The Roman Empire Under Tiberius

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Name and Parentage

The 2nd Roman emperor; full name Tiberius Claudius Nero, and official name as emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus; born November 16, 42 BC. His father–of the same name–had been an officer under Julius Caesar and had later joined Antony against Octavian (Augustus). His mother was Livia, who became the 3rd wife of Augustus; thus, Tiberius was a stepson of Augustus.

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Early Life and Relation to Augustus

Much of his early life was spent in successful campaigning. Although the ablest of the possible heirs of Augustus, Tiberius was subjected to many an indignity, Augustus accepting him as his successor only when every other hope failed. When Julia, daughter of Augustus, became a widow for the second time (12 BC), Tiberius was obliged to marry her (11 BC) in order to become protector of the future emperors. For this purpose, he was compelled to divorce his wife, Vipsania Agrippina, who had borne him a son, Drusus. Julia brought Tiberius nothing but shame, and for her immorality was banished by her father (2 BC). Tiberius was consul in 12 BC, and received the proconsular authority, 9 BC. He carried on successful wars in Pannonia, Dalmatia, Armenia, and Germany. He retired in disgust to voluntary exile at Rhodes where he spent several years in study. In 2 AD, he returned to Rome and lived there in retirement, 2-4 AD. On June 27, 4 AD, Tiberius, and Agrippa Postumus were adopted by Augustus. From this date on Tiberius came more and more into prominence, receiving the tribunician power for 10 years.

Gladiator after the fight with a helmet over Colosseum in the fire.
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Reign of Tiberius

In 13 AD (or according to Mommsen 11 AD) Tiberius was by a special law raised to the co-regency. Augustus died August 19, 14 AD, and Tiberius succeeded. A mutiny in the Rhine legions was suppressed by Germanicus. The principal events of his reign (see also below) were the campaigns of Germanicus and Drusus, the withdrawal of the Romans to the Rhine, the settlement of the Armenian question, the rise and fall of Sejanus, the submission of Parthia. In 26 AD, Tiberius retired to Capreae, where rumor attributed to him every excess of debauchery. On March 16, 37 AD, Tiberius died at Misenum and was succeeded by Caius.

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Administration of Tiberius

On the whole, Tiberius followed the conservative policy of Augustus and maintained the “diarchy.” But he approached nearer to monarchy by receiving supreme power for an indefinite period. He went beyond Augustus in practically excluding the people from government by transferring the right of election from the comitia of the people to the senate, leaving to the people the right merely to acclaim the nominees of the senate, and further by imposing laws upon the people without their counsel or discussion. He established a permanent praetorian camp at Rome–a fact of great importance in later Roman history. The administration of Tiberius was that of a wise, intelligent statesman with a strong sense of duty. The civil service was improved, and officers were kept longer at their posts to secure efficiency. Taxes were light on account of his economy. Public security increased. He paid attention to the administration of justice and humane laws were placed on the statute book.

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Character of Tiberius

Though Tiberius was unpopular, he left the empire in a state of prosperity and peace. Of his character, the most opposite views are held. His fame has suffered especially from his suspecting nature, which extended the law of majestas to offenses against his person and encouraged delation, which made the latter part of his reign one of terror. The tyranny of Sejanus, too, has been laid upon his shoulders, and he has been accused of the wildest excesses in his retreat at Capreae–a charge which seems to be refuted by the fact that no interruption to his wise administration took place. His character has been blackened most by Tacitus and Suetonius. But on nearer criticism, Tiberius’s character will appear in better light. No doubt, toward the close of his reign he degenerated, but his cruelties affected only the upper classes. He was called a tyrant and was refused deification after death, and Augustus was said to have prophesied “Alas for the Roman people who shall be ground under such slow jaws.” Tiberius was stern and taciturn, critical with himself and, soured by his own disappointments, was suspicious of others. Pliny the Elder calls him “the gloomiest of men.” Much of his unpopularity was due to his inscrutability, to the fact that people could not understand him or penetrate into the mystery of his motives. He rarely took counsel with anyone. His life was frugal and modest–a rebuke to the contemporary dissipation. He felt contempt for the inanities of court life and was supremely indifferent to public opinion but actuated by a strong sense of duty.

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Tiberius and the New Testament

The reign of Tiberius is memorable as that in which fell our Lord’s public ministry, death and resurrection. It also witnessed the preaching of John the Baptist (Lu 3:1), the conversion of Paul and perhaps his first preaching, the martyrdom of Stephen and the first Christian persecution (by the Jews). Tiberius is mentioned by name only once in the New Testament (Lu 3:1): “the 15th year of the reign (hegemonia) of Tiberius.” The question is, From what date is this to be reckoned–the date of Tiberius’s co-regency, 13 (or 11) AD, or from his accession, 14 AD? He is the “Caesar” mentioned in the Gospels in connection with Jesus’ public ministry (Mr 12:14 and parallel’s; Joh 19:12,15). Herod Antipas built Tiberias in honor of Tiberius (Josephus, Ant, XVIII, ii-iii). It is unlikely that Tiberius ever heard anything about Christianity; it had not risen as yet into prominence. Early Christian writers wished to represent Tiberius, if not friendly to the new faith, at least as condemning the action of Pilate. According to one apocryphal tradition, Tiberius actually summoned Pilate to Rome to answer for crucifying Jesus. It is true that Pilate was sent to Rome by the governor of Syria to answer to a charge of unjustifiable cruelty, but Tiberius died before Elate reached Rome.

Full length of beautiful brunette woman with long hair wearing in white dress like greece style. Wife waiting husband after war, among grass in field holding iron shield in hand and looking away.
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Tiberius and the Jews

Under Tiberius Palestine was governed by Roman procurators. Toward the Jews in Italy, Tiberius showed some intolerance. In 19 AD all the Jews were expelled from Rome according to Josephus (Ant., XVIII, iii, 5), from Italy according to Tacitus (Ann. ii.85), and 4,000 Jewish freedmen were deported to Sardinia to reduce bands of brigands. Philo attributes this severity to Sejanus, and says that after Sejanus’ fall Tiberius, recognizing that the Jews had been persecuted without cause, gave orders that officials should not annoy them or disturb their rites. They were therefore probably allowed to return to Rome (see Schurer,III , 60 f, 4th edition).

Tiberius had become emperor in his fifty-fifth year, after having distinguished himself as a commander in various wars and having evinced talents of a high order as an orator and an administrator of civil affairs; His military exploits and those of Drusus, his brother, were sung by Horace (Carm. 4:4,14). He even gained the reputation of possessing the sterner virtues of the Roman character and was regarded as entirely worthy of the -imperial honors to which his birth and supposed personal merits at length opened the way. Yet on being raised to the supreme power, he suddenly became, or showed himself to be, a very different man. His subsequent life was one of inactivity, sloth, and self-indulgence. He was despotic in his government, cruel and vindictive in his disposition. He gave up the affairs of the State to the vilest favorites, while he himself wallowed in the very kennel of all that was low and debasing. The only palliation of his monstrous crime and vices which can be offered is that his disgust of life, occasioned by his early domestic troubles, may have driven him at last to despair and insanity. Tiberius died at the age of seventy-eight, after a reign of twenty-three years. The ancient writers who supply most -of our knowledge respecting him are Suetonius, Tacitus (who describes his character as one of studied dissimulation and hypocrisy from the beginning), Annal. ch. 1-vi; Veil. Paterc. 2, 94, etc.; and Dion Cass.; ch. 46-48. See Smith, Dict. of Gr. and Romans Biog. s.v.; and the monographs on Tiberius in German by Freytag (Berl. 1870) and Stahr (ibid. 1873), and in English by Beesley (Lond. 1878).

It will be seen that the Savior’s public life, and some of the introductory events of the apostolic age, must have fallen within the limits of his administration. The memorable passage in Tacitus (Annal. 15; 44) respecting the origin of the Christian sect places the crucifixion of the Redeemer under Tiberius: “Ergo abolendo rumori (that of his having set fire to Rome) Nero subdidit reos, et qusesitissimis pcenis affecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Christianos appellabat. Auctor nominis ejus Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio affectus erat” [TRANSLATION: “So to get rid of the rumor (that of those having set fire to Rome), Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted pains qusesitissimis vices, whom the crowd called. Their name will reign of Tiberius by the Procurator Pontius Pilate was not affected”] (see the monographs cited by Volbeding, Index Programmatum, p. 95). In Lu 3; Lu 1 he is termed Tiberius Caesar; John the Baptist, it is there said, began his ministry in the fifteenth year of his reign (ἡγεμονία). This chronological notation is an important one in determining the year of Christ’s birth and entrance on his public work. Augustus admitted Tiberius to a share in the empire two or three years before his own death; and it is a question, therefore, whether the fifteenth year of which Luke speaks should be reckoned from the time of the co-partnership or from that when Tiberius began to reign alone. The former is the computation justified by other data. The other passages in which he is mentioned under the title of Caesar offer no points of personal allusion and refer to him simply as the emperor (Mt 22:17 sq..; Mr 12:14.sq.; Lu 20:22 sq.; 23:2 sq.; Joh 19:12 sq.).

by S. Angus and McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia

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