Emperor Vespasian (A.D. 69-79)
Titus Flavius Vespasianus’ rise to power is one of the most adventurous, unlikely and over-looked stories of the first century AD. Many histories of this time concentrate on the intrigue, excesses, brutality and madness of emperors from Augustus through Nero, then stop at the Year of the Four Emperors, a year which saw Vespasian as victor. Lindsey Davis embraces this unusual time-period to place Falco, for only at this time, could a man like Marcus Didius Falco exist and a Senator’s daughter like Helena Justina survive.
Statue head of Vespasian
© Empires Ascendant 400 BC – AD 200 Timelife Books (1988).
Early Life and Marriage
Vespasian was born in Falacrina, a small village just beyond Reate in A.D. 9, during the reign of Augustus. No one in his family had ever reached high office. Sabinus, his father, was a tax collector in Asia and later became a banker in Helvetica, where he died leaving his wife Vespasia Pollia and two sons, Vespasian and Sabinus. Vespasian’s brother, Sabinus, reached the rank of City Prefect in Rome, but Vespasian dithered, and only stood as a senatorial candidate after his mother’s constant and sarcastic use of the phrase “your brother’s footman“. Once Vespasian had his senatorial stripe, he was ready to embark upon his public life.
Vespasian married Flavia Domitilla, which was a politically unambitious match, due to her lack of social standing and family connections. Her father, Flavius Liberalis had to appear before a board of arbitration to establish his daughter’s claim to full Roman Citizenship, instead of just a Latin one. Vespasian and Flavia Domitilla produced three children, a daughter also called Domitilla, and two sons, Titus and Domitian. Both Flavia Domitilla and the daughter Domitilla died before Vespasian reached his magistracy. After the death of his wife, Vespasian returned to his former mistress Caenis (a Freedwoman and secretary to Antonia, Marc Antony’s daughter) who remained his wife in all but name even during his Emperorship. [The subject of Lindsey Davis’ novel The Course of Honour].
Reign of Caligula
Vespasian first served as a colonel in Thrace, then drew lots for a quaestorship and won Crete and Cyrenaica. He tried to win an aedileship, but only scraped through in sixth place on his second attempt at the post. However, when ran for the praetorship, he won easily and was at the top of the list. At this time, most of the Senate was at odds with Caligula. Vespasian, wishing to win the Emperors favour, proposed games be held to celebrate Caligula’s German “victory”, and conspirators who attempted to assassinate Caligula be denied public burial. He thanked the Emperor, in front of the whole Senate, for being invited to dine at the Palace.
Reign of Claudius
Following the assassination of Caligula in A.D. 41, the Praetorian Guard declared Claudius their Emperor. The Flavians had secured the favour of Claudius via Antonia and Claudius’ Freedman Narcissus. Through Narcissus, Vespasian was also granted command of a legion in Germany. During Claudius’ invasion of Britain in A.D. 43, Vespasian and his legion served under Aulus Plautius (consular rank commander) and at times under Claudius himself. He fought thirty battles, subjugated two war-like tribes and captured numerous towns, including the entire Isle of Vectis (Isle of Wight). He won several Triumphal decorations and a couple of priesthoods. By A.D. 51, Vespasian reached the Consulship, the highest office on the “Cursus Honorum”. Unfortunately, at this time, the influence of Agrippina on her son Nero was increasing and Claudius’ position as Emperor looked dangerous, as did the position of any friends of Claudius and Narcissus. Therefore, following his consulship, Vespasian withdrew from public life for just over ten years, only returning when he was granted the proconsul governorship of Africa in circa A.D. 63-64.
Reign of Nero
In Africa, Vespasian ruled with justice and dignity (some say with severity and parsimony), except when, on one occasion, the populace of a town pelted him with turnips. He returned from Africa no richer than he left and had to mortgage his estates to his brother to pay off his creditors, and also traded in mules (which not not the done thing for a Senator!). Back in Rome, he became an influential senior senator and was included in Nero’s retinue on the tour of Greece in A.D. 66-67. It was in Greece that Vespasian offended the Emperor by falling asleep during one of Nero’s recitals. Luckily, Vespasian only incurred banishment from the court. In fear for his life Vespasian fled to a small out-of-the-way township. Meanwhile, there were rumblings in the conquered east. A common belief among the Jews of this time was that from Judaea the ruler of the world would emerge. A revolt started in Judaea and Nero called Vespasian from banishment, granting him a special command in the east with the aim of crushing the revolt. Vespasian took his eldest son, Titus, to serve on his staff. In Rome, an attempt was made on Nero’s life. Nero fled to his country villa where he persuaded a slave to help him commit suicide in June, A.D. 68. After the initial joy the news of Nero’s death brought Rome, there was one question that had to be answered: who was going to succeed him?
The Year of the Four Emperors – A.D. 69
For the next eighteen months, the Roman Empire was thrown into chaos as four men contended for the Emperorship. Only one man would be successful. The first person to succeed Nero was Servius Sulpicius Galba, an old man and a conspirator against Nero. Galba remained emperor for six months until Marcus Salvius Otho was declared emperor and recognised by the Praetorian Guard. Upon being declared emperor, Otho sent out the cavalry to murder Galba, after which the Senate also recognised Otho as emperor. Almost immediately, the legions of Aulus Vitellius revolted, declared their commander emperor and started to march on Rome. In the ensuing battles, Otho’s forces were severely damaged and he committed suicide in April of that year. The Senate then recognised Vitellius as emperor. During this time, Vespasian was still fighting in Judaea, and made his legions swear allegiance to each emperor in turn. However, when Vitellius came to power in June, Vespasian met with Gaius Licinius Mucianus and they decided to revolt. In the east, each legion in turn swore their allegiance to Vespasian, as did the legions in Egypt and the Danube region. Handing the siege of Jerusalem to his son Titus, Vespasian headed for Egypt with the intention of cutting off the corn supplies to Rome, while Mucianus headed off to Rome. The Vitellian forces were eventually defeated and Vitellius himself tried to abdicate in exchange for his life. His abdication was not accepted and on 20th December, A.D. 69, when the Flavian army entered Rome, Vitellius was killed. On 21st December, A.D. 69, Titus Flavius Vespasianus was recognised by the Senate as Emperor of Rome.
Vespasian’s reign can be characterised as being very conscientious. He had inherited an empire drained by the excesses of previous emperors and shattered by civil war. Vespasian committed himself to a program of rebuilding and restoration (including the Capitol, burned in A.D. 69). He also began to construct new buildings; a temple to the deified Claudius (to identify himself as a legitimate heir of the Julio-Claudians); a temple of Peace; and the Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheatre). Among his other acts, Vespasian reformed the Senatorial and Equestrians orders; induced the Senate to make laws against various form of debauchery; and reduced the backlog of court cases waiting to be heard.
Suetonius indicates that nobody was ever wrongly punished in Vespasian’s reign, and only one execution was ever carried out on his orders (and even then he sent out orders to halt the execution that arrived too late), this man was Helvidius Priscus, a critic of the Flavian regime from the start and an advocate of Senatorial independence.
Vespasian claimed that forty thousand million sestertii were needed to complete all his projects, to restore the state physically and economically. To this end, he is said to have revoked imperial immunities, manipulated the supply of goods in order to inflate their price, increased provincial taxation and extracted fees from candidates for office. Despite this apparent avarice Vespasian was very generous to all classes, from offering subventions to senators not possessing the necessary property qualifications of their rank, to being the first emperor to grant salaries to teachers of Latin and Greek rhetoric.
In foreign affairs, Vespasian increased the number of legions in the East (where his son, Titus, was still involved with the revolt in Judaea). He also continued the invasion of Britain, capturing the north, pacifying Wales and venturing into Scotland. He also ventured into southwest Germany and granted Latin rights to communities, particularly in Spain, thus ensuring the rapid Romanisation of the province.
Vespasian died at Aquae Cutiliae (in Sabine country) on 23rd June A.D. 79, following a brief fever. On his deathbed, he is supposed to have quipped “Dear me! I must be turning into a god” (in Latin: “vae puto fieri deus“). After his death, he was indeed deified, and interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus.
In conclusion, Vespasian was a very disciplined, conscientious and witty man with simple tastes. His reign was one of tranquillity and peace, compared to that of his predecessors. He restored Rome’s buildings, and restored prosperity and peace to the empire. He was in all a good model for future Emperors, and Tacitus notes that he is the first man to improve after becoming emperor.
Donahue, J. Titus Flavius Vespasianus (A.D. 69-79) [Article] De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopaedia of Roman Emperors [http://www.roman-emperors.org/]
Levick, Barbara Vespasian Routledge (1999)
Suetonius The Twelve Caesars (Trans. Robert Graves, 1957. Revised – Michael Grant, 1979) Penguin Classics (1989)
Tacitus The Histories (Trans. W. H. Fyfe, 1912. Revised – D. S. Levene, 1997) Oxford University Press (1997)