Why Tiberius Was One of Rome’s Greatest Emperors

History Hit Podcast with Tom Holland

4 mins

12 Dec 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Tom Holland on Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 13 October 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Soundcloud.

All five Caesars were incredibly able. That’s why any idea that Caligula or Nero were 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.

Tiberius’ island retreat

In the last 10 years of his reign, Tiberius retired from Rome to Capri island off the Bay of Naples. And this has darkened his reputation appallingly because 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. Stories that would certainly get Operation Yewtree very, very interested in him. 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 provincial say 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.

So he was seen as a scholar, almost as a kind of mage, as a 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 is a very different perspective which it is possible to get hold of as well.

Tiberius was indeed 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.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest: 9 AD.

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.

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 got 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.

The Roman city of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, modern day Cologne, that was situated on the western bank of the Rhine river on the Roman frontier. In 9 AD, it was under threat.

Strengthening the frontier

Tiberius went to the front. He didn’t not 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, he rebuilt 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.

A map highlighting Tiberius’ forays into Germania Superior after he reinforced the Rhine frontier following the Teutoburg disaster. Credit: Cristiano64 / Commons.

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, you know, brilliant, makes excellent copy. But Tiberius is right. Security is far more important than dash. But unless you look at the evidence very, very closely, you would never recognize that.

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You’d never recognize the qualities that Tiberius brought in the administration of the world. But I think that when you look at the Rhine frontier and then you look at his reputation in Alexandria, those give you two very, very useful clues as to why the Empire was at peace throughout his reign.

It wasn’t just luck. Tiberius was a very, very able man. He wasn’t a pleasant man but he was a very able man.