A Handful of Opinions on Tiberius

The evaluations of the emperor Tiberius in the historical works of Tacitus' Annals, Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, and Velleius Paterculus' Compendium of Roman History each reflect the philosophy and motive of their author, as well as provide different insights into the analysis of Tiberius and his reign.


Tacitus, following the tradition of most Roman historians, wrote for the purpose of passing moral and political judgment in order to benefit society in the future and effect change (Mellor, 394). From Tacitus' point of view, the years of Tiberius' reign could be seen as a steady decline in moral values. Tacitus also attempts to demonstrate the pathology of power with the chronological account of Tiberius' years in office and the gradual corrupting which the imperial seat had brought with it (Mellor, 394). The beginning of the account of Tiberius' reign opens with "The first crime of the new reign was the murder of Postumus Agrippa," (Mellor, 419) and implies that there are many more to follow. At the end of his account about Tiberius, Tacitus describes the emperor as having "plunged into every wickedness and disgrace," signaling the lowest moral point and the end of Tiberius' rule. One thing to consider regarding Tacitus' harsh appraisals of Tiberius is that they were written soon after the reign of Domitian (probably in 110-117), and probably amidst anti-tyranny sentiments, at least of the historian, if not the general public.


Suetonius, unlike other Roman historians of his time or prior, dared to include stories that were not necessarily glorifying to Rome, even included those that would be considered vulgar or obscene. Suetonius provides a mixture of both praises and criticisms of Tiberius. Suetonius mentions several ways in which Tiberius is not the tyrant that Tacitus would argue him to be. As on example, Suetonius cites Tiberius' act of restoring powers to the senate and other magistrates (Suetonius, 131). He also focuses on other positive aspects of Tiberius' reign, particularly some of the emperor's attempts to improve the moral character of the Roman people through his campaigns against waste and promiscuity (Suetonius, 132). Reasons for the presentation of both Tiberius' positive and negatives are evident upon examination of Suetonius' style. He seems more intent on providing all of the evidence and laying it out before the reader, allowing each to judge Tiberius for himself.

Velleius Paterculus

Finally, Velleius Paterculus presents a completely different perspective of Tiberius - that of a loyal soldier who had served under him, as well as a devotee to the imperial family. Thus Paterculus' praises of Tiberius for his military prowess in having defeated the Germans thrice consecutively are not unexpected, and Paterculus refers to Tiberius as "this consummate general." However, Paterculus, in listing some of Tiberius' achievements in a sixteen year period points to the notion that under Tiberius, everything about Rome has once again been rectified, ending with "Right is now honored, evil is punished." There are two likely reasons why Paterculus' account is extremely one-sided, extolling Tiberius for all of his deeds and service to the empire. The first is that his intentions are to praise his old commander and hero. As a result, he probably did not seek to learn all of the emperor's negative qualities, nor wish to present an objective portrait of him. The second factor is the time period in which he writes - as Tiberius' contemporary. Velleius' works were written prior to 30 AD, the year of his death and seven years before the death of Tiberius. The majority of Tiberius' actions that were looked upon with disfavor by Tacitus and Suetonius occurred towards the end of Tiberius' time as emperor.

Examining these three assessments of Tiberius, as well as the context behind each, we find the difficulty in making an instantaneous judgment of anyone's deeds and discover the wisdom in the Latin proverb -- Quot homines, tot sententiae -- So many men, so many opinions.

Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Penguin) Tr. Robert Graves
Mellor, R., The Historians of Ancient Rome (Routledge)