For anyone who has been following this blog for a while now, my interest in the reign of emperor Tiberius should be rather apparent. I actually first decided to study Classics when, as an undergraduate, I read the Roman biographer Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius. Tiberius was Rome’s second emperor during the Early Principate, who reigned from 14-37 CE. While his reign was generally marked by international peace, effective provincial administration, and a continuation of the stability that began when his predecessor, Caesar Augustus, brought an end to Rome’s civil wars, Tiberius nevertheless received rather mixed reviews among later Roman historians. In fact, some of the later representations of Tiberius in Greek and Latin literature range from being merely scandalous to outright appalling and monstrous.
I will never forget when I first read the following passage. Actually, I did not read it but rather listened to it, since I had obtained a copy of Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars (translated by Robert Graves) on audio book. After the first half of Tiberius’ biography, in which Suetonius represents the emperor mostly favorably, the narrative takes a sharp turn when, after discussing Tiberius’ retirement to the island of Capri, Suetonius (Tib. 43-45) divulges the following details about Tiberius’ reclusively licentious behavior:
“On retiring to Capreae he made himself a private sporting-house, where sexual extravagances were practiced for his secret pleasure. Bevies of girls and young men, whom he had collected from all over the Empire as adepts in unnatural practices, and known as spintriae, would copulate before him in groups of three, to excite his waning passions. A number of small rooms were furnished with the most indecent pictures and statuary obtainable, also certain erotic manuals from Elephantis in Egypt; the inmates of the establishment would know from these exactly what was expected of them. He furthermore devised little nooks of lechery in the woods and glades of the island, and had boys and girls dressed up as Pans and nymphs prostituting themselves in from of caverns or grottoes; so that the island was now openly and generally called ‘Caprineum.’
Some aspects of his criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe. Imagine training little boys, whom he called his ‘minnows,’ to chase him while he went swimming and to get between his legs to lick and nibble him. Or letting babies not yet weaned from their mother’s breast suck at his breast or groin – such a filthy old man he had become! Then there was a painting by Parrhasius, which had been bequeathed him on condition that, if he did not like the subject, he could have 10,000 gold pieces instead. Tiberius not only preferred to keep the picture but hung it in his bedroom. It showed Atalanta performing fellatio with Meleager.
The story goes that once, while sacrificing, he took an erotic fancy to the acolyte who carried the incense casket, and could hardly wait for the ceremony to end before hurrying him and his brother, the sacred trumpeter, out of the temple and indecently assaulting them both. When they jointly protested at this disgusting behavior, he had their legs broken.
What nasty tricks he used to play on women, even those of high rank, is clearly seen in the case of Mallonia whom he summoned to his bed. She showed such an invincible repugnance to complying with his lusts that he set informers on her track and during her very trial continued to shout: ‘Are you sorry?’ Finally she left the court and went home; there she stabbed herself to death after a violent tirade against that ‘filthy-mouthed, hairy, stinking old man.’ So a joke at his expense slipped into the next Atallan farce, won a loud laugh and went the rounds at once:
The old goat goes
For the does
With his tongue.”
Wow! And I thought that people had unkind things to say about unpopular presidents today! Needless to say, this passage completely surprised me and I was amazed that, under an imperial system, authors could write such negative things about past emperors (albeit dead ones). As should already be clear, many things are bizarre about this passage. But, as someone who studies ancient history, I have sometimes wondered whether these anecdotes about Tiberius’ perversion could actually be true or if they are mostly later rumors and scandal-mongering.
Unlike in the case of Jesus (which I often discuss here as an example of poor and unreliable documentation), for the reign of Tiberius we have a wide array of independent, historically reliable, and contemporary sources (as my refutation of the 10/42 apologetic amply demonstrates). This in many ways makes studying Tiberius far more interesting, since there is actually the hope of reconstructing a reliable biography of his life, rather than sifting through later legends with only the hope of uncovering a few small kernels.
So, since we have a better historical situation for Tiberius, can we trust Suetonius’ report of his perverted behavior? After studying the sources for Tiberius’ reign, assessing their material and relevance, I can only arrive at a conclusion of general agnosticism. While it is certainly plausible that Tiberius was the randy old goat described above, there is also enough room for plausible doubt and the alternative possibility that Tiberius was simply maligned by later hostile rumors, for there to be substantial probability in favor of either case. Ancient history seldom affords us much certainty, and the case of Tiberius as the old goat is one in which historians can remain reasonably skeptical, despite the testimonies of multiple and independent historical authors.