Massie has a bit of fun with Tiberius here, which might be something one else has ever done. In the introduction to this novel, Massie describes his brush with an eccentric Italian count who gives him the papers that purport to be Tiberius’ memoirs. The manuscript – in true Massiean style – is peppered with anachronisms and literary references that can only have come from post-classical periods. It turns out that the count is either a ‘notorious swindler’ or an immortal, possibly even Tiberius himself. The old emperor, it seems, made some kind of Faustian pact with a genius loci on Capri: In exchange for peace of mind in this world, he would agree to being branded a monster by history. But he was had. He got the savage write ups sure enough, but he never did get the peace of mind.
And that’s where the fun ends. From there, we have a novel of melancholy and disillusionment, suitable enough for a straight retelling of the charmless, friendless, luckless Tiberius’ life. Even his loudest accusers, the likes of Tacitus and Suetonius, must have felt a bit sorry for this bookish lad, who loved philosophy, but gave the best of himself to public service and got no thanks for it. Pushed around by his mother, resented and used by Augustus, he was properly loved only by his brother, who died, and his wife, whom he was made to divorce. Then, at the age of fifty-six, he was thrust into the imperial seat, and his troubles really began.
Massie’s Tiberius is a Republican who despises the autocracy Augustus created, and the creatures that inhabit it. He wants to restore the Republic, but no one will take him up on it. When he offers to share power with the senate, they are afraid of a trap, and insist he rule alone. Active citizenship has been a crime for so long that there is no one left who knows what it means. Rarely in fiction has Tiberius’ famous utterance, ‘Men fit to be slaves!’ been laid open so effectively. His disgust is palpable, as is the pain of his loneliness. Augustus, who actively sought power, had the talents of Agrippa and Maecenas to support him. Tiberius, whose happy time was living quietly among the the philosophers of Rhodes, had no one.
Although that is not quite true – he did have Sejanus. Massie presents this as the central relationship of Tiberius’ middle and advancing years. He loved and trusted the young Sejanus, one of the few people to offer himself as a friend during his wilderness years. When, for the second time in his life, Tiberius exiles himself to an island out of sheer contempt for the world and his fellow men, it is to Sejanus that he entrusts Rome. He is betrayed. The pain this visits on the old emperor is immense and double-edged. Not only has his one friend proven himself faithless, Tiberius’ own political judgement – his ability to evaluate men – has failed him. There is nothing left. He has given all he could to Rome, but he couldn’t make it work again.
In those last years on Capri, alone, knowing that the vicious Caligula will succeed him, Tiberius comes apart. ‘If I cared for Rome, I would have him disposed of,’ he writes of his heir. ‘But they deserve him.’ Massie at his bleakest – and sharpest.