Tiberius

Roman, ca. 14 AD
Parian marble
2003.55.1
Carlos Collection of Ancient Art

This magnificent portrait comes from an over life-size statue of the second Roman emperor, Tiberius, set up in a public space such as a forum, gymnasium or theater. The back of the head, made separately, may well have included a veil to cover the head, identifying the Emperor as chief priest (pontifex maximus).

Tiberius was born in 42 BC to Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia. His mother, ruthless and ambitious, divorced in 38 to marry Octavian, the future emperor Augustus. Livia engineered her own son, rather than descendants of her new husband, to accede to the throne. She forced Tiberius in 12 BC to divorce his wife in order to marry Augustus' daughter, Julia; and when Augustus's grandchildren died in AD 4, in not un-mysterious circumstances, Tiberius was officially recognised as Augustus' successor. On the death of Augustus, Tiberius took control, and was proclaimed emperor on 17 September 14 AD; he ruled until his death on 16 March 37 AD.

As a young man, Tiberius enjoyed a distinguished military career in the East, Pannonia (Slovenia and Croatia) and Germany, interrupted only by a period of withdrawal on Rhodes (6 BC to 4 AD). His reign, peaceful and steady at first, was disfigured in later years by a series of trials for treason (maiestas), many of them orchestrated by the evil prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Lucius Aelius Sejanus. One such trial in the provinces, hardly noticed at the time, turned on whether the defendant (Jesus Christ) had treasonably claimed to be "king of the Jews".

The sequence of Roman imperial portraits is based on coins whose inscriptions date them narrowly. In the case of Tiberius, three portrait types are clearly distinguished, while a fourth may be only a variant. The Carlos Tiberius belongs to the so-called Berlin-Naples-Sorrento type that has been associated with his assumption of increased power (imperium maius) or even accession as emperor.

Loyalty to Augustus was key to Tiberius' policy. His portraiture documents visually the importance of promoting the legitimacy of his succession. The idealising features (he was in his later fifties when this was carved) and the treatment of the hair are both taken directly from Augustan models. Augustus promoted himself as heir to the classical Greek tradition (as in his patronage of Virgil to write an epic recalling Homer). His portraits (along with those of Tiberius) owe much to fifth century styles, for example the Diadoumenos of Polykleitos or the stele of Glaukotas both exhibited in this gallery.

Suetonius has left us the following description of his features:

"Tiberius was strongly and heavily built, and above average height. His shoulders and chest were broad, and his body perfectly proportioned from top to toe. His left hand was more agile than the right, and so strong that he could poke a finger through a sound, newly-plucked apple or into the skull of a boy or young man. He had a handsome, fresh complexioned face, though subject to occasional rashes of pimples. Letting his hair grow down the nape seems to have been a family habit of the Claudii. Tiberius' eyes were remarkably large and possessed the unusual power of seeing at night and in the dark, when he first opened them after sleep; but the phenomenon disappeared within a minute or two. His gait was a stiff stride, with the neck poked forwards and if ever he broke his usual stern silence to address those walking with him, he spoke with great deliberation and eloquent movements of the fingers."