sword of tiberius

This Roman sword, 22 inches long, made of iron and with a bronze scabbard, has carvings along the scabbard that depict the Roman general Tiberius–later Emperor–presenting a trophy of victory to his stepfather, the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, who reigned from 27 BCE to 14 CE. Tiberius himself became Emperor upon his stepfather’s death and ruled until the year 37. This sword was probably not used in battle. Found in Germany, it seems to have been forged during Tiberius’s military campaigns in Germania, which would have been about 15 to 13 BCE. It likely did not belong to the actual person of Tiberius but more likely one of his generals, presented as fealty to the Emperor to strengthen political ties and prevent possible uprisings against the Emperor by his military commanders.

The Sword of Tiberius is symbolic, but then again much of Roman power was. This sword comes to us from the era when what had been the Roman republic was transitioning to the Roman Empire, a very different society in many respects. The fact that a sword carries such symbolic meaning is emblematic of how the Romans intended to rule their new empire: by force and awe, but not necessarily in that order. Despite its powerful military and adept system of administration, what we think of as the Roman Empire was not a strong, internally-cohesive state in quite the same way as we conceive of modern nations. In most places the Romans conquered–such as, eventually, Germania–“Romanness” was more of a thin crust painted onto existing societies than it was a total top-down reorganization. Nevertheless, over the centuries the culture, language, customs and ways of thought of the classical world began to seep into these societies from that outer crust. Tiberius and his cohorts won battles and laurels with swords like these, but they truly conquered countries with their language, literature, and commerce.

The glory of the early Roman Empire exists today mostly in incomplete fragments like these, and in crumbling ruins. But the civilization the Romans built must have been truly magnificent to see at its height. In 2000 I remember seeing the Forum and the Coliseum in Rome for the first time and being truly awed both by the magnificence of what they created–even ruined and incomplete as it was–and the weight of centuries pressing down on the remnants of their society. No Hollywood movie can really do it justice. This is part of the magic of the past, imagining its reality as surpassing any fantasy you might have of it.

The Sword of Tiberius is today housed in room 70 of the British Museum in London.

The photo of the Sword of Tiberius is copyright (c) by the Trustees of the British Museum. I use it here in accordance with their terms of use.