Sins in the Life of Tiberius According to Suetonius

Written by on August 2nd, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Roman, about Seutonius Tiberius

Suetonius. The Caesars. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2011.

Emperor Tiberius Gradually, Tiberius unmasked the emperor he was. When his isolation afforded him the license to act without restraint, out of sight of his countrymen as it were, he finally, all of a sudden, gave free play to every vice that he had concealed so poorly for so long. In the seclusion of Capri he created sellaria, out of the way places for sexual pursuits. Troops of girls and male prostitutes, inventors of deviant sexual acts, he brought there from all parts, and these he called sprintriae. The Caesars, Tiberius, 42.1 ff.

Suetonius’ life of Tiberius is an interesting glimpse into the wickedness of human nature as well as the decline of a society which prided itself not only on its resistance to outside influences, but also in its maintaining the highest standards of virtue and morality among its people and its leaders. The lives of Julius and Augustus, not without their difficulties, were, nonetheless, examples of Roman virtue. Although Tiberius’ life reads, at least initially, similarly to Julius’ or Augustus’, there is a marked difference between them and the emperor that Tiberius becomes. He is truly the antithesis to both of his predecessors, a disgrace to himself and to the Roman people.

Tiberius was initially, at least from Suetonius’ account, very much a model Roman. In the account of his stay in Germany, we read in [18.2], “These are the practices that he maintained once over the Rhine: He ate sitting on bare grass, often spent the night outside his tent, and communicated in writing all his orders for the following day and any tasks that had to be assigned on the spur of the moment.” Suetonius takes great pains to stress that Augustus was right in promoting Tiberius [21.3], “[the] very thoughtful and careful and emperor did not do anything without good cause especially in so important a matter [as the nomination of Tiberius].”

After Augustus’ death, Tiberius was very much concerned with the status Roman affairs. In [26.1], we read, “…he lived a modest life—at least at first—even somewhat more modest than that of a private citizen. Of the many important honors offered him, he accepted only a few commonplace ones. He permitted the celebration of his birthday that fell during the Plebian Games but with scarcely a single chariot added.” Furthermore, in [26.2], we read, “He refused to take Imperator as a first name or the cognomen Father of His Country, and he did not permit the civic crown to hang in his entrance hall.” He was, by every account, ready to live the life of emperor as virtuously as possible.

But things changed, “gradually,” as Suetonius says for the worse; and it is here that Tiberius’ principate begins to decline. Suetonius suggests that he fought against the temptation on one hand of being too involved in the affairs of state to the point of being what we moderns would call a “micro-manager,” to not being involved at all, even in the most important matters of state. In [33], we read, “At first he meddled only to keep anything very bad from happening…and if public morals deteriorated from laziness or bad habits, he took the correction of them on himself.” Later on, he tightened the laws of sexual morality, almost to the point of absurdity. In [34.2], Suetonius states, “He issued edicts banning ordinary kissing and the exchange of New Year’s gifts…” These may seem like trivial matters, but these ordinances and similar ones, caused, “Women of loose sexual morals to claim that they were prostitutes in order to be free from the rights and respect due married women and evade punishment under the law.”

Upon his accession to the principate, unlike both Augustus and Julius before him, [37.4], 
“Tiberius undertook no military campaigns but sent his generals to suppress insurrections, and not even then did he do this except reluctantly and when absolutely necessary.” Psychologically, this must have been very damaging to the morale not only of the military men, but also, the Roman people. So great was his stagnation, that in [38], we read, “he did not set foot beyond the gate of Rome for two years.”

The defining moment in the story seems to come after the death of Germanicus and Drusus. It was then that Tiberius, in [39], “sought seclusion in Campania… and [eventually] retreated to Capri, an island that he particularly liked because it was closed in on all sides by steep rocks of enormous height and by the deep sea.” Here, he neglected all of his duties of state, included making sure military tribunes and governors were placed in leadership positions throughout the empire. It was also here that Suetonius tells us of his emotional and psychological depravity that plagued Tiberius away from the scrutinizing eyes of his citizens. In fact, Tiberius’ sexual deviancy was so notorious that eventually, he “established a new administrative responsibility, the Department of Pleasure with the Roman knight Titus Caesonius Priscus in charge.” When comparing Suetonius’ accounts of Julius’ or Augustus’ sexual promiscuity and even possible homosexuality, there is almost a joyful, playful tenor to his writing. This is certainly not the case when recounting Tiberius’. The horror Suetonius has for some of the acts recounted are illuminated in the rhetoric he uses. In [44.1], we read, “He earned an even worse and more disgusting reputation in a way that is scarcely to be described or heard described–much less believed.”

His power and his absence from the daily affairs of state made him [46], “stingy and tight–fisted with money.” He did not support his soldiers nor to the people of Rome. Again, this practice was a steep departure from the practices of both Julius and Augustus. In [48.1], we read, “Twice all told, Tiberius displayed generosity to the populace, once when he offered to lend 100 million sesterces interest–free for a term of three years, and again when he compensated the losses of some of the owners of the apartment blocks on the Caelian Hill, which had burned.” The key word here is “lend” by which his generosity was self-gratifying and for appearances, not for true generosity or love of the people, otherwise, he would have given the money, as his predecessors had done, freely.

Suetonius further comments on Tiberius’ relationships with his mother, sons, and daughter-in-law, and the subsequent hatred he had for all of them. I mention these relationships here to illustrate Tiberius’ disdain for family, a disdain that was certainly pushed upon the empire as a collective body. The comparison, of course, is that as ruler, one’s citizens become, in a sense, one’s children. How can we believe that he had the best intentions for his people, if the most basic of all relationships, the relationship of a father to his children, or a son to his mother, was so fractured? In [52.1], we read, Tiberius did not have a father’s affection for either his biological son Drusus, or his adopted son Germanicus. He found the moral failings of the former abhorrent… and, as for Germanicus, he was critical of him to the point that he disparaged his celebrated achievements as meaningless and inveighed against his magnificent victories as ruinous to the state.” Further on, in reference to Agrippina, his daughter-in-law, we read, “After he had made the false charge that she wanted to seek refuge, first at the statue of Augustus, then with the armies, he banished her to Pandataria. When she reviled him, he had a centurion beat her until he put out an eye…” [53.2]

So where, precisely, did Tiberius’ governing go wrong? I have illustrated from Suetonius’ text the multiple examples of Tiberius’ flawed, vicious character, and anyone of them could be used to show where or when his principate declined. As for a time when this occured, it could be argued that when he fled from for Capri, the empire, practically speaking, was finished, for it was here that Tiberius resigned himself to all manner of sloth, lust, and gluttony. He was, in a way, only enjoying the luxury his state of life afforded, despite its seeming departure from the Roman way. Yet, as can be seen from Suetonius’ account, he took it further than those before him.

Perhaps another plausible argument could be made that his principate started declining as soon as he ascended the throne, his character being flawed to the point that he was unable to effectively rule. Suetonius cites many examples throughout the text in favor of this. Regardless of whether Suetonius was merely noting what he had heard or read, or whether these events actually occurred, it cannot be denied that as time went on and the empire continued its plunge from the heights of peace it enjoyed under Tiberius’ predecessors, the person of Tiberius continued his descent both mentally and morally. Whether or not this was the result of his personal viciousness or a result of the state of the empire is probably not relevant. On a purely rhetorical level, Suetonius neglects arrogating to Tiberius the epithet of “divine,” which to this reader is telling in itself. Every emperor had his own moral failings, but Tiberius seems to go way beyond the normal depravity expected of a Roman ruler. He was, practically speaking, a casualty of an empire which was itself becoming a casualty of its own greed and vice.

Ultimately, Tiberius’ life ended, not with the usual fanfare afforded to a beloved leader of the Roman people, but with relief and joy, relief that his time as leader was over and joy that he would finally receive punishment for the disreputable life he had led.

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at jheitzenrater@udallas.edu.

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