Uncancelling Tiberius

John Roth

A half-century ago, in a Roman history class, I first learned about the notoriously depraved behavior of Rome’s second emperor, Tiberius (42 BC–AD 37), who reigned from his stepfather Augustus’ death in AD 14 until his own 22 years later. At the time, I believed that this was what the Roman Empire was all about. Tiberius seemed to me to represent the archetypal Roman emperor, a debauched and dissolute monster who set a precedent for morally corrupt rulers, beginning with his successor, the mad Caligula (AD 12–41), who was soon followed, after the reign of Claudius (41–54), by another icon of corruption, Nero (54–68).

Either despite this introduction to the Roman Empire or because of it, I continued my studies in Classics. I later focused on epic poetry; and, after receiving my doctorate, I began to research the poems of Homer and the oral tradition that brought them to us.

Tiberius was far from my thoughts when, early in my academic career, I presented a paper on speech acts in the Iliad and Odyssey, proposing that the words spoken by the literary characters are not merely literary embellishments, but represent real and powerful speech between formidable adversaries. The words of Achilles and other “heroes” is distinctive, setting them apart from lesser characters due to the performative nature of their speech: Achilles and Odysseus speak, in linguistic terms, more powerfully than the other characters in the two Homeric epics: their unique and powerful speaking distinguishes them among men.

Odysseus’ head from the sculpture of Odysseus blinding Polyphemus, originally in “Tiberius’ Grotto”, Sperlonga (National Archaeological Museum, Sperlonga, Italy).

After the presentation of my paper, I was approached by a gentleman who introduced himself as Dr Jonathan Shay. He complimented me on my thesis and told me he was a clinical psychiatrist with a Classics background. He was then working on a book entitled Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (Touchstone, New York, 1994). His clinical work as a physician involved Vietnam veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As I later learned, Dr Shay was a leading innovator in the treatment of what was then a recently identified disorder. We both used the speech and behavior of literary figures in Homer to identify vestiges of these ancient cultures in contemporary human behavior. Where I found parallels in modern Greek mores, Shay saw them in the wards of the Veterans Administration hospitals.

A couple of years later, his book was published. In it I read about Shay’s PTSD diagnosis of Achilles. He claimed that Achilles, like American veterans of the Vietnam War (1955–75, with American troops being deployed on the ground between March 1965 and March 1973), suffered from a ruinous moral injury that destroys the character of once good men. Both Achilles and the veterans, he asserted, suffered due to a “betrayal of ‘what’s right’”: Achilles feels betrayed by his commander, Agamemnon, while the veterans experienced manifold betrayals throughout their Vietnam War experiences.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC, USA.

The concept of moral injury and the “undoing of character” resonated with me. After a long hiatus, Tiberius began to intrude into my thoughts. I realized that his story was very different from those of Caligula or Nero, who demonstrated erratic, dissolute, abnormal behavior from early youth. I began to see him as another Achilles – another victim of betrayals that brought about his moral ruin. Over the past decade I have come to view Tiberius as a tragic figure, a good man, a gifted commander and leader, who was blindsided by multiple betrayals.

Ancient historians portray Tiberius as a distinguished soldier gone very bad.[1] His career began auspiciously. At one time he was a brilliantly successful commander who was respected by his commander-in-chief Augustus, as well as his soldiers. By the second half of his life, however, Tiberius had become known as a debauched, dissolute, and cruel recluse. The golden boy who once represented the best of Roman values was called a monster. What caused this undoing?

Bust of Tiberius, AD c.30 (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy). 

Tiberius can be viewed as a Roman Achilles who experienced the effects of PTSD. Shay demonstrates that both Achilles and his own soldier-patients experienced significant trauma that resulted in radical behavior shifts in formerly model men and soldiers. These unprecedented behaviors range from abject grief, depression, and withdrawal from society to “berserking” acts of cruelty.[2] Contrary to common belief, the battle experience per se is not the only or main cause of PTSD behavior. Shay notes that the onset of this berserk state is preceded by the “betrayal of ‘what’s right’” by a commander.[3] The inciting incident for the wrath of Achilles and his subsequent defiant behavior is famously Agamemnon’s arrogant usurpation of Achilles’ geras, the prize he has been for his leadership in the war with Troy. Widespread disaffection common among Vietnam veterans is similarly attributable tothe “betrayal of ‘what’s right.’” Shay demonstrates that Achilles’ betrayal by his commander Agamemnon is analogous to the experience of US soldiers during the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam conflict was different in nature from prior US wars, being above all tremendously unpopular at home, and far from universally supported. In the field, most commanders were not present with the men they had sent into combat, as they had been in the Second World War. (1939–45) Incompetent and indifferent leadership brought about serious problems with morale:

[By 1969] it was an army in which men escaped into marijuana and heroin and other men died because their comrades were “stoned” on these drugs… It was an Army whose units in the field were on the edge of mutiny, whose soldiers rebelled against the senselessness of their sacrifice by assassinating officers and noncoms in “accidental” shooting and “fraggings” with grenades.[4]

 D.R. Howe treats the wounds of Private First Class D.A. Crum, Company H, 2nd Battalion, 5th  Marine Regiment, during Operation Hue (1967).

The fact that many leaders in this war ‘led from the rear’ created a sense of unfairness: “when they perceived that distribution of risk as unjust, they became filled with indignant rage, just as Achilles was filled with mēnis [wrath].”[5]

Shay uses the Greek word themis to explain the violation of “what’s right”:

No single English word takes in the whole sweep of a culture’s definition of right and wrong; we use terms such as moral order, convention, normative expectations, ethics, and commonly understood social values. The ancient Greek word that Homer used, themis, encompasses all these meanings.[6]

In the Iliad, Achilles’ wrath is incited when Agamemnon takes the concubine Briseis from him. He laments, “But from me alone of the Achaeans hath he taken and keepeth my wife, the darling of my heart.” [7]

The first seven lines of Homer’s Iliad in a 15th-century manuscript (Vatican Apostolic Library, Vaticanus Palatinus Graecus 246, f. 1r)

Achilles uses the word alochos for “wife”, the same word Agamemnon uses earlier to characterize his own wife Clytemnestra.[8] He refers to Briseis as thūmārea, “fitted to the heart.” Agamemnon’s arrogance and betrayal of themis is manifest in his reply to Achilles:

And this shall be my threat to thee… I will myself come to thy hut and take the fair cheeked Briseis, that prize of thine; that thou mayest know full well how far mightier am I than thou, and another too may shrink from declaring himself my peer and likening himself to me to my face.[9]

This captures the breach of themis, that causes Achilles’ grief, withdrawal, and rage throughout the rest of the Iliad. Agamemnon has exercised his legal right, as commander of all the Greek forces, to usurp Achilles’ awarded prize; but this action is no less a betrayal of “what’s right”.

Fresco of Briseis being taken away from Achilles, 1st cent. AD (originally in Pompeii, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

Like Achilles, Tiberius experienced a betrayal of themis when Augustus compelled him in 11 BC to divorce Vipsania Agrippina (36 BC–AD 20), his wife of eight years, who was the mother of their two-year-old son, Drusus (14 BC–AD 23), and was then pregnant with a second child. Augustus then made Tiberius marry his daughter Julia (39 BC–AD 14), in order to further his dynastic ambitions.

Tiberius, like Achilles, was being robbed of the woman he loved, and grieved over the loss. Suetonius describes how he later wept at seeing her in the city:

sed Agrippinam et abegisse post divortium doluit et semel omnino ex occursu visam adeo contentis et tumentibus oculis prosecutus est, ut custoditum sit ne umquam in conspectum ei posthac veniret.

But even after the divorce he regretted his separation from [Vipsania], and the only time that he chanced to see her, he followed her with such an intent and tearful gaze that care was taken that she should never again come before his eyes.[10]

The compounded traumas of the divorce from Vipsania and the violation of tradition by Augustus irreparably damaged Tiberius for the rest of his career and his life.

Roman society, like the world depicted in Homer, was profoundly traditional, with a culture rooted in shame and honor, and governed by an inherent sense of right and wrong. The Latin word corresponding to themis is verecundia.[11] As themis can be described as “what’s right”, verecundia similarly is “the inherent sense of propriety”[12] that governs the behavior of people in a society. It is the glue that holds Roman society together.

Tiberius and Vipsania, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 (Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA).

Cicero links verecundia to iustitia: iustitia involves not harming another, while verecundia demands not “offending” others. The latter term, he says, “shows very clearly the meaning of decorum.”[13] This regard for others supersedes social station and is “one of the cornerstones of civil society.”[14]

In a traditional hierarchical relationship, social superiors must be conscious and respectful of their obligations to their inferiors: “two of the basic effects of verecundia [are] avoiding offense to others, by avoiding improper assertion of the self.”[15] verecundia governs the behavior of all relationships. Roman society was based on the hierarchical but symbiotic patron-client relationship, where the patron supported his client financially in return for some service. It is not just the cliens who had to observe protocols of respect to his patronus; the patron was compelled to match “restraint of the self and concern for [his own] face with concern for the interest and face of the other.”[16] A consequent feeling of shame was the direct consequence of the violation of verecundia.

The shame Achilles experiences causes his wrath and withdrawal. His perception that he has been devalued causes psychological injury which will erupt in berserking rage.

Achilles’ dispute with Agamemnon (watched by the despairing Calchas), Johann Heinrich Tischbein, 1776 (Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany).

Roman traditions and mores did not change overnight with the ascendancy of Augustus. Tiberius was a child of the Republic. His birth father, Tiberius Claudius Nero (82–33 BC), had supported Pompey against Caesar. Expectations of operant verecundia remained the same during the early Empire. What changed was the presence of an autocratic and dynasty-driven ruler.

As a father figure, commander-in-chief, and emperor, Augustus was triply an influence on the life of Tiberius, and exerted an unconventional use of his paternal authority over his adopted son: the forced divorce, the initial betrayal of Roman verecundia by his stepfather, ultimately brought about Tiberius’ undoing.

Familial relationships were governed by the reciprocal laws of pietas (“loyalty”/“duty”) and verecundia. Filial devotion and respect were captured by the concept of pietas. This manifestation of respect, however, worked both ways and applied to the parents as well. Good parents were conscious of setting an example. “This was not so much a matter of policy as of instinct, which the Romans called verecundia.”[17] As with Achilles and Agamemnon, the violation of verecundia by Augustus resulted in shame: the superior exercised power beyond the bounds of themis or verecundia.

Mosaic of Achilles and Agamemnon, 1st cent. AD (originally in Pompeii, National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

For Achilles, the loss of Briseis is the first of two traumatic events that pervert his character and provoke his rage. The second is the death of his comrade Patroclus at the hands of Hector (Iliad 16). Correspondingly, for Tiberius, the loss of his wife was followed by the sudden death of his brother Drusus the Elder (38–9 BC) three years later. As with Achilles, the combination of betrayal and loss led to berserking. A rampant fury characterizes Achilles in the latter part of the Iliad. But it is preceded by another consequence of betrayal – withdrawal. Achilles refuses to participate any further in the war.

The loss of his brother and fellow commander, Drusus, precipitated Tiberius’ retreat from public life. Shay notes that among the “events that drive soldiers berserk are betrayal, insult, or humiliation by a leader [and] death of a friend-in arms.”[18] The undoing of Tiberius’ character was marked by his withdrawal from Roman society. At the peak of his career aged 36, Tiberius retired to Rhodes, not to return to Rome for seven years.

When Augustus died in AD 14, his adopted successor Tiberius dutifully accepted the Principate. By that point Tiberius had adopted his nephew Germanicus (24 BC–AD 19), with whom he shared consular powers. Then, in AD 19, Germanicus died under mysterious circumstances: it was rumoured that he was poisoned by Tiberius’ old friend Gnaeus Piso (44 BC–AD 20) and his wife Plancina (died AD 33).

The death of Germanicus, Nicolas Poussin, 1627 (Minneapolis Museum of Art, MN, USA).  

Whatever the truth, Germanicus’ death is noted by Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius as a turning point in the behavior of Tiberius. Tacitus writes: “The emperor became a cruel tyrant.”[19] Suetonius also remarks on the “cruelty” of Tiberius.[20] Dio likewise notes that Tiberius “drifted into vice”. [21]

Three years later, his natural son Drusus unexpectedly died. Tiberius had now suffered the death of his only surviving child, compounding the losses of his brother and nephew. Thereupon, he retired a final time, to the island of Capri off the Bay of Naples. It was believed that he would not return to Rome and would soon die. As Tacitus notes, “everything changed with the death of Drusus.”[22]

Reconstruction of Tiberius’ Villa Jovis on Capri, Carl Weichardt, 1900.  

In this final place of seclusion, Tiberius’ most cruel and bizarre behavior erupted. 42 years after his forced divorce from Vipsania, Tiberius exacts revenge on her second husband, Asinius Gallus (38 BC–AD 33). Just as Achilles had ultimately vented all his rage upon Hector for the loss of Patroclus, so Tiberius tortured Gallus for taking Vipsania.

The act of revenge upon one’s enemy is an attempt to affirm justice. Consonant with Cicero’s definitions of iustitia and verecundia, Tiberius in his berserk state reacted to both the perceived harm (injustice) and offense (violation of verecundia) by Gallus. Although Augustus was the agent of the loss of Vipsania, Tiberius displaced his rage onto the often irritating and offensive Gallus who had taken his place as husband.[23] Tiberius’ last years have been called a reign of terror. Paranoia and fear of assassination are driving forces behind the subsequent acts of cruelty and debauchery that mark Tiberius’ final years on Capri. His behavior is famously and luridly recounted by Suetonius and Tacitus.[24] Days are spent feasting and drinking. Slaves were assigned to select victims to satisfy his lusts for “deviant copulation”:

On retiring to Capri, he devised haunts, a place for his secret lusts, where selected groups of young women and male prostitutes, whom he called spintriae, devisors of a monstrous intercourse, copulated three at a time before him, to excite his waning passions with the sight…

His shameful reputation was inflamed by still greater and more foul things such that it is barely possible to be reported or to be heard, much less to be believed.[25]

Pornocrates, Félicien Rops, 1878 (Musée Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium). 

Rather than reading these accounts of bizarre sex as sensational acts of hedonism, however, it is illuminating to see Tiberius’ conduct as the berserking behavior of complex PTSD. Shay asserts that sex was self-medication for his Vietnam veterans suffering from extreme PTSD. The psychologist Aphrodite Matsakis, an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, notes the soothing effect of sex sought by her patients:

For some vets, sex is more than sex. It is a form of tranquillizer or sedative for their anxieties and other tensions. Not only does sex provide a sense of physical peace, but emotional peace as well.[26]

Tiberius also cruelly persecuted members of the senate, friends, peers and acquaintances, bringing prosecutions for treason against them. Suetonius records that there were twenty executions in one day.[27] According to Dio, Tiberius, had become ruled by “avariciousness, a prey to suspicion and fear, and immersed in cruelty and monstrous lusts.”[28]

The exiles of Tiberius, Felix-Joseph Barrias, 1850 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France).  

The final great betrayal in Tiberius’ life is that by Sejanus (20 BC–AD 31), his closest confidant and colleague. While Tiberius was withdrawing emotionally from the affairs of state, Sejanus’ influence rose steadily until he was virtually a co-regent. At the height of his power, he even shared honors with the emperor: his birthday was celebrated, and sacrifices were made to his statues. Sejanus became engaged to the widow of Tiberius’ son Drusus, further cementing himself to the emperor. In AD 31, Tiberius officially recognized Sejanus as his partner by sharing his fifth consulship with him as his colleague.

Then, with no warning, Tiberius abruptly had Sejanus arrested and executed. Tiberius learned that he had murdered his son, Drusus, in a plot to advance his own power.[29] Following Sejanus’ execution in AD 32, Tiberius (according to Suetonius) did not leave his villa for nine months.[30]

The arrest of Sejanus, etching by Giuseppe Mochetti after drawing by Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1810. 

Tiberius’ remaining years were spent on Capri absorbed in his erotic pastimes and living in fear of conspiracy, pursuing his infamous treason trials, increasingly against once trusted friends. Six years later, Tiberius died, aged 78.

Tiberius was the first casualty of Augustus’ undoing of seven centuries of Roman verecundia. “Verecundia is truly the guardian of all virtues,” wrote Cicero.[31] With the violation of verecundia by the first emperor, virtue and character were no longer the operative values in Roman society:

I felt betrayed. I lost all my mercy. I felt a drastic change after that. I just couldn’t get enough. I built up such hate, I couldn’t do enough damage. Got worse as time went by. I really loved fucking killing, couldn’t get enough. For everyone that I killed I felt better. Made some of the hurt go away. I lost all my mercy. I look back today and I’m horrified at what I turned into.[32]

The death of Tiberius, Jean-Paul Laurens, 1864 (Georges Labit Museum, Toulouse, France). 

These words might have been uttered by Tiberius on his deathbed. In fact, they are a composite of words from the mouths of several Vietnam veterans who suffer from extreme PTSD. Achilles and Tiberius; the US veterans; all men of good character and great promise, ruined by the betrayal of “what’s right”.

The inherent consciousness of propriety helps bring out the greatness in people and their society. The cost of its violation is devasting.

John Roth has taught Classics for 40 years at various US prep schools. He has a Ph.D. in Classics from New York University. He has previously written for Antigone about the Roman general Regulus and the importance of integritas (integrity).

Psychotherapist Carolyn Green, MA, LPCC, and Lt. Col. USAF (Ret.) Veronica Holley (Kornemann) made important contributions to this article.

Further Reading:

Robert A. Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (Oxford UP, 2005).

Robin Seager, Tiberius (Blackwell, Oxford, 2005).

Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (Touchstone, New York, 1994).

Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (Scribner, New York, 2002).


1 Tacitus Annals 1.4, Suetonius Tiberius 26–36, 42–67.
2 “I believe the word berserk is the most precise term available to describe the behavior that I call to the reader’s mind. I prefer this to the more inclusive word used by Homer commentators since ancient times, aristeia. Berserk comes from the Norse word for the frenzied warriors who went into battle naked, or at least without armor, in a godlike or god-possessed – but also beastlike – fury” (Shay 1994, 77). Shay prefers this Norse term because it deglamorizes the violent and “shameless” behavior it describes; the Greek aristeia – literally “excellence” – is not obviously pejorative or inglorious.
3 Ibid. 1.
4 Ibid. 28.
5 Shay (1994) 12.
6 Ibid. 5.
7 ‘ἐμεῦ δ᾽ ἀπὸ μούνου Ἀχαιῶν/εἵλετ᾽, ἔχει δ᾽ ἄλοχον θυμαρέα’’ (Il. 9.336–7; tr. Murray).
8 Il. 1.114.
9 Il. 1.181ff., tr. Murray.
10 Suet. Tib. 7.2., tr. Rolfe.
11 As the Oxford Latin Dictionary defines the term: 1. An attitude of restraint (arising from respect for others or a proper humility on one’s own part), modesty. b. deference, respect (for a particular person, etc.). c. reluctance (to do something) arising from such a feeling.
12 Stanley F. Bonner, Education in Ancient Rome: From the Elder Cato to the Younger Pliny (Univ. of California Press, Los Angeles, CA, 1977) 8.
13 iustitiae partes sunt non violare homines, verecundiae non offendere; in quo maxime vis perspicitur decori (Cic. Off. 1.99ff, cited by Kaster (2005) 18).
14 Kaster (2005) 64.
15 Ibid., 17.
16 Ibid. 24.
17 Bonner (as n.12) 8.
18 Shay (1994) 80, my emphasis.
19 Tac. Ann.4.1., tr. Yardley.
20 Suet. Cal. 6.2, tr. Rolfe.
21 Dio 57.13.6., tr. Carey.
22 cuncta… donec morte Drusi verterentur, Tac. Ann. 4.7.
23 Tac. Ann. 1.12, 2.35, 36, 4.47.
24 Suet. Tib. 42ff; Tac. Ann. 6.1.
25 Ibid. 43–4.
26 A. Matsakis, Vietnam Wives (Woodbine House, Kensington, MD, 1988), cited by Shay, Odysseus, 118.
27 Suet. Tib. 61.4.
28 Dio 58.16.1, 18, 22.
29 Suet. Tib. 62.
30 Ibid. 65.2.
31 custos vero virtutum omnium, dedecus fugiens, laudemque maxime consequens, verecundia est (De partitione oratoria 23.79).
32 Shay (1994) 78–9, 93.