The Roman emperor Tiberius trained small children to pleasure him sexually in his villa on Capri.
The Roman emperor Tiberius has often been judged by history as a pervert, and a paedophile, based on the statements made by Suetonius – but are the claims reliable? And, either way, what was the purpose of them being made in The Twelve Caesars?
Tiberius’ alleged depravities
The emperor Tiberius – only the second Roman emperor, and the first to succeed to the position – is often seen today as a solid, if unwilling, politician and leader, who did a reasonably good job in his reign while nevertheless falling short of the standards set by Augustus, his predecessor and step-father (Levick 1999). He is also seen as a flawed individual who, according to several ancient sources, was prone to alcoholic and sexual excesses. This behaviour had seemingly been present throughout his life, including during his younger years as a military commander, but grew more prominent in his older years, particularly the later portion of his reign.
The most damning accusations date to Tiberius’ time in his private villa on the island of Capri, which he moved to from Rome in 26 CE, twelve years into his reign, aged in his late 60s. Although he lived – and reigned – for more than a decade longer, Tiberius never returned to Rome, and rarely left Capri. On the island, according to Suetonius, the absence of public scrutiny made it possible for him to indulge his vices without limit – particularly drinking, feasting, and sex.
The section of Suetonius’ biography of Tiberius which deals with his alleged interactions with young children on Capri can make uncomfortable reading for modern audiences (Tiberius 44.1):
He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed tiddlers) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles; and unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by both nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction.
These statements are clearly intended to be shocking – Suetonius refers to this even within the text, noting that they are hard to say or hear. The acts are not presented as being within the normal range of Roman sexual or pleasure practices, but to have crossed a line of acceptability shared by both the author and his intended readers. But can the statements be taken at face value?
The statements about the young children come from a segment of the work which focused on the period of Tiberius’ reign which he spent in Capri. Suetonius details a range of sexual and non-sexual vices associated with the emperor, including watching men and women engage in threesomes (particularly those skilled in “deviant” practices), and unrestrained intercourse (and attempted intercourse) with reluctant participants of both genders. The villa itself is described almost as a physical extension of these practices, liberally decorated with pornographic art, and equipped with an erotic reference library, and outside areas set aside for alfresco sexual activities.
Tiberius was not the only emperor that Suetonius associated with inappropriate sexual activity. Similar stories of excess and depravity are found in several of Suetonius’ Imperial biographies, associated with emperors of which the historian clearly did not approve – these acts were evidently intended to illustrate the inherently negative character of the subject in question. Gaius/Caligula, Tiberius’ successor, was accused of incest with his sisters – and of prostituting them to others – and of inappropriate sexual relations with both men and women under his power (Gaius 24-25, 36).
Similar statements were made by Suetonius about Nero, including that he wantonly seduced elite married women, sexually assaulted freeborn males and a Vestal Virgin, that he would dress in animal skins and “savage” the genitals of people tied to stakes in a fever of lust, that he “married” several males, going so far as to have one castrated beforehand, and had an incestuous sexual relationship with his mother (Nero 28-29).
But although these emperors, along with Tiberius, received the worst treatment from Suetonius, most of his Imperial biographies discussed the sex life of the emperor in question – even Augustus, who generally emerges positively, is accused of wanton adultery (although apparently it was motivated by espionage not passion; Augustus 69).
That said, none of the other emperors were associated with sexual acts involving children, as Tiberius was – but is Suetonius reliable on this?
Suetonius’ claims about Tiberius’ actions on Capri, including the abuses of small children, are not repeated by any other historian. Tacitus, considered the most reliable historian of this period, does not detail Tiberius’ actions on Capri, at best alluding to them by saying that in later life he indulged the lusts which he had previously kept hidden (Annals 6.51):
Finally, he plunged into every wickedness and disgrace, when fear and shame being cast off, he simply indulged his own inclinations.
As a historian, Tacitus is considered either neutral or negatively-inclined towards Tiberius (Shotter 1988) – that he omits any mention of activities on Capri similar to those discussed by Suetonius suggests he found them either unreliable, or irrelevant, which stands in stark contrast to the biographical account. Tacitus does suggest that Tiberius’ sexual excesses were widely known to the Roman people – he also mentions a troupe of actors being thrown out of Italy for the satirical comments about Tiberius’ sex life which they made on the stage (Annals 4.14).
The later historian Cassius Dio, writing in the third century CE, also makes no specific mention of the depravities on Capri alleged by Suetonius, only mentioning that Tiberius was a man who had “a great many virtues and a great many vices, and followed each set in turn as if the other did not exist” (Roman History 58.28.5).
In these sources, Tiberius’ lust for wine is almost equal to that for sex, and neither is presented as more problematic than the other. Nor are similar accusations, particularly with regard to young children, found against other individuals from the Roman world – suggesting that either Tiberius was uniquely depraved, which isn’t backed up by other accounts of his reign, or that the practice was not one that actually happened.
Without corroborating evidence, it is difficult to say that Suetonius’ account of Tiberius’ actions on Capri, particularly his abuse of young children, is an accurate reflection of what actually happened – and if it did, it is difficult to explain the absence of similar comments in other sources. The evidence does not allow us to definitively say that Tiberius did or did not sexually exploit children (and adults) in the ways described by Suetonius, but on the evidence available, there is little justification for taking his words at face-value.
In all probability, the stories of sexual vice on Capri, particularly with regards to the children, can be seen as unreliable gossip, invented or repeated by a biographer with a largely negative view of Tiberius (cf. Hubbard 2003, p. 383); it is unclear whether even contemporary readers believed the accusations.
Whether accurate or not, Suetonius chose to include these claims about Tiberius’ sexual proclivities in his account of the emperor’s life on Capri. If they were not intended as accurate reportage of his activities on the island, why else might they have been included – what other purpose could have been served?
Not all of the accusations made by Suetonius about Tiberius’ life on Capri would have seemed particularly shocking to his Roman readership. As long as it involved adults, Roman attitudes to sex and eroticism, however fetishized, were fairly open; the ability of the elites to indulge their sexual vices was a privilege granted by their wealth and status. Surviving frescoes from sites like Pompeii demonstrate that erotic art was nothing unusual in the domestic décor of the Roman elite.
Tiberius’ sexual interactions with both women and men would similarly have been relatively unsurprising, and certainly not something which would have invited automatic moral censure from his contemporaries. However, it is notable that over the course of the first century CE Roman attitudes began to shift more towards moral censure of sexual activity, and by the time that Suetonius was writing in the earlier second century CE, behaviours which had been acceptable a century earlier were frowned upon by many “decent” Romans (Hubbard 2003, p. 383).
A running theme throughout Suetonius’ Twelve Caesar biographies is the fact that none of the successive emperors lived up to the example set by Augustus in the late first century BCE and early first century CE. Each subsequent emperor did this in a different way – as one modern historian notes, “Each has his own way of failing to be Augustus” (Gunderson 2014, p. 131). Tiberius’ indiscriminate indulgence of his vices, in contrast to Augustus’ constant demonstration of his deprivations in the name of virtue, demonstrate his poor character openly (Gunderson 2014, pp. 143-144).
To ensure that every reader understood this point, Suetonius may have felt it necessary to exaggerate the sexual vices by including children – in case Tiberius’ actions might otherwise largely resemble their own. Suetonius may also have used his account of Tiberius’ actions on Capri to underline how unsuitable he felt the emperor was for power - not only did Tiberius indulge his sexual (and alcoholic) vices with abandon, but he also abused his authority, by making adults perform sexual acts as entertainment, and forcing children to gratify him.
The truthfulness of these claims would have mattered far less than the overall impression of Tiberius that they contributed to – as an unfit emperor who, despite a promising start in the early years of his reign, proved a vastly unfit successor to Augustus.
It is difficult to say with any certainty that Suetonius’ claims about Tiberius’ sexual exploitation of children on Capri were accurate: they appear nowhere else, even in the more reliable sources on the period. Tiberius may well have indulged a wide range of vices on Capri, but it is impossible to say with certainty that they involved young children in the way described by Suetonius – the claims are more likely to be hostile gossip against an unpopular emperor. They should be considered unproven at best.
- E. Gunderson, “E.g. Augustus: exemplum in the Augustus and Tiberius”, in: T. Power and R. Gibson (eds), Suetonius the Biographer: Studies in Roman Lives (2014), pp. 130-146.
- T.K. Hubbard, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (2003).
- B. Levick, Tiberius the Politician (2nd edition, 1999).
- D.C.A. Shotter, “Tacitus and Tiberius”, Ancient Society 19 (1988), pp. 225-236.