The accession of Tiberius

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Last updated: April 10, 2019

During the reign of Augustus the political sphere of the Roman world had been changed beyond recognition. Where before the senate used to debate political questions as well as decide the manner in which they should be dealt with, now the emperor had the final say. Decisions were now made by the emperor and his council of amici.

The powerful men in the empire were not necessarily senators, but the men who were close to the emperor and were thus able to influence him; these could be close relatives, or even freedmen.This shift of power does not necessarily mean that all the emperor’s policies were passive replies to questions posed to him by others. It was imperative that the emperor, whose position was volatile (since anyone who was able to challenge it, would become the next emperor), continued to be in command of the whole political system, as well as maximised his own prestige and secured his succession according to his own wishes.

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This applies as much to Augustus, whose position was perhaps even more volatile than that of his successors, as it does to the rest of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.Augustus was clearly very good at creating a specific style in which his own image was to be represented and controlled the state tightly until the day of his death. But choosing his successor was clearly a more complicated issue. Unluckily for him, his brief union with Scribonia had only spawned one daughter and his long marriage to Livia Drusilla never resulted in any children at all. So in the absence of a son, the emperor had to look elsewhere for an heir. Marcellus, son of Octavia, was married to Julia in 25 and an unusually rapid cursus honorum was decreed for him.

This clearly showed Augustus’ favour. He tragically died in 23BC, at the age of only 19, before he could fulfil his potential and was promptly buried in the Mausoleum. But Augustus clearly simultaneously also considered other options.

His close friend Marcus Agrippa had been one of his generals from the start. He was clearly a man Augustus trusted, and when Augustus fell ill in 23BC, Agrippa was the one he entrusted with his signet ring, symbol of his power. He also gave him his only daughter Julia in marriage, after the death of Marcellus.When Agrippa died on campaign in 12BC, he too was buried with great pomp in Augustus’ Mausoleum. According to the historian Tacitus, the people regarded him as the heir to the throne. After the death of Agrippa, Augustus was again forced to find potential heirs amid his large extended family. Tiberius was already one of his more successful generals, and although he was not a blood-relation to Augustus, he was his stepson, and Augustus himself had proven, through his own adoption by Julius Caesar, that this was not strictly necessary, in order to inherit a position of power or even of divinity.

For a while Tiberius was well seen by the emperor, but shortly afterwards, his views settled on his two grandsons, Gaius and Lucius, sons of Julia and Agrippa. He had promptly adopted them at birth in 17BC and renamed them Caesar. Now they were only children, but he ensured that as soon as Gaius had received his toga virilis in 5BC (at the age of 15) a popular demand voted him consul. This was of course impossible due to his age and his inexperience, so the senate allowed him the title princeps iuventutis and promised him the consulship in his twentieth year.

The tour of the east he then undertook was clearly of importance, as was the diplomatic mission to the kingdoms of Parthia and Armenia. Unfortunately, it also caused his death, on the way back to Rome, from a wound that he suffered in a revolt he tried to put down. Soon after his death, his brother Lucius was awarded Gaius’ honours, but he too died tragically young, only a few years after his brother, on the way to a campaign in Spain. Whether or nor Livia was involved in these deaths, which were after all very convenient for the advancement of her son, rumours at the time, and in later historians, were rife.Tiberius, according to legend had taken offence at the treatment he was receiving from Augustus and retired to Rhodes, others see this as a diplomatic mission. He was recalled to Rome and in 4AD formally adopted by Augustus as his heir. But the Claudians had not won the war, just this battle. Simultaneously, Augustus adopted Agrippa’s remaining son, Agrippa Posthumus and also forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus, son of his sister’s daughter Antonia, even though Tiberius had a son of his own.

He was clearly trying to ensure that, should Tiberius die prematurely, the choice of succession should return to a branch of the family closer to him. Or even should he not, that after Tiberius, a Julian should again reign. Many historians consider the accession to power of Tiberius the smoothest of all in the history of the Roman Empire. Before the death of Augustus he had already been voted the same powers as his “father”, tribunicia potestas and imperium maius. This had first happened at his adoption, and then was renewed in 13AD.

In effect he had become Augustus’ coregent in those last years.Just prior to the emperor’s death, Augustus and Tiberius had jointly organised a census (something which Germanicus had also been doing in Gaul) and when the time came for Tiberius to return to his legion in Pannonia, Augustus and Livia accompanied him to Campania to see him off. Tiberius was barely gone when his mother’s urgent messages recalled him. This left no doubt about who was the heir. Tiberius was present at Nola, when Augustus died and announced his death. He never wasted any time and immediately wrote to the army commanders (not just his own in Pannonia, but all the others too).As soon as the news of Augustus’ death reached Planasia, Agrippa Posthumus, who had been exiled there by Augustus after a falling out, was put to death. The origin of the order to execute Agrippa Posthumus has been much debated.

Augustus himself is the most likely candidate. Since he had, to all intents and purposes, had to settle for the lesser option, the least he could do is assure that the transition occurred as smoothly as possible. Tacitus sees the new emperor as exercising his power for the first time here, executing his only possible rival.However, when the deed was reported to him, Tiberius claimed to have nothing to do with it and decided to deal with it through the senate. The fact that he never did could be more indicative of its usefulness to him rather than his guilt in this matter. An even more decisive clue is that Agrippa Posthumus was not mentioned in Augustus’ will. This will named Tiberius as the inheritor of his “estate” and the new paterfamilias of the domus caesaris. Unmentioned and still alive, Agrippa Posthumus could, according to normal Roman Law have claimed half of the inheritance.

It therefore seems clear that Augustus intended Agrippa Posthumus to be dead by the time his will was read out, otherwise he left a very strong seed for civil war, the very thing he had vowed to rule out with his rule. The status of head of the household of the Caesars was of great importance to any acceding emperor, as according to the normal Roman social order, this meant that the new head of the household inherited the gratitude and the loyalty of the clients and dependents the former head of the household had incurred in his lifetime.In the case of Augustus, the Pater Patriae, this meant roughly everyone in the empire. Of course there were a few revolts in the Provinces when the news broke, but nothing so serious that Germanicus could not deal with them. Before his return to Rome with Augustus’ body (Tiberius asked the permission of the senate to accompany the body back to the capital in his grief – and very much as he had done at the passing of his brother Drusus), the two consuls swore an oath of allegiance to him, as then did the commander of the guard and the man responsible for the corn supply.The senate, the army and the people, in that order, then in turn repeated these oaths. The four men who started it though were without a doubt four very important (or even after the emperor the most important) men in Roman politics. If Tiberius had secured friends in these four places, the senate could hardly have repudiated his claim.

Yet there was a debate. After Tiberius’ return to Rome and the arrangements for the funeral and the deification of Augustus had been made, the senate and Tiberius met on the 17th of September 14AD, to discuss what was to be done now.The Principate was not an overt monarchy. Augustus was an extraordinary man and no legislation existed to fill his shoes. Tacitus tells us of the surprisingly long time the senate attempted to convince Tiberius to take his place. He claims Tiberius was going to accept these responsibilities all along, but that his ego required to be asked (or even begged) more than once. On the other hand Tiberius was 55 in 14AD, having been a general on campaign for large chunks of his life, and perhaps retirement was not the last thing on his mind. But there were other more important issues at play here.

After all, by the time Tacitus was writing, more than one emperor had already passed and the whole idea was completely different. At the death of Augustus all sorts of other things were still possible. After the battle of Actium Augustus was granted special emergency powers in order to restore the state.

When he gave these back, in 27BC, the situation had not yet been completely resolved (and no doubt he knew this), so the senate begged him to stay on in some capacity or another. They voted him the powers of a tribune and the title of protector of the state.Because Roman political tradition had no place for one man with so much power (and Augustus had vowed to restore the state) they placed him outside it.

His exact position is very obscure, as we have no inscriptions or text explaining it. But the general idea seems to have been that Augustus was an ordinary citizen, on a special mandate from the senate and the people. He was to keep the peace and stop civil wars tearing the state apart again. He was to help restore the state. As time wore on more and more areas of the state were in need of his revision and his power grew.It is unlikely that even Augustus himself knew at first how great his power would become.

But throughout his reign, Augustus promoted this image of the Princeps and it left the hereditary principle impossible to acknowledge, as it meant the office died with each incumbent. Had Augustus’ reign not been quite to long, Tiberius might have had a rougher accession. After all, by the time Augustus died, at the age of 77, few people could remember the civil wars, and only very very few the Republic. If this had not been the case resistance might have been stronger.The senate might have made more of its right to renew this mandate and the power Tiberius possessed. As it was, the whole idea had already become mainly for the sake of appearances. Whoever was strong enough to claim it, would eventually be given the power (as was proved in 68AD – four times over). It is very much to Tiberius’ praise that his accession was as smooth as is remembered in our sources, because aside from his coregent status, the situation was far from easy.

The second man in the dynasty, especially following in the footsteps of a very great (or even divine) man, always faces a challenge.But Tiberius was also to a very great extent the unwanted heir, the last choice candidate. This had not been hidden from the public; anyone could have understood the reasoning behind the favours and honours bestowed on Marcellus, Gaius or Lucius. But just in case they had not, Augustus made it clear in the first line of his will as well. He was also still relatively close in time do a completely different political system, and still depended to some degree on the perpetrators of that system to confirm his powers. So in this respect to be remembered for the smoothest transfer of power, is an achievement in itself.

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