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The Death of Tiberius Caesar, 37 AD

“Tiberius, therefore, under whom the name of Christ made its entry into the world, when this doctrine was reported to him from Palestine, where it first began, communicated with the Senate, making it clear to them that he was pleased with the doctrine...Heavenly Providence had wisely instilled this into his mind in order that the doctrine of the Gospel, unhindered at its beginning, might spread in all directions throughout the world.”—Greek Historian Eusebius Pamphilius, circa 300s

The Death of Tiberius Caesar, March 16, 37 AD

It was in the reign of Tiberius Caesar that our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, and what an imposing reign it was. He was born the first son of Tiberius Nero, an acclaimed Roman General, and not to be confused with the later, evil persecutor of the church, Emperor Nero. His mother was the beautiful and politically-astute Livia Drusilla. When he was an infant, Tiberius’ father sided with Mark Antony during Rome’s civil war and lost his family’s fortune and status as a result. To rise again was a tough prospect in newly-empirical Rome, but the young Tiberius’ fortunes changed when he was adopted at the age of nine into the family of the Caesars by none other than Augustus himself. This came about as Augustus married Tiberius’ mother, Livia, which caused her to set aside her first husband. Such were the tumultuous family lives of the Roman elite.

Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37) and his mother Livia (59 BC–AD 29)

Added to this were Augustus Caesar’s newly-acquired responsibilities as Emperor and chief god-head of the Roman State, a position Augustus had inherited from his uncle, the daring and recently assassinated Julius Caesar, and secured by shedding the blood of his detractors. Augustus himself would have no sons of his own—his only child being his daughter Julia—and so the mantle of Caesar would eventually be passed on, yet again by adoption, to Tiberius.

Julius (100 BC-44 BC)

Augustus (63 BC-AD 14)

The position of emperor was in many ways as thankless a post as it was supremely empowering. These three Caesars—Julius, Augustus and Tiberius—were the first three emperors of Rome, and in many ways they established the role’s jurisdiction and precedents, and were more successful and respected than any of their successors. Forty-three of the approximately seventy Roman emperors died violently, thirty-seven of them by targeted assassination.

Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37)

But in the times of Augustus and Tiberius, law and order was effectively maintained, as was religious awe for their deified state, and the nearly ornamental Roman Senate became their constant foil. In Plutarch’s words: “The Romans made Caesar dictator for life in the hope that the government of a single person would give them time to breathe after so many civil wars and calamities. This was indeed a tyranny avowed, since his power now was not only absolute, but perpetual, too.”

The temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne (modern day France), a standing reminder of the worship and deification of rulers

Tiberius’ training to become emperor began in childhood, and considering the times and conditions, he could not have hoped for a better tutor. His stepfather Augustus was wise even in his ruthlessness; a measured man who fully established Rome as the pinnacle of order for which it is nowadays often praised. It was under him that a first census was taken of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, and in the gospel of Luke we find that to be the cause of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, where Christ Jesus was then born in a stable, as prophesied.

Christ was born in Bethlehem during the rule of Augustus

In the interim before his own reign, while his step-father Augustus still reigned, Tiberius made a name for himself as an astute scholar, an immaculately-trained politician, and an impressive military leader. He also chose to marry Vipsania Agrippina for love. This latter misstep of Roman sensibility did not go unpunished—all the military popularity and obedient sonship in the world could not secure a lasting marital alliance in Rome, and so, Tiberius found himself ordered to set her aside and marry Julia, the twice-widowed daughter of Augustus himself.

Vipsania Agrippina (unknown-20 AD),
first wife of Tiberius

Julia the Elder (39 BC–AD 14), daughter of Augustus and second wife of Tiberius

Now presumptive heir to the empire, Tiberius was bound to the house of Caesar by both adoption and marriage. The marriage would prove childless and miserable, his new wife proving a remorseless adulteress. The law of Julia’s own father Augustus decreed that Tiberius should denounce her for her infidelity, but such a move would result in angering his father-in-law. So, Tiberius sought postings far away from his new wife, preferring self-exile to humiliation, and in the turmoil of her scandals it is recorded his once pleasing temperament turned “unpleasant.”

Remnants of Tiberius’ villa at Sperlonga, on the coast midway between Rome and Naples

In 14 AD, Augustus Caesar died, and with all other heirs having fallen dead or into disrepute, Tiberius was named all-powerful successor. He was fifty-four years old. The majority of his reign was marked by peace and lack of conquest. The perpetual tussle for power with the Senate remained, but in the lives of Roman citizens, it was a primarily prosperous time in an era of predominant discontent.

Extent of the Roman Empire under Tiberius

One issue alone began to rise above all others during his reign, sprung out of the deserts of Judea and deemed inconsequential in far-off Rome. The earthly ministry of Jesus Christ would prove to be more infectious and lasting than any emperor could imagine. While espousing respect for their earthly authorities in the form of governors and Caesars, this growing sect of “Christians” fell into contention with Rome over the issue of worshipping any other deity save “the one true God”—an absurd hold-out in the sophisticated minds of polytheistic Rome.

Pontius Pilate presents Christ to the people during His trial

However, according to later historians Eusebius Pamphilius and Tertullian, when Tiberius received his reports on Jesus’ preaching from Pontius Pilate, his heart was moved. In the Senate he raised the motion of deifying Christ, suggesting they include Him among the Roman pantheon. This, however, was refused by the Roman Senate and corresponded perfectly with the Christians’ own doctrine that held the divinity of Christ as not dependent on a vote by Roman politicians.

The Roman Senate convened

This motion having failed, Tiberius still decreed that the followers of the now sacrificed Christ were not to be persecuted, his time spent in the barbarian outposts of the empire perhaps leading him to understand the nuances of peaceable detractors verses pagan ones. And so, under his reign, Christianity was allowed a tolerable foothold in the Roman world from which it did not budge when the fires of persecution were lit by his successors.

Gaius Caesar (AD 12-41), better known by his nickname Caligula

Tiberius himself spent his last decade of life mourning the death of his only son by becoming a recluse, far from his duties in Rome and ever more preoccupied in depraved pursuits. Like his own stepfather Augustus, Tiberius found himself at the end of his life choosing the least offensive family member as his heir from an unappealing lot: Gaius Caesar, better known by his childhood nickname Caligula, meaning “little boots.” “I am nursing a viper in Rome’s bosom”, Tiberius observed of his choice, but he named Caligula his son and successor, cementing the beginning of the end of Roman superiority.

The Death of Tiberius

Tiberius met his own end, racked with disease and commanding little loyalty from his household. He took to bed after injuring himself in a javelin-throwing contest and, having determined his injuries insufficient to kill him, the commander of his Praetorian Guard insured they would do the job themselves by smothering old Tiberius with his own blankets. Thus ended the harsh but useful life of the deified Tiberius Caesar, a blind servant of Providence and now only a footnote in the life of the true Son of God whom he had crucified.

Image Credits:Livia & Tiberius ( ( ( ( of Augustus & Livia ( of Christ ( ( ( ( 10 Extent of Roman Empire under Tiberius ( 11 Pilate Presents Christ ( 12 Roman Senate ( 13 Caligula ( 14 Death of Tiberius (

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