Did Tiberius have a grand strategy?

  • Themes: Ancient History

Tiberius, Augustus' successor as emperor of Rome, is best-known for the excesses of his personal life. But it is the traditional challenges he faced as ruler – and his responses to them – that are most pertinent to our times.

Roman marble sculpture bust of the Emperor Tiberius.
Roman marble sculpture bust of the Emperor Tiberius. Credit: funkyfood London - Paul Williams / Alamy Stock Photo

Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, second emperor of Rome, has a greater reputation for personal excess than for methodical defence of Rome’s empire. Despotic behaviour at home is part of everyone’s picture of Roman autocracy; determined decision-making abroad not so much. Which of the two we prefer to stress today says more about us than it does about Tiberius. If we think we can learn from history at all, then, at a time of high strategic anxiety, we should perhaps be less anxious about a leader’s offences to moral values than about their capability to protect all our values from outside threat. If we choose to study Tiberius, what can be learned from him about present policy towards NATO, Ukraine, or China? Nothing? Everything? And if the answer is something, how do we find what that something is?

Not since the collapse of communism in eastern Europe has the ‘then’ of ancient Rome been so attractive for those studying the ‘now’ of the Western world. The discipline of ‘applied history’ is having a renaissance. When the issues are liberty and tyranny, leaders and allies, warfare on multiple fronts and the links between politics at home and abroad, Rome’s is the history that thinkers have often chosen to apply.

How to find that ‘something’ worth practical study, however, is still a hard question. Look back 2,000 years, and there are many clear and easy parallels between then and now. A few of these are very tempting: Trump vs Biden has echoes of Caesar vs Pompey in the dying decades of the Roman Republic, the rule-smashing populist against the former young gun, who now bears the hopes of a desperate establishment on his back. Trump is so often caricatured as an emperor (not often a good one) that his wreaths of olive leaves, like his orange hair, are almost routine.

Relevance is the key word. Many different forms of relevance are ready to be explored. The applied historian is like a tightrope walker, tip-toeing over the past, looking down and seeing on one side human behaviour that we recognise as relevant – the search for food and freedom, friendship, purpose, and safety – and then looking down on the other side at what is alien but still perhaps relevant, if sometimes hard to understand: the very different approaches to freedom from Romans who so vigorously preach liberty, mass enslavement, different understandings of money, and of so much that is now known as ‘policy’.

Sensitivity to evidence, whether his modern subject is India, China, or the United States, is the key to making persuasive comparisons, rather than those that merely entertain. In both contemporary and classical times, for example, it can be argued that little united a people as well as a single enemy. For 200 years of its history, until the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, Rome had an enemy that both threatened and united it. Once the walls of Carthage were down, Rome had its hegemony, its economic boom, but also the seeds of new internal divisions. That was the analysis of its own historians, most of all Sallust, who added as a further example the final conquest of Greece. Both events occurred in the same year, the one removing a military and economic rival, the other a cultural superior.

Where there was once Soviet Communism, there is now the West’s policy towards China. The West’s future unity and moral purpose is on trial – and there is no sign of Chinese absence from debate any time soon. Rome was an empire long before it had emperors, and the idea of that empire came from its writers as well as its fighters. Early historians had a free hand to apply a narrative that suited a common purpose – all the more free because so much of the city’s own evidence of its past, its early records on metal and papyrus, were destroyed around 386 BC, when invading Gauls did to Rome what Rome would later do to Carthage.

Livy began his 124-book history when Rome’s republican civil wars were finally over, and brilliantly welded the best Greek stories of heroism onto the conveniently bare bones of Rome’s past. The poet Virgil, semi-official prophet of the victorious first emperor, Augustus, took the same stories and at the beginning of his epic, the Aeneid, put in the mouth of Jupiter the prediction of imperium sine fine, empire without end.

Propaganda, as so often in centuries to come, produced problems for the next generation. Tiberius was an accomplished general in his youth, but as emperor (a job he was never certain to get until he got it) he needed to be a consolidator, rather than a conqueror. Finance, the fear even then of imperial overstretch, demanded caution. His more glamorous predecessors – Pompey, Caesar, and Augustus – had revelled in the glory of expansion. Augustus could have chosen an heir who would continue extending Rome’s reach, but selected Tiberius as one who most likely would not.

Tiberius’ legacy from his adopted father included strong advice to stick to what had already been won. His reputation has been damaged – in some accounts obliterated – by the vices of this inactivity, his cruelties and alleged sexual depravity in Capri. More important, for an applied historian, if not a popular one, is examining the problems of ruling an empire without the momentum of conquest. These include the necessary level of administration, the management of allies, the balancing of expenditure and cost, the sharing of profit and burdens, the inevitable embarrassment of retreats – and the still present ideal of a moral purpose, which is hard when the glamour has gone. These are issues which today’s tightrope-walking historian, conscious of apparent humiliation in Afghanistan, costly attrition in Ukraine, and single-minded rivalry from China, can readily look down and see – and note as familiar in our own time.

Tiberius had also to manage an elite whose functions were so very different from that of the previous generation. Men who would once have sought glory in political conflict at home and conquering abroad had to be given new roles or none. Tiberius became famed for his perceived duplicity and hypocrisy, but he can also be seen as a father of bureaucracy and an uncertain master of the arts of management. This was a new court politics, the inexorable shift of power from the law courts in the Forum to those prepared to be courtiers in the sprawling corridors of the Palatine Hill above.

Tiberius was a traditionalist by nature. He tried to encourage senators to take back some of their previous responsibilities, but most were too nervous to do so. Those who did often found that they had made a mistake, or feared that Tiberius was bluffing, that he never intended to give up power. Real power slipped towards palace advisors, some of whom, to the horror of fellow traditionalists, were foreigners, women, and the formerly enslaved. Over subsequent reigns it would slip further still.

Apart from sticking to Augustus’ advice not to expand the empire, there was little defined policy as a modern commentator might understand it. Roman rulers had the army, but little else of what later came to be termed the levers of power. The extent to which Tiberius, or any emperor, was able to adjudicate consistently to a plan has long been contentious among classicists. In 1977, the Oxford scholar Fergus Millar promoted an influential theory that emperors had no policy and were almost wholly reactive to individual problems, responding specifically to ambassadors from distant provinces and weighing arguments case by case like a judge. On this analysis, and the principle that ‘an emperor was what an emperor did’, most inhabitants of the empire would barely know who the emperor was, let alone what his plans for them might be.

Other scholars have been more generous in seeing grand strategy. An emperor was undoubtedly more than what he did. An emperor was also what he did not do: his restraint, his preparedness to let others fight to Rome’s advantage, either against shared enemies or against each other. At the very minimum he was what he seemed to be doing, what his subjects thought that he might do. The promotion of an imperial image by coins and by statues and portrait busts, by adding his predecessors’ names to his own, was as strategic as any modern application of soft power.

In some places the medium was literature – poetry and history –increasingly provided by artists working on a tighter rein than Augustus allowed Livy and Virgil. There were also imperial cults, places to worship an emperor: the further a citizen lived from Rome itself, the more likely that he (and in some places she) would have access to a place where their ruler could be petitioned as a god.

Whatever Tiberius’ interest at any particular time, he was especially concerned when members of his own family had a plan, or seemed to have a plan, that was different from his own. He objected strongly when his glamorous nephew Germanicus, who some thought might have been a more active successor to Augustus, interrupted a holiday in Egypt, a country of great wealth and strategic importance, to cut the price of grain and mingle with people as though he were seeking their votes. When Germanicus died while ruling large swathes of the eastern empire from Antioch in Syria, there was strong suspicion in some quarters that Tiberius, who took his name, had had him poisoned. A public trial of the alleged killer raised questions about what the emperor had done, what he wanted to seem to have done, and who would decide the answer.

Further east from Antioch lay the Parthian Empire, a diffuse and dangerous threat, especially when carelessly roused by Rome into unity. Beyond that was what was already the Silk Road to China, home of the Seres, the silk people, whose customs and manners were then hardly less mythical than those of Romulus and Remus. Survivors of a humiliating defeat of Rome by Parthia in 53 BC were said to have settled there.

Commercial contacts with China began soon after Tiberius’ death in AD 37, maybe before. But no Roman knew how much more bureaucratic China was than Rome, how many more people were writing rather than fighting, managing wars rather than making war. Did management matter even more than manpower and the character of the men who ruled? Roman historians did not apply lessons from the far east as they did from the examples of Carthaginians, Greeks, Gauls, and those nearer to home. They could not. That would be left to their successor historians.

This essay is adapted from the introduction to Iron Imperator: Roman Grand Strategy Under Tiberius by Iskander Rehman (Bokförlaget Stolpe, 2024). https://bokforlagetstolpe.com/en/books/iron-imperator-roman-grand-strategy-under-tiberius/


Peter Stothard