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4. The Treason Trials

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In this lecture, we think about some of the key failures in Tiberius’ reign, focusing in particular on the treason trials. In particular, we focus on: (i) the extent to which what happened at the end of Tiberius’ reign (self-imposed exile on Capri, debacle with Sejanus) colours our impression of what came earlier; (ii) the extent to which Tiberius suffers from comparison with Augustus, and the impression we get from the early outpouring of support for his successor, Gaius; (iii) the extent to which some of the ‘failures’ attributed to Tiberius were really failures at all, e.g. his ‘failure’ to further expand the boundaries of empire; (iv) the crime of treason (Latin: maiestas) and the role of informers (Latin: delatores) in bringing cases in court; (v) the extent to which Tacitus’ account of this aspect of Tiberius’ reign is coloured by his own experience of trials and denunciations in the reign of Domitian; (vi) the scale of the treason trials, and the extent to which they were justified; and (vii) Tiberius’ failure to hand power over to a suitable successor.


In this course, Dr Matthew Nicholls (University of Oxford) explores the reign of the second Roman emperor, Tiberius. After a brief introductory module, we begin by thinking about Tiberius’ family background and the way he was variously taken out of and brought back into the line of succession by Augustus. In the third module, we think about how Tiberius came to power and some of his key accomplishments in Rome and in the provinces, before turning in the fourth module to consider Tiberius’ use of treason trials. In the fifth module, we consider the sources available to modern historians of the reign of Tiberius, focusing in particular on Tacitus’ Annals, before turning in the sixth module to a particular event for which – almost uniquely in Roman history – we have both an extensive literary account and an extensive documentary record: the trial of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso. Finally, in the seventh module, we consider the rise and fall of the figure of Sejanus.


Matthew Nicholls is a visiting professor of classics at the University of Reading and Senior Tutor at St John's College, Oxford, specialising in the political and social history of the Romans, and the way the built environments of Rome and cities around the empire expressed their values and priorities. In 2014, Matthew was presented with a Guardian Teaching Award for his 'Virtual Rome' project, a digital model of the city of Rome, showing the city as it appeared in c. AD 315.

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Nicholls, M. (2022, July 21). Tiberius - The Treason Trials [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Nicholls, M. "Tiberius – The Treason Trials." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 21 Jul 2022,

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