The Early Life of Tiberius

Emperor Tiberius

The Adopted Son of Augustus

The adopted son of Caesar Augustus, Tiberius ruled Rome from 14 AD until his death in 37 AD. 

Tiberius was born on November 16, 42 BC. A Claudian by birth Tiberius’s parents were Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla. Little is known for sure about Tiberius’s early life. What is known is that his parents divorced, some time around 39 BC. Following this, Tiberius’ mother married again, this time to Augustus, who adopted Tiberius as his son. Tiberius also became a great uncle to Emperor Claudius, in addition to being a paternal uncle to Emperor Caligula and a great, great uncle to Emperor Nero.

Tiberius and Augustus

In 29 BC, Tiberius and his brother Drusus rode in Augustus’s triumphal chariot, following the Battle of Actium. In 23 BC, Augustus fell gravely ill and rumours of his impending death threatened to plunge Rome back into civil war. Augustus seems to have indicated that Agrippa and Marcellus would inherit his powers. However, the ambiguity of the succession would plague Augustus for some time.

In order to settle the succession question, a number of potential heirs were selected, including Tiberius and Drusus. In 24 BC, Tiberius entered politics under the guidance of Augustus, who secured the position of Quaestor for him Augustus also arranged for Tiberius to stand for election to the positions of Praetor and Consul five years before the minimum legal age set down in Roman law.

Shortly after this, Tiberius appeared in court as an Advocate. It is thought that this is where his interest in Greek rhetoric began. In 20 BC, Tiberius was placed under the command of Marcus Agrippa and sent east. In 53 BC, the Parthians had captured the battle standards of Marcus Licinius Crassus, at the battle of Carrhae. After several years of negotiations, Tiberius was placed in command of a Roman army and sent to Armenia, with the intent of turning it into a Roman client kingdom, which would have acted as a threat to Parthian security. Augustus was able to reach a compromise with the Parthians and secure the return of Crassus’ captured standards. At the same time, Armenia was officially recognized as a neutral state.

Following his return in 19 BC, Tiberius married Vipsania Agrippina, the daughter of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’s favourite general. Tiberius was also appointed Praetor around the same time, and sent on campaign with his brother, Drusus. Drusus spent much of his time campaigning in Southern France, and in the Rhineland, while Tiberius focused his efforts on the Alps and Northern Italy. Tiberius also discovered the headwaters of the Danube River. Following his return to Rome, in 13 BC, Tiberius was appointed Consul.

The death of Marcus Agrippa, in 12 BC, elevated the position of Tiberius and Drusus with respect to the still undecided succession. At the request of Augustus, Tiberius divorced Agrippina and married Julia the Elder, Augustus’s daughter and the widow of Marcus Agrippa. This seems to have been a turning point in the life of Tiberius. His marriage to Julia was an unhappy one and produced only one child, who died in infancy. There is an apocryphal story of how a chance encounter between Tiberius and Agrippina resulted in Tiberius following his former wife home, crying and begging forgiveness. Shortly afterward, Augustus took steps to ensure that Tiberius and Agrippina never met again. In the meantime, Augustus continued to elevate Tiberius. Following the death of Drusus in 9 BC, Tiberius became the clear choice for the succession. In 12 BC, Tiberius received military commands in Pannonia and Germania. Both of these Roman provinces were hot beds of Barbarian activity, yet at the same time they were also a key component of Augustan policy.

Tiberius Goes into Exile

In 6 BC, Tiberius was on the verge of accepting another military command in the East. However, he suddenly announced that he was withdrawing from politics and exiled himself to Rhodes. Historians are not sure what drove Tiberius to make this decision, but it has been suggested that this decision may have been due to the fact that Augustus adopted Gaius and Lucius Agrippa, the children of his favourite general. He also seemed to be moving them along the same political path as Tiberius and Drusus. Tiberius, thus seemed to be a temporary solution, and was allowed to hold power until Gaius and Lucius came of age, at which point Tiberius felt he was being swept aside.

Regardless of his motives, Tiberius’s decision to withdraw from the political arena was disastrous for Augustus’s succession plans and he was now forced to make the children of Agrippa his heirs. The deaths of Gaius and Lucius Agrippa in 2 and 4 AD made the situation even more precarious. Augustus was forced to recall Tiberius from exile. Augustus formally adopted Tiberius, on the condition that Tiberius would adopt his own nephew, Germanicus. In addition to this, Tiberius was also given Tribunal authority, an honour that not even Agrippa had received. In 7 AD, Agrippa Postumus, the brother of Gaius and Lucius tried to challenge the succession. Augustus had him exiled to the island of Pianosa in 13 AD. The Tribunal powers given to Tiberius made him equal to Augustus. This meant that in the event of Augustus’s death, Tiberius would continue to rule. Augustus died at the age of 75, leaving Tiberius as the Emperor of Rome.


Roman History by Publius Cornelius Tacitus

Seager, Robin (2005). Tiberius. Blackwell PublishingShotter, David (1992). Tiberius Caesar. London: Routledge

Salmon, Edward (1968). History of the Roman World, 30 B.C.-A.D.138, Part II: Tiberius. Methuen.


About this entry