This week in history: Tiberius became the second Roman emperor
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.”
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.
What exactly happened remains mired in mystery 2,000 years later. But Suetonius notes Tiberius informed the Senate of Augustus' passing only after he had received word that Postumus had been killed, which would seem to confirm his hand in the crime.
Despite the Roman people's high hopes for a peaceful reign, Tiberius' tenure as princeps proved a bloody period filled with treason trials, professional accusers and judicial murder. Rumors of Tiberius' licentious behavior became legend, even if they were exaggerated, and his relationship with the citizenry ultimately proved to be built upon a foundation of fear rather than the respect that his stepfather had commanded.
Tiberius died in 37 A.D. at the age of 77, only to be succeeded in another relatively peaceful transition of power by great-nephew Caligula, one of history's greatest monsters.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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