Rome’s second emperor may have been far less monstrous and depraved than the ancient accounts would have us believe

Tiberius at the Getty Villa

Tiberius post-conservation on view at the Getty Villa. Statue of Tiberius (detail), Roman, A.D. 37, Bronze, 96 7/8 in. (246 cm) high. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Laboratorio di Conservazione e Restauro

“The period he spent as a private citizen, or holding various commands under Augustus, was, both for his life and reputation, a noble one. The interval while Germanicus and Drusus [his nephew and son, respectively] remained alive was one of secrecy and hypocrisy as he affected virtue. While his mother still lived, he was a mixture of good and bad. He was atrocious in his brutality, but his lechery was kept hidden while he loved—or feared—Sejanus [head of the Praetorian Guard]. In the end, he erupted into an orgy of crime and ignominy alike, when, with all shame and fear removed, he simply followed his own inclinations.”
—Tacitus, The Annals

Now, if that doesn’t pique your interest in our new exhibition Tiberius: Portrait of an Emperor, I’m not sure what will. Ancient sources abound with scandalous tales of Tiberius’s cruelty and depravity: abusing small children, raping sacrificial attendants, throwing his opponents off island cliffs… I could go on. For the Roman author Pliny, Tiberius was the gloomiest of men. For historian Suetonius, traces of Tiberius’s savage and dour character could even be identified in his youth. All in all, it’s a grim legacy (and a stark contrast to the fabulous reputation enjoyed by the subject of our other Villa exhibition, the Persian king Cyrus the Great)—and one that deserves to be questioned. Was Tiberius really as brutal and depraved as our sources claim? If not, why was he portrayed that way?

Following the completion of a year-long conservation study that brings an eight-foot bronze portrait from Herculaneum back on display for the first time in nearly 20 years, Tiberius: Portrait of an Emperor seeks to present a more balanced view of this complex and compelling character.

This video takes us inside Tiberius (literally) as conservator Erik Risser determines what is ancient work and what is from the 18th century restoration. 

The tales of Tiberius’s outrageous and criminal behavior, titillating and entertaining though they are, need to be taken with a pinch of salt. They’re ancient tittle-tattle, gossip, besmirching Tiberius’s reputation. One can see how they arose, however. The emperor famously retreated from Rome to the island of Capri midway through his reign—think, perhaps, of the American president quitting Washington and moving permanently to Martha’s Vineyard—which no doubt set the Roman rumor-mills in motion, and there is much to indicate that Tiberius was desperately uncomfortable in the role of emperor.

And yet, when he died, Rome was secure and solvent, no small achievement. He had also been highly respected as a military commander in his younger years, expanding and securing the boundaries of the Roman Empire. And throughout his life, he was fascinated by Greek art and culture, deeply immersed in philosophy and literature. So there’s more to him than the monstrous figure that emerges from Tacitus and Suetonius.

Tiberius Installation

Installation view of Statue of Tiberius, Roman, A.D. 37, Bronze, 96 7/8 in. (246 cm) high. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Laboratorio di Conservazione e Restauro

The key to understanding Tiberius, I think, is to comprehend his familial circumstances and the twists of fate that beset his life and permit a claim for sympathy: manipulated by Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, in his early years, and chosen as successor only when he was the last man standing; forced to divorce his beloved first wife and be unhappily joined to Augustus’s daughter; despised by his adopted daughter-in-law, who may have helped murder his only son; and deceived by the one man he thought he could trust, his closest ally Sejanus.

As the 2000th anniversary of his accession to power approaches in 2014, Tiberius is deserving of a fair hearing.

More on the conservation of Tiberius and on the statue’s arrival at the Getty Villa.

Tiberius: Portrait of an Emperor is on view until March 3, 2014.