Objects in focus
The Sword of Tiberius

The so-called Sword of Tiberius is on display in Room 70, the Wolfson Gallery of the Roman Empire. It perfectly embodies Roman visual language and political propaganda, tied up with Rome’s foreign wars and the imperial succession.

The sword was discovered in 1848 near the river Rhine, outside the German city of Mainz, which in antiquity was a vast legionary fortress and military command centre for the German frontier.

The scabbard is astonishingly well preserved and intricately detailed. The figurative scene on top is key to its meaning. In the centre is an enthroned male in classicising, divine garb with two attendant figures behind. Before him stands another male in military armour. They both have clear portrait features and were meant to be recognisable.

The sword’s scabbard is remarkably well preserved.

The Museum’s own labels used to say otherwise, but having followed the heated arguments about its iconography and context over the years, I am with those who recognise here the emperor Tiberius (r. AD 14–37), seated, receiving his adopted son Germanicus, commander-in-chief of the Roman army of the Rhine. The goddess Victory is to his left, and another deity, probably Mars, to his right. Clearly, this refers to a major military triumph in Rome’s German wars.

In truth, this is elaborate political spin, masterfully crafted both in intellectual concept and physical form. Under the emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC–AD 14), three entire legions had perished in Germany. First Tiberius, and then Germanicus, led punitive expeditions that resulted in a series of inconclusive, ever more Pyrrhic victories. Tiberius was clever: seeing the futility of these wars, he simply declared victory, granted the ambitious, gung-ho Germanicus a triumph and recalled him to Rome. As Augustus’ stepson, Tiberius had long been overlooked for the succession and was then forced to accept Germanicus as his own crown prince in uneasy competition with the hugely popular, younger man.

The ‘Sword of Tiberius’. Iron sword and tinned and gilded bronze scabbard. Roman, c. AD 15.

One likes to think that this elaborate weapon belonged to a high-ranking officer, but this is by no means assured. What looks like gold and silver is in fact mostly tinned brass. The bigger story is clear – the new monarchy’s legitimacy derived in large part from constant battlefield victories, and the absolute personal loyalty of the new professional military was crucial. Giving to the troops a powerful message of wise leadership by a united imperial family helped achieve this, and the army had the craftspeople to do so beautifully.

A version of this article originally appeared in the British Museum Magazine, produced three times a year for Members. You can find out more about becoming a Member and join online today.