For anyone who has been following this blog for a while now, my interest in the reign of the Roman 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 Atellan 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 legendary and problematic documentation, although I do think that an obscure historical Jesus of Nazareth existed), 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 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.
As a general rule when approaching a historical claim or event, it is best to start with the earliest sources and to work diachronically towards the latest. The operating principle is fairly simple: earlier sources are closer to the event, often provide eyewitness testimony, and are less likely to contain later legends and exaggerations. However, in the case of the old goat this presents a problem. So far as I know, all of the contemporary sources for Tiberius’ reign are completely silent about any alleged perversion. The main historian for the period, Velleius Paterculus, makes virtually no criticism of Tiberius and, while he is factually correct about many of the events in Tiberius’ life, mostly heaps praise upon the princeps. This silence, however, even if Tiberius were notoriously licentious, is perfectly explicable. We would not expect that contemporary authors could say too many unkind things about the emperor, while he was still alive.
That said, a major problem for the claim that Tiberius was involved in such debauchery is that the most detailed accounts are from historians who were both chronologically distanced from the period and who were living under a substantially changed Roman Empire. Tiberius belonged to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which ruled Rome for approximately a century until its final emperor, Nero, was deposed in 68 CE. Prior to this event, Rome had never had an emperor that did not relate, either by blood or by marriage, to Julius Caesar and Augustus. Following Nero’s death, a civil war ensued in 69 CE during which Rome saw four successive emperors vying for the principate, which culminated in the victory of emperor Vespasian, who established the Flavian dynasty. The Flavian dynasty was then succeeded, upon the assassination of emperor Domitian, by the short-lived emperor Nerva, followed by the highly popular emperors Trajan and Hadrian. It was during this final period, belonging to the dynasty which is often termed the “Five Good Emperors,” that Suetonius was writing his biographies about the earlier Roman emperors, including Tiberius.
The dynastic shift outlined above is crucial for understanding the later historians who document the Julio-Claudian period. The old family dynasty of the original Caesars had become a thing of the past, and historians were at greater liberty to speak critically of the emperors who had succeeded Augustus and the violent civil wars that had brought an end to the Roman Republic. These historians, mostly senators (although Suetonius himself was an equestrian), were deeply embittered by the earlier period, in which the Roman Senate ceased to be the ruling body of the Empire and instead had to submit to increasingly autocratic emperors. Not only that, but many senatorial families had lost ancestors and recent relatives to trials, executions, and forced suicides under the earlier regime.
Augustus, who ruled for about four decades in one of the most prosperous periods of Roman history, was able to escape most criticism from later historical authors, but his successors did not fare so well. The first target for explaining the downfall of the Roman Senate’s prestige and the beginning of a hereditary dynasty that gave rise to some notoriously bad episodes was Augustus’ successor Tiberius. The historian Tacitus, in fact, begins his Annals with Augustus’ funeral and Tiberius’ succession to mark a distinctly new and ominous period. Tacitus, even more so than Suetonius, is extremely critical of Tiberius. As historian Ronald Mellor (Tacitus, pg. 25) points out:
“The gloomy, anti-social Tiberius is the most complex character in Tacitus, perhaps in all of Latin literature. His natural diffidence is presented as dissimulation, his shyness as haughtiness, and his acts of generosity as hypocrisy … Tacitus paints a picture of paranoid politics and moral depravity…”
In many ways, Tiberius was a natural target for later historians who viewed the Julio-Claudian period in a negative light. As the first emperor to officially succeed from a previous one, and not only that but having to fill the very large shoes of an emperor like Augustus, Tiberius could easily be blamed for the administrative decline that emerged among later emperors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, as well as being seen as the first exemplum of the tyrannical behavior and characteristics that defined bad emperors. All of this, however, made Tiberius an easy figure to misrepresent and vilify.
That said, we cannot dismiss many of the negative things said about Tiberius as the mere fabrications or speculations of later hostile historians. While both Tacitus and Suetonius were writing substantially later under the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, their sources for the Julio-Claudian dynasty dated to much earlier. In fact, per the criterion of independent attestation, we can be certain that rumors about Tiberius’ perverted behavior dated to earlier than both Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ writings. This is because both authors corroborate the behavior and are also independent sources.
Tacitus (Ann. 6.1), like Suetonius, details Tiberius’ licentious behavior and places its occurrence during the latter years of Tiberius’ reign on the island of Capri:
“Cneius Domitius and Camillus Scribonianus had entered on the consulship when the emperor, after crossing the channel which divides Capreae from Surrentum, sailed along Campania, in doubt whether he should enter Rome, or, possibly, simulating the intention of going thither, because he had resolved otherwise. He often landed at points in the neighborhood, visited the gardens by the Tiber, but went back again to the cliffs and to the solitude of the sea shores, in shame at the vices and profligacies into which he had plunged so unrestrainedly that in the fashion of a despot he debauched the children of free-born citizens. It was not merely beauty and a handsome person which he felt as an incentive to his lust, but the modesty of childhood in some, and noble ancestry in others. Hitherto unknown terms were then for the first time invented, derived from the abominations of the place and the endless phases of sensuality. Slaves too were set over the work of seeking out and procuring, with rewards for the willing, and threats to the reluctant, and if there was resistance from a relative or a parent, they used violence and force, and actually indulged their own passions as if dealing with captives.”
Tacitus’ description largely corroborates the passage from Suetonius above, while being written in a considerably different style and serving a different role within the narrative. Likewise, the publication dates of Tacitus’ Annals and Suetonius’ De Vita Caesarum could easily have overlapped and neither author was relying exclusively, if at all, on the other. So, per the criterion of independent attestation, we know that these rumors must have dated much earlier (possibly to the very reign of Tiberius himself). However, that does not entail that they are fully accurate or contemporary. An often overlooked aspect of the criterion of independent attestation is that it only entails that a certain story must predate the two authors who corroborate each other. It does not entail that a story is actually authentic or dates to the actual time of the alleged incident itself.
That qualifier in place, we do have some reason to suspect that these stories do actually originate from the last years of Tiberius’ reign. Of course, no sources from this time itself writes about them, but, as discussed above, one cannot easily put in publication such negative accusations while the emperor himself is still alive. Nevertheless, the final years of Tiberius’ reign were far more turbulent than the early ones, and there is good reason to believe that many negative rumors were circulated about him during this time.
Following the death of Tiberius’ son Drusus (who had been first in line as Tiberius’ successor), a power vacuum opened up within the royal family over who would succeed Tiberius as princeps. This dynastic conflict increased Tiberius’ paranoia, causing him to execute a number of his family members and potential heirs out of resentment and fear of conspiracy. During this time, Tiberius’ praetorian prefect, Aelius Sejanus, who aided Tiberius in arresting a number of his family members, gained a very large amount of influence at Rome, which, as a man of only equestrian rank, provoked the animosity of both the Roman Senate and the royal family.
The problem was exacerbated by Tiberius’ retirement to Capri (the island featured at the top of this blog), after which he never returned to Rome. Tiberius’ proximal distance resulted in a lack of communication between the emperor and the Senate and no doubt also in suspicious speculation over what activities Tiberius occupied himself with while on the island. The problem became worse when Tiberius’ paranoia was finally turned against Sejanus himself, when the prefect was executed on charges of conspiracy in 31 CE. Following Sejanus’ death, a witch hunt ensued at Rome during which numerous senators were accused of collaboration with Sejanus and found guilty. As a result, Tiberius’ final years as emperor were marked by a number of trials, property confiscations, suicides, and executions that substantially diminished Rome’s senatorial families.
The cause of Tiberius’ retirement to Capri was likely a combination of his aging weariness of serving as emperor, the destabilization of the royal family, and his increasing paranoia. Capri is a highly fortified island, with only one landing beach, that has tall lookout points from which an observer can see a ship approaching from any direction. The island, situated in the bay of Naples, is likewise highly luxurious, beautiful, and secluded. Tiberius could be at greater ease while in such a place, but could he also have used his newfound seclusion to indulge his perverse sexual appetites?
As has been shown above, the senatorial families, from which later historians and literate persons drew their ranks, did not fare well during the last years of Tiberius’ reign. Added to this was extreme resentment, poor communication, and suspicion over what the hated emperor was doing in his retirement. In such a context, it is not at all difficult to see how rumors could have emerged about Tiberius engaging in gross excess and despicable perversion. Such a characterization of the old and paranoid emperor would fit perfectly with that of an archetypal tyrant who has an insatiable lust to abuse power in the most heinous of ways. Such stories could easily be passed down by generation, be written about in private correspondence or anonymous satires, and later surface in an age where there was more freedom of speech to explore the negative aspects of the previous deposed dynasty.
So is there any plausibility to the truth of these rumors? Certainly. Capri is a secluded place that was already known for luxury. Tiberius also spent the last decades of his life and his entire reign as emperor as a bachelor. He had two wives beforehand, the first of whom he was compelled to divorce tragically (seen by some historians as an early cause for his later loneliness and bitterness), and the second, Augustus’ daughter Julia, whom he divorced, ironically enough, under charges of extreme promiscuity. Given the cultural norms of Rome’s elite, it is also very unlikely that Tiberius remained celibate during the last decades of his life, as prostitutes and mistresses were not at all uncommon among powerful politicians. That said, none of this entails the extreme perversion documented above, which would be seen as excessive even by ancient standards.
Are there any other items of evidence that can be used to increase our confidence in the later historians? Not much. Archaeologically speaking, so far as I know, Tiberius’ escapades left no footprint. Suetonius claims that Tiberius had a whole sporting house constructed on Capri for his orgiastic spectacles, but, so far as I know, this site has never been found or excavated (we have excavated the Villa Jovis on Capri, but this was Tiberius’ chief administrative center on the island, which would probably be distanced from the presumed locations of his alleged sex spectacles). Likewise, Suetonius discusses erotic statuary and other forms of artifacts, none of which have been preserved. This does not entail that they never existed, but we also cannot confirm their existence today.
We have excavated another villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga, from which a number of statues have been retrieved, of Rhodian design, which corroborates what ancient historians say about Tiberius’ earlier stay on Rhodes (6 BCE – 2 CE) and his appreciation for its Hellenic artwork (these statues depict scenes from the Homeric epics and are not overtly sexual). So we at least have archaeological verification of other claims that were made about Tiberius’ artifacts in the written sources, which could perhaps give us more confidence in the written sources when we have to rely on their testimony alone. The Sperlonga villa likewise has a number of private backrooms that have been unearthed, which some have speculated to be hidden sex dungeons. But the rooms themselves are now empty and could just have easily have been storage spaces or used for some other purpose. Ultimately the site cannot corroborate any of the scandalous stories, since the interpretation that it was used for such purposes depends on the stories themselves.
What about any eyewitness testimony? No writing survives from someone who claims to have witnessed the licentious spectacles, but the later historians we do have identify certain persons as eyewitnesses. One, seen in the passage from Suetonius, was the woman Mallonia, who allegedly scorned Tiberius only to have informers set on her. However, Mallonia being put on trial and later committing suicide fits well into what we already know of the violent and paranoid political context in which many other persons of noble rank were executed during Tiberius’ reign. It would not be hard to imagine that Mallonia was actually implicated for other reasons and only rumored to have been persecuted for refusing Tiberius’ sexual advances. Another historical figure whom we know more about is the later emperor Aulus Vitellius. Suetonius (Vit. 3.2) claims that, when Vitellius was a youth, he stayed with Tiberius on the island of Capri and was later branded with the shameful nickname Spintria, for alleged involvement with the group of Tiberius’ young sex performers of the same name. However, Vitellius himself also became infamous as an unpopular emperor, following his short reign during the civil war of 69 CE, which resulted in his eventual public execution. The claim that Vitellius was an early sex acolyte of Tiberius could just be another hostile rumor tacked on to the previous suspicions about Tiberius’ sexual habits, and both could ultimately be spurious.
What about the satire dubbing Tiberius “the old goat”? Suetonius states that it was a line that was read in a performance of an Atellan Farce, which was a common theatrical spectacle known for lewd themes. However, we have very scant literary remnants of what any of these performances contained and we cannot be certain that Suetonius was even correct in linking this play and line with Tiberius. It’s certainly plausible that it could have been a veiled reference to the emperor, but we ultimately know very little about the context of these verses, and, even if they do refer to Tiberius, they could have been little more than comedic exaggeration.
Is there any plausibility to the falsehood of the rumors about Tiberius’ sexual perversion? Certainly. The unpopularity that marred the last years of Tiberius’ reign provides an easy context in which hostile rumors could emerge and later circulate. Likewise, from a broader perspective of ancient historical writing, such scandalous anecdotes are common tropes for vilifying hated tyrants. In fact, Suetonius, from whom we get the most detailed account of Tiberius’ perversion, is known as being something of a scandal monger. Not just Tiberius, but many of the other emperors, such as Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and even more popular emperors like Augustus, all had scandalous stories circulating about their sex lives, which Suetonius was eager to report.
Ultimately, a solid case can be made for either theory. It is plausible that Tiberius, once he was in a secluded location, gave way to extreme perversion and licentious indulgence, which is what a number of the ancient sources claim. Likewise, however, it is also plausible that the unpopularity that marred Tiberius’ final years as emperor simply gave rise to the suspicion that his distant abode on Capri was the scene of the grossest debauch. Put in the words of ancient historian Cyril Robinson, “It must be admitted that at most periods of history similar gossip had been circulated about unpopular despots; on the other hand, a complete moral breakdown would seem no improbable climax to the tragic degeneration of Tiberius’ character.” There is too much room for plausible doubt for either conclusion to be certain.
Now, the historical lesson to take away from this is that reasonable skepticism can be exercised against texts far more reliable and believable than the Gospels, and, when I exercise such criticism in dealing with ancient history, I have no special bias against the sources for Jesus or early Christianity. Let me be clear about three aspects of the analysis above that are relevant to exercising skepticism towards the historians of Tiberius, the Gospels, or any other ancient sources:
- A lack of sources refuting an ancient claim does not mean that the claim itself is reliable. Good historians do not merely regurgitate what ancient sources claim but formulate multiple plausible interpretations of an event and then assess their competing probability. Likewise, it is unreasonable to expect that every rumor that circulated in the ancient world would have an author write to refute it, and, even if such a refutation were written, we should not expect that it would always survive or that we would know about it. Notice how above I did not make the amateur argument, “Well, nobody says that Tiberius wasn’t a pervert! So, therefore, the stories about his perversion must then be true!” Far from it: if all of the later Roman historians came from senatorial families who resented Tiberius’ memory, we would not expect that any would write to debunk such rumors. Therefore, the hypothesis that the rumors are spurious is not undermined by the claim that no ancient author wrote to say that they were spurious. The theory itself does not entail or expect such evidence. In like manner, we should not consider the later legends about Jesus to be true, simply because no one bothered at the time to refute them (such refutations did come in later centuries when Christianity was more well known). The only people who originally cared about Jesus was a fringe religious cult and, accordingly, we should only expect aggrandizing propaganda from said cult to be written about him, until the religion eventually became more noticeable and disliked by outsiders. Accordingly, one does not have to rely on hostile accounts debunking Christianity to be skeptical of its core claims, nor does an absence of any such accounts until later centuries validate such claims, since no such accounts should be expected.
- Skepticism towards an ancient source does not simply derive from a philosophical prejudice against miracles. Notice how when discussing plausible doubt for the stories about Tiberius’ perversion above that I exercised skepticism towards claims that are completely natural. There is nothing supernatural or miraculous about Tiberius being a pervert. I simply know that scandalous rumors of the sort made about Tiberius are frequently spurious or exaggerated. Accordingly, I exercise caution in dealing with such claims and do not take them at face value. In like manner, tons of spurious rumors are made about miracles every year, and many, many more were made in antiquity, at a time when fact-checking was very rare, documentation was scant or difficult to access, and literacy was very low. I know that the stories of the sort made about Jesus are usually false elsewhere, so there are good reasons to be initially skeptical when approaching the legends made in early Christianity. Such skepticism does not derive solely from “bias against the supernatural,” rather than from reasonable caution being made towards stories and anecdotes that almost always turn out to be false when full investigation is available.
- Ancient historical skepticism is not exercised solely against Christian texts. As discussed in my refutation of the 10/42 apologetic, the sources we have for Tiberius are much, much better than those for Jesus. And yet, when they make extraordinary claims that have a high plausibility of falsehood, I exercise the exact same skepticism. I often wonder what apologists think that actual historians do. Merely regurgitate, defend, and rationalize every single thing that an ancient source says, because it can never ever be wrong? That is how apologists approach the New Testament in their uncritical effort to confirm already believed religious dogma, but it is not a responsible historical practice that one would exercise towards any other ancient text. In fact, I am dedicated to treating the New Testament more fairly by treating it with the same scrutiny that I would apply to any other set of ancient sources. As has been shown, while I doubt the sources for Tiberius’ reign far less, I still cannot fully trust them on the claim about Tiberius’ perversion. There is simply too much room for plausible doubt.
Alright, so that is the historical lesson to take away from this analysis. Now back to Tiberius! Whether there be truth or falsehood in the stories about his licentious perversion, either way the stigma remained with him throughout later literature. Even as late as the 4th century CE, when the Roman emperor Julian wrote his satire the Caesars (309), in which the souls of dead emperors are summoned to a banquet, Julian described the shade of Tiberius as follows:
“Upon his back countless scars were beheld, various burns, scrapes, harsh blows, bruises, scabs, and cankers as though branded upon him by both his licentiousness and cruelty.”
Tiberius remained infamous throughout later history for his alleged perversion on Capri. In fact, this perversion has even been depicted quite explicitly in modern literature and cinematography. Perhaps the most elaborate representation of it is in Penthouse’s infamous film Caligula, where none other than Peter O’Toole stars as a perverted Tiberius, acting quite consistently with how he is represented in the ancient sources. The Old Goat of Capri certainly makes for an amusing, disturbing, and bizarre tale, of the sort that sticks with and stigmatizes its targeted subject. That said, historically speaking, I choose to remain agnostic about the truth of these claims. There is simply too much room for plausible doubt. In all likelihood, like most ancient rumors and legends, there is probably a historical kernel behind these stories, but we are too far distanced from the events themselves to make any probable conclusion in favor of their veracity.