Tiberius and the Senate

Even Tacitus ADMITS that Tiberius attempted to uphold the traditional rights of the Senate and treat it with dignity – although this was only the case before the death of Tiberius’ son Drusus in AD23.
“In the first place, public business – and the most important private business – was transacted in the Senate. Among its chief men, there was freedom of discussion; lapses into servility were arrested by the emperor himself. His conferments of office took into consideration birth, military distinction, and civilian eminence… The consuls and praetors maintained their prestige. The lesser offices too, each exercised their proper authority. Moreover, the treason court excepted, the laws were duly enforced.”
Tacitus, Bk IV. 16


Tiberius faced the task of succeeding the divine Augustus, who was seen as a god and perfection incarnate- the senate was directly subservient underneath Augustus and Tiberius faced a near impossible task in emulating the man who was seen to be the greatest emperor of all time.

Firstly, Tiberius proposed and enforced various reforms upon the senate. His first was to abolish the ‘Consilium’ (advisors) and replace them with various magisters (a more republican approach). This increased Tiberius’ control over the senate until his seclusion to Capri. He also changed revoked ‘certain orders published by the Senate’ (Suetonius) in an attempt to emulate Augustus’ supreme control over the senate. However Tiberius was met with resistance from the senate, mainly due to Tiberius’ relationship with them- they often accused him of using ‘evasive answers and hesitations.’ This approach may have been favoured by Tiberius as he believed that running an empire was too much of a burden for one man- ‘Relieve my burden… emperors have enough burdens and enough power’. Taking this viewpoint, Tiberius’ reforms may have seemed like a genuine attempt to restore some power to the senate. However Tacitus’ takes a more cynical view, mainly due to Tiberius’ seclusion to Capri and Sejanus’s implementation.

Suetonius profiles Tiberius’ character as becoming more ‘indulgent’ and ‘sinister’ upon his seclusion to Capri. During the treason trials and the following ‘reign of terror’ Tacitus claimed that Tiberius had reduced the Senate to ‘a shadow of its ancient power’. Indeed Tiberius often proclaimed that the Senate were ‘men fit to be slaves’, and so his seclusion to Capri seems to further strengthen the view that Tiberius had no real desire to be emperor, and his conduct portrays this.

Reasons for the Senate’s increasing subservience under Tiberius

  • The personality of Tiberius – reserved temperament, hesitant attitude unnerved the senators
  • Cryptic expressions (Tacitus)
  • Senators felt safer by not speaking their minds
  • No clear definition of Maiestas – distinction between free speech and treason was unclear
  • Treason trials for trivial matters become more frequent as the delatores lied, bribed and manufactured evidence to secure the conviction of wealthy men and eliminate their rivals.
  • Fear of the power and influence of Sejanus – especially when Tiberius retired to Capri

Maiestas (Treason Trials)

  • No public prosecutor
  • Information brought to the Senate by individuals (informers – delatores)
  • Informers rewarded 1/4 of the property if the person was convicted
  • Tacitus – ‘reign of terror’ “leading senators became informers even on trivial matters”


  • no more than 52 people were charged with treason  -30 never prosecuted
  • 12 put to death – Tiberius ordered the execution of 8, others commited suicide, Senate ordered the execution of others
  • Tiberius dismissed many cases  – too trivial, intervened to pardon the accused or lessen the sentence
  • Disrespectful comments about the divine Augustus should be punished – those against Tiberius or his mother were not treated as treason
  • Later in his reign – more suspicious (influence of Sejanus) the trials increased
  • Death of Sejanus – he removed those who were friends of Sejanus.
  • Tactius exaggerates “at Rome the massacre was continuous”

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