Leadership is a perennial concern in all human cultures and civilizations. What makes a good leader? What makes a bad one? What skills ought we to teach our children so that they can become effective leaders for tomorrow? These questions are the subject of extensive debate, whether around the dinner table, on the public political stage, or even in the movies or TV shows of popular culture.
Over the years of this dialogue, we’ve come up with a variety of pithy, quotable lines about leadership. One extremely common one goes something like this: “the best leader is the one who doesn’t want to lead.”
At the heart of this idea is a fear, I think, of tyrants; of rulers who desire power over others and will use their leadership role to seek their own goals at the expense of those they lead. We fear those who desire power for the wrong reasons. As a result, we’ve decided that the best leader will be one who simply doesn’t desire power at all.
But some ancient rulers may call this particular judgment into question. So let’s turn back the clock.
January 26, 4 AD
According to tradition, it is on this day, two thousand and sixteen years before our present, that Imperator Caesar Augustus, first Emperor of the Roman Empire, adopts as his heir the man who has already been his stepson and son-in-law, Tiberius Claudius Nero.
Already we need to pause for clarification on two different points.
First, this is Tiberius Claudius Nero, not Tiberius Claudius Nero, or Tiberius Claudius Nero. Got it? Good. We can move on.
Jokes aside, a serious difficulty with Roman history is the matter of names. The firstborn child is often named after his father; daughters invariably are all given the feminine form of the gens or family name, so that all women from the Julius family are named Julia, and when a man is adopted into a family, he generally takes the name of the adopting parent as his own. Add to this the fact that there are only a handful of generally used praenomina, or first names, and Roman family trees become a truly horrifying mess to unravel.
For simplicity, especially when it comes to emperors, historians generally have simply chosen one name or title and dropped all others. It’s easier to say “Augustus” than “Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus Divi Filius,” and also less confusing when there are about a dozen other Gaius Julius Caesars to deal with. In any case, there will be three emperors with the name Tiberius Claudius Nero, but the one who was adopted today will be remembered as Tiberius, and the others as Claudius and Nero respectively.
As a small additional side note, while we live in an age in which parents seem to be excessively creative in the naming of their children, to the point in some cases of utter nonsense, it must be said that the Romans are a good example of the error in the opposite direction. Can you imagine growing up with three sisters and all of you sharing the same name? Or being part of a family that names their children “Primus,” “Secundus,” “Tertius”–or, in other words, First Son, Second Son, Third Son, etc.? There were good reasons for all of this, of course, that we can’t possibly get into at the moment. But it must be acknowledged that the Romans were not a particularly creative people. Their true genius lay in stealing the best ideas of the people they conquered and improving on them. But their essential lack of creativity shines through their naming conventions. We all think that Latin words sound really cool, but if you start to actually look at the literal etymologies of Roman words, it’s hard not to be amused. A culture which names their government system “res publica,” or “the public thing,” cannot perhaps be expected to offer much in the way of creative names for their children.
Second, we need to talk about the Roman concept of adoption, because it does not have a great deal in common with our own. To demonstrate the point: Augustus is, at this moment, 66 years old, and Tiberius is 45. While adoptions of younger men certainly did occur, and Augustus himself had been adopted by Julius Caesar at the age of 19, adoption generally was not a matter of commitment to raise a child as a parent. Instead, to be adopted meant to become, legally, a full member of the adopting parent’s gens, or family, with all the legal status and privilege that might entail. And one’s gens was extremely significant in Rome. A handful of powerful patrician families controlled nearly all Roman politics, and to become a member of one of those powerful families was a ticket into a world of prestige and power that was completely inaccessible to the vast majority of the population.
In the case of Tiberius, to be declared the son of Augustus is essentially to be declared his heir. It is a declaration that he will be the next princeps, the next leading man of Rome. The next emperor.
To understand Tiberius’s reaction to this declaration, we need to take a step back. A really long step back. To about 42 years ago, when Tiberius was 3 years old.
Tiberius’s early life must have been in many ways an incomprehensible whirlwind. His father, named (want to guess?) Tiberius Claudius Nero, had not been a supporter of Augustus or of his adoptive father Julius Caesar in the years of civil war that had wracked the dying Roman Republic. While he had fought alongside Julius Caesar at points in his career, he had praised the conspirators who struck Julius down on the Ides of March, and then supported Mark Antony against Augustus in their first significant clashes. Old Tiberius had backed the wrong political horse, and though he’d done so out of genuine conviction, it left him in an awkward position as Augustus rose to greater and greater power. During the early years of young Tiberius’s life, the family was hiding out in Greece, fearing reprisals. But when young Tiberius was about 3 years old, the family decided to risk moving back to Rome after Augustus declared a general amnesty for those who had supported Antony.
Having returned to Rome, old Tiberius presented himself, his wife Livia (then six months pregnant with a second child), and their 3 year old son Tiberius to the emperor. It’s tempting to imagine what this audience might have seemed like from the child’s perspective. Certainly he could have had no idea of the ways in which this meeting would transform his future. Because Augustus looked at young Livia and was transfixed.
Augustus was already married, and obviously so was Livia. Livia was pregnant, and so was Augustus’s own wife Scribonia. But none of these things were an impediment to the most powerful man in Rome. Augustus waited until Scribonia gave birth to his daughter Julia, then divorced her the same day. In the interim period, he had made matters clear to old Tiberius; it would be in his best interests, and in the interests of the survival of his family line, to divorce Livia and give her to Augustus in marriage. Livia gave birth to young Tiberius’s baby brother Drusus, and three days later married Augustus in a massive public ceremony and was whisked away. Tiberius and the newborn Drusus were left with their father and their nurses; Augustus had no particular interest in them, and did not wish them to join their mother in the palace.
For the next six years, Tiberius and his brother Drusus were raised in their father’s household. When their father died in 33 BC, the 9 year old Tiberius stood and gave the public eulogy at his funeral. And with their father dead, Augustus agreed to have them brought to the palace as foster children and arranged for the remainder of their education-but, significantly, did NOT at this time adopt them or give them legal status as part of the family.
Tiberius and Drusus remained very much in the background of Roman politics in their early lives, despite having moved to the palace. Both had served in the Roman military and led successful campaigns, and Augustus had shown them some degree of favor. Tiberius had developed a reputation of being a somewhat gloomy man, having perhaps suffered more acutely than Drusus in their incredibly traumatic childhood; Drusus was fortunate enough to have had no memory of a stable, happy time prior to the bizarre circumstances of their mother’s remarriage. Sources suggest that Drusus was better liked, on the whole, than his older and apparently depressive brother. In spite of this, there was one bright spot of happiness in Tiberius’s life; his marriage to his wife Vipsania Agrippina. While the marriage was likely arranged for political reasons it had clearly blossomed into real love.
Meanwhile, Augustus had not had a son of his own, but his favor rested firmly on his nephew Marcellus, and he was clearly grooming Marcellus to be his heir. Augustus arranged for Marcellus to marry his daughter Julia. Unfortunately, in a year of terrible illness in which Augustus himself became severely ill, young Marcellus died. Augustus needed a new heir, and quickly; he was acutely aware of his own mortality after his own brush with death. As a result, he turned to his top general, Agrippa, and shortly after once again cemented things by giving Agrippa his daughter Julia’s hand in marriage. But some years later, Agrippa died of a sudden illness during a harsh winter, leaving Augustus once again without a clear successor.
The year was 12 BC, some 16 years prior to the adoption we’re talking about today. Agrippa was dead, and Augustus’s daughter Julia was left widowed for a second time. Leaving her unattached was dangerous for the future of the succession, so Augustus wished to have her married again immediately. To someone close, someone already part of the family. Someone safe, in whom the marriage would represent a consolidation of family power rather than opening doors to other influences.
It’s not clear whether Augustus called Tiberius before him personally or simply sent him a letter, but either way, the demand was passed along. Tiberius was to immediately divorce his wife Vipsania and marry Julia.
The horror of this demand was not simply the fact that Tiberius loved Vipsania, which all sources agree he did. The horror is compounded by the fact that Julia, well, Julia has developed quite the reputation. According to one story, she had actually tried unsuccessfully to seduce Tiberius once before, while she was still married to Agrippa and knowing full well that he was happily married to Vipsania; rumors abound that several of Agrippa’s children might, well, not actually have been Agrippa’s children, and her sexual escapades and even the names of many of her lovers were matters of public knowledge.
But when the most powerful man in Rome, and arguably the most powerful man in the world, makes the demand… Tiberius caved. He divorced the wife he loved and married a renowned adulteress, on the orders of his emperor.
One of the most heartbreaking stories of Tiberius recounts that some time after these events, he ran across Vipsania entirely by chance on the streets of Rome. He tried to speak to her, but she turned away. He then followed her all the way home, weeping and begging her to forgive him, saying that he had had no choice. When Augustus heard of this, he determined that such a shameful display must never be repeated… and so he arranged for Vipsania to be removed from Rome so that she and Tiberius would never see one another again.
Three years later, Tiberius’s younger brother Drusus died. He was returning from a military campaign in Germany when he was thrown from his horse, and likely suffered severe internal injuries. He lingered for about a month, during which time Tiberius received word. He was able to hastily ride from Rome to meet the army, and he was present when Drusus breathed his last.
If at this point you are beginning to wonder if Tiberius is ever in his entire life going to catch a break, then you’re starting to get it.
Tiberius served in several military commands in Germany and in the East, and was granted political favor and power by Augustus which eventually began to match what had once been held by Agrippa. It seemed that his position as Augustus’s heir was all but certain. And then, in 6 BC, three years after Drusus’s death, Augustus publicly adopted Gaius and Lucius, the elder sons of the deceased Agrippa and Julia, whose education Augustus had been overseeing since their father’s death. Tiberius, who had been Augustus’s stepson since he was 3, who had fought wars for Augustus’s empire, who had given up the wife he loved to marry an adulteress, still had never received that recognition himself. He had never been accepted as a part of Augustus’s family. And now these two young children were being put in the line of succession ahead of him.
Tiberius announced that he was retiring from politics and boarded a ship at the port of Ostia. He sailed for the island of Rhodes, off the coast of Asia Minor, leaving Julia and Rome behind him.
Ten years have now passed since that day. Augustus is growing old. Two years ago, young Lucius died of illness. Earlier this year, his brother Gaius died as well. Once again, Augustus is without a clear line of succession.
Incidentally, if the pattern of Augustus’s heirs all dying of illness is beginning to seem all too convenient to you, you are not alone; a variety of early biographers had their own theories, mostly pointing the finger at Augustus’s wife and Tiberius’s mother Livia. Claims were made that she had poisoned all the other claimants, right back to Augustus’s nephew Marcellus, trying to maneuver her sons into positions of power. This seems, though, to be fairly unlikely. As much as such rumors have gained traction in pop culture portrayals of these days, the actual evidence behind them is fairly slim, and the reality is that death by illness was a common reality for both young and old in ancient Rome. Marcellus’s death occurred in the midst of a well documented epidemic, and the deaths of Agrippa, Lucius, and Gaius all occurred out in the provinces or during military campaigns far from Rome and from Livia. We can’t know for sure, but portrayals of Livia as a Machiavellian puppetmaster using poison to make her sons a path to power are based largely on a few passages of speculation made by biographers writing, in most cases, a century or more after the events in question.
With the news of Gaius’s death having just reached Rome, Augustus has sent messengers to Tiberius in Rhodes. Now, at last, with all other prospects for succession having failed, he has determined to adopt Tiberius as his son and heir.
It is hard to fully imagine the various thoughts that must have been competing in Tiberius’s mind when he received this missive. Throughout his life, Tiberius must have harbored a whole host of different attitudes towards Augustus. Resentment, surely, for the upheaval of his own childhood and for the heartless destruction of Tiberius’s loving marriage for the sake of dynastic security. But I suspect that from his early years there must also have been a desire to please Augustus, to be loved by the man who had married his mother. A desire to belong. Surely that must have fueled his military successes, his service in Roman politics. Some part of him had surely desired to be accepted. But to be accepted now, in this way, so clearly only because there was no one else left? To be accepted as a last resort?
In the end, Tiberius returned to Rome. And today, June 26, he was officially confirmed at Augustus’s son, 42 years after Augustus married his mother. Ten years from today, Augustus will call Tiberius to him on his deathbed, and spend a full day in conversation with him; one can only imagine what that conversation might be like. Days later, when Augustus dies, Tiberius will become the new princeps.
But when he does, he will do so with reluctance and frustration. When called before the senate to be officially granted the titles of Augustus, Imperator, and the Civic Crown, he will initially refuse them. This is on the one hand similar to what Augustus himself did, turning down honors to make himself seem a reluctant servant of the state rather than one who is simply seizing power. But Tiberius seems to really mean it, and some accounts will suggest that there is a deep bitterness audible in his address to the Senate. He will take the titles, in the end, but will seek to take a back seat role in politics and allow the Senate to manage affairs. But after years of the direct control that Augustus gradually took over the Roman state, the Senate will no longer be capable of effectively ruling by itself. Tiberius’s loose grip on the reins of state will lead to a growing sense of chaos.
In the end, Tiberius will decide to leave Rome, sailing to a villa on the island of Capri and leaving a man named Sejanus, the leader of his Praetorian Guard, effectively in charge of the city of Rome–and Sejanus will begin acting as a full-fledged tyrant. The people of Rome will blame Tiberius’s absence and lack of care for the treatment they receive at Sejanus’s hands. In the end, Sejanus will take things too far; a conspiracy to overthrow Tiberius comes to light, and evidence appears that he was behind the untimely death of Tiberius’s son several years before. Only then will Tiberius have Sejanus arrested and executed, and a whole series of further treason trials will follow; but through it all, he will remain on Capri and refuse to return to a city which represents all the politicking and power games that he has come to loathe.
In return, the people of Rome whom he has abandoned will loathe him. Rumors about exactly what Tiberius is doing on his private island will run wild, suggesting that he is indulging in both bloody cruelty and wild sexual obscenities. Whether any of it is true, we will never know. Either way, even if his time on Capri will be an understandable consequence of a life of undeserved trauma, the consequences of his lack of concern for power will echo down the generations. While Augustus had spent decades trying to carefully groom a variety of potential successors, Tiberius will take under his wing a grand-nephew with no particular military or political experience and will give him barely any more before he will become emperor at 24 years of age–Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, best known to history by his childhood nickname… Caligula.
One thing all biographies of Tiberius agree upon is that he did not desire power. It turns out, though, that his spite for power and politics did not make him a good emperor–in fact, it made him a disastrous one. For all that I believe we can rightly see Tiberius as a tragic figure and worthy of pity, we must recognize that his failings as a ruler fairly earned him the hatred so many felt towards him.
We all recognize the truth that a tyrant who seeks power for their own ends, like Sejanus or many others we could mention, is a terrible danger. But Tiberius is a reminder that a person who simply doesn’t want power and despises politics may be just as dangerous as a leader. What we need is something far more precious and more rare–a leader who desires power, but not for their own ends, who desires power for the sake of others. A pipe dream? Perhaps, but I hope not. And as we continue our walk through history, I think we may meet a few people who at least partly live up to that dream.