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Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars: Extract

This extract deals with an important event in the reign of the Emperor Tiberius.

The ageing Tiberius had taken up residence on the island of Capri living in the hilltop Villa Iovis (House of Jove or Jupiter), leaving the day-to-day government of Rome to his lieutenant, Aelius Sejanus. Under Sejanus’ administration the law, especially the law of treason, was increasingly used to silence the emperor’s critics. Sejanus himself grew ambitious, making many enemies, while Tiberius grew increasingly paranoid about threats to overthrow him. He suspected everyone, including Sejanus.

Suetonius (c.69-c.140 AD) The Twelve Caesars translated by Robert Graves (London: Penguin, 1976) pp.141-2

63. Much evidence is extant, not only of the hatred that Tiberius earned but of the state of terror in which he himself lived, and the insults heaped upon him. He forbade anyone to consult soothsayers, except openly and with witnesses present; and even attempted to suppress all oracles in the neighbourhood of Rome – but desisted for fear of the miraculous power shown by the sacred Lots, which he brought to Rome in a sealed chest from the Temple of Fortune at Palestrina. They vanished and did not become visible again until returned to the same temple.

Tiberius had assigned provinces to certain ex-consuls whom he distrusted; but, not daring to relax his surveillance, detained them in Rome for several years until their successors had been appointed. Meanwhile, they relayed his frequent instructions to their lieutenants and agents in the provinces which they officially governed, yet were unable to visit.

64. After exiling Agrippina and her two sons he always moved them from one place of confinement to another in closed litters, with their wrists and ankles fettered and a military escort to prevent all persons met on the road from even stopping to watch the litter go by, let alone glance inside.

65. Becoming aware that Sejanus’s birthday was being publicly celebrated, and that golden statues had been raised to him everywhere, as a preliminary step to his usurpation of the throne, Tiberius found some difficulty in getting rid of his tool and did so at last by subterfuge rather than by the exercise of imperial authority. First of all, to detach Sejanus from his own immediate entourage, while pretending to honour him, Tiberius appointed him his colleague in a fifth consulship, which he assumed solely for this purpose ten years after the fourth; but did not visit Rome for his inauguration. Next, he made Sejanus believe that he would soon marry him into the imperial family and be awarded tribunicial power; and then, taking him off his guard, sent a shamefully abject message to the Senate begging, among other things, to be fetched into their presence under military escort by one of the two subsidiary Consuls – he complained that he was a poor, lonely old man whom Sejanus was plotting to assassinate. But he had taken precautions against the revolt which he feared might yet break out, by ordering that his grandson Drusus, who was still alive, should be released if necessary from his prison at Rome and appointed commander-in-chief. He thought, indeed, of taking refuge at the headquarters of some provincial army and had a naval flotilla standing by to carry him off the island; where he waited on a cliff top for the distant bonfire signals (announcing all possible eventualities), which he had ordered to be sent in case his couriers might be delayed. Even when Sejanus’s conspiracy had been suffocated Tiberius did not show the least sign of increased confidence, but remained in the so-called Villa Io for the next nine months.

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