Ancient World, Antiquities, 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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One Comment

  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.

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.

      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”


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