The Life of Tiberius, 60–67

Suetonius  translated by J. C. Rolfe

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60A few days after he reached Capreae and was by himself, a fisherman appeared unexpectedly and offered him a huge mullet; whereupon in his alarm that the man had clambered up to him from the back of the island over rough and pathless rocks, he had the poor fellow’s face scrubbed with the fish. And because in the midst of his torture the man thanked his stars that he had not given the emperor an enormous crab that he had caught, Tiberius had his face torn with the crab also. He punished a soldier of the praetorian guard with death for having stolen a peacock from his preserves. When the litter in which he was making a trip was stopped by brambles, he had the man who went ahead to clear the way, a centurion of the first cohorts, stretched out on the ground and flogged half to death.

61Presently he broke out into every form of cruelty, for which he never lacked occasion, venting it on the friends and even the acquaintances, first of his mother, then of his grandsons and granddaughter, and finally of Sejanus. After the death of Sejanus he was more cruel than ever, which showed that his favourite was not wont to egg him on, but on the contrary gave him the opportunities which he himself desired. Yet in a brief and sketchy autobiography which he composed he had the assurance to write that he had punished Sejanus because he found him venting his hatred on the children of his son Germanicus. Whereas in fact he had himself put one of them to death after he had begun to suspect Sejanus and the other after the latter’s downfall.

2It is a long story to run through his acts of cruelty in detail; it will be enough to mention the forms which they took, as samples of his barbarity. Not a day passed without an execution, even those that were sacred and holy; for he put some to death even on New Year’s day. Many were accused and condemned with their children and even by their children. The relatives of the victims were forbidden to mourn for them. Special rewards were voted the accusers and sometimes even the witnesses. The word of no informer was doubted. 3Every crime was treated as capital, even the utterance of a few simple words. A poet was charged with having slandered Agamemnon in a tragedy, and a writer of history of having called Brutus and Cassius the last of the Romans. The writers were at once put to death and their works destroyed, although they had been read with approval in public some years before in the presence of Augustus himself. 4Some of those who were consigned to prison were denied not only the consolation of reading, but even the privilege of conversing and talking together. Of those who were cited to plead their causes some opened their veins at home, feeling sure of being condemned and wishing to avoid annoyance and humiliation, while others drank poison in full view of the senate; yet the wounds of the former were bandaged and they were hurried half-dead, but still quivering, to the prison. Every one of those who were executed was thrown out upon the Stairs of Mourning and dragged to the Tiber with hooks, as many as twenty being so treated in a single day, including women and children. 5Since ancient usage made it impious to strangle maidens, young girls were first violated by the executioner and then strangled. Those who wished to die were forced to live; for he thought death so light a punishment that when he heard that one of the accused, Carnulus by name, had anticipated his execution, he cried: “Carnulus has given me the slip”; and when he was inspecting the prisons and a man begged for a speedy death, he replied: “I have not yet become your friend.” 6An ex-consul has recorded in his Annals that once at a large dinner-party, at which the writer himself was present, Tiberius was suddenly asked in a loud voice by one of the dwarfs that stood beside the table among the jesters why Paconius, who was charged with treason, remained so long alive; that the emperor at the time chided him for his saucy tongue, but a few days later wrote to the senate to decide as soon as possible about the execution of Paconius.

62He increased his cruelty and carried it to greater lengths, exasperated by what he learned about the death of his son Drusus. At first supposing that he had died of disease, due to his bad habits, on finally learning that he had been poisoned by the treachery of his wife Livilla and Sejanus, there was no one whom Tiberius spared from torment and death. Indeed, he gave himself up so utterly for whole days to this investigation and was so wrapped up in it, that when he was told of the arrival of a host of his from Rhodes, whom he had invited to Rome in a friendly letter, he had him put to the torture at once, supposing that someone had come whose testimony was important for the case. On discovering his mistake, he even had the man put to death, to keep him from giving publicity to the wrong done him.

2At Capreae they still point out the scene of his executions, from which he used to order that those who had been condemned after long and exquisite tortures be cast headlong into the sea before his eyes, while a band of marines waited below for the bodies and broke their bones with boathooks and oars, to prevent any breath of life from remaining in them. Among various forms of torture he had devised this one: he would trick men into loading themselves with copious draughts of wine, and then on a sudden tying up their private parts, would torment them at the same time by the torture of the cords and of the stoppage of their water. 3And had not death prevented him, and Thrasyllus, purposely it is said, induced him to put off some things through hope of a longer life, it is believed that still more would have perished, and that he would not even have spared the rest of his grandsons; for he had his suspicions of Gaius and detested Tiberius as the fruit of adultery. And this is highly probable, for he used at times to call Priam happy, because he had outlived all his kindred.

63Many things go to show, not only how hated and execrable he was all this time, but also that he lived a life of extreme fear and was even exposed to insult. He forbade anyone to consult soothsayers secretly and without witnesses. Indeed, he even attempted to do away with the oracles near the city, but forbore through terror at the divine power of the Praenestine lots; for though he had them sealed up in a chest and brought to Rome, he could not find them until the box was taken back to the temple. 2He had assigned provinces to one or two ex-consuls, of whom he did not dare to lose sight, but he detained them at Rome and finally appointed their successors several years later without their having left the city. In the meantime they retained their titles, and he even continued to assign them numerous commissions, to execute through their deputies and assistants.

64After the exile of his daughter-in-law and grandchildren he never moved them anywhere except in fetters and in a tightly closed litter, while a guard of soldiers kept any who met them on the road from looking at them or even from stopping as they went by.

65When Sejanus was plotting revolution, although he saw the man’s birthday publicly celebrated and his golden statues honoured everywhere, yet it was with difficulty that he at last overthrew him, rather by craft and deceit than by his imperial authority. First of all, to remove him from his person under colour of showing him honour, he chose him as his colleague in a fifth consulship, which, with this very end in view, he assumed after a long interval while absent from the city. Then beguiling him with hope of marriage into the imperial family and of the tribunicial power, he accused him when he least expected it in a shameful and pitiable speech, begging the senators among other things to send one of the consuls to bring him, a lonely old man, into their presence under military protection. 2Even then distrustful and fearful of an outbreak, he had given orders that his grandson Drusus, whom he still kept imprisoned in Rome, should be set free, if occasion demanded, and made commander-in-chief. He even got ships ready and thought of flight to some of the legions, constantly watching from a high cliff for the signals which he had ordered to be raised afar off as each step was taken, for fear the messengers should be delayed. But even when the conspiracy of Sejanus was crushed, he was no whit more confident or courageous, but for the next nine months he did not leave the villa which is called Io’s.

66His anxiety of mind became torture because of reproaches of all kinds from every quarter, since every single one of those who were condemned to death heaped all kinds of abuse upon him, either to his face or by billets placed in the orchestra. By these, however, he was most diversely affected, now through a sense of shame desiring that they all be concealed and kept secret, sometimes scorning them and producing them of his own accord and giving them publicity. Why, he was even attacked by Artabanus, king of the Parthians, who charged him in a letter with the murder of his kindred, with other bloody deeds, and with shameless and dissolute living, counselling him to gratify the intense and just hatred of the citizens as soon as possible by a voluntary death.

67At last in utter self-disgust he all but admitted the extremity of his wretchedness in a letter beginning as follows: “If I know what to write to you, Fathers of the Senate, or how to write it, or what to leave unwritten at present, may all gods and goddesses visit me with more utter destruction than I feel that I am daily suffering.” 2Some think that through his knowledge of the future he foresaw this situation, and knew long beforehand what detestation and ill-repute one day awaited him; and that therefore when he became emperor, he positively refused the title of “Father of his Country” and to allow the senate to take oath to support his acts, for fear that he might presently be found undeserving of such honours and thus be the more shamed. 3In fact, this may be gathered from the speech which he made regarding these two matters; for example, when he says: “I shall always be consistent and never change my ways so long as I am in my senses; but for the sake of precedent the senate should beware of binding itself to support the acts of any man, since he might through some mischance suffer a change.” Again: 4“If you ever come to feel any doubt,” he says, “of my character or of my heartfelt devotion to you (and before that happens, I pray that my last day may save me from this altered opinion of me), the title of Father of my Country will give me no additional honour, but will be a reproach to you, either for your hasty action in conferring the appellation upon me, or for your inconsistency in changing your estimate of my character.”

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