Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tiberius: Underappreciated?

Octavian-Augustus transformed Rome from a republic into an empire. Tiberius, twenty-one years younger than Octavian, took the throne and the title of ‘Caesar’ when Octavian died in 14 A.D.

Tiberius did not inherit the emperorship in any normal sense of the word. He had been adopted by Octavian for the purpose ensuring succession; Tiberius was also Octavian’s stepson by means of Octavian’s marriage to Livia, the mother of Tiberius. Finally, Tiberius was also Octavian’s son-in-law via the marriage of Octavian’s daughter, Julia, to Tiberius.

Despite the tangled web of familial relationships, interactions between Octavian and Tiberius were primarily based on power politics.

Tiberius had a family tree that was arguably more impressive than Octavian’s. Shrewdly, Octavian saw an opportunity to use Tiberius as an ally rather than a competitor, and Tiberius could sway some of the more established patrician families toward Octavian. Yet, when it came to deciding who would inherit the emperorship, Tiberius was not Octavian’s first choice - and not even his second or third choice.

For his part, Tiberius had no strong desire to be emperor. He took the job because he more-or-less had to.

In addition to a solid genealogy, Tiberius was a competent manager, and had a deep sense of, and respect for, the political values of the old Roman Republic. Even while working for the man who had ended that republic, Tiberius sought somehow to sustain its better virtues in the imperial system.

Two historians, Ralph V.D. Magoffin and Frederic Duncalf, relate the already-significant roles played by Tiberius prior to his assuming imperials duties in the wake of Octavian’s death:

Although Augustus did not have a son, he had adopted his stepson, Tiberius, who belonged to an old Roman family. As Tiberius already held the tribunician and proconsular powers, and was in command of the armies, the Senate accepted him, because it could not very well do anything else. Tiberius, in fact, was the most competent man in the empire, and for nearly ten years had been doing most of the governing for Augustus.

Although a skillful manager with a solid sense of respectable republican virtues, Tiberius was not automatically well-liked. He was possibly more appreciated in the provinces than in the capital city:

However, Tiberius, although much liked in the provinces, was not popular in Rome. He was cold and reserved, although he sometimes spoke his mind bluntly. He had become soured by family sorrows, and by what he thought were slights from Augustus. As a result he became very unpopular. When he decided that he had found in a certain Sejanus a loyal and competent substitute, he went to live on the island of Capri in a beautiful villa which overlooked the Bay of Naples. After he had killed Sejanus, who had plotted against him, and had punished with great severity all whom he suspected of being in the conspiracy, the Romans hated him more than ever. On the contrary, the people in the provinces blessed him because he saw to it that they were all well governed and that the Pax Romana was maintained. Nevertheless, he died, an embittered old man, in 37 A.D.

Tiberius faced a problem which Octavian overcame by sheer force of will, and which all of the emperors after Tiberius would encounter in some form. The position of emperor was, on Rome’s own terms, unconstitutional.

The illegitimacy of the emperorship can be seen already in the verbal contortions performed to describe the job: princeps and imperator and caesar and pater patriae and pontifex maximus were all heaped onto Octavian in an effort avoid words which would be abhorrent to Roman Republican sensibilities: rex or romulus - the latter of which Octavian had briefly adopted but then quickly dropped because of royalist overtones which it had.

Thus Tiberius inherited an unwieldy task: the art of being a king while claiming not to be one; the skill of destroying republican processes while claiming to honor them. Historian Jim Bishop writes:

The reign of Tiberius was, according to law, a constitutional one. Under analysis it wasn’t, and yet, in the early part of his reign, he was overly deferential to the Senate and referred even the smallest matters of state to this august body. He made of point of sitting in the Senate and speaking as a member, often in the minority. Decrees were passed against his wishes and Tiberius had no comment. Some of the wits ridiculed him and his family, and when Caesar was asked about it, he said that the Empire should enjoy free speech and thought.

Tiberius seemed, or sought, to exemplify the stern yet moderate ideals of the old Roman Republic. Although it may have cost him some popularity, this tactic seems to have served him well. His reign was, by most metrics, successful and long - 22 years.

Solidly reliable and competent, Tiberius put the Roman economy on perhaps its best fiscal footing ever. He regularized the tax system and accumulated massive surpluses in the treasury.

The balance on hand in the Roman treasury went from 100 million sesterces to 2.7 billion sesterces on his watch: skillful management.

Yet he remained unpopular with both the Senate and the masses.

There is something of a paradox about Tiberius: he was competent but disliked. Why did the Roman public not embrace him? Perhaps because it was early in the empire, and the citizens had yet to see what a truly bad emperor looked like. Perhaps because he worked to promulgate virtues instead of laws, thereby making the populace uncomfortable by displaying high moral standards. Perhaps because there was little dramatic, heroic, or dashing about him. Perhaps because Octavian was a tough act to follow: who could possibly seem impressive after Augustus? Perhaps because Tiberius lacked an exciting or charismatic personality, a type of personality which Octavian either had or at least managed to project.

His wiser opponents conceded that he was competent, but this begrudging admission did not translate into affection.

Tacitus opposed him, but admitted that the nominations for office sent to the Senate by the Emperor were “made with judgment.” What Tiberius wanted was a Rome of the old days, a Rome in which consuls and procurators and other magistrates enjoyed the full prerogatives of their rank; he wanted peace along the frontiers and no new taxes and no suppression of subject peoples; he admonished anyone who disagreed with him to take matters to the proper court.

What Tiberius wanted, he got only in part. Internally, the empire did attain an organized and stable functioning. Externally, the Pax Romana did not live up to its name: there were nearly constant border skirmishes, either with the Scots, with the Germanic tribes, or with other groups.

While the proverb that “history is written by the winners” contains some merit, it is also true that in many cases, those who are discontent are more motivated to write than those who are content. Maybe there were large segments of Roman society which were content with Tiberius as emperor. Maybe criticisms of Tiberius are overrepresented and amplified, if his opponents were his chief biographers.

Perhaps ultimately a tragic figure, Tiberius was capable and, in a pagan sense, virtuous. Finally, he was disappointed, despite his notable accomplishments. Jim Bishop offers us a description of Tiberius near the end of his life:

Tiberius was the Emperor. He was seventy; a lean, acidulous man who suffered from acne. His greatest happiness came from study. His deepest unhappiness had come from his mother, Livia. She nagged him all the way up the political ladder and, when he finally stepped on the top rung, he never looked at Livia again.

A man who did not desire the emperorship but had it thrust upon him; a man who did not lead by charismatic personality but whose quiet competence and financial steadiness stabilized the empire: Tiberius was perhaps underappreciated in his own time.