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Allan Massie (1938 - )

Tiberius, Memoirs of an Emperor
Carroll & Graf, 1993

Reviews:

Presenting a rich study of the ancient Roman world, a fictional autobiography of Emperor Tiberius offers an enlightening view of a proud, dutiful, and brooding man and his family, including Augustus Caesar, Caligula, and Nero. -Amazon.com.

- Amazon.com, 12/15/2005


Scottish author Allan Massie has written novels about Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius and Antony, mostly as first-person narratives of the main characters. Tiberius was written as a sequel to Augustus (also called Let the Emperor Speak) and this must be taken into account. Augustus was quite ambitious, meant to be as close as possible to what that emperor's real autobiography would have been. Massie even pretends that to be the case in the preface. The preface of Tiberius gives the impression that this is a less ambitious and serious sequel to Augustus, and it reads like it. For instance, several scenes from Augustus were re-played just to give Tiberius's point of view, which is interesting psychologically, but makes the book look phony if one has read the previous one. Nevertheless, Massie clearly intended Tiberius to be historically plausible and to present a convincing character portrait. In my opinion, he succeeded only partially. He probably got right Tiberius's view of himself, summarized in the first paragraphs of the book: a man whose superior merits and abilities were unfairly disregarded (above all by Augustus), due to his lack of charm and social skills, in favor of Augustus's blood relatives. There is probably much truth in this self-portrait, and it fits nicely the events of Tiberius's life up to his retirement on Rhodes, where Massie has him, quite plausibly, write the first part of his memoirs, dealing with his early life. That is the most successful part of the book, giving adequate weight to key events and persons in Tiberius's life: his mother Livia, his first wife Vipsania, his second one, Julia, his campaigns in Germany, his coming to terms with the fact that Augustus's regime had buried the Republic, and the decision to retire to Rhodes. In this part of the book, one cannot but sympathize with Tiberius. Massie's portrait of Tiberius becomes a problem in the second part, narrated by Tiberius on Capri up to the day before his death. His Tiberius is essentially a honorable and even good man, disgusted with the hypocrisy and sycophancy inherent to the principate and with the ambition it awakens in those close to him, especially his own relatives, such as Agrippina. That may well be a true representation of what Tiberius's own self-portrait would have been. But a thoroughly "good" Tiberius does not explain some unpleasant facts described by Tacitus, such as the bloody purge of Sejanus's followers after his downfall, or some savage acts such as driving into exile a sycophantic senator who foolishly thought that proposing benefits for the praetorian guard would please Tiberius. Massie does not invent tortuous explanations for every such action of Tiberius, as Graves did with Claudius - he simply ignores them. That's the weakest point of the book. Massie's Tiberius is convincing psychologically, but not historically, at least in the later part of the book. Having chosen to portray Tiberius in this manner, Massie could do no other than make him the dupe of Sejanus, thoroughly ignorant of his ambitions. Maybe that was the case, but I remember someone writing that, though Sejanus excelled in deception and guile, in Tiberius he met his master. I think Massie went too far with his "good" Tiberius. This is the main fault of the book. Otherwise it is extremely readable, enjoyable, and it does get most of its facts right, especially in the first half, besides providing a portrait that is probably true up to a point. It is also a very good story. It just does not fit what is known about the historical Tiberius Caesar, at least to my knowledge. Peter Bartl 10/99

- Peter Bartl, 10/1/1999

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