The Successor by Willemijn Van Dijk

The Successor: Tiberius & the Triumph of the Roman Empire
By Willemijn Van Dijk
Translated from the Dutch by Kathleen Brandt-Carey
Baylor University Press, 2019

The Successor: Tiberius & the Triumph of the Roman Empire     By Willemijn Van Dijk Translated from the Dutch by Kathleen Brandt-Carey Baylor University Press, 2019

Dutch historian Willemijn Van Dijk’s 2017 biography of the Roman emperor Tiberius, De opvolger, now has a clear and sturdy English-language translation by Kathleen Brandt-Carey, and right at the start of her book, Van Dijk (author of Via Roma: The History of Rome in Fifty Streets) makes a crucial and often-overlooked point: the Roman empire didn’t really start when Julius Caesar led his troops across the Rubicon, and it didn’t even really start in 27 BC when Augustus became “first citizen.” It started in AD 14 when all that power passed smoothly and easily to the chosen successor, Tiberius. The succession validated the machinery, and the machinery made the emperor.

As Van Dijk points out, this particular emperor has been largely cemented in the public imagination by the virtuoso sad-sack performance of George Baker as Tiberius in the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. Baker’s Tiberius was a glowering one-man storm cloud, a muttering malcontent who degenerates quickly into a scabby old pervert, and in this sense he was not only staying true to Graves’ novel but also to Graves’ hard-working main source, the scandal-mongering Roman historian Suetonius. 

Despite the fact that the historian Velleius Paterculus was a contemporary of Tiberius and probably met him, the Tiberius story has always been the version related by both Suetonius and Tacitus, who lived a generation later and tended to favor the lurid over the procedural. The worry with modern biographies is that they’ll more or less follow along. There’ve been exceptions (Van Dijk rightly cites Barbara Levick’s excellent Tiberius the Politician), but if a modern biography uncritically starts to relate obvious fiction, you’ve got a right to worry. You’ve got a right to worry, for instance, when you encounter a passage like this in The Successor:

The emperor held his pet snake and fed her a few more tidbits. The creature got more to eat than was good for her, to be sure, but Tiberius doted on his little pet. He loved her almost as much as he did his homegrown cucumbers. Tiberius might have become a lonely old man, but his hobbies kept him amused. 

Fortunately, Van Dijk has more to offer than overweight snakes. Her account of Tiberius’ life before his reign is just about as full as it can be given the sources we have, and her account of the emperor’s twenty-three years in power is fast-paced and consistently interesting, although almost all of it is offered in a breathless you-are-there tone that’s about as close to Suetonius as his copyright lawyers will permit. From the sensational trial of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso to the emperor’s long antagonism with Augustus’ granddaughter Agrippina, the book is as confessional as so many of its predecessors, and on equally thin grounds:

Another ten years, at least, would pass before Agrippina finally and irrevocably fell out of the emperor’s good graces. But even then the Romans had not forgotten their national hero. To them, Tiberius’ abandonment of Agrippina and her children was the confirmation of all their conspiracy theories. They had been right all along: it had been Emperor Tiberius who was responsible for Germanicus’ death.

“History has judged Tiberius harshly,” Van Dijk writes, and this is certainly true. But history has always had a little help in its harsh judging, and that’s a bit of a shame.

—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.