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This Week In History

The Second Emperor – November 16, 42 BC

The ascension to the throne, and the reign of Tiberius Claudius Nero, were both typical and predictably self-serving. He was born in Fondi, Italy, on November 16, 42 BC to Livia Drusilla and Tiberius Claudius Nero, head of the Claudii family. His father was a strong supporter of the old Roman Republic, and opposed the Triumvirate. At first, Tiberius sided with Marc Antony and went to join Antony’s brother in Perusia, taking Livia and the younger Tiberius with him. By the time they arrived, Octavian’s forces had already taken the city and they were forced to flee. In 40 BC, the elder Tiberius took up arms against the Triumvirate, having joined with Sextus Pompey, and lost a battle against Octavian, forcing him to flee to Achaea to join Marc Antony, until the following year. Tiberius and family finally returned to Rome and in 38 BC, Octavian forced Tiberius to divorce Livia so he could marry her himself, even though she was pregnant with her second child, who would be Nero Claudius Drusus. Tiberius attended the wedding and gave away Livia to Octavian, and took his now two sons, the younger having just been born, back to his estate to raise them. The elder Tiberius died in 33 BC and the younger Tiberius and his brother went to live with their mother and stepfather.

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Bust of Tiberius

Tiberius’s first major role was leading a campaign against the Parthians and Armenians in 20 BC. He proved himself quite capable as a military leader and was able to recapture the standards lost by Crassus in 53 BC. After the Parthian campaign, he returned to Rome and married Vipsania Agrippa, the daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, general and close friend of Octavian (now Augustus). Tiberius was appointed praetor and tasked with helping his brother, Drusus, in the German regions. Experiencing success in these campaigns against the Gallic tribes, Tiberius returned to Rome in 13 BC and was appointed consul for the first time. Around the same time, his son, Nero Claudius Drusus (later named Drusus Julius Caesar) was born.

The following year was a major turning-point to what had so far been a resoundingly successful life. In 12 BC, Agrippa died, leaving Augustus to have to deal with finding a different successor to the throne. Tiberius and his brother Drusus were obviously the next logical candidates, being the adopted children of the emperor. Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce Vipsania, despite the two actually being in love with each other. Something sorely lacking in Roman power couples, from reading ancient sources. Tiberius was forced to marry Augustus’s daughter/Agrippa’s widow, Julia, and adopt her sons, Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar. Tiberius and Julia never got along, despite the relationship bearing a son who died in infancy. As such, Tiberius took the opportunity to be away from Rome as much as possible, campaigning on the frontiers of the Empire.

Tragedy continued for Tiberius when his younger brother died in an accident in 9 BC and by 6 BC, moved to the island of Rhodes to get away from Rome entirely as his wife engaged in shocking extra-marital activities that eventually got her banned in 2 BC. After Julia was exiled, Tiberius agreed to return to Rome, under the condition he didn’t have to participate in public affairs. This wish was not to be for shortly after his return, Lucius Caesar died, then two years later, Gaius Caesar died. Augustus was quickly running out of heirs and had to formally adopt Tiberius, and his grandson, Agrippa Postumus in 4 AD. Upon adoption, Tiberius adopted his nephew Germanicus.

Tiberius and Germanicus went off to battle again, this time in Pannonia and Germany. Back in Rome, Augustus withstood the ill-tempered Agrippa Postumus, until he banished him in 7 AD. Whereas other legions were not so successful, such as Varus losing three legions and the associated standards to an ambush in the Teutoberg Forest, Tiberius was overall well-regarded and returned to Rome in 12 AD, gaining powers equal to Augustus. In summer 14 AD, he headed out on a campaign in the Balkans, but was quickly called back by Livia, because of Augustus’s failing health. By the time he returned, Augustus was nearly dead and spent his last day with him.

Tiberius reluctantly accepted the powers voted to him by the Senate and changed his name to Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus. The transition of power from Augustus to Tiberius was not all that smooth. In fact, the armies in Germany began to revolt, so Germanicus was sent to deal with the situation there and his son, Drusus, to deal with Pannonia. Germanicus was so successful that he returned to Rome in 17 AD and was given a triumphal procession. In 18 AD, he was made co-consul and sent to Asia to deal with yet more military matters. Germanicus was poisoned and died in 19 AD in Antioch and it was suspected that Tiberius was behind it. Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina Senior, demanded a trial and in 20 AD, the Syrian governor, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso was found guilty, and killed himself.

After the trial, Drusus returned from the frontiers to be named co-consul with his father. Tiberius still had no real desire to manage the empire, so he left it mostly to the praetorian prefect, Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Unfortunately for Tiberius, Sejanus very much did want the position. He plotted and schemed, eventually convincing Livilla, Drusus’s wife, to poison her husband so they could wed and ascend the throne together. In 23 AD, Drusus did finally die from the slow-acting poison he was being fed, something that didn’t come to light until Livilla’s death eight years later. Sejanus waited two years before asking Tiberius for his blessing to marry Livilla, but Tiberius refused on the grounds Sejanus was only an equestrian, and thus not high enough stature to marry into his family. Disappointed, but not dissuaded, Sejanus waited patiently.

Tiberius grew increasingly tired of life in Rome and moved first to Campania in 26 AD, then settled in Capri in 27 AD. He left the management of the empire to Sejanus, who was more than happy to comply. In 29 AD, Livia died, but Tiberius was so accustomed to his debaucheristic lifestyle in Capri, he didn’t even attend her funeral. Instead, he was engaging in everything from literature and astrology, to acts of violence and sexual perversion. In fact, the future emperor, Vitellius, was one of his young male prostitutes.

Back in Rome, Sejanus had Agrippina Senior, and her sons Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar, imprisoned or banished during 29-30 AD. Still oblivious to what was truly going on, Tiberius made Sejanus co-consul in 31 AD. Unfortunately for Sejanus, he made an enemy in Antonia, Tiberius’s sister-in-law, but targeting her grandchildren, Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar. Antonia told Tiberius what was going on and the emperor made quick work of the arrest and execution of Sejanus, along with hunting down his family and partisans.

Tiberius continued to rule in absentia, but named Tiberius Gemellus and Caligula his heirs in 35 AD. In 37 AD, Tiberius died at his villa in Campania, possibly by smothering at the hands of Caligula and his praetorian prefect, Macro.

During this lengthy, and completely detached, rise and reign of the second Roman Emperor, came the persecution and death of Jesus Christ. Something Tiberius regarded as of little consequence as he enjoyed his pleasures far away from the palace. The “Tribute Penny” referenced in Matthew 22:19 is most likely the Tiberius denarius with Livia and Pax.

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