Never the preferred heir, Tiberius (42 BC – 37 AD / reigned 14 – 37 AD) soon showed why Augustus had wanted someone else.
|Bust of Emperor Tiberius
His political inability, poor judgment and jealousy led Rome into a dark age of political purges, murder and terror.
Tiberius had waited a long time to be emperor and had made many sacrifices. In 11 BC, Augustus had forced him to divorce his much-loved wife and marry Julia, the emperor’s daughter. The two did not get on.
A bad start
Even so, Tiberius only became heir after the death of Julia’s two sons. He knew he was not the preferred successor but, with Augustus dead, it was time for him to step up and claim power.
This was tricky, because the Senate didn’t trust him. Tiberius tried to mimic Augustus and feigned reluctance.
This was a disaster. He didn’t have the same political skills as Augustus and gave out mixed signals. This only caused further resentment and, although he did become emperor, his position was weak. Tiberius knew this himself, saying that governing Rome was like “holding a wolf by the ears”.
He was soon to face his first test. Fed up with life in cold, northern Europe, two armies were mutinying and threatened to march on Rome.
With an empire built on force, this was any emperor’s worst nightmare. Tiberius sent his young, charismatic nephew, Germanicus, to sort the situation out.
Sure enough, Germanicus hit the spot, rallying the troops before leading them to victory against the Germanic tribes. Having turned a highly dangerous situation into a great victory, Germanicus was a hero.
Still insecure, the last thing Tiberius wanted back in Rome was a war hero with a claim to the throne. He appointed Germanicus to be governor of the remote eastern provinces. Once more, Germanicus was annoyingly successful, loved by Romans and locals alike.
It’s a mystery
This success brought Germanicus new enemies and he died in mysterious circumstances in 19 AD. Many thought he had been poisoned and blamed Tiberius. He denied it, but the whispers refused to go away.
Although Tiberius was now more secure, he was not happy. He despised his plotting, toadying courtiers, saying they were “fit to be slaves”. In turn, his mood swings set the Senate against him.
Bad judge of character
This mutual contempt led Tiberius to go elsewhere for advice. But he went to the wrong place, choosing Sejanus, a cavalry officer and “small town cheat”. Tiberius was impressed by Sejanus. He praised him as "the partner of my labors" and gave him command of the Praetorian Guard, which protected the emperor.
Sejanus abused this trust and his position. He increased his power by concentrating the guard in a single camp , and began to persecute potential rivals. Many were tried for treason and executed.
V for vendetta
Warning that Germanicus’ family was plotting against the emperor, Sejanus exiled the dead hero’s widow before killing her two elder sons. Only the youngest, Caligula, was spared.
All this time, Tiberius did nothing. He was now an old man and had retreated to Capri, where he was safe from his enemies and could pursue a number of diversions, including astrology and drinking wine. Cut off from Rome almost completely, only Sejanus was allowed to visit regularly.
Change in fortunes
Just when Sejanus appeared ready to seize power for himself, it went horribly wrong. In 31 AD, Tiberius turned against him in favor of Caligula, the only surviving son of Germanicus. He sent a secret message to the Senate condemning Sejanus. They captured him, strangled him, and dumped his body in the river Tiber.
Still in Capri, Tiberius continued to rule, with Caligula now his heir. When he died in 37 AD, Rome welcomed the news. Little did they know what was yet to come.
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