The focus of the literary accounts of the reign of Tiberius are on the politics of Rome and his relationship with the other members of the imperial family and with the senators. It concerns what we might call ‘high politics’. But the emperor was not just engaged in matters Roman: there was an empire to run. There is a question as to whether one can or should separate the elements of administration from those of political history. Could we envisage an emperor who had a disastrous high politics, but made a success of running the Empire?
While in Rome, Tiberius appears to have been assiduous in the performance of his administrative and legal duties. The situation does not seem to have altered significantly after his departure for Capri. Technically, since the imperial position was a creation in addition to and an amalgam of pre-existing administrative positions, the emperor’s presence was not necessary for the proper functioning of Rome’s administration. Indeed, since Augustus had also spent many years away from the city, there is no suggestion that the imperial presence was intended to be integral to the administration’s daily functioning.
Nevertheless, Suetonius (Tiberius 41) claims that Tiberius ceased to pay any attention to administrative issues following his retreat (though how would he have known this?). In 27, Tiberius provided compensation for those who had lost property in a fire on the Caelian Hill (Tacitus, Annales 4. 64) and he did the same in 37 when fire destroyed part of the Aventine and the Circus Maximus (Tacitus, Annales 6. 45). In 32, he wrote to the senate asking them to issue a stern proclamation against the people who had been rioting because of a threatened failure of the grain supply (Tacitus, Annales 6. 13), though in AD 19, he had intervened to fix prices in a similar crisis (Annales 2.87).
AD 19 also saw something of a moral crackdown with a ruling that no woman whose father, grandfather, or husband was a Roman eques could register as a prostitute. The ruling may seem odd, but it was probably a means for elite women to avoid a charge of adultery (Tacitus, Annales 2.85). There was also an expulsion of followers of Egyptian and Jewish religion, both of which were seen as interfering with the traditional religious practices of Rome. Freedmen were conscripted into a military unit and sent to a malarial area of Sardinia in the expectation that many would die there (Annales 2. 85).It is probably not a coincidence that Roman was reeling from the death of Germanicus, and the misfortune that gods had visited upon them. Restoring moral and religious discipline was a reaction to such calamities.
In AD 33, another moment of crisis in the imperial familty, Tiberius enforced a pre-existing law on interest rates, cracking down on another perceived immorality. The result was a financial crisis as the money-lenders rescued their money from the very primitive banking system of Rome. This caused a financial crisis which Tiberius stabilised by pumping money into the banking system (Tacitus, Annales 6. 16–17; Dio, 58. 21.4–5).
There is not much information concerning policy in the provinces. One of Tiberius’ most famous phrases was ‘I want my sheep to be shorn not shaved’ (Dio, 57. 10.5) referring to the Prefect of Egypt’s unexpectedly large transfer of revenues from the province. This shows some concern for the state of the provinces. Another notable feature of Tiberius’ reign is the number of trials for repetundae (corruption) in the provinces. Tacitus admits that several of the accusations were well founded (Tacitus, Annales 6. 29). There were two cases in which corruption led to revolts. A major revolt in Gaul led by Florus and Sacrovir in AD 21 seems to have been caused by oppressive Roman taxation and the burden of debts (Tacitus, Annales 3. 40–6). The Frisii revolted in AD 29 due to Roman extortion: the Romans had taxed the Frisii in hides but the size of the beasts had not been specified in the treaty. A senior centurion (primus pilus), who was in charge of the region, specified that very large hides were required and, in so doing, bankrupted the Frisians, causing a major revolt. The Romans suffered a military setback but Tiberius refused to commit to a major campaign (Tacitus, Annales 4. 72–4). Tiberius allowed the senate to limit of rights of asylum in the Greek cities (Annales, 3.60-63). Cappadocia also revolted against the imposition of Roman taxes in AD 36 (Annales 6. 41).
The other major characteristic of Tiberius’ provincial administration is the length of time he left the governors in office. Dio tells us that praetorian governors served for three years while consular governors served for six (Dio, 58. 23.5). Tiberius did detain governors appointed to Spain (Dio, 58. 8.3) and Syria in Rome, for reasons which are unclear. Aelius Lama had remained in Rome after his appointment to Syria but was sufficiently trusted to be given the urban prefecture by Tiberius (Tacitus, Annales 6. 27; Dio, 58. 19.5). It is not clear, however, whether the provinces suffered or benefited from the absence of their senatorial governors.