Ancient World, Antiquities, Art & Archives, Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum

Has History Got Roman Emperor Tiberius All Wrong?

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.

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  1. goran jovicevic
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Without any intention to challenge deeply rooted picture of evil tail of Julian Emperors, must say there are many portions of roman life in general, we should revisited, with no Christian morality points (later and up to date) joined with technological instrumentaria. Such efforts will be rewarded greatly – question of ancient slavery (Roman) or gladiatorial shows, for example. Today two millenniums after Julio – Claudian family reign, and only after late XX century technological turn-over world could be named civilized again (part of today’s “whole world” – Romans dealing with his greater part – as they saw it). So the most evil Emperor in such light could not be all wrong – there are much more chances that our view of the Julio-Claudian Rome has so many more flaws.

  2. Elijah Luthor
    Posted February 14, 2016 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    Tiberius is my seventy-first great-grandfather according to the deep, gray-hair inducing genealogical research I have done. This great military man and later imperator was an intelligent, oftentimes reserved, individual that many historians have sadly come to dismiss or denigrate. Of all the Julio-Claudian emperors for Rome, Tiberius was perhaps the most Republican and also “genuinely savvy,” as I put it. Tiberius was earlier in his reign not one to always preside over or interfere with senatorial matters or with cases-in-law as Augustus had done. The Senators had for decades became accustomed to Augustus’ meddlesome nature that they assumed his successor would continue the tradition. Augustus’ reasons for always being present over the literal functions for governance were to personally make certain that the Roman peace he fought very hard to achieve and maintain would last, especially from within; he also more and likely sought to keep law and order in perpetuum for his own peace of mind. Tiberius can be described as timid but he was mostly reluctant. He already had an illustrious military career in his own right on the front lines in many frontiers and had grown exhausted from it, understandably so. During his time in office as imperator, when he learned how the Senate had functioned capriciously, he decided that it was necessary after all in personally overseeing that true republican values be embodied and exercised for the good of the realm. The imperator observed that Senators had overwhelmingly abused jurisprudence regarding the manner in which Romans were being punished. Tiberius in many cases either reduced or eliminated sentences upon those who committed ‘minor offenses,’ whereas they previously suffered great loss or were executed unlawfully and unjustifiably by the order of Senators. Tiberius did not want Roman society to embrace and be accustomed to constant tyrannical acts by their “supposed” representatives as it was not good governance. One other way in further observing that he held and practiced republican principles and tenets faithfully is in his foreign policy. He believed it was unnecessary and too costly for the Roman realm to always go about conquering or obtaining new frontiers or provinces. Wherever there showed any possibility of warfare with a foreign head of state or power, he always firstly resorted to firm diplomacy for the sake of Roman peace and of course maintain open trade throughout the Mediterranean world. Tiberius knew what it was like being on the battlefield and for Rome to be at perpetual war with its neighbors was never good for the overall well-being of Roman society. Rome had already become an imperium or empire, geographically and militarily speaking, by the way of Augustus but it still retained in its core a present republican system for governance. Historians usually teach us that any semblance of a republic had officially died when Augustus created the principate. However, they fail to realize or teach that the Roman Republic before the time of Gaius Julius Caesar IV (my 65th great-uncle) never had a chief executive that was both head of state and head of government. The Roman Republic was never really a true republic in the sense we westerners here in the New World would recognize. The early Roman Empire had all three branches of government with its senate, courts, and princeps. Alas, the common people never had any direct popular representation and for the most part never did, except in certain circumstances regarding the proper administration of justice. Despite that, many emperors throughout Roman history truthfully did have a strong passion for the needs of all Romans whether of high or low estate. This is mostly with those emperors that came from humble beginnings and had amazing public careers. Continuing, Augustus is credited for being its first ‘imperator’ which can be transliterated from Latin to English to both “emperor” and or “commander-in-chief.” Therefore, just like in our own American Republic, the American President is both head of state and head of government. Our Founding Fathers (except for Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton) vehemently denounced monarchy of any kind but ‘the office of President for the United States of America’ is quite similar to the principate conceived and brought in to existence by Augustus. The duties of such office require that the chief executive be the Commander-in-Chief above the nation’s armed forces and its various branches as well as its chief legislator and chief representative. Tiberius during his principate exercised his powers and duties judiciously, lawfully, and honestly as a true republican is suppose to, an example worth appreciating and emulating. Under the Roman Republic, there was no chief executive that presided over the whole government or served as its head of state. It appears to me that the early Roman Empire was far more republican that even the so-called Roman Republic, so as long as the imperator did not abuse his office. Tiberius was a good man, personally and professionally. He knew when it was vital in being tough and when to exercise restraint. As with many honorable men and women throughout human history since Creation, he too was a victim of wicked character defamation and character assassination. My seventy-first great-grandfather was no sexual deviant and he was no degenerate. Volumes of proof and the historical record covering of what we do know of his lifetime more than verify he was very much level-headed and possessed sincere integrity in all aspects of his life. Of course, no man or woman since the Fall under this current fallen world order are ever going to be perfect. Whatever flaws or faults Tiberius possessed or exercised were certainly not harmful to others, lest it was toward lawbreakers that he sought justifiable punishment against. Privately, he was also a man that totally loved his wife Vipsania Agrippina and became profoundly grief-stricken when Augustus forced him to divorce her and marry Julia the Elder – Augustus’ daughter – as part of his dynastic succession agenda. This is one area of Augustus’ forcefulness that I do not appreciate. It proved in being fruitless anyhow as no living children were produced from this enforced union. Forcing a man to put away his lawful wife is totally contrary to Natural Law, not to mention can be emotionally damaging. I believe that Tiberius suffered a broken heart and perpetual loneliness when he assumed the principate later paving the way for him completely withdrawing from public life in his final years. Perhaps he felt the city of Rome was cursed or something and wanted to get far enough away from it as to not be physically or directly affected by its constant negative influences. It makes sense or sounds logical that Sejanus would take advantage of fully knowing about Tiberius’ private despair by deceiving people in to believing their imperator went away to Capri to satisfy supposedly unknown sexual inclinations. Such slander and wicked falsehood happens to many great people we inherently know were never or could never be so out of character. I will always come to Tiberius’ defense because many of those critics contemporary to his lifetime were not known for sharing truthfulness in their writings. Oh, before I forget, most of us know that Tiberius was Emperor of Rome during Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s adulthood. For those that don’t know, Jesus was crucified on Wednesday April 25th, A.D. 0031. [Three days and three nights later, Jesus resurrected before sundown on Saturday evening]. Days or weeks later, Procurator for Judaea Pontius Pilate composed a long letter to Tiberius detailing the events surrounding the then-recently executed and resurrected Galilean Nazarene. It appears that the information about Jesus the Nazarene had touched Tiberius so much that he wished the Senate to recognize him as a god. [Of course, we true believers know the Real Truth that Jesus Christ really is God manifested in the flesh]. The Senate rejected the motion. However, Tiberius himself decreed that any violence done against Christians was to be harshly punished. The historical record – when shared by faithful and honest record-keepers – is always here for us to learn from and ruminate over. As for the first five emperors; with Augustus gone, the Julio-Claudian dynasty suffered from many internal disputes and violence. People like Sejanus helped to fuel those fires and familial strife later resulting in horrific deaths and assassinations. For example, by being fully aware of such terror and horror from the inside, the later forth imperator Claudius was able to ingeniously maintain the long-held belief that he was a permanently handicapped family member, warding off any threats upon his own life. Claudius was probably the most academically learned and also most observant of the Julio-Claudians. It appears that the ailments he suffered from in his early years were not as severe as he let on. Claudius probably learned very early the fine art of acting for the sake of staying alive in troubled times. As emperor, his health and prudence overwhelmingly show that he was fully sentient and totally capable of administrating his duties. Regarding the other two Julio-Claudians, we can thank the Lord that there exist no descendants from Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus [Caligula] and Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus [Nero] as they were the real reprobates in this respective dynasty. Just like the descendants of Cain, praise be to God their bloodlines were extinguished. Whew!

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