This week in history: Tiberius became the second Roman emperor
Tiberius, whose relationship with his stepfather had often proved contentious and who was convinced his chance to rule would never come, retired from public life and went into self-imposed exile on the Aegean island of Rhodes.
For a time it appeared Augustus had solved the problem of succession. It was not to work out, however. Lucius died in 2 A.D., and Gaius two years later, the first from an illness, the second in battle. Many, including the Roman historian Tacitus, have speculated that their deaths may have been orchestrated by Livia, who wished to assure the succession would fall to her son Tiberius. Everitt notes that the Romans reveled in “wicked stepmother” stories, however, and there is no evidence whatsoever that Livia had a hand in the young men's death.
Faced with the unexpected death of his two favored heirs, Augustus made a fateful decision. He decided to adopt not only his stepson Tiberius, who had returned from Rhodes, but also the much younger brother of Gaius and Lucius, Agrippa Postumus (so named because he was born after his father, Agrippa, died in 12 B.C.).
Antagonism began to stir between the two heirs, and the young Postumus was most likely a difficult young man. For whatever reason, Augustus exiled him to the Mediterranean island of Planasia, off the Tuscan coast, in 9 A.D. It now appeared more and more likely that Tiberius would be the successor.
Even as these dramatic family events were playing out, many Romans hoped that when Augustus finally died, the unsatisfactory political situation would disappear and once again Rome would be a true republic. In Michael Grant's translation of Tacitus' “Annals of Imperial Rome,” the ancient historian wrote:
“When old age incapacitated (Augustus), his approaching end brought hopes of change. A few people started idly talking of the blessings of freedom. Some, more numerous, feared civil war; others wanted it. The great majority, however, exchanged critical gossip about candidates for the succession.
"First, Agrippa Postumus — a savage without either the years or the training needed for imperial responsibilities. Tiberius, on the other hand, had the seniority and the military reputation. But he also possessed the ancient, ingrained arrogance of the Claudian family, and signs of a cruel disposition kept breaking out.”
The Roman historian Suetonius considered Augustus' decision to finally place the succession in Tiberius' hands. In the Robert Graves translation of “The Twelve Caesars,” Suetonius wrote:
“My belief is that Augustus weighed Tiberius' good qualities against the bad and decided that the good tipped the scale; he had, after all, publicly sworn that his adoption of Tiberius was in the national interest.”
Upon his death on August 19, 14 A.D., the 75-year-old Augustus left his considerable fortune, a major prop of his power, to Tiberius. Additionally, Tiberius had held high command in the army for years as well as a leading role in the Senate, and Romans felt Augustus had left the state in capable hands.
On Sept. 18 the Senate voted to give Tiberius the same sweeping powers his stepfather had enjoyed, and those Romans hopeful of a restoration of the pre-Caesar form of government met with disappointment. The twilight constitution — not quite republic, not quite monarchy — continued.
Nor, however, was there a new civil war. The office of emperor had survived its first real test: the transition of power. Such a model would not always be the case, and subsequent Roman history is filled with bloody coups and civil wars. At this critical juncture, however, the transition of power proved relatively peaceful.
There was, however, at least one casualty of the transition. Agrippa Postumus, Augustus' other potential heir, was murdered by his guards in his island exile. Tiberius maintained his innocence of the crime and stated Augustus had left orders to have the young man killed shortly after his death. It seems far more likely, however, that Tiberius ordered the elimination of a potential rival.
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