This week in history: Tiberius became the second Roman emperor

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18 2013 4:05 p.m. MDT

On September 18, 14 A.D., 1,999 years ago this week, Tiberius became the second emperor of Rome upon the death of his stepfather, Augustus, who had been reluctant to select Tiberius as his successor. Many feared what would happen after Augustus' death, but the transition of power proved relatively peaceful.

Rome ceased to function as a true republic when Julius Caesar marched on the city in 49 B.C. Declaring himself dictator for life, Caesar began acting more and more as a monarch, though he was careful not to declare himself one, as the Roman people prided themselves for not living under a king. Caesar's assassins claimed to act in the hope of restoring the republic, but they were hunted down by Caesar's chief lieutenant, Mark Antony, and his adopted son, Octavian, and killed in 42 B.C.

With their enemies eliminated, Antony and Octavian soon turned on each other, with Octavian emerging the victor after Antony's and Cleopatra's suicides. In proclaiming Octavian “Augustus,” or revered one, the Roman Senate was burying the idea of Roman republicanism for good. Rome would now have its monarch, though like his adopted father, Augustus was careful not to portray himself as such.

Rather, Augustus proclaimed that he restored the republic. “Emperor” was never his title during his lifetime. Though he did boast the not-uncommon military title “imperator,” Augustus preferred to be addressed by either his adopted name, Caesar, or by the title “princeps,” which meant simply first citizen, and is the basis for the later title “prince.” Augustus made great show of deferring to the Senate, however, and was careful not to abridge Roman rights like freedom of speech.

However humbly he portrayed himself, however, Augustus had radically transformed Rome, personally controlling the lion's share of military legions and provinces, including the breadbasket of the empire, Egypt. For all intents and purposes, Augustus was all-powerful. Yet there was an area in which his plans were frustrated time and time again.

Augustus wished to found a dynasty, but he continually suffered from either a lack of or the loss of suitable male heirs. His first marriage to Scribonia had produced only one daughter, Julia, and he had no children of his own with his second wife, Livia. Livia, however, brought two sons by her first husband to the marriage (she was pregnant with her second son when she left her husband to marry Augustus).

Livia's children, however, were not of his own blood. Augustus' first hope for plans of dynastic succession revolved around Marcus Claudius Marcellus, his sister's son, whom he married to his daughter, Julia. Augustus hoped their offspring would cement the foundation of his family dynasty and ensure that his blood would flow through his successor's veins.

When Augustus nearly died in 23 B.C., however, Marcellus was still a teenager, and Augustus appointed his old friend and general Agrippa to be his heir. Augustus made a full recovery, however, and not long afterward, Marcellus died, perhaps of the same illness, at age 19.

Augustus hoped the marriage between the 18-year-old Julia and Agrippa, nearly 25 years her senior, would produce male offspring. In his book “Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor,” biographer Anthony Everitt wrote:

“The marriage in 21 B.C. between the daughter of the princeps, Julia, and Agrippa succeeded where Augustus and Livia had conspicuously failed: it produced two sons, 'an heir and a spare.' … Gaius was born in 20 B.C. and Lucius in 17. With the arrival of the second boy, Augustus adopted both and brought them up in his house. They were known thereafter as Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar. It was as if they were the offspring of two fathers, with Julia playing only a subordinate role as a human incubator.”

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