All five Caesars were incredibly able. That’s why any idea that Caligula or Nero were exceptionally mad should be jettisoned. They were not pleasant but they were very able, and part of their ability was that they could appoint to the provinces people who were both loyal and effective. Provincial government throughout this period was certainly brutal, but it was very effective and peace was upheld.
This article is an edited transcript of Tom Holland on Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, available on History Hit.
Tiberius’ island retreat
In the last 10 years of his reign, Tiberius retired from Rome to Capri island off the Bay of Naples. This has darkened his reputation appallingly: in the opinion of the Roman people, the only reason that a prominent Roman would have for retiring was because he wanted to get up to unspeakable sexual perversions.
And so back in Rome, all kinds of shocking stories are told of Tiberius. However, there is a different perspective on Tiberius that we get from the provinces.
The philosopher king
Greek and Jewish provincial perspectives provide a fascinating counterpoint to the Roman take of it. To the provincials in Alexandria, Tiberius was a kind of Prospero figure: he was a philosopher king, he was the man who, on his rocky island, not only kept the entire world at peace but also was more learned and more knowledgeable in the relationship of the gods to men than anyone else in the world.
He was seen as a scholar, almost as a kind of mage and philosopher king. It’s crucial to recognize that when we look at the shocking stories that are told of someone like Tiberius on the island of Capri, there are also different perspectives on the man.
Tiberius was absolutely qualified to uphold peace because as a young man, as a soldier on the frontiers, he demonstrated to an astonishing degree his ability to maintain the frontiers and to put in place structures that would enable the integrity of the empire, the peace of the provinces and of Rome itself to be maintained.
Tiberius and the Teutoburg tragedy
The most striking example of that is what happens in the wake of the worst military defeat that Rome suffers in the Julio-Claudian period: in A.D. 9, when three legions in Germany are wiped out. Emperor Augustus had been hoping to turn Germany into a province much as Gaul had been turned into one. And indeed, they thought that that the Germans had been pacified. This turned out to be wrong. Three legions were wiped out.
That was an enormous quantity of Rome’s manpower and it seriously looked as though the entire Rhine frontier will implode. And if the Rhine frontier imploded, then Gaul imploded. If Gaul imploded, then Italy itself is in danger. So the very future of Rome itself was at stake here.
What is emperor Tiberius best known for?
Tiberius strengthened Rome’s frontier by going to the front. He didn’t do anything glamorous. He did not lead armies out on a revenge mission. Instead, he rode up and down the Rhine frontier solidifying the river fortifications.
He sourced men and horses from across Gaul. He rebuilt Rome’s legions and its cavalry and then two years on, he was ready to start launching punitive strikes into Germany.
But even when he was doing that, he was taking the utmost care. And so, as a result of that, the Rhine frontier held and the Roman Empire did not collapse and the only impact of this disastrous defeat is that Germany was lost. Nothing else was lost.
Tiberius saw the bigger picture
Now, this was not glamorous. It did not win him plaudits. Tiberius’s nephew Germanicus was a young man full of dash and vim and he was endlessly galloping off into the forests and risking another calamitous defeat, and ultimately, Tiberius brings him back.
The Roman people are very cross about this because they love Germanicus. But Tiberius is right: security is far more important than dash. But unless you look at the evidence closely, you would never recognize that. You’d never recognise the qualities that Tiberius brought in the administration of the world. But when you look at the Rhine frontier and then you look at his reputation in Alexandria, those give you two useful clues as to why the Empire was at peace throughout his reign.
It wasn’t just luck. Tiberius may not have been a pleasant man, but he was exceptionally capable.