Under Tiberius


By Nick Tosches

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A work of dangerous and haunting beauty by America’s last real literary outlaw.

Under Tiberius is a thrilling story of crime and deceit involving the man who came to be called Jesus Christ. Deep in the recesses of the Vatican, Nick Tosches unearths a first-century memoir by Gaius Fulvius Falconius, foremost speechwriter for Emperor Tiberius. The codex is profound, proof of the existence of a Messiah who was anything but the one we’ve known — a shabby and licentious thief.

After encountering him in the streets of Judea, Gaius becomes spin doctor to Jesus, and the pair schemes to accrue untold riches by convincing the masses that Jesus is the Son of God. As their marriage of truth and lies is consummated, friendship and wary respect develop between these two grifters. Outrageous and disturbing, Under Tiberius is as black as the ravishing night, shot through with fierce and brilliant light.


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SOME YEARS AGO, IN THE SPRING OF 2000, I WAS SPENDING MY days in the Vatican, studying several unique manuscripts in the course of my research for a novel.

Access to these manuscripts required high academic credentials. I had none. But in the end, after several meetings and interviews that seemed at times to be interrogations, the Vatican Library had given me identification cards authorizing the access I needed to both the Archivio Segreto and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. These cards, which bore the seal of the Vatican, attested that the Vatican had bestowed an honorary doctorate on me.

I was under constant supervision, or surveillance, during the days of my research. But I was very fortunate that the guardian who had been appointed me was a kindly old prelate who was more devoted to librarianship and learning than to the Head Librarian in the Sky and the recondite hierarchical ambitions of the Vatican, all of which he seemed to have waved away long ago.

One afternoon, as we walked toward a destination in the vast underground maze of one great chamber that on this day was eerily deserted and silent, we passed a long, high wall of partitioned shelf upon partitioned shelf of strapped-shut leather tubes that cast a soft penumbral patinated glow in the dim lighting from the vaulted ceiling above them.

The old prelate and I upon first meeting had begun our brief, tentative conversational exchanges in Italian. Slowly, by interjecting phrases of English into our talk, he let it be known that his English was more fluent than my Italian. And so, after a few days, we spoke almost exclusively in English.

"What are these?" I asked, gesturing to the leathern tubes that seemed to be countless in their dark wooden places of rest in the wall that seemed to be endless. I was sure that they were papyrus scrolls.

Very, very ancient scrolls, as the leather cases that held them were ancient themselves, and the wood of the shelves appeared to have been there for centuries.

He nodded with a slight smile, as though sensing what I had surmised, and affirming it.

"No one knows all that is here. Some of them are three or four thousand years old, maybe older." He paused, then slowed his pace as we proceeded. "The even older writings, the clay tablets, are in a vault in a room that diverges from the start of this passage. Back there. We passed it a while ago. Some of these scrolls may be as old as some of those tablets. No one knows. That's the trouble with this place. There has never been a complete and serious inventory of what is here."

The passage of leather-cased scrolls led to a wider passage. He called this the place of books before paper. Piles and piles of the earliest codices: sheets rather than scrolls of papyrus or parchment, bound together between wooden covers. Most of these were from about two thousand years ago, among the oldest codices to have survived.

"Look at this," he said. "The first books. Heaped and strewn like trash in the basement." He mumbled something about ratti—rats, something about uno caseggiato bassifondo—a slum tenement; then he shook his head. "They say that Pius VIII sent his servants down here to fetch kindling to keep his fireplaces roaring in winter."

Looking at this mess, he turned still as stone, as if he had been looking at it all his life.

I picked up a codex. There was very little wood left of its original covers. The dust of the ages seemed to be the only solvent holding it together. The old man did not mind that I had raised it in my hands. I very carefully opened it, turned its friable, torn leaves. My fingers were filthy with its dirt. I slowly, gently turned a few pages, looking at what remained of the faded ink on those pages. It was written in Latin, in an elegant hand. I tried to make out the words, tried to make sense of them.

The elderly priest joined me in looking at the page. "Good parchment. Good atrament: looks like cuttle-fish, the best the Romans had. And the hand-writing: adept. A bit shaky, but adept. No cheap job, this one."

He placed his own fingers to the pages, and, while I continued to hold the codex, removed my free fingers from the pages and let his take their place. He was reading the Latin far more ably and with far more alacrity than I had managed, and he pronounced the words in a whisper as he read.

"Tristissimus hominum," he whispered. He repeated the phrase, no longer in a distracted whisper: "Tristissimus hominem. 'The gloomiest of men,'" he translated. He seemed stunned. "This is a book about Tiberius," he said. "By someone who knew him. Knew him."

His fingers moved backwards through the pages with a professional care that did not hide his intent and rising but expressionless excitement.

Suddenly he stopped, his eyes fixed on a single word. The word was Iesvs, the Latin form of Jesus.

"Iesus. And here, again, in the accusative: Iesum."

He muttered something to himself in Italian, something that I could not clearly hear. Then he looked to me. It was as if he had discovered something that made every other discovery in the last two thousand years seem as nothing.

"This piece of overlooked kindling is the memoir of a man who knew both Tiberius and Jesus. It may be the only real proof that Jesus ever existed."

He put the codex in his black briefcase. "You must say nothing of this," he told me.

I nodded. We made our way to the file cabinet that held one of the medieval manuscripts I wanted to see for my research. We were both so fouled by the soot and dirt of the codex that we went first to a large wash-sink nearby. He was with me; he located the manuscripts for me. But he was a thousand miles away.

When I called him the next morning, he told me that we would not be able to meet again for another two days. And that we should meet at a certain café in a certain secluded little piazza a considerable distance from the Vatican.

At the café he explained that he had torn two pieces from two sheets of the codex and had them tested at the library's laboratory. He had told the chief technician nothing about these scraps, only that the analysis was a matter of urgent importance. Every analytical test had been performed. The frail scraps had been exactingly examined by transmission electron microscope, by scanning electron microscope, by ion and electron microprobes, by energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometer. Microscopic particles of the ink had been subjected to chemical analyses. The scraped-goatskin parchment and the black ink on it were of the same age, and dispersive penetration tests showed that the ink had been laid to the parchment since their making. Furthermore, the visual evidence of the nature of the pen that had been used—a calamus of the internal shell of the cuttle-fish—and the form of uncial script of the fragments corroborated the technical conclusions.

"It's real," he said.

Seeing that he had somewhat lost me along the way, but not knowing quite where, he paused, then said: "This calamus, the ancient Romans called it a calamarius, a sort of horny flexible pen made from the bone in the cuttle-fish, the ink-fish. The word calamari comes from this, but calamari is squid; cuttle-fish are seppie. Latin, Italian: the cuttle-fish is seppia. Somebody got confused. Probably an American."

He smiled, then was silent and drank his coffee. A double espresso with a lot of sugar. Then, pointing to his heart, he took some pills, drank some water. He asked the waiter for another double espresso.

"And while they were doing this, I was doing this."

He unclasped his briefcase and removed a fat dark-brown button-and-tie kraft envelope. Placing it on the table, he then placed his pale, spidery veined hand upon it. He unwound the string from the closure, then carefully withdrew the topmost of the sheets of paper within it.

It was thick fine white paper, and the image on it—the first page of the codex—was far more clear, darker and sharper, than the original. To be sure, the torn areas and the black smears here and there were also more striking; but the text had magically been restored, from faded to vibrant characters.

"They set it up for me, the scanner in the laboratory, tuned it to do this with one of the scraps I gave them. While they worked on the scraps, I worked on this. And while I did, I translated it."

Again he placed his hand on the envelope. He raised the second little cup of espresso to his lips and drank as I tried to translate the Latin. I found the uncial script to be daunting; and years away from this most powerful of languages had taken from me much of my familiarity with its declensions and cases.

The first words that appeared, the first words that emerged after those words forever lost to the attrition of the ages, on a worn-away area of parchment that appeared as a gray stain on the scan, were sub Tiberio: "under Tiberius."

"It's real," he repeated. "The laboratory dates it to the first century, to about two thousand years ago. It's the memoir of an old man written for his grandson. An old Roman aristocrat of equestrian rank. What he writes dates it to about the middle of the first century. He wanted to leave this behind for his grandson, who was a child at the time. He wanted his grandson to read it when he grew to be a man, so that he could come to know his grandfather after he was gone. Nowhere does he address his words to anyone else. It is all for the grandson. And it seems to me to be at times as much a sort of—obliquo, perverso, how do you say?"

"Oblique, perverse."

"Yes, yes. It seems to me to be at times as much a sort of oblique last-rites confession as it is a memoir."

He looked to the sky, breathed as deeply as he could, smiled as his eyes followed the movement of a swallow over a small, medieval church across the piazza.

"All my life," he said—to me, to the sky—"I have doubted Jesus: the reality of Jesus, the historical existence of the Jesus of this Church. There was simply no real evidence. He appears nowhere in any record or document of the day. The odd, cursory references to him in Josephus and Tacitus have long been regarded as insertions by monastic scribes in the Middle Ages. Even the greatest of modern theologians, biblical scholars, and Christologists, from Crossan to Sanders and the rest, now agree that most of what is in the gospels could never have happened, and never did happen."

He moved his hand across the dark-brown envelope. "This proves that I was wrong. This, and only this, proves that I was wrong."

His smile deepened, grew more serene, as he became more immersed in the blue sky and the slow movement of the wispy clouds of this lovely spring morning.

"In fact, it is the earliest portrait of him, older even than the gospel of Mark. And the only portrait of him drawn from life."

"I see a raise in your future," I said with a grin. "I see one of those white cassocks and red beanies."

"And I see danger." He was no longer smiling, no longer facing the sky. He looked directly into my eyes. "If I were so much as to be suspected of having any knowledge of this thing, I'd be out of here on my ass. And worse," he added cryptically.

"Then why are you trusting me?"

"Because you once wrote a book about Michele Sindona. It is not that he trusted you enough to talk to you. It is because it was a book involving many secrets and many people. And you are still here. And that is because you betrayed no one." After a pause he added: "And because there is something about you that I like." He shrugged. "Homo sum."

"Where is the original?"

"I threw it back where we found it. Where you found it."

"And what do you want me to do with this?" I gestured to the envelope, handed him back the sheet he had given me.

"Give it to the world."

"I don't think my command of Latin is up to the job."

He placed the page I had returned to him in the envelope as gently as he had taken it from the envelope. From the bottom of the envelope, he pulled out sheets of cheaper paper that were folded into a bundle.

"Notes I made while reading it as I scanned it," he said. "These will help you with some of the difficult words and sentences and passages. As for the rest, that is up to you."

"If it is all that you say it is, if it proves that there was a Jesus, if it is the earliest and only first-hand account of that Jesus"—and I still did not really believe that any of this was true—"then why is it so dangerous?"

"Read it and you will see."

He closed the envelope and gave it to me.

About a year later, at home in New York, I finished the novel I was working on. The old prelate and I kept in touch, but the codex or the contents of the envelope he had given me were never mentioned again. Only in 2004, after receiving word of the death of the old man, did I turn in earnest to what lay in that envelope. Almost every Saturday morning for three years I studied for at least an hour with a Latin tutor. I took again to reading the red-covered Loeb editions of my favorite Latin authors, trying to shift my eyes as little as possible from the Latin text to the facing English text of these volumes.

One day I rediscovered my favorite opening line of Catullus, in his nameless Poem XVI, written as a response to critics: "Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo"—"I will fuck your ass and fuck your mouth." This sort of thing, as much as re-reading Virgil and Ovid, renewed my love of Latin and fueled my enthusiasm.

Then, finally, I read what had been given me; and then, as had been foretold, I knew.

I was fortunate that what I read had been written at a time when the Romans were not commonly writing in scriptura continua, a style of writing without word dividers, without spaces or other marks between words or sentences. What I read and worked with was written with interpuncta, crude dots used to divide words and sentences, a style that fell into disuse during the second century, when most writers in Latin reverted to continuous script.

I translated, then I translated again. I studied the translation until I was confident. Then I studied it until I was sure. I decided to use only one long section of the codex, for much else in it, the earlier parts of it, seemed somewhat prosaic and of slight interest except to historians of early first-century Rome. I decided to use the first two legible words of the original ancient work as its title. I also decided to put my name to it, rather than the name of the man, Gaius Fulvius Falconius, who nearly two thousand years ago wrote it in Latin for the eyes of his grandson, and for his grandson's eyes alone.

—Nick Tosches


I SPEAK TO YOU ALONE WHO BEAR MY BLOOD. I SPEAK TO YOU from beyond the kingdom of light, from beyond the kingdom of darkness. I speak to you, my grandson, from the grave.

Your father, who was my only son, was reduced to ashes in your infancy, and your mother followed him to the perfumed flames before two years more had passed. Even if this had not been so, you would have come to know me only through their tales, and therefore the truth of my life would have remained unknown to you.

This would mean nothing were it not that the devious path and wrongful turns of my life led me somehow to an understanding of things. The older I have grown, the rarer I have observed this gift to be.

You have been given this book, corded with my leaden seal and with my patrimony, on the morning on which you will have put aside the crimson-edged toga of a boy and taken on the white toga of a man.

As pronounced in my testament, this will have been when the light of the first dawn of your seventeenth year has come upon you.

By now you know well that a philosopher is a lover of wisdom, from the words for "love" and "wisdom." I have read the works of many philosophers. I have spoken with others. They are as actors on the stage. No man who espouses wisdom possesses it. I myself never loved or courted it. Our word for that thing, sophia, that philosophers profess to love is not so distant from our word, sophisma, for turning knowledge toward deceit. This was my love.

But the skies and winds of the days and nights of this world bring mysteries. The seeds of wisdom sprouted in the dirt of my sins. Like a woman scorned, she, Sophia, came to me.

It is she whom I wish to give you. She is the better part of my patrimony, with which you cannot buy her. I can do so, or attempt to do so, only through the story of my life. There is no other way.

Thus this book. My desire to reach the end of the journey of which it tells and my desire to postpone my own end are one. I am old. The vomiting of blood grows more frequent. If I try to walk, I fall. But these words run fresh and clear and strong, like a stream in a strange but well-remembered woods.


HE WAS NOTHING UNTIL I FOUND HIM. ANOTHER DIRTY little half-shekel thief, no different from the thousands like him who infested the provinces.

Jews. Israelites. Children of Sem, who they believed to have been born without foreskin and to have lived for four hundred years, father of them and the Arabs and all the rest of the hook-nosed mongrel Semitic tribes of the wastes beyond the Great Sea.

They called themselves these things—iudaeii, israeliti, filii Sem—and all manner of other things, and the sons of this one, that one, and of others upon others. As many yowling whelps and moaning scurvied old dogs of as many of these promiscuously inbred and intermixed clans of these multitudes as there were, just as many were the names by which they called themselves, in Greek, in Latin, in the babblements of their own bestial tongues, all of which they called Iebraeus. And likewise as various and inbred was the confusion of their primitive gods and beliefs. No matter how astute their skills at the swindlings of money-lending and currency-trading, they were fools for the taking, if not for the touching.

He could barely write his name, or that of the vicious god whose mark the particular branch of his foul race bore. In truth, he knew less of that false god than I did. As he was without learning, so he was without trade. He knew only to loiter, to connive, and to pilfer.

His eyes alone distinguished him from the other young wastrels who scurried through the streets like unweaned rats. The lie of sweet innocence in those soft, pale-brown eyes struck me the moment I chanced to look into them. They were eyes destined for greater games, greater gains.

It was I who envisioned and devised the means of those gains.


I HAVE TOLD YOU OF HOW THE WELL-CULTIVATED SEEDS OF MY dedication to the art of oratory came to distinguish me among the peerage for my success in representing accusers and the accused, the innocent and the guilty alike in legal cases brought before the Senate. I have told you of how this success was brought to the attention of the emperor by his consuls, of how I entered the emperor's court in a curule position, of restoring the fallen dignity of our family's equestrian rank, and of being raised above it.

My writing of speeches for the emperor differed from my work as an advocate in two significant ways. I was now writing orations to be delivered by another, as if he himself had composed them; and I was now no longer representing the innocent and the guilty alike, but only the guilty, the same single guilty man every day.

The lies that I placed in the mouth of the emperor grew from eloquence to grandiloquence. But for occasional moments of benevolent grandeur, which satisfied his vanity well, every measure he enacted and every devious path he pursued was for his own gain at the expense of the populace and often of the aristocracy as well. It pleased him that the words I wrote for him were claimed to be his own. This pleased me also. To be the concealer of his perfidies was a perfidy from which I wished to be concealed.

To be sure, the speeches I wrote were more than duplicity, more than malfeasance. They were the recasting of horrible truth into beauteous falsehoods. His betrayals were turned into acts of beneficence, his thefts into acts of charity, his evil into good.

All words are mercenary. The same words that served Virgil serve the most wicked among us. The poet and the bringer of ruin are one. Oratory is the craft of convincing through words of forceful elegance. Morality is not elemental to it.

To veil the source of the words to which an emperor gives voice, a speech-writer is referred to as an advisor to the emperor. When we are moved by words at the theatre, it is against all reason that it is to the actor who has uttered them that we immediately respond, rather than to the unseen author of the words. So much more so if the Senate is the stage and the emperor, in all the imposing gravitas of his presence, is the actor. No one has ever asked his neighbor if he heard tell of what the emperor's speech-writer said on this occasion or that. He asks if he heard tell of what the emperor said. It is the puppet that gains the attention of the crowd, not the hidden puppeteer.

It is curious that in discussions with the princeps as to the illusions or effects he wished to bring about through his speeches I came in time to be closer to him than his actual appointed advisors. Slowly he drew me into the shadows of the secret truths that my words must hide with compelling splendor. This complicity was necessary to better achieve what he sought. He lavished gold on me at times. He promised me a praetorship at times. I knew that the lavishments, to insure my fidelity, were grudging and loath, and the promises, toward the same end, were hollow.

We were of a kind in a way, Tiberius and I—he reaching and grasping from on high, I from far below.

I had come to his court in the fourth year of his reign. It was in the ninth year of his reign that I saw madness overtake him. His carnal appetites, which had been always depraved, became ever more grotesque. He all but forsook appearing in public, and thus my oration-writing all but ceased and my role became that of a confidant who sometimes was called on to compose and impose what sense I could on lunatic proclamations or proposals of deranged laws. A confidant in the confidence of a madman.

He developed a custom of being carried on many mornings to the Tullianum, where those awaiting execution were brought out to kneel before him in a row. Strolling down the row of them, he looked at their faces and, knowing nothing of the crimes for which they had been condemned to die that day, often ordered that one or two of them be set free.

I asked him how he chose among them, and he said he encountered the faces of the innocent in his dreams. I asked him how he knew that he was not encountering the faces of the guilty in his dreams. He told me that he no longer merely enjoyed the honors due a god, and that he was no longer merely god-like. He told me that he had in fact become a god, and that nothing that was not good could enter the dreams of a god.

It seemed to me that he was very sincere in telling me this. It also seemed that the visible pleasure he derived from looking into the faces of those about to die was equally sincere. He told me that he could sense the rapidity with which their mortal hearts beat.

He could not see that all of Rome, from the streets to the Senate, had turned against him. He had abandoned them, they felt. He cared nothing for their welfare, they felt, or for that of Rome itself.

They were right. He had once been hailed as a great warrior and conqueror. Now he was looked on as a threat, a liability, a creature to be more despised than pitied.

He had his long periods of lucidity, but they grew fewer and briefer. All the while, there was within me a rising blight of agitation and confusion. I knew what I was not meant to know, and I did not know what to do with what I knew.

The princeps had but one surviving son and successor, Drusus, from his first marriage, to Vipsania Agrippina, whom her father, Agrippa, had betrothed to Tiberius when she was an infant in swaddling.

Lest your tutors have painted pretty pictures in a palimpsest of the truth, you know the politics of the late Republic, the first imperium, and the Julian and Claudian clans. They speak for all politics. One need not lay waste to time by learning the political history of our world. It is all the same, ever repeating. Different names, different faces. But all and always the same save for the extraneous detail of the embroidery. One need learn but a span, and learn it well, to understand eternity. For eternal is the nature of man's treachery, greed, and bestial hunger for power, which, well-groomed, is the essence and sum of politics.

Trust no man. Above all, trust no man of wealth who speaks of his concern for the welfare of the people or the common good.

Just as our first princeps, Augustus, had compelled the divorce between Livia, the mother of Tiberius, and her cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero, the father of Tiberius and a conspirator with the sicarians of Julius Caesar against Octavian before he had been raised to the title of Augustus, so it was Augustus who, on the death of his general Agrippa, compelled Tiberius to divorce Vipsania and marry her mother, Agrippa's widow, Julia, the daughter and only natural child of Augustus.

This was before Augustus, seeing those with claim to the succession perish—his grandsons by Julia and Agrippa, and his nephew by his sister, Octavia—and foreseeing Tiberius as his successor, adopted him, rendering him then the stepbrother as well as the third husband of his daughter, Julia.

As happy as was the fifty-year marriage of Augustus and Livia, the mother of Tiberius, just as unhappy was the marriage of Livia's son Tiberius and the daughter of Augustus, a termagant in whom the ways of a whore and the overbearing airs of an arrogant aristocratic bitch resided in full, equal, and abominable measure. After a while of wretched discord, Tiberius and Julia lived apart.


  • Praise for Under Tiberius:

    "Tosches gets points for a book that is joyfully irreverent in a way that books simply aren't anymore. The philandering, scoundrel version of Jesus is jarring, but Under Tiberius is engaging as a narrative. At the very least, Under Tiberius will definitely spice up your book club."—GQ
  • "Nick Tosches is the kind of writer who can turn readers into fakers.... Where the 65-year-old author's celebrated nonfiction books shone light into American culture's morally murky depths, the cult favorite's audacious and haunting new novel, Under Tiberius, goes even deeper."
    New York Magazine
  • "Those of you who take your religion seriously, beware. All others read on for a novel that is extremely clever, historically sound and, in its strange way, fun."
    The Globe and Mail
  • "Tosches's novel takes the form of a translation of an eyewitness account of Jesus's ministry, a brilliant, dark journey that takes the well-worn gospel stories and turns them on their heads . . . Not since The Last Temptation of Christ (1960) has there been a book with so much potential for offending believers. But there's far more to it than shock value. This is also a meditation on the extraordinary strength of both lies and belief, and it shows how truth can sometimes grow in the shadows between them. Disturbing, audacious, and powerful." —Booklist, starred review
  • "Tosches blows the doors off the historical novel with an unflinchingly blasphemous, mirthfully vulgar, and ultimately brilliant story of Jesus . . . [He] is taking eloquent aim at the way history, religion, and political fantasy obscure the persistent realities of humanity. This novel succeeds where every neutered passion play-depiction of Jesus fails, simply by showing us a man."—Publisher's Weekly
  • Praise for Nick Tosches:

    "Tosches can't write a dull book. He sets his foot firmly on your throat from the start; he won't let up , and you won't want him to."
    Washington Post
  • "The sheer audaciousness of Tosches's writing makes most other fiction seem phony by comparison."—San Francisco Chronicle
  • "Tosches makes an extraordinarily compelling language out of expletive and insult. Through it, the seedy lowlife almost becomes heroic."—The Times (London)
  • "A writer of rare humanity."—GQ
  • "[Tosches writes] without illusion and yet with real sympathy, call it a form of love. That is a real achievement of writing and feeling."—David Remnick
  • "I'm an admirer of anything and everything Nick Tosches writes."—Tom Robbins

On Sale
Aug 2, 2016
Page Count
336 pages
Back Bay Books

Nick Tosches

About the Author

Nick Tosches (1949-2019) was the author of four previous novels, Me and the DevilIn the Hands of DanteCut Numbers, and Trinities. His nonfiction works include Where Dead Voices GatherThe Devil and Sonny ListonDinoPower on EarthHellfireCountry, and Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll. He lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author