Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.09.77

R. Seager, Tiberius. Second edition.   Malden, MA:  Blackwell Publishing, 2005.  Pp. xxvi, 310.  ISBN 1-4051-1528-7.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Michael B. Charles, University of Queensland (
Word count: 2351 words

This represents a second edition of Robin Seager's (afterwards S.) biography of the Roman emperor Tiberius, which was originally published by Eyre Methuen in 1972. Since that time, a number of important pieces of evidence emanating from Tiberius' reign have come to light, perhaps the most significant being the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre, closely followed by the Tabula Siarensis and the Tabula Larinas (though S. provides little more than a half a page of commentary on this discovery). In addition, a veritable raft of modern scholarship has been published, some of which is at odds with S.'s original thoughts. As a consequence, S. has included an afterword spanning pp. 213-242. This section attempts to update the volume, though the main body of the text has largely been left untouched. Still, I feel that the book could have benefited from a full revision that incorporates the new evidence where it needs to be incorporated, and, at the same time, gives sufficient attention to scholarly work published since 1972.

The main problem with constructionist biographies of this sort is that it is not always easy to divine the intended audience. The volume seems to be aimed at the non-specialist reader (or at least the university undergraduate), though it also contains matters of interest to the specialist. Despite this, S. does not always cater to the needs of less-knowledgeable readers.1

Although many will be familiar with the contents of the original book, those unfamiliar with the volume will benefit from a review of the important themes. S.'s Tiberius emerges as a more than reluctant princeps, and one ill at ease with the nature of his office. He often emerges with credit when his actions might otherwise be read as merely neutral. Moreover, that agents of the emperor and indeed the senate itself perpetrated evils in Tiberius' absence could be interpreted as negligence on the princeps' part.2 However, S. does hold the general view that, as Tiberius grew older, he became more prone to ruthless behaviour -- S. states, when describing the deaths of Sejanus' children at the hands of a blood-thirsty senate, that Tiberius "can hardly have cared" (p. 186). S. also credits the idea of a "reign of terror" (p. 202).

According to S., Tiberius was a confirmed traditionalist and felt a "deep and genuine distaste" for the tribunicia potestas (p. 24): "There can be no doubt that he would have preferred to reject the principate altogether" (p. 46). Still, if Tiberius was a sincere traditionalist, why did he yield to Augustus' wishes regarding the principate's continuation? S. claims that, by adopting Tiberius, Augustus could be sure of the dynasty's continuation (p. 31) -- Germanicus, who was intended to succeed Tiberius, was Augustus' great-nephew and could thus conceivably continue the gens Iulia, as Augustus apparently intended. This accords perfectly with S.'s thesis, for, if Tiberius really respected traditional ancestral values, he would not have dared to contravene the sanctity of the Roman institution of pietas, which a son was expected to show to his father (and to his memory). S. implies that, for Tiberius, duty to father was more important than duty to the state (or was it the same thing by this stage?). In my opinion, S.'s careful explanation may be overly elaborate. Though a traditionalist, Tiberius may have sincerely believed that the principate was the better of two evils.

S.'s views regarding who would ultimately succeed Tiberius continue to deserve consideration, especially in view of the staunch defence that he mounts against his detractors in the afterword. Of particular note is S.'s belief in a "caretaker" role, i.e. that Augustus intended that Tiberius rule until power could be handed over to Germanicus, who might be regarded as Augustus' biological heir (through his sister Octavia) (p. 100). S. argues that Tiberius, initially at least, never intended his own natural son Drusus to rule (p. 100). But, with Germanicus' death, it would again become necessary to turn to the "caretaker" position until one (or both) of Germanicus' heirs (probably Nero) would be able to take over. Drusus would therefore fulfil this role, to the detriment of his own sons (p. 154). Though the idea of a "caretaker" or "regent" has been criticised, most notably by Levick,3 S. successfully defends his original position in the afterword (pp. 214-215).4

So what else is new? Not unsurprisingly, S. uses the afterword as an opportunity to defend his views against Levick's sometimes contrary assertions, and those of other academics. Still, S. does admit, on occasion, that Levick has added considerable clarification to certain aspects of Tiberius' reign. For example, he accepts her view that Sejanus was to marry Livia Julia, rather than her daughter Julia Livilla, Syme's preferred candidate (p. 228).5. But these positive comments are often accompanied by some scholarly reservations. S. also adds to his previous comments on maiestas (pp. 226-227), though he generally appears to disregard post-1972 scholarship that contradicts his views -- S. believes (and quite often not without reason) that most of what he wrote remains valid. On the question of whether Sejanus really undertook an elaborate conspiracy against Tiberius, S. regularly cites Hennig's detailed work, which was published within a few years of S.'s monograph.6 On the whole, S. agrees with Hennig on a number of controversial issues, the most significant being that, for most élite Romans of the day, "support of Sejanus was identical with loyalty to Tiberius, as long as the prefect enjoyed the princeps' favour" (pp. 229-230).

S. still credits the belief that Sejanus, initially realising his less-prestigious equestrian status (though he became a consul later), never really intended to become princeps himself (pp. 229-230), but desired to make himself the regent for Drusus' sons after the removal of Augustus' intended heirs, i.e. the remnants of the gens Iulia (S. uses this to explain, at least partially, Livia Julia's mysterious involvement in Sejanus' plotting). Of course, the ancient sources, with the exception of Tacitus (whose treatment of Sejanus' death has not survived), do credit the notion that Sejanus wanted to take over the state, and they cite this as the principal reason for his execution (pp. 180-181). Although S.'s position is sound and largely accords with that of his peers, he does not pronounce himself in favour of any one theory regarding the reason why Tiberius eventually turned against Sejanus (p. 230). While those who have written on the theme post-1972 have indicted whom they perceive to be the culpable agents (which usually include Macro), S. is circumspect enough to sit on the fence.

The treatment of the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre (afterwards SCPP) is important, especially with regard to furthering our understanding of Germanicus' mission to the East. S. regards the document with considerable scepticism and points out that it supplies us with "copious" amounts of "(dis)information" (p. 222). S. does not discount the possibility that the SCPP) is "a compendium of carefully selected and edited 'highlights' of earlier proceedings" (p. 222). On the problematic journey to Egypt, S. affirms that it is possible that Germanicus was proclaimed Augustus by elements of the local populace (p. 220), and that this is the reason behind his protest against "unseemly acclamations". But some change in S.'s thoughts appears to be evident on p. 220, for he writes that Germanicus certainly knew that he "had no right to set foot [in Egypt]", whereas, on p. 88, he originally wrote that the excursion was the result of a "misunderstanding about the status of Egypt". S. handles the SCPP with reasonable care but does so in a way that, on occasion, seems to dovetail smoothly with his previous thoughts. One wonders whether his treatment of the 'evidence' that the SCPP provides would have been different if he were writing the biography from scratch. But one comment seems especially valid: the SCPP plays down the possibility of murder on the part of Piso (which, by extension, was thought to involve members of the imperial family) and relegates Germanicus "to the past" (p. 224). S. does not modify his rather poor view of Germanicus and appears to be content with his original position that Tiberius was "withdrawn" and Germanicus was "affable", a belief which, in the light of recent research, smacks a little too much of the usual dichotomy, i.e. the taciturn and unsociable tyrannical character of the 'bad' princeps (as Tiberius is depicted in the posthumous record), and the more open and sociable one of the 'good' ruler (or potential ruler in this case). Greater interaction with more recent literature would have pointed S. towards the theme of predecessor denigration, and the important ramifications of this often highly mechanistic process.7 Thankfully, the recovery of the SCPP has allowed S. to expand his treatment of Germanicus' last months and the results of his untimely demise (pp. 218-224). In addition, S. uses the Tabula Siarensis, which provides information about Germanicus' funeral honours, to add more light and shade to this enigmatic figure (see especially pp. 220-221). Despite this, interested parties should obviously turn to the in-depth analysis provided by Lebek in a number of important articles published in ZPE.

Despite the positive elements, the revised work really betrays its vintage by maintaining its focus largely on men, often to the detriment of women. Relatively infrequent mention was made in the original text to the important imperial women (Livia, Julia and Agrippina the Elder inter alias), except, of course, when they directly affect political events or participate in court intrigues. Even Livia did not play a major part in S.'s narrative. Of course, much work has been published on Livia since 1972, and the views contained in recent scholarship naturally deserve careful consideration.8 This being the case, women almost seem to receive more mention in the brief afterword than they do in the entirety of the original text, though I still find the treatment somewhat lacking. The volume also shows its age with regard to the afterword's comments on the sources. For example, S. is generally disdainful of Suetonius and his methods. He holds that his writing style is "mechanical and tedious" and that, as a source of history, it is almost worthless (p. 238). I am of the contrary view. Indeed, I feel that Suetonius is a valuable contributor to our understanding of the topic, not so much in terms of the 'facts' he relates, but in terms of the way in which he preserves the aristocratic tradition of Tiberius the tyrant. The various "dubious anecdotes and garbled examples" (p. 238) contained in the life, though surely exaggerated in content or entirely apocryphal, are valuable pieces of evidence that tell us much about élite attitudes. Some may disagree, but such a view might have led S. to provide a section on the post-mortem reception of the emperor's memory, which would have helped the reader better understand Tiberius as an appropriation of reality rather than a definite historical personality. As a corollary, this would have added weight to the apologist nature of much of what S. originally wrote.

As the volume stands, matters pertaining to literary traditions are not treated in the comprehensive and critical fashion that some readers might expect. Readers expecting a discussion of the scurrilous material contained within the pages of the anti-Tiberian sources (Cassius Dio and Suetonius in particular) will probably find themselves disappointed.9 While modern scholarship has increasingly focused on the sources themselves rather than what can be constructed from these sources, S. generally avoids that route (undoubtedly a reflection of the scholarly attitudes of the day). Indeed, those who wonder if the posthumous record of the emperor's character was deliberately altered in order to gel with what was expected of a 'bad' emperor will only find their questions partially answered.10 Once again, the afterword might have been a useful forum for discussing this theme. To be fair, S. does show that much of the literary source material that describes Tiberius' reign may give an unfairly negative portrayal of his rule. Indeed, S.'s book, in some respects at least, remains a rehabilitation of the literary Tiberius of the ancient sources.11

The paperback volume is printed in an easy-to-read font. The few very minor typographical errors are negligible. Some readers might be dismayed to find endnotes rather than footnotes (since one has continually to thumb backwards and forwards), but the more general reader will be happy enough -- this returns us to the question regarding the work's intended audience. I would have at least liked to see in-text referencing used for the ancient sources (as many modern editions do). A chronological table is placed near the beginning of the book, along with a list of abbreviations, a stemma of the Julio-Claudians, and six maps. Sixteen black and white plates are included. Dates without AD or BC (or BCE or CE) can be confusing, i.e. "in 7" or "in 9". This is more so than usual given that Augustus' reign spans both BC and AD and that important events occur on both sides of the traditional division. The volume includes an updated bibliography (pp. 294-298), in addition to the original (pp. 288-293). A relevant omission is Lindsay's 1995 commentary on Suetonius' Vita Tiberii and, perhaps more surprisingly, Shotter's Lancaster Pamphlet on Tiberius.12

In all, S.'s monograph on Tiberius is a highly readable (arguably more so than Levick's more detailed volume), concise and handy political history of Tiberius' reign, with sufficient attention paid to the emperor's personality, and generally insightful commentary and interpretation of the ancient source material. I enjoyed revisiting this old undergraduate friend, as I am sure others will too. Indeed, S.'s monograph still serves to add some colour to the otherwise -- Velleius Paterculus aside -- consistently "dark [and] unrelenting" figure of the literary Tiberius.13 But, despite the afterword, there is not much new for the specialist reader, although the general reader or undergraduate student would undoubtedly find this book a useful introduction to the period. Still, tertiary students should be encouraged to read more widely on matters such as literary tradition and source criticism (the section on "the sources" from p. 232 is not really sufficient).14


1.   A few examples should suffice: p. 21: S. should explain why Augustus took Tiberius' imperatorial salutations; p. 22: and why a donative was paid to the troops in Gaius Caesar's name and what Augustus was trying to achieve; p. 30: reference needs to be made to Agrippa Postumus so that the reader might better follow the story of the Augustan succession; p. 87: we need to know what was wrong with Germanicus going to Egypt without Tiberius' approval; pp. 66-67: and why Agrippina the Elder's involvement in legionary affairs was so offensive?
2.   When the senate condemns Clutorius Priscus for writing an elegy on the not-yet-dead Drusus (he also recited it), Tiberius reprimands the senators for their severity. S. claims that "Tiberius emerges from the incident with some credit" (p. 134). But Tiberius may have been secretly pleased that, for once, the senate was making decisions for itself.
3.   B. Levick, Tiberius the Politician. 2nd ed.(London/New York, 1999), pp. 31-32.
4.   S. writes that "the concept of the 'caretaker' still seems to me to have value in describing the role that Augustus intended for Agrippa and then Tiberius in relation to Gaius and Lucius Caesar and for Tiberius in relation to Germanicus, that Tiberius, in deference to Augustus' wishes, accepted for Drusus in relation to Germanicus' sons, and that marked the limit of Seianus' imperial aspirations in relation to Tiberius Gemellus" (p. 215).
5.   Levick, Tiberius, p. 170; R. Syme, The Augustan Aristocracy (Oxford, 1986), pp. 170-171.
6.   D. Hennig, L. Aelius Seianus (Munich, 1975). See especially pp. 101-120 of that volume.
7.   A case in point is presented by Titus and Domitian (who is also cast as a morose and solitary figure, rather like Tiberius was supposed to have been).
8.   See especially A. A. Barrett, Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome (New Haven, CT, 2002); E. Bartman, Portraits of Livia: Imagining the Imperial Woman in Augustan Rome (New York, 1998) (though an art history book, it reflects on the political significance of the portraits and is therefore worth citing). A number of important PhD theses have also been written, most notably perhaps C. G. Calhoon, Livia the Poisoner: Genesis of an Historical Myth, University of California, 1994.
9.   For a recent discussion of some of the more sensational aspects of the "literary Tiberius" (if we may be permitted to use this term), see F. Dupont and T. Éloi, L'érotisme masculin dans la Rome antique (Paris, 2001), pp. 293-310. S. gives only a passing reference to Tiberius' sexual activities on Capreae (see p. 189).
10.   Levick's book on Tiberius is even more oriented towards the political side of the equation, as the name of her monograph implies. The monograph by D. Shotter, Tiberius Caesar (London/New York 1992), is brief and intended only as a summary (though it remains quite an effective and wide-ranging one) of the important aspects of Tiberius' principate.
11.   Yet S.'s memorable statement regarding Suetonius' depiction of Tiberius is worth bearing in mind: "His Tiberius is never even a cardboard figure: under Augustus he is simply a name, while as princeps he is a label attached to a list of vices" (p. 238).
12.   H. Lindsay, Tiberius. Suetonius (London, 1995); Shotter Tiberius Caesar. In addition, S. might well have made mention of Ramage's important work on predecessor denigration, which helps to explain many of the problems relating to Tiberius' depiction in the ancient texts written after the emperor's death; see E. S. Ramage, "Juvenal and the Establishment: Denigration of Predecessor in the Satires", ANRW II.33.1 (1989), pp. 640-707.
13.   E. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth, 1994), p. 104.
14.   Levick, Tiberius, in the chapter entitled "Last Years and Posthumous Reputation", probably does it better, or at least from a more holistic perspective (which is probably more useful to undergraduate students, and the more general reader).

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