Tiberius and the astrologer Thrasyllus

   Augustus had had five grandsons from the marriage of his daughter Julia with Agrippa; he adopted the two eldest, Gaius and Lucius, even though his wife Livia had two children who were already grown men, Tiberius and Drusus, and had given Tiberius the hand in marriage of his daughter Julia, now a widow since the death of Agrippa. This adoption had complicated the prospects of Tiberius over the empire; in effect if imperial power was transferred hereditarily after the death of Augustus, Julia's two sons now had clear priority over Livia's sons. Jealous about what he considered as an overlooking not only of his rights (which in any case were dubious) but also of his services (he had repulsed the Germans after the defeat of Varus), Tiberius retired to the island of Rhodes.
   He was an ambitious prince, gifted with rare intellectual qualities, but affected with a violent neurosis which manifested itself by a character that was whimsical, irritable, sombre, dissembling, superstitious, suspicious and cruel. During the seven years that he stayed on Rhodes, he lived as a simple civilian, having no other confidant than a very ignorant and very robust freedman. Still he took a thousand precautions before disclosing to him the least of his designs, making use of subterfuges so that he would not see from the very first what he wanted to say to him. He frequently busied himself with finding out the future by means of astrology and had men brought to him who were recognized as the most expert in that science so as to consult them about his future destiny. As he wanted to be certain of their silence after their departure, he had his house built on a precipitous crag that plunged down into the waves of the Mediterranean. His freedman led to him the astrologer that the prince wished to consult through difficult paths and on their return, if he appeared to be suspected of any indiscretion, he hurled him into the sea. So it was that Thrasyllus was brought before Tiberius. The prince, after posing some questions to the astrologer, soon received favourable responses from him. "Thrasyllus," Tiberius quickly said to him, not wanting to let the astrologer guess his ambitious plans or his views about the empire, "you have predicted to me an event which fills me with joy. Thank you, good astrologer. But I am a Roman and the fate of Rome is of even greater interest to me than my own. What will happen after the death of Caesar Augustus; will the Romans take back power or will they entrust it to a new imperator? Will this person be chosen by the people or appointed by Augustus? What will befall Gaius Agrippa and his brother Lucius? Are they the ones who are called upon to govern the people?" Thrasyllus being no more of an expert in astrology than his fellow astrologers was nonetheless a prudent and perceptive man; he was not deceived for a moment by the air of profound indifference that the prince was affecting. He had heard much talk about Tiberius's ambition and knew moreover of his direct parental line with Augustus. Be it out of fear of punishment if he gave a reply that did not please the prince, be it through hope of reward if he flattered his plans, Thrasyllus, after consulting the stars for a long period of time, replied to Tiberius: "Prince, the Romans will not resume any of the power, but they themselves will choose their emperor, and far from appointing Augustus's successor as one of his detested minister's sons, they will choose a prince recommended by his past successes, they will chose the brother of Drusus, they will choose the son of Livia, they will choose Tiberius." The sullen face of the prince lit up with joy. His eyes shone with an unaccustomed lustre. This time he could not disguise his thoughts. But presently his features again took on their usual expression of disquiet and treachery. Tiberius did not dare believe in his good fortune. This astrologer must be nothing but a charlatan after all, his predictions nothing but flattery. But nevertheless he had a very simple means of proving the astrologer's knowledge. "Thrasyllus", he said with a show of indifference, "you have foretold great good fortune for me. But if your second prediction is realized, you will be deceiving yourself from the very first. What a heavy burden is the empire for the shoulders of one man: who then would wish for this source of torment or even of peril. But, good astrologer, tell me, you who predict so clearly the futures of other men, what do you think about your own? The coming hour, will it be favourable or unfavourable to you?" Perhaps Thrasyllus had guessed the fate which awaited the astrologers summoned before Tiberius. His air of deep dissimulation, the situation of his house, the very circumstances that surrounded the prince and which could make him fearful of the slightest indiscretion, all this perhaps was what gave him a foreboding about his probable death by this cunning charlatan. Even though he knew all this Thrasyllus examined the stars, went pale and began to tremble. "Well then", Tiberius asked, impatient to hear Thrasyllus's reply. "Prince," replied the shrewd astrologer, "I am threatened by the utmost danger. I cannot be sure of the days to come."
   "Excellent, good Thrasyllus, you have divined well," cried Tiberius, joyfully embracing the astrologer. "Your skill is now beyond doubt for me." Tiberius, full of admiration for the skill of Thrasyllus, kept him by his side from that day on and made him one of his most intimate friends. We know that the astrologer's prediction proved correct. Tiberius became emperor after the death of Augustus who had been preceded to his grave by Gaius and Lucius Agrippa.

School composition c. 1884. BNF NAF 16611.

 


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