Agrippa) and in 12 BCE to marry the recently widowed Julia.

Tiberius loathed his new wife but, luckily for him, her reputation (among other things, an adulterer) forced Augustus to exile her, even though Tiberius had unsuccessfully appealed to Augustus on her behalf. She met her death by starvation in 14 CE. While Tiberius did not mourn the death of Julia, he seemed even less than enthusiastic when Julia’s two children died; Gaius in battle and Lucius by illness. While this placed Tiberius (by now the adopted son of Augustus) next in line, he had never demonstrated any excitement about becoming emperor -- the excitement was all Livia’s. It should be noted that Tiberius was in his forties when he was finally adopted, a practice not uncommon in Rome.

The fact that Tiberius had never wanted to become emperor was evident. He had always excelled outside the political arena. He had been an excellent general, serving with distinction in Germany and holding the governorship of Gaul. However, in 6 BCE he abruptly went into self-imposed exile on the island of Rhodes (possibly to escape Julia), not returning to Rome until 2 CE -- he had to request permission from Augustus to return. In fact, he was often referred to as simply “the exile.” In 14 CE Augustus died, allowing Tiberius to become the new emperor of the Roman Empire. As with many of those who followed him, his first few years as emperor went well. He shied away from much of the pageantry that followed his ascension, giving respect to the authority of the Senate. Cassius Dio wrote, “Tiberius was a patrician of good education (he spoke Greek fluently) but had a most peculiar nature. He never let what he desired appear in his conversation, and what he said he wanted he usually did not desire at all.” Considered a miser by some and modest by others, he began but did not finish many public works projects (most were completed later by Caligula). In his mind his assumption of the imperial throne was threatened by another: Germanicus Julius Caesar Claudianus, Tiberius’ adopted son (at Augustus’s request) and the true choice of many of the generals. Germanicus, however, silenced those outspoken opponents of Tiberius and voiced his support of the new emperor.

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