Nipissing University  -- History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Reading for March 12, 2001

Tacitus:  Tiberius Becomes Emperor

This document is an excerpt from a fuller translation posted on the Ancient History Sourcebook at  This version has been excerpted and posted by permission.
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Introduction (Muhlberger):

P. Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman senator of the late 1st century A.D.   He wrote a striking and valuable account of the earliest Roman emperors, and is the source of many famous stories of imperial folly.   Whatever written sources he may have possessed, he was not a witness to the days of Augustus, Tiberius, and the other emperors he wrote about.

Tacitus has a very distinct analyis of the trend in Roman politics and culture.  What is it?   If Tacitus did not see the scene in the senate chamber when Tiberius accepted the position of Augustus, what did he base his reconstruction on?  Why do you think he was reluctant to believe in Tiberius' reluctance?

ROME at the beginning was ruled by kings. Freedom and the consulship were established by Lucius Brutus. Dictatorships were held for a temporary crisis. The power of the decemvirs did not last beyond two years, nor was the consular jurisdiction of the military tribunes of long duration. The despotisms of Cinna and Sulla were brief; the rule of Pompeius and of Crassus soon
yielded before Caesar; the arms of Lepidus and Antonius before Augustus; who, when the world was wearied by civil strife,
subjected it to empire under the title of "Prince." But the successes and reverses of the old Roman people have been recorded
by famous historians; and fine intellects were not wanting to describe the times of Augustus, till growing sycophancy scared them
away. The histories of Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after
their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred. Hence my purpose is to relate a few facts about Augustus- more
particularly his last acts, then the reign of Tiberius, and all which follows, without either bitterness or partiality, from any motives
to which I am far removed.

When after the destruction of Brutus and Cassius there was no longer any army of the Commonwealth, when Pompeius was
crushed in Sicily, and when, with Lepidus pushed aside and Antonius slain, even the Julian faction had only Caesar left to lead it,
then, dropping the title of triumvir, and giving out that he was a Consul, and was satisfied with a tribune's authority for the
protection of the people, Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets
of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the
laws. He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the
readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they
preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past. Nor did the provinces dislike that condition of affairs, for they
distrusted the government of the Senate and the people, because of the rivalries between the leading men and the rapacity of the
officials, while the protection of the laws was unavailing, as they were continually deranged by violence, intrigue, and finally by

Thus the State had been revolutionised, and there was not a vestige left of the old sound morality. Stript of equality, all looked
up to the commands of a sovereign without the least apprehension for the present, while Augustus in the vigour of life, could
maintain his own position, that of his house, and the general tranquillity. When in advanced old age, he was worn out by a sickly
frame, and the end was near and new prospects opened, a few spoke in vain of the blessings of freedom, but most people
dreaded and some longed for war. The popular gossip of the large majority fastened itself variously on their future masters.
"Agrippa was savage, and had been exasperated by insult, and neither from age nor experience in affairs was equal to so great a
burden. Tiberius Nero was of mature years, and had established his fame in war, but he had the old arrogance inbred in the
Claudian family, and many symptoms of a cruel temper, though they were repressed, now and then broke out. He had also from
earliest infancy been reared in an imperial house; consulships and triumphs had been heaped on him in his younger days; even in
the years which, on the pretext of seclusion he spent in exile at Rhodes, he had had no thoughts but of wrath, hypocrisy, and
secret sensuality. There was his mother too with a woman caprice. They must, it seemed, be subject to a female and to two
striplings besides, who for a while would burden, and some day rend asunder the State."

[On the death of Augustus the Senate met to honor him and discuss the succession.  Tiberius said he was unwilling to take up Augustus' position]

 Tiberius... on his part, urged various considerations, the greatness of the empire, his distrust of himself. "Only," he said, "the intellect of the Divine Augustus was equal to such a burden. Called as he had been by him to share his anxieties, he had learnt by experience how exposed to fortune's caprices was the task of universal rule. Consequently, in a state which had the support of so many great men, they should not put everything on one man, as many, by uniting their efforts would more easily discharge public functions." There was more grand sentiment than good faith in such words. Tiberius's language even in matters which he did not care to conceal, either from nature or habit, was always hesitating and obscure, and now that he was struggling to hide his feelings completely, it was all the more involved in uncertainty and doubt. The Senators, however, whose only fear was lest they might seem to understand him, burst into complaints, tears, and prayers.


Meantime, while the Senate stooped to the most abject supplication, Tiberius happened to say that although he was not equal to
the whole burden of the State, yet he would undertake the charge of whatever part of it might be intrusted to him. Thereupon
Asinius Gallus said, "I ask you, Caesar, what part of the State you wish to have intrusted to you?" Confounded by the sudden
inquiry he was silent for a few moments; then, recovering his presence of mind, he replied that it would by no means become his
modesty to choose or to avoid in a case where he would prefer to be wholly excused. Then Gallus again, who had inferred
anger from his looks, said that the question had not been asked with the intention of dividing what could not be separated, but to
convince him by his own admission that the body of the State was one, and must be directed by a single mind....

Next, Lucius Arruntius, who differed but little from the speech of Gallus, gave like offence, though Tiberius had no old grudge
against him, but simply mistrusted him, because he was rich and daring, had brilliant accomplishments, and corresponding

Quintus Haterius too and Mamercus Scaurus ruffled his suspicious temper, Haterius by having said- "How long, Caesar, will you suffer the State to be without a head?" Scaurus by the remark that there was a hope that the Senate's prayers would not be fruitless, seeing that he had not used his right as Tribune to negative the motion of the Consuls. Tiberius instantly broke out into invective against Haterius; Scaurus, with whom he was far more deeply displeased, he passed over in silence. Wearied at last by the assembly's clamorous importunity and the urgent demands of individual Senators, he gave way by degrees, not admitting that he undertook empire, but yet ceasing to refuse it and to be entreated. It is known that Haterius having entered the palace to ask pardon, and thrown himself at the knees of Tiberius as he was walking, was almost killed by the soldiers, because Tiberius fell forward, accidentally or from being entangled by the suppliant's hands. Yet the peril of so great a man did not make him relent, till Haterius went with entreaties to Augusta, and was saved by her very earnest intercessions.

It was then for the first time that the elections were transferred from the Campus Martius to the Senate. For up to that day,
though the most important rested with the emperor's choice, some were settled by the partialities of the tribes. Nor did the
people complain of having the right taken from them, except in mere idle talk, and the Senate, being now released from the
necessity of bribery and of degrading solicitations, gladly upheld the change, Tiberius confining himself to the recommendation of
only four candidates who were to be nominated without rejection or canvass. Meanwhile the tribunes of the people asked leave
to exhibit at their own expense games to be named after Augustus and added to the Calendar as the Augustales. Money was,
however, voted from the exchequer, and though the use of the triumphal robe in the circus was prescribed, it was not allowed
them to ride in a chariot. Soon the annual celebration was transferred to the praetor, to whose lot fell the administration of
justice between citizens and foreigners.

     From: Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum, 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,  1920), pp. 291-401.
     Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg may have modernized the  text.

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     © Paul Halsall, March 1999