Julia and Tiberius

"He walked with head bent and fixed, the face stern, a taciturn man exchanging no word with those about him.... Augustus realised these severe and haughty manners, and more than once tried to excuse them in the Senate and to the people, saying that they were defects of temperament, not signs of a sinister spirit."

This is the picture that Suetonius gives us of Tiberius, the man who, in 9 B.C., after the death of Agrippa and Drusus, stood next to Augustus, his right hand and pre-established successor. At that time Augustus was fifty-four years old; not an old man, but he was ill and had presided over the Republic for twenty-one years. Many people must have asked themselves what would happen if Augustus should die, or should definitely retire to private life. The answer was not uncertain: since Rome was engaged in the conquest of Germany, the chief of the Empire and of the army ought to be a valiant general and a man of expert acquaintance with Germanic affairs. Tiberius was the first general of his time and knew Germany and the Germans better than any other Roman.

The passage from Suetonius, just quoted, indicates that Tiberius was not altogether popular, yet it was the accepted opinion that Rome and Italy might well be content to rely upon so capable a general and diplomat, if Augustus failed. This attitude, however, changed when the death of Drusus entirely removed the alternative of choice between himself and Tiberius, and the latter, up to that time universally admired, began to be met, even among the nobility, by a strong opposition. How can this apparently inexplicable fact be made clear? The theory of corruption so dear to the ancients, which I have already explained, gives us the key to the mystery. Those who have been disposed to see in that theory merely a plaything of poets, orators, philosophers, will now realise that it had power enough to kill the person and destroy the family of the first citizen of the Empire. That kind of continuous fear of luxury, of amusements, of prodigality, on account of which the ancients called corruption so many things that we define as progress, was not a sentiment always equally alive in the mind of the multitude. The Romans, like ourselves, loved to live and to enjoy; this is so true that philosophers and legislators constantly took pains to remind them of the danger of allowing too much liberty to the appetites; but more effective than the counsels of philosophers and the threats of the law, great public calamities inspired in the masses, at least temporarily, a spirit of puritanism and austerity. Of this the consequences of the battle of Actium afforded noteworthy proof.

Those who have read the fourth volume of The Greatness and Decline of Rome may perhaps remember how I have described the conservative and traditionalist movement of the first decade of the government of Augustus. Frightened by the revolution, men's minds had reverted precipitously to the past. A new party, which one might call the traditionalist, had sought to re-establish the old-time order, in the state, in customs, in ideas; to combat the corruption of customs; and of this party Augustus had been the right arm. Indeed, to so great an extent had this party stirred up public spirit and prevailed upon those in power that in 18 B.C. it succeeded in passing some great social laws on luxury, on matrimony, on dress. With these laws, Rome proposed to remake, by terrible measures, the old, prolific, austere nobility of the aristocratic era. The lex de maritandis ordinibus aimed with a thousand vexatious restrictions to constrain the nobility to marry and have children; the lex sumptuaria studied to restrain extravagance; the lex de adulteriis proclaimed martial law in the family, menacing an unfaithful wife and her accomplice with exile for life and the confiscation of half their substance; legislation of the harshest, this, which should scourge Rome to blood, to keep her from falling anew into the inveterate vices from which the civil wars were born.

The impression of the civil wars could not last forever. In fact, in the decade that followed the promulgation of the social laws, the puritan fervour, which had up to that time heated all Italy, began to cool. Wealth increased; the confidence that order and peace were actually re-established, spread everywhere; the generation that had seen the civil wars, disappeared; peace and growing prosperity stirred in the next generation a desire for freedom and pleasure that would not endure the narrow traditionalism and the puritanism of the preceding generation; consequently also the laws of 18 B.C. became intolerable.