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I, Tiberius

June 25, 2011

In an earlier entry, I mentioned my novel about the Roman emperor Tiberius and his first wife, entitled “Vipsania: A Roman Odyssey”. The book presents a plausible and entirely fresh portrayal of one of the most important and enigmatic figures in Roman history and I would like to give some background about it.

First of all, this novel had its roots in the wonderful 1976 BBC television presentation “I, Claudius”, which was based on the books by Robert Graves (“I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God“), which in turn were based on the writings of the ancient Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus. I had been interested in ancient history since childhood, but it was “I, Claudius” that turned me on to Rome in particular and to the fascinating personalities that made up the imperial family between about 20 BC and 60 AD (e.g. the first emperor Augustus, his scheming wife Livia, her sons Tiberius and Drusus and their children and grandchildren, including Claudius, Caligula, and right down to Nero).  I was especially intrigued by the saga of Tiberius and Vipsania.

Suetonius tells us that Augustus insisted that Tiberius divorce Vipsania – though he loved her and they had one son and another child on the way – so that he could marry Augustus’s daughter Julia, who had recently been widowed when Marcus Agrippa (Vipsania’s father) had died. Agrippa had been first in line to the throne and Tiberius was Augustus’s choice to replace him – at least until his grandsons were old enough to inherit. Suetonius describes Tiberius’s misery over losing his wife and a public expression of grief and longing at the sight of Vipsania that caused the emperor to forbid him to see her again.

The TV series had a heart-wrenching scene not based on the ancient accounts in which Tiberius secretly visited Vipsania after the divorce and pleaded with her to join him in a suicide pact, which she refused.  He went on in the series to become ever more morose and depraved and, by the time he became emperor, Tiberius was a monster, given to extreme cruelty and perversity – and that is more or less the way he has gone down in history. Suetonius and Tacitus tell of his sexual outrages and his apparently spiteful or arbitrary executions of friends, acquaintances, and family members.

But history also records the many gifts and accomplishments of Tiberius, who was a modest and extremely capable man, both as a general and as an administrator. And his devotion to Vipsania – which moved him to honor her as a member of his own family after her death, despite her remarriage to his arch-enemy – hints that he was something more than just another tyrant corrupted by absolute power.

About 10 years ago, I did some research into the lives of Tiberius and Vipsania when I became intrigued by some coins issued in the name of their son Drusus a few years after his mother’s death.  These copper coins show a veiled woman with the word Pietas underneath. Traditionally, the portrait has been identified as Livia, though it does not resemble her known portraits. My research, summarized in an article published by The Celator in 2004 and presented on my web site, argued that, if the portrait represents an actual person, then she almost certainly must be Vipsania.

While reviewing the material about Tiberius and Vipsania for this article and for my book about the Roman empresses, I came across an amazing fact that never seems to have been commented on by earlier historians.

Tiberius was miserable in his marriage to Julia, even though it made him the second most powerful man in the Roman Empire.  Abruptly, in 6 BC, he resigned his post. Augustus refused to accept his resignation, but Tiberius threatened to commit suicide by starvation and Augustus was forced to let him retire to the island of Rhodes off the coast of the Roman province of Asia (modern Turkey). What I was amazed to realize was that Tiberius’s retirement coincided exactly with the posting of Vipsania’s new husband as governor of Asia. The custom at the time was for a governor’s wife to accompany him, so Vipsania was almost certainly in Asia when Tiberius went to Rhodes.

I wondered – did Tiberius plan to rendezvous with Vipsania? Perhaps even run away with her?  I collected all of the information I could about Tiberius and saw that most of the apparently random executions he ordered late in his life were connected in one way or another to his time in Rhodes. And so I concocted an intricate, romantic story that fits the facts and puts Tiberius’s actions and personality in a much more favorable light. I cannot prove that all of it is true, but it is a compelling tale based on historical facts. “Vipsania: A Roman Odyssey”  is available in paperback, as a Kindle book, and in various ebook formats.

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