Sunday 19 August 2018

Empress-less :( By L.J. Trafford

The five Julian-Claudian emperors that ruled Rome from 27BC to 68AD clocked up eight empresses between them. 

The chart shows the distribution. It reveals an anomaly.
Rome’s second Emperor Tiberius ruled with no Empress at all. This is quite noteworthy given he ruled for 23 years. Caligula managed two whole empresses in a reign of only 5 years.  So why did Tiberius not marry whilst Emperor? 

He was relatively late in years when he succeeded his stepfather Augustus at the age of 56 years old. Still that was no impediment Claudius married his fourth wife (and second empress) Agrippina aged 59. There was nothing to stop him marrying a much younger woman and producing heirs. But then Tiberius already had heirs aplenty; a son and grandson from his first marriage. Also he'd adopted his nephew Germanicus as his son. Germanicus had three sons of his own. 
This seemed ample enough successors. Any more might well cause the sort of infighting, back-stabbings and poisonings the Julio-Claudian family became famous for.  
Perhaps it was a strong attempt to not muddy the dynastic waters any further. 
However, I rather think not. I rather think Tiberius’ lack of an Empress was a decision born of his traumatic romantic history. 

Wife Number One 

Tiberius' first wife was Vipsania. She was the daughter of Emperor Augustus’ right hand man Agrippa.  They were married when she was likely a teenager and Tiberius was in his early 20s.
Evidently it was a happy marriage.  They had one son, Drusus and Vipsania was pregnant again when in 12 BC her father Agrippa died. 
This was to have devastating consequences beyond a daughter's natural grief. For Tiberius' stepfather, the Emperor Augustus,
ordered the couple to divorce.  This seems like an unnecessary cruelty of the emperor towards Vipsania and Tiberius.  She’d just lost her father and then her husband is forced to divorce her even though she is pregnant with his child. I could here make a valid point about how marriage for centuries was a contract between families, how love had very little if anything to do with it. Naturally with Agrippa dead the marriage between the families is void.  Tiberius was needed elsewhere.  
That’s the standard in the elite rungs of Roman society where marriages were made and dissolved based on changing circumstances. 

But actually this everyday tale has a very bitter sting to it. Tiberius obeyed his stepfather and divorced Vipsania, but it was with much reluctance. 
Hankies at the ready folks, this is what Suetonius has to say:   

But even after the divorce he regretted his separation from Vipsania, and the only time that he chanced to see her, he followed her with such an intent and tearful gaze that care was taken that she should never again come before his eyes.  

And he continued to regret it. As Emperor he maintained a vendetta against Gaius Asinius Gallus who Vipsania had been hastily remarried to. “He had hated him for years” As Tacitus neatly puts it. 
So who was the woman Tiberius was forced to divorce the wife he deeply loved for? 
She was Augustus’ daughter, Julia. 

Wife Number Two

Julia was 28 years old and already a mother of 5 children. This was to be her third marriage.  At age
Tiberius' Stepfather the Emperor Augustus
14 she’d been married to her cousin Marcellus. He had died of a fever after only two years.
Her second marriage had been to Agrippa. Which meant that not only was Tiberius marrying his step sister, he was also marrying his former mother in law. It had to feel weird. 
The two had been raised together in the same household as Tiberius’ mother Livia was married to Julia’s father Augustus. Julia’s upbringing had been strict.

(Augustus) In bringing up his daughter and his granddaughters he even had them taught spinning and weaving, and he forbade them to say or do anything except openly and such as might be recorded in the household diary. He was most strict in keeping them from meeting strangers. 

It was hardly surprising given these restrictions that Julia might develop a rebellious streak.

One day she came into his presence in a somewhat risque costume, and though he said nothing, he was offended. The next day she changed her style and embraced her father, who was delighted by the respectability which she was affecting. Augustus, who the day before had concealed his distress, was now unable to conceal his pleasure. "How much more suitable", he remarked, "for a daughter of Augustus is this costume!" Julia did not fail to stand up for herself. "Today", she said, "I dressed to be looked at by my father, yesterday to be looked at by my husband."  


This rebellion went beyond a slightly low cut dress

When people who knew about her shocking behaviour said they were surprised that she who distributed her favours so wildly gave birth to sons who were so like Agrippa, she said, "I never take on a passenger unless the ship is full."  
Tiberius was well aware of Julia’s wild streak for he had been on the receiving end of one of her passes.

He disapproved of Julia's character, having perceived that she had a passion for him even during the lifetime of her former husband, as was in fact the general opinion.   

Presumably Tiberius did not take her up on her offer.

There is a strong hint of misogyny in descriptions of Julia’s life but the Julia that appears in Macrobius’ account is fun and witty and well read. He tells us:  Her kindness and gentleness and utter freedom from vindictiveness had won her immense popularity, 
However for all these good qualities she was an ill matched wife for Tiberius. Where she was sociable and friendly and fun, he was sullen, taciturn and introspective.  Suetonius says of Tiberius: 

 He strode along with his neck stiff and bent forward,usually with a stern countenance and for the most part in silence, never or very rarely conversing with his companion  

As a teenager he suffered badly from acne and in later years developed a skin complaint that caused weeping ulcers on his face.
Hardly a good fit for the fun loving sparkly, attractive Julia.
They did try to make it work though. They had a child together but when that child died their relationship completely broke down and Tiberius moved out.
 Julia might have made some sort of pass at him in their youth but she was as unhappy as he was with this marriage.  She was most probably relieved when Tiberius went off to Germany on campaign, leaving her in Rome. 
She had her freedom and she enjoyed it a lot.  Too much, for the stories regarding her behaviour get more and more extreme:

She had been accessible to scores of paramours, that in nocturnal revels she had roamed about the city, that the very forum and the rostrum, from which her father had proposed a law against adultery had been chosen by the daughter for her debaucheries.  
Sold her favours and sought the right to every indulgence with even an unknown paramour. 


The emperor’s daughter selling her body to passing men in the Forum was a huge scandal not least because, as Seneca mentions above, her father had introduced a series of morality laws.

One of these, the Lex Iulia de Adulteriis Coercendis,  proscribed banishment for those caught in adultery. It also stated that husband’s (under certain circumstances) could kill their unfaithful wife. On the milder side the husband was compelled to divorce an adulterous wife.  
Julia was treading a very dangerous path as her antics became known to everyone in the city, bar her doting father Augustus. Tiberius was undoubtedly in full knowledge of what his wife was indulging in and it placed him in a terrible predicament.

The law of his own father-in-law stated he should divorce his unfaithful wife but that wife was the emperor’s daughter. It also cut into all that Roman society felt about marriage, husband’s should be able to control their wives. What did it say about Tiberius as a Roman man that he could not? The innuendos and gossip he faced must have been unbearable. 

So unbearable that Tiberius bailed:

At the flood-tide of success, though in the prime of life and health, he suddenly decided to go into retirement and to withdraw as far as possible from the centre of the stage. 

He told Augustus his retirement to the island of Rhodes was because Julia’s sons were now of age and he was no longer needed. That was the official version.  
Unofficially everybody (bar her doting father) knew the real reason. 
“From disgust at his wife, whom he dared neither accuse nor put away, though he could no longer endure her.”  Suetonius

Four years after Tiberius ‘ flight from public life Augustus was finally made aware of what had been public knowledge for some years.  The Emperor was devastated and Julia, as the law he’d introduced  dictated, was banished.   

After Julia was banished, he denied her the use of wine and every form of luxury, and would not allow any man, bond or free, to come near her without his permission,   

In Tiberius’ absence Augustus divorced his daughter from his stepson. Tiberius eventually returned to Rome eight years after his exile. In 14 AD he succeeded his stepfather as Emperor.  

Single Once More

Tiberius was a man who held grudges, note his dislike of Vipsania's second husband. He certainly held a grudge against Julia and all that she had put him through. In later years Augustus had lessened the conditions of Julia’s banishment. Once emperor Tiberius increased them.
He had not forgotten.  He had not forgiven. 
It is hardly surprising after the abject failure, personal humiliation and misery of his second marriage that Tiberius did not seek a third even when he was Emperor and the choice would have been his alone.  

But there is also something else at work here. We have a long list of Julia’s lovers but from the moment the couple separated there are no named mistresses or favourite slaves or any paramour at all named for Tiberius.
In a society high on Imperial gossip this is so unusual as to be positively noteworthy.  That the emperor was apparently celibate from his early 30s is quite staggering particularly when you remember he lived in a palace that catered to the emperor’s every sexual whim.  

Unsurprisingly there is quite a lot of speculation by historians over this. Speculation it will remain because they are all theories born of an absence of information. But I can quite believe that Tiberius, as several historians have supposed, was sexually timid, perhaps impotent (maybe caused by the oppressive stress of public life) perhaps even indifferent to sex after his humiliation by Julia. 
However  our tale takes another twist when Tiberius took a second retirement to an island, this time to the island of Capri. 
During these years some quite unbelievably shocking sex stories become attached to his name.  

The Capri Years  

Capri. Photo by Radomil

In 26 AD having ruled for 12 years and at the age of 67, Tiberius left Rome for the island of Capri. He was never to return to the city. 
The reasons why he departed Rome are much to numerous and complex to cover in this short piece. The gist of it was that he was thoroughly fed up with politics and ruling. 
He remained on Capri for 11 years up to his death in 37AD. The citizens of Rome therefore did not set eyes on their emperor for over a decade. Hidden away on a small island is it any wonder stories were told as to what Tiberius was up to. It had to be something sinister for him to abandon his grand position didn’t it? 
Tacitus mentions secret vices. Suetonius helpfully records exactly what the gossips were saying. It is about as extreme as emperor gossip gets.  You have been warned: 

On retiring to Capri he devised a pleasance for his secret orgies: teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated 
before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions.  

Its bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and  sculptures, 
as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this "the old goat's garden," punning on the island's name.  

He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to
 tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed minnows) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles; and unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by both nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction

What are we to make of this? Had Tiberius gone senile in his old age? Had his old humiliation by Julia and his loss of Vipsania been repressed and then spilled over into this strange explosion of depravity?  There is a suggestion in other sources that Tiberius had always possessed secret vices but that he had repressed these until he was away from the public eye. 

This seems all a little too convenient. Surely Tiberius would have shown some indication of perversion prior to retiring to Capri ? Yet as previously discussed we have absolutely nothing on Tiberius. Not even any normal sexual relations recorded. 
I am rather reminded of the emperor Domitian whose love of solitude was inexplicable to the public facing Romans. A story circulated that during these quiet periods he was in fact stabbing flies to death with his pen . Because he had to be up to something sinister, didn’t he? 
I would suggest similar forces are at play here. To abandon Rome, the city he ruled and to hide himself away was so odd to the Roman mind that stories were invented to explain the inexplicable. Given that Tiberius spent 11 years on Capri that gave ample time for these tales to be embellished and then further embellished until, as Suetonius notes, they could barely be believed. 

The End 

Tiberius died on Capri in 37AD entirely unloved and unmourned.
The people of Rome, deserted by their emperor declared “To the Tiber (river) with Tiberius”
He was succeeded as Emperor by a man who became the embodiment of vice and depravity, Caligula. He’d spent some time with Tiberius on Capri and the gossips claimed it was the old emperor who first led the impressionable Caligula into his demented perversions.
Which is a sad epithet for an emperor who had dedicated his entire life to both public and military service. Who left the treasury bursting with coinage. Who took over this newly created role of ‘emperor’ from Augustus and kept it going when it might so easily collapsed into the civil wars that Augustus had ended. A legacy that endured for 400 years.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Carolyn, for paying tribute to Ann. I never met her in the flesh but had some communications with her as History Girl to History Girl and I can second that she was indeed a very generous person towards her fellow writers. R.I.P


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