I’ve just read “I, Claudius” for the first time. Yes, I saw the series (three times), and a good thing, too, or I would never have been able to keep all the Drususes, Julias, and Tiberiuses apart. It was a terrific read.
My question: I know that the book is partially fictionalized, but did the Emperors Caligula and Tiberius even approach being as bloodthirsty as they were represented? If so, how could they exterminate so many citizens without the population getting fed up and rising against them? I’ll do some of my own 'net research, but you guys are better sources than anything on the 'net.
Well, Tiberius I wasn’t nearly as bad as represented (Tacitus had more interest in scandalous gossip than in writing a serious history – if he were alive today, he’d probably be working for the National Enquirer). He was, it seems, a dour[sup]1[/sup], reasonably honest, rather gauche, middle-aged[sup]2[/sup] man. It should be remembered that his adoptive father/stepfather/father-in-law[sup]3[/sup] Augustus was a consummate hypocrite…err, politician, whose iron-fisted military rule was masked, for the last forty years of his life, by his pretense that he was just this regular, albeit talented, guy who the Republic kept loading with tasks (and powers). Nobody had the nerve to point out that the Emperor (heh, heh) had no clothes. The contrast between Augustus and Tiberius was a little too much to be stomached.
As for Caligula (Gaius, as he was known to contemporaries)…yes, he really was that bad (although the story about him appointing his horse consul seems to be a fabrication). It should be remembered, though, that his atrocities were all committed against the Roman senatorial nobility (optimates), and that Joe Sixpack (or L. Flavius Amphora) in the provinces didn’t give a rat’s ass about what optimates did to each other. (And Caligula did end up being assassinated, after a reign of four years.)
[sup]1[/sup]Not without reason
[sup]2[/sup]i.e., too old to be cute and too young to be grandfatherly.
[sup]3[/sup]That was part of the reason for his being dour.
FWIW, Guccione only “directed” the hardcore sex scenes he cut in after Tinto Brass finished directing the actual film. When Guccione was done bastardizing it, just about everyone wanted their names taken off, but IIRC he won the contractual battles with everyone but Gore Vidal, who was successful in having his name removed from the credits.
Tiberius did retreat to Capri (then called “Capreae”) in, I think, 26CE (I’m away from my usual sources just now), and never returned to Rome. He did so mostly at the instigation of Sejanus, his praetorian prefect at the time, although there’s no doubt that his own preferences played a part in his going there and staying even after Sejanus’ execution. He owned the whole island, although I don’t know how he got it.
Did he hold orgies there? Well, everybody that he might have orgied with has been dead for nearly two thousand years, and only his enemies left “records” of what he did there.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Tiberius had orgies at Capri, or, if he did, they were greatly exaggerated.
Tiberius was VERY unpopular in the Senate and among the people of Rome–at his death they were DELIGHTED at the prospect of Caligula being the new Emperor, and shouted “To the Tiber with Tiberius” (intending to throw his body into the river instead of according it honorable burial). They would have been all too willing to believe (or start) salacious rumors about him.
Sejanus himself may have fueled these stories. It seems likely that he was planning some sort of coup to get himself installed as emperor. It was very much in his interests to blacken the reputation of the current emperor.
Finally, many of the anti Tiberian stories were fueled by Tacitus, someone with a very negative opinion of Tiberius, writing years after the fact.