This week we continued our look at the early Roman emperors. After the death of Augustus came the reign of Emperor Tiberius.
There is good evidence that suggests that Tiberius never wanted to be emperor at all. Duty bound, he did not shrink from service. In many key ways, Tiberius was a good emperor (generally just, sound money manager, no foolish military adventures), but his introverted personality distanced him from the population and the ruling elite. His bust shows him at least at a young age to be a decent, unassuming man. As time went on, he grew more bitter, more distant.
As the Republic faded and Augustus’s system took over, was it possible for the emperor to be a simple civil servant? Did the principate system of Augustus require a more dynamic kind of leadership than Tiberius could muster? I recently heard an interview with an actor who had senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein guest-star on the sitcom he is a part of. He mentioned how naturally acting came to the politicians. It initially surprised him at first, but then he thought that in fact, politicians play a role all the time.
Some decry this situation, while others accept it passively. But we should wonder if our system of government and our society do not almost require our leaders to be at least part image. They need to represent something abstract beyond themselves in order to appeal to a broad enough cross-section of people to get elected.
Tiberius’s reaction to his unpopularity exacerbated the problem. Tiberius took his unpopularity personally. He grew distant and sullen. The distance eventually became physical as well as social, as he withdrew from Rome and ruled from the island of Capri. His isolation forced him to trust a select few. When one of them named Sejanus betrayed him, Tiberius went off the rails. Now no one was trustworthy, and many were arrested on flimsy treason charges. Once he could take refuge in the good work he did for Rome, but now he spent much of his time trying to find “traitors.” Whereas before people may have grudgingly respected him without liking him, now he had the hatred of most of the political class in Rome.
So strong was their dislike of Tiberius, the Romans rejoiced at his murder in favor of Emperor Gaius, known to us and his contemporaries as Caligula. With Caligula, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Here was a man of some charm, but almost no real care for the actual demands of office.
Unlike Tiberius, he actually had a sense of humor — but this often had a cruel edge to it even when expressed in its most benign forms. Growing as the mascot of the army in Germany, the son of the beloved but murdered General Germanicus, Caligula never had any check on his whims. In normal society he would have been an annoying brat. Unfortunately for Rome, his birth and connections made him emperor of the most powerful empire in the western world.
As his reign progressed, he grew more and proud and insane with power.
Caligula may never have been “normal,” but he wasn’t always insane (however unnerving this most famous bust of him might be, with that smirk and those distant eyes). We call those insane who cannot cope with reality, and pride and delusions of omnipotence certainly distance us from reality. This distance can lead to paranoia and erratic behavior, perhaps out of fear. A paranoid and erratic emperor would spell disaster for Rome’s political class.
Can a person make oneself insane through their actions? We can consider Daniel 4 and the story of Nebuchadnezzar, where his pride led to his insanity. The same might be said of Caligula.
Next week, we examine the reign of Claudius and Nero.