Born on 16 November 42 BC in the city of Rome, Tiberius was the oldest son of Tiberius Claudius Nero, a prominent Roman politician and his wife Livia Drusilla. He also had a biological younger brother named Nero Claudius Drusus. History says, Tiberius was pushed into the role of a reluctant Emperor, along with an unhappy marriage and he reigned as the second Roman emperor from 14 AD until 37 AD, which was longer than any subsequent emperor’s rule until the reign of Antoninus Pius, about a century later. Although early in his reign he came to be known for his talents as a military commander and diligent administrator, in later years he became a harsh dictator, murdering many of his Senators and marked as the most perverted among the pantheon of early Roman emperors.
The early life of Tiberius was a rocky one, as due to the anti-Augustus views of his father the family was forced to live temporarily in exile and they took little Tiberius wherever they went in their flight from Augustus. His parents divorced when Tiberius was almost four and in 39 BC his mother married August, the one-time enemy of her ex-husband. It is said that Augustus forced Tiberius Claudius Nero to divorce his wife. Nevertheless, the marriage presented an opportunity for Tiberius being in line for possible succession to the imperial throne. But he was neither Augustus’ favourite nor the next in line, as Augustus had groomed his two grandsons, Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar, by his troublesome daughter Julia to succeed him. Nevertheless, at the age of twelve, Tiberius rode in a chariot alongside his stepfather, Augustus, during a triumphant parade, which celebrated Augustus’s brutal victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium.
Tiberius is described in history as a very tall and broad-shouldered man, although his nose was very hooked in form, his complexion was unflattering and the manner of his speaking was rather slow. He was married to his first wife was named Vipsania Agrippina in 19 BC and although the match was partly arranged, Tiberius was head over heels in love with his wife and their son, Drusus Julius Caesar, was born five years after their marriage. But things changed in 12 BC, when Julia the Elder, the daughter of Augustus, became a widow and Augustus started to insist Tiberius divorced Vipsania and marry Julia.
Understandably, the command made Tiberius very upset, but he had to go ahead with it. By that time, Vipsania was pregnant with Tiberius’ second child, who ultimately did not survive infancy. Finally, Tiberius was forced to divorce Vipsania, but he never got over his feelings for Vipsania. It is said that one occasion he met Vipsania in the streets and as she practically began to cry, he frantically followed her around longingly. When Augustus was reported about it, he arranged things so that the two would never be in the same vicinity, to stop Tiberius from having any more future emotional breakdown.
On the other side of the story, Tiberius and his new wife despised each other. Julia viewed Tiberius as much below her standards and dignity and she embarked on rampant extramarital affairs in such a way that only a daughter of the emperor could do in that society. Many historians cited this deeply unhappy marriage as the main reason for the self-imposed exile of Tiberius on the Island of Rhodes in 6 BC. But finally, Augustus became disgusted about Julia’s scandalous behaviour and in 2 BC, he declared her marriage to Tiberius to be null and void and Julia was forced into exile to the island of Pandateria, where she was not allowed any male companions or wine, but was otherwise kept in comfortable conditions. Later, when Tiberius became the emperor, he coldly cut off any allowance and supplies to Julia so that she starved to death in abject poverty.
Tiberius neither did mourn the death of Julia nor seemed to be delighted when Julia’s son Gaius Caesar died in battle and Lucius of illness, although their death placed Tiberius next in line and he was officially adopted by Augustus when he was in his forties. But Tiberius never wanted to become the emperor, although he had been an excellent general, serving with distinction in Germany and holding the governorship of Gaul. However, on 6 BC he abruptly withdrew from the highly prestigious position that he held in Rome as Augustus’ heir and sailed to the distant island of Rhodes into a self-imposed exile. He did not return to Rome until 2 AD and had to repeatedly request Augustus for his permission to return.
When he became the emperor of the Roman Empire after the death of Augustus in 14 AD, he shied away from much of the pageantry that followed his ascension, giving respect to the authority of the Senate. He refused to let people venerate him as if he was a living god. But his modesty alienated people rather than won them over. People thought he was vague and sarcastic, while the Senate ended up distrustful of Tiberius.
Even though Tiberius had a biological son, he was obligated to adopt his nephew, Germanicus, as his heir. But tragically, both his heirs died young. While Germanicus died under highly mysterious circumstances in 19 AD, Tiberius’s son also died in 23 AD. Their death marked a serious negative turn in Tiberius’ reign as emperor. However, it is said that he underwent a negative change in his overall character, while he was on Rhodes refusing to be emperor. Some also claim that it was there, where his perversions first manifested.
After the death of Germanicus, Tiberius became increasingly cruel. He was inexorable to those who were respected of plotting against him. Slaves were tortured to make them testify against their masters. Often he would pretend to pity those poor souls he had punished while he maintained a grudge against those he had pardoned. As he considered Judaism and Christianity as direct threats to Rome, Jews were either drafted into the Roman army or else expelled from Rome, while Christians were persecuted, even in subsequent years by several Roman emperors.
However, as a reluctant emperor the ordeal of running an empire, that too after the death of his son and nephew, soon became too much for Tiberius. He badly wanted to escape from the royal duties and moved to Villa Jovis or the Villa of Jupiter on the island of Capri in 26 AD, leaving the daily routine to Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the trusted prefect of the Praetorian Guard. While still being an emperor in name, he spent most of his time in the villa, situated at a very secluded spot on the island, difficult to reach and heavily guarded, where Tiberius engaged in wild debauchery. Much like the brothel in Pompeii, the walls of the villa were full of pornographic imagery and with those imageries as the backdrop, Tiberius used to command his light bums, the groups of young boys to perform threesomes in front of him to stimulate his flagging libido. He trained some children of the most tender years, he called his ‘little fish’ to swim between his thighs when he took a bath and nibble on his genitalia. However, that was not all. We are also told that he would take newborn babies from their mothers and hold them to his genitals as if to replicate the mother’s breast. There was a room in the retreat where he used to assemble girls from all quarters, young and not-so-young sex workers, effeminate males and perverts, whom he called ‘spintriae’, who performed daisy-chain group sex before him, each submitting to different ways and places of penetration, interlaced in series of threes, to inflame his feeble sexual appetite. However, occasionally he had enough energy to actively chase the youngsters on land. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, once during a religious sacrifice, he was so much attracted by a boy who was swinging the incense burner that he was hardly able to wait until the rites were over before taking him aside and abusing him as well as his brother, who was playing the flute. After that, he had their legs broken, as they complained. Decades after Tiberius died, one of his spintriae, a young boy from Rome, who spent his boyhood and early youth on Capri, became the Roman emperor, known in history as Vitellinus.
Apart from paedophilia that Tiberius was most notorious, he also sexually assaulted aristocratic women and one of them, a woman called Mallonia had so much trauma that she was driven to suicide. He also enjoyed sadistic activities. During banquets he would fill his drinking companions with vast quantities of wine before tying ligatures around their penises, preventing them from urinating.
In the meantime, Lucius Aelius Sejanus became more powerful in the absence of Tiberius and began to view himself as the actual emperor. He became cruel and embarked on a series of treason trials to weed out any possible opposition and with the intention to topple Tiberius, he began an affair with Livillia, the wife of Tiberius’ son. At her insistence, Sejanus divorced his wife, left his children and the couple announced their betrothal in 31 AD. However, Tiberius was informed about the matter by Livilla’s mother, Antonia Minor, who also wrote to him about their intention to murder him and young Caligula. Tiberius hurried to Rome immediately and appeared before the Senate. Sejanus was lured to the Senate under false pretences and forced to answer to the accusations. In the end, Sejanus was found guilty and condemned to death. He was strangled and his limbs were torn from the body by the assembled angry mob, with his remains being left to the dogs. His innocent sons were also executed, along with his followers, while Livillia was starved to death under the careful watch of her mother.
In the last years of his reign, Tiberius grew more paranoid and imposed an ever increasing number of treason trials. He became more reclusive, remaining on Capri where he died in 37 AD, at the age of 77. It is maintained by many that he was killed by the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, at the instance of Caligula, the eventual successor of Tiberius.