PBS Makes Me a God

PBS Deified Me for Being a Tyrant

by Adam Young

On July 18th, PBS debuted their latest documentary, The Roman Empire in the First Century. While all-to-briefly detailing the events that lead up to the Civil Wars and Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the role of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, and the triumph of Augustus and his regime (which was barely sketched over. One would think this would've been a major focus of a 4 hour series – exactly how a single man managed to cloak his despotism in centuries old non-monarchical institutions), Rome is repeatedly described as the world's first superpower, which is an interesting unacknowledged commentary on the modern world. Halfway through the first two hours the intermission directed viewers to the PBS website, where one could try their hand as Roman Emperor against the whims of Fate.

To play the game you first choose to play either as the Emperor Tiberius or as Fate with the computer as your opponent. A series of situations are presented that will determine the Fate of Tiberius, regardless of which side you play. The outcome varies each time you play the game so you should choose your strategy based on how you expect the other side will react.

There are five possible outcomes to the game, no matter which side you play:

  1. Tiberius Deified
  2. Tiberius Successful
  3. Mixed Blessing
  4. Fate Tarnishes Tiberius
  5. Fate Finishes Tiberius

All in all, I played 5 games as Tiberius. The first two I earned Mixed Blessings, the third I achieved my only Deification, and the final two Fate finished me off.

The first situation presents two choices that are essentially the same choices for the subsequent situations: Principled Leadership, or Ruthless Leadership. The first time I played I followed a carrot and stick strategy – a mixture of force and compromise depending on the situation. The second attempt I choose strickly carrots, the course of Principled Leadership, and I was killed by Sejanus after adopting him as my successor. The third game I deliberately choose the path of brutality and despotism – and was deified for my profile in courage. With Games 4 and 5, I sought to correct the choices I made in the previous games that led to setbacks, but Fate is a cruel mistress, and I was killed by Drusus, and again by Sejanus.


The game opens with an overview of the situation. Tiberius is trying to secure the succession to Augustus' regime after having been named in Augustus' will as his successor, but his choice has not been met with overwhelming support. The Roman army of Germany is clamoring for Germanicus to succeed, and many of Rome's provincial legions have mutinied. There is also internal discontent, including rumers that Lucius Scribonius Libo may be plotting a revolt. Tiberius first must secure his role as Rome's emperor, then attempt to successfully navigate his way through all of the problems that Fate will place in his path.

As Tiberius, you are presented with the choice of what to do with Agrippa Postumus, your stepbrother and the grandson of Augustus by his daughter Julia. The first alternative is the route of Principled Leadership: To spare the life of Agrippa, reasoning that he may be satisifed simply to receive treatment consistent with his royal rank, while the choice of Ruthless Leadership anticipates that Agrippa will attempt to rally support to oppose Tiberius' rule.

In my third game, I was playing for keeps. Remembering that Augustus himself was deified, and that Tiberius was adopted but not biologically related to the now Divine Augustus, any direct descendent of his would pose a potent everpresent threat to my regime, I decided to exterminate any links to the previous regime.

Luck was with me and as it turns out Agrippa was indeed plotting against me, and Rome respects my shrewd handling of the situation. Fate shines on me.(Whether the evidence was true or manufactured isn't part of the game, and in any case lies become the true lesson of politics here, the coldblooded murder of a potential adversary being merely the means to an end. In real life, Agrippa Postumus was indeed murdered. Either by Tiberius or his mother Livia. Tiberius out of fear, Livia out of spite.)

Early Rivalries:

Next, Tiberius faces a potential conspiracy by the Roman nobleman Lucius Scribonius Libo. The two courses presented are to Bide Your Time; in order to gather evidence on Libo's plotting before going to the Senate, or to Have Libo Killed; to act swiftly by ordering the secret police to kill Libo and find evidence implicating him.

I decided to kill Libo. The secret police sneak into Libo's home in the middle of the night and assassinate Libo and foil his plot. They find among his papers plans to overthrow Tiberius. The Senate is satisfied that I acted properly, and Tiberius gains in popularity. (Ruthlessness and swiftness wins the day again. In the real world Tiberius in fact bided his time and had Libo tried for treason in the Senate, and he commited suicide before a verdict was rendered.)

Internal Issues:

The next situation deals with internal issues of the empire, specifically keeping the Roman people happy. Small bands of thieves roam the countryside and Tiberius must decide whether to build new military posts to suppliment the existing network of outposts. The new camps will close the distance between each base and should help to protect citizens from these roaming bands of thieves. Or, instead, I can choose to hold more gladitorial games in order to entertain and pacify the Roman citizenry.

I decide to construct new military posts throughout the country and to raise more troops to man the bases. I reasoned that not only will this increase the ability to punish raiders, but should the conquered lands rebel, forces can be more quickly deployed to put them down. Fate smiles on Tiberius as the timely construction of military posts provides the means to hunt down and exterminate these bands of men.

Questions of Economy:

Then I had to confront questions of economy. Tiberius must choose price fixing or land reform. Fixing prices makes the people happy, but could curtail production, while Land reform could alienate important Senators, and alter the existing social power structure. Reasoning that fixing prices will affect more individuals than the smaller number who would actually benefit from a grant of free land to farm, like all good politicians I placed my own short-term popularity over the long-term needs of the people, and choose to impose price controls on food. I decide to overrule property rights to favor my own popularity, and take the chance that famine will not result. I send my agents to the markets to insure the price standards are followed.

As usual, price controls have dried up the supply of food. There is not enough food to feed all of Rome's populace. There is great misery, and many starve. Many curse the name of Tiberius. Fate has turned against me. (It is strange that I would achieve eventual deification even though my actions deliberately caused many deaths amongst the people I am supposed to protect – -or so the fiction goes. Of course, as the tale of many dictators shows, this type of paternalism often leads to sacrificing innocents on behalf of their own aggrandizement and popularity. Maybe the real lesson of politics throughout history is that in order to save them, you must first destroy them. Just like that old Roman saying "They make a desert and call it peace.")

Dealing With the Provinces:

Moving on it seems the provinces are near a state of rebellion and they must be dealt with. Many in the outlying provinces have never been loyal, but what conquered people ever are. Some provinces are slipping towards outright revolt, and taxes often go uncollected. My alternatives are to either strengthen the armies in the provinces in the hope that the increased military presence will frighten the provincials back into obediance, or to act to quickly stamp out any potential revolt. I order my most conscientious general Germanicus to lead an army to punish both rebels and the towns harboring them. Fate returns to me. (The real Tiberius did indeed face a rebellion in the north, but by the legions in Pannonia and Germania, while Germanicus enacted a retributive campaign against the German tribes on the Rhine.)

Trouble With the Neighbors:

Now I'm having trouble with the neighbors. I have reports that marauding parties of Germans have crossed into Gaul plundering towns near the border and their king, Maroboduus, is threatening to invade. Unless something is done, the attacks will only increase and lead to a full-scale invasion and it's likely that other neighbors of Rome will take their cue from how this situation is resolved.

I'm given two choices. Personally lead the legions north and destroy Maroboduus and stamp out the German threat or I could lure Maroboduus into a trap. I decide it would be best to use deceit against Maroboduus, so I send an invitation for him to come to Rome to negotiate our differences. Once Maroboduus arrives, I plan on detaining and holding him until he agrees to my demands. I reason that a live hostage king is better than an occupied people, and this course of action will also allow me to remain in Rome so to more effectively deal with any uprisings elsewhere.

As it turns out, upon hearing about Maroboduus' capture, the Thracians invade nearby Roman territory, but because I stuck around in Rome with my home legions I quickly put down their attack. And I make significant progress with Fate.

Staying Alive:

The final situation I must face is staying alive. A politician never knows just how far he can trust his friends and family. Some time ago I turned to Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, to handle internal issues. Over time Sejanus began to develop a popularity and following of his own. His birthday is celebrated throughout Rome and golden statues are erected in his honor. Many believe he will one day replace me.

So I am faced with two decisions. I can have Sejanus killed which will eliminate a potentially powerful adversary. However, Sejanus has been useful in dealing with my other real and imagined enemies in the past, and this course of action could backfire when Sejanus is no longer around to protect me. Or, on the other hand, I can eliminate Agrippina, the grandaughter of Augustus, and Drusus, her son by Germanicus, who are a potential dynastic threat and who also blame me (rightly) for the death under mysterious circumstances of the popular Germanicus.

I reason that as Commanders of the Praetorian Guard would not begin assasinating emperors for a few decades yet, that I can afford to deal with Sejanus later. I decide to spare him long enough to use him to eliminate the more immediate threat, and order Sejanus to arrange their demise. Now two potential adversaries are eliminated. Fate approves. (The real Agrippina and Drusus were indeed arrested. Agrippina was exiled to the same remote island where her mother was exiled and died, and starved herself to death. Drusus was imprisoned in a dungeon for years, finally starving to death.)


Tiberius Deified! As a reward for a career of unrelenting lying, stealing and murder, Fate has deified Tiberius! Fate reports that Rome has done well under his leadership. The borders are safe and the empire continues. Historians will write that Tiberius was a solid leader and a good emperor.

Rome moves forward into a future enhanced by his leadership.

Although to today's mind, the deification of politicians looks childish and absurd, maybe it had a somewhat rational – if mistaken – basis. It appears that in the ancient world gods were worshipped because they were thought to be unpredictable forces, and only regular gifts and honors could win their favor, though even then one could never be absolutely sure. The Cult of the Emperors followed a familar pattern. Like gods, emperors were powerful, unpredictable beings, capable of both helping and hindering on a very large scale.

Is it really any different with contemporary politicians, who routinely covertly claim a myriad of mystical powers? They use statistics and bureaucracy to claim the carnival art of fortune telling and prophecy. They promise to distribute infinite gifts and favors to the public and their own cronies and claim they can insure against any calamity, and indeed that they can control the individual destinies of billions. Certainly politicians today are powerful, unpredictable beings, capable of both helping and hindering on a very, very large scale. Maybe the really true lesson of politics is the more ruthless you are in politics then the more you are applauded and deified by proxy. The more you lie and steal, the more you smear and corrupt, the more you will be excused and even justified and rationalized, and people will readily speak up to defend the bluring of the differences between private and public morality. Morality will be demoralized. The path to success in the politics of any age, it appears, is to pretend to be superhuman.

Some say that politics is the highest calling, but when you look into politics, the facts, rather than the myths, politics seems to be just organized killing. The old saying about power, that it corrupts, certainly is true. FDR, Stalin, Lincoln, and many other politicians large and minor, all were – and are – corrupted by the temptations to use their power to steal, coerce, and kill all in their own self-interest. The lesson of power is that being ruthless, often brutally so, works.

The lesson I learned from my stint as the fictional Tiberius is to rule for my own benefit. To seek my own security and popularity against the rights of others. To attack minorites in favor of the majority, even if it has disastrous results, and to isolate and eliminate individuals. To lie, cheat and steal. The lesson of politics, as we all know, is that it lives by the myth that what is good for the state is good for the people.

Although my fictional Tiberius was deified for his crimes, the real Tiberius was not so honored. The men of his time revolted against his methods and still held to a weakened – albeit still humane – sense of right and wrong; of innocence and guilt. Where is that sense today?