Tiberius Caesar has gone down in history as one of the most notorious of Rome’s early emperors.
The stories that surround him are both scandalous and salacious, as shocking to our modern sensibilities as they were to his contemporaries. But what made his private life so perverted? How did he abuse his absolute power? And who was the man behind the myth?
Who was Tiberius Caesar?
Tiberius was Rome’s second emperor, coming to power when his predecessor Augustus died in 14 AD at the ripe old age of 75.
The circumstances surrounding his succession were murky. Tiberius was not Augustus’ first choice as heir to the imperial throne. But the young men Augustus had groomed for the throne – Gaius, Lucius and Marcellus – died in mysterious circumstances. Many pointed the finger at Augustus’ wife and Tiberius’ mother, Livia, accusing her of posioning these men or arranging for their deaths. Whatever truth lies behind these allegations, by the time of Augustus’ death Tiberius was the only choice left.
As a young man, Tiberius was relatively restrained. He excelled as a soldier and commander, leading Roman forces to victory in Amernia and Germany. But while he excelled away on campaign, he hated being back in Rome, being forced into the spotlight as amidst the prying eyes of the capital as a potential heir apparent.
In 6 BC he retired from public life to the Greek island of Rhodes, where he pursued the study of Greek philosophy and rhetoric. Ostensibly, the reason for his retirement was his hatred of his wife, Julia the Elder, who Tiberius resented for stealing him away from his first wife (and true love) Vipsania Agrippina. In reality, however, he was biding his time to see how the succession played out, panicking the ageing Augustus who at still had no clear successor.
Tiberius Caesar becomes emperor
Augustus died on August 19th, 14 AD, surrounded by friends and family in the town of Nola, near Naples. Within a month, the Senate ratified Tiberius’ position as emperor, granting him absolute power as the ruler of the Roman Empire.
But while Tiberius was a fearsome soldier, he was to prove a poor politician.
Tiberius was largely absent from the running of the state, preferring to leave the heavy lifting to powerful men around him. Sejanus, the head of the Praetorian Guard, co-ruled as de facto ruler of the Roman Empire until he was accused of orchestrating a coup against Tiberius in 31 and put to death. Caligula‘s father, Germanicus, also held considerable influence in Rome as a young, dashing prince, waging campaigns and putting down revolts until his untimely death in Syria in 19 AD.
Poisoned, many believed, on Tiberius’ orders.
From 22 AD Tiberius spent increasingly more time away from Rome in the southern region of Campania and Capri. Then in 26, he relocated to Capri indefinitely, leaving the ruling of the Roman Empire to the senators while he indulged in his vices.
Tiberius’ perverted private life
It was only during his self-imposed exile in the Villa of Jupiter on the island of Capri (where millions of tourists still flock every year) that Tiberius Caesar revealed the full extent of his depravity.
The walls of the imperial palace were awash with pornographic imagery, much like that still on display inside the brothel (lupanar) in Pompeii. And with pornography as his backdrop, Tiberius would command his “tight bums”—groups of young boys whose “talents” are clear from the name—to perform threesomes in front of him in order to stimulate his flagging libido.
From sexually depraved to simply sadistic, during banquets Tiberius would fill his drinking companions with vast quantities of wine before tying ligatures around their genitals, preventing them from urinating.
But it was for paedophilia that Tiberius was most notorious.
Tiberius trained infants he called his “little fish” to swim between his thighs when he took a bath and nibble on his genitalia. And that’s not the only horrendous accusation to survive against him. We’re also told that he would take newborn babies from their mothers and hold them to his genitals, hoping they would respond to him as if to their mother’s breast.
Tiberius is alleged to have sodomised two boys during a sacrificial ceremony on the island, and when they complained he had their legs broken. He also sexually assaulted aristocratic women, causing one woman, Mallonia, such trauma that she was driven to suicide.
In old age, Tiberius was hairy and pungent, and theatrical audiences would taunt him by chanting “the old goat is licking the old does’ asses”. Given that in Latin the word for goat is caprea, contemporary references to Tiberius’s twisted pleasure palace on Capri as “the old goat’s garden” is a pun that would have been lost on nobody.
We’ll never know exactly to what extent these stories about Tiberius’s sexual depravity were true. There is, undoubtedly, a kernel of truth; the weight of sources and their cohesion making complete fabrication extremely unlikely. But Tiberius was hated by the Roman elite—far more so than his predecessor Augustus had been. And we’d do well to bear in mind that it was the Roman elite, their tradition coming down to us in the writings of Tacitus and Cassius Dio, who wrote the histories.
Suetonius is the source for the most deplorable information. He worked at the court of Hadrian around the end of the first century until being dismissed on murky grounds (probably for copping off with the emperor’s wife, Sabina). It’s for this reason that his early biographies from Caesar to Nero are full, detailed and brimming with primary sources—letters, quotes, speeches—while the rest are shorter and much more vague. His “Life of Tiberius” was written while still at court, when he still had access to letters, memoirs and other court documents.
And despite the clear bias, the disturbing truth is that Suetonius probably captures much more of Tiberius Caesar than we would like to think.