Velleius Paterculus (2. 123.2) tells us that Tiberius was at Augustus’ bedside when the old emperor made his farewells and ‘returned his heavenly spirit to heaven’. Tacitus is not so certain. Tiberius was summoned by his mother and arrived at Nola to find the emperor either dead or almost so. Livia had taken control of the situation and managed the flow of information from the emperor’s bed-chamber so that news of the emperor’s death was issued only when Livia and Tiberius were ready (Tacitus, Annales, 1.5). Immediately after the announcement was made, Tiberius issued the watchword to the praetorian guard thereby establishing control over the only significant armed force in Italy. He then set out to Rome to arrange the formalities of the funeral and to secure his accession.
In the meantime, Tiberius’ only possible rival for the throne was murdered in mysterious circumstances.
On arrival in Rome, Tiberius convoked the senate to decide arrangements for Augustus’ funeral. This was the only business which he allowed to be discussed. There was a pause in the business of state. The funeral was conducted with due solemnities. Augustus was deified. Only after this, did the senate turn to the accession of Tiberius.
What happened next confused everyone.
The problem with the accession debate is what was to be debated. The debate centred on the issue of how Tiberius was to succeed Augustus. The situation at the point of debate seems very clear (to us and later writers).
- Tiberius was the senior figure in the state. He had been Augustus’ partner in power and was the leading and most experienced general. He had constitutional equivalent to those of Augustus.
- The imperial family by political conflicts over the previous two decades. These include the exiles of Julia the Elder, Julia the Younger, and Agrippa Postumus and conflict between Tiberius and the grandsons of Augustus, Gaius and Lucius. It is assumed that the underlying issue behind those disputes was who should succeed Augustus. Since Tiberius had emerged victorious from those conflicts, his smooth accession was to be expected.
- Agrippa Postumus had been killed.
- Tiberius had assumed control of the praetorian guard, a potent symbol that imperial power had already passed into his hands.
- He might have already sent letters to the provincial armies, asserting his control. See Cassius Dio, 57.2.
- Tacitus (Annales, 1.7) places before his account of the senatorial debate a ceremonial occasion at which the consuls, prefects of the guard, prefect of the corn supply, the senate, the army and the people all swore allegiance to the new emperor. This oath of loyalty reinforced the supremacy of the emperor and gave a religious authority to his position.
When the senate met, Tiberius refused to accepted the position that Augustus had held. He claimed that he was not worthy of the role. He then ordered a document to be read which summarised the military and financial status of the Empire. This provided the senate with crucial information if it was to take over the administration of the Empire. The senate demanded that he should assume Augustus’ role and powers, but he refused.
What was going on?
Velleius Paterculus, who is our closest source by date and who was an officer in Tiberius’ army, seems confused. He writes (2.124):
The senate and the Roman people wrestled with Caesar to induce him to succeed to the position of his father, while he on his side strove for permission to play the part of a citizen on a parity with the rest rather than that of an emperor over all. At last he was prevailed upon rather by reason than by the honour, since he saw that whatever he did not undertake to protect was likely to perish. He is the only man to whose lot it has fallen to refuse the principate for a longer time, almost, than others had fought to secure it.
Cassius Dio (57.2) and Tacitus (Annales, 1.11-13) have similar accounts. The debate became bad-tempered as the senators asked in yet more flattering that Tiberius assume the imperial position. Those who took the strongest positions in trying to persuade Tiberius appear to offend him most. As a direct result of this debate, one leading senator (Haterius) was severely beaten and another, Gallus, came to be regarded as such an enemy that he was later killed. Eventually, Tiberius accepted all the powers, as everyone had expected.
Velleius attributes Tiberius’ reluctance to modesty. Tacitus thinks it evidence of Tiberius’ hypocrisy. Cassius Dio relates it to fear of Germanicus.
If we are to believe Tacitus, the same senate that had just sworn loyalty to the princeps, engaged in a lengthy debate over whether he was to become princeps. What was the point of seeming reluctant to take a position he had already in large part assumed? If the debate was really about whether Tiberius would retire, then the charade must have been so obvious that one wonders at its purpose.
The ancient historians answered that by looking at the character of Tiberius. Tacitus used the debate to set many of the themes of his portrayal of the regime. One could also look at it by examining the problems facing Tiberius in his dealings with the senate.
If there was any possibility of the accession going very wrong, the problems would arise not in Rome, where the senators could be intimidated, but on the frontiers. It was there that the regime faced its first major challenge in the mutinies.