The Life of Tiberius, 68–76

Suetonius  translated by J. C. Rolfe

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68He was large and strong of frame, and of a stature above the average; broad of shoulders and chest; well proportioned and symmetrical from head to foot. His left hand was the more nimble and stronger, and its joints were so powerful that he could bore through a fresh, sound apple with his finger, and break the head of a boy, or even a young man, with a fillip. 2He was of fair complexion and wore his hair rather long at the back, so much so as even to cover the nape of his neck; which was apparently a family trait. His face was handsome, but would break out on a sudden with many pimples. His eyes were unusually large and, strange to say, had the power of seeing even at night and in the dark, but only for a short time when first opened after sleep; presently they grew dim-sighted again. 3He 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 companions, and then speaking with great deliberation and with a kind of supple movement of his fingers. All of these mannerisms of his, which were disagreeable and signs of arrogance, were remarked by Augustus, who often tried to excuse them to the senate and people by declaring that they were natural failings, and not intentional. 4He enjoyed excellent health, which was all but perfect during nearly the whole of his reign, although from the thirtieth year of his age he took care of it according to his own ideas, without the aid or advice of physicians.

69Although somewhat neglectful of the gods and of religious matters, being addicted to astrology and firmly convinced that everything was in the hands of fate, he was nevertheless immoderately afraid of thunder. Whenever the sky was lowering, he always wore a laurel wreath, because it is said that that kind of leaf is not blasted by lightning.

70He was greatly devoted to liberal studies in both languages. In his Latin oratory he followed Messala Corvinus, to whom he had given attention in his youth, when Messala was an old man. But he so obscured his style by excessive mannerisms and pedantry, that he was thought to speak much better offhand than in a prepared address. 2He also composed a lyric poem, entitled “A Lament for the Death of Lucius Caesar,” and made Greek verses in imitation of Euphorion, Rhianus, and Parthenius, poets of whom he was very fond, placing their busts in the public libraries among those of the eminent writers of old; and on that account many learned men vied with one another in issuing commentaries on their works and dedicating them to the emperor. 3Yet his special aim was a knowledge of mythology, which he carried to a silly and laughable extreme; for he used to test even the grammarians, a class of men in whom, as I have said, he was especially interested, by questions something like this: “Who was Hecuba’s mother?” “What was the name of Achilles among the maidens?” “What were the Sirens in the habit of singing?” Moreover, on the first day that he entered the senate after the death of Augustus, to satisfy at once the demands of filial piety and of religion, he offered sacrifice after the example of Minos with incense and wine, but without a fluteplayer, as Minos had done in ancient times on the death of his son.

71Though he spoke Greek readily and fluently, yet he would not use it on all occasions, and especially eschewed it in the senate; so much so that before using the word “monopolium,” he begged pardon for the necessity of employing a foreign term. Again, when the word ἔμβλημα was read in a decree of the senate, he recommended that it be changed and a native word substituted for the foreign one; and if one could not be found, that the idea be expressed by several words, if necessary, and by periphrasis. On another occasion, when a soldier was asked in Greek to give testimony, he forbade him to answer except in Latin.

72Twice only during the whole period of his retirement did he try to return to Rome, once sailing in a trireme as far as the gardens near the artificial lake, after first posting a guard along the banks of the Tiber to keep off those who came out to meet him; and again coming up the Appian Way as far as the seventh milestone. But he returned after merely having a distant view of the city walls, without approaching them; the first time for some unknown reason, the second through alarm at a portent. 2He had among his pets a serpent, and when he was going to feed it from his own hand, as his custom was, and discovered that it had been devoured by ants, he was warned to beware of the power of the multitude. So he went back in haste to Campania, fell ill at Astura, but recovering somewhat kept on to Circeii. To avoid giving any suspicion of his weak condition, he not only attended the games of the soldiers, but even threw down darts from his high seat at a boar which was let into the arena. Immediately he was taken with a pain in the side, and then being exposed to a draught when he was overheated, his illness increased. 3For all that, he kept up for some time, although he continued his journey as far as Misenum and made no change in his usual habits, not even giving up his banquets and other pleasures, partly from lack of self-denial and partly to conceal his condition. Indeed, when the physician Charicles had taken his hand to kiss it as he left the dining-room, since he was going away on leave of absence, Tiberius, thinking that he was trying to feel his pulse, urged him to remain and take his place again, and prolonged the dinner to a late hour. Even then he did not give up his custom of standing in the middle of the dining-room with a lictor by his side and addressing all the guests by name as they said farewell.

73Meanwhile, having read in the proceedings of the senate that some of those under accusation, about whom he had written briefly, merely stating that they had been named by an informer, had been discharged without a hearing, he cried out in anger that he was held in contempt, and resolved to return to Capreae at any cost, since he would not risk any step except from his place of refuge. Detained, however, by bad weather and the increasing violence of his illness, he died a little later in the villa of Lucullus, in the seventy-eighth year of his age and the twenty-third of his reign, on the seventeenth day before the Kalends of April, in the consulship of Gnaeus Acerronius Proculus and Gaius Pontius Nigrinus.

2Some think that Gaius gave him a slow and wasting poison; others that during convalescence from an attack of fever food was refused him when he asked for it. Some say that a pillow was thrown upon his face, when he came to and asked for a ring which had been taken from him during a fainting fit. Seneca writes that conscious of his approaching end, he took off the ring, as if to give it to someone, but held fast to it for a time; then he put it back on his finger, and clenching his left hand, lay for a long time motionless; suddenly he called for his attendants, and on receiving no response, got up; but his strength failed him and he fell dead near the couch.

74On his last birthday he dreamt that the Apollo of Temenos, a statue of remarkable size and beauty, which he had brought from Syracuse to be set up in the library of the new temple, appeared to him in a dream, declaring that it could not be dedicated by Tiberius. A few days before his death the lighthouse at Capreae was wrecked by an earthquake. At Misenum the ashes from the glowing coals and embers which had been brought in to warm his dining-room, after they had died out and been for a long time cold, suddenly blazed up in the early evening and glowed without cessation until late at night.

75The people were so glad of his death, that at the first news of it some ran about shouting, “Tiberius to the Tiber,” while others prayed to Mother Earth and the Manes to allow the dead man no abode except among the damned. Still others threatened his body with the hook and the Stairs of Mourning, especially embittered by a recent outrage, added to the memory of his former cruelty. 2It had been provided by decree of the senate that the execution of the condemned should in all cases be put off for ten days, and it chanced that the punishment of some fell due on the day when the news came about Tiberius. The poor wretches begged the public for protection; but since in the continued absence of Gaius there was no one who could be approached and appealed to, the jailers, fearing to act contrary to the law, strangled them and cast out their bodies on the Stairs of Mourning. 3Therefore hatred of the tyrant waxed greater, since his cruelty endured even after his death. When the funeral procession left Misenum, many cried out that the body ought rather to be carried to Atella, and half-burned in the amphitheatre; but it was taken to Rome by the soldiers and reduced to ashes with public ceremonies.

76Two years before his death he had made two copies of a will, one in his own hand and the other in that of a freedman, but of the same content, and had caused them to be signed and sealed by persons of the very lowest condition. In this will he named his grandsons, Gaius, son of Germanicus, and Tiberius, son of Drusus, heirs to equal shares of his estate, each to be sole heir in case of the other’s death. Besides, he gave legacies to several, including the vestal virgins, as well as to each and every man of the soldiers and the commons of Rome, with separate ones to the masters of the city wards.

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