See B. W. Henderson, Five Roman Emperors (1927, repr. 1969); M. W. McCrum and A. G. Woodhead, Select Documents of the Principates of the Flavian Emperors (1961).
Vespasian, bust found at Ostia; in the Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome
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Titus Flavius Vespasianus, commonly known as Vespasian (November 17 9 – June 23 79), was a Roman Emperor who reigned from 69 until his death in 79. Vespasian was the founder of the shortlived Flavian dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire between 69 and 96. He was succeeded by his sons Titus (79–81) and Domitian (81–96).
Vespasian descended from a family of equestrians which rose into the senatorial rank under the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Although he attained the standard succession of public offices, holding the consulship in 51, Vespasian became more reputed as a successful military commander, partaking in the Roman invasion of Britain in 43, and subjugating the Judaea province during the Jewish rebellion of 66. While preparing to besiege the city of Jerusalem during the latter campaign, emperor Nero committed suicide, plunging the Roman Empire into a year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors. After Galba and Otho perished in quick succession, Vitellius became emperor in mid 69. In response, the armies in Egypt and Judaea themselves declared Vespasian emperor on July 1. In his bid for imperial power, Vespasian joined forces with Gaius Licinius Mucianus, the governor of Syria, who led the Flavian forces against Vitellius, while Vespasian himself gained control over Egypt. On December 20, Vitellius was defeated, and the following day, Vespasian was declared emperor by the Roman Senate.
Little factual information survives about Vespasian's government during the ten years he was emperor. His reign is best known for financial reforms following the demise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the successful campaign against Judaea, and several ambitious construction projects such as the Colosseum. Upon his death on June 23 79, he was succeeded by his eldest son Titus.
After prompting from his mother, Vespasian followed his older brother, also called Titus Flavius Sabinus, into public life. He served in the army as a military tribune in Thrace in 36. The following year he was elected quaestor and served in Crete and Cyrene. He rose through the ranks of Roman public office, being elected aedile on his second attempt in 39 and praetor on his first attempt in 40, taking the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the Emperor Caligula.
In the meantime, he married Domitilla the Elder, the daughter of an equestrian from Ferentium. They had two sons, Titus Flavius Vespasianus (b. 41) and Titus Flavius Domitianus (b. 51), and a daughter, Domitilla (b. 39). Flavia died before Vespasian became emperor. Thereafter his mistress, Caenis, was his wife in all but name until she died in 74.
In 43, Vespasian and the II Augusta participated in the Roman invasion of Britain, and he distinguished himself under the overall command of Aulus Plautius. After participating in crucial early battles on the rivers Medway and Thames, he was sent to reduce the south west, penetrating through the modern counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall with the probable objectives of securing the south coast ports and harbours along with the tin mines of Cornwall and the silver and lead mines of Somerset.
Vespasian marched from Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester) to subdue the hostile Durotriges and Dumnonii tribes , captured twenty oppida (towns, or more probably hill forts, including Hod Hill and Maiden Castle in Dorset). He also invaded Vectis (the Isle of Wight), finally setting up a fortress and legionary headquarters at Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). These successes earned him triumphal regalia (ornamenta triumphalia) on his return to Rome.
Vespasian was elected consul for the last two months of 51, after which he withdrew from public life. He came out of retirement in 63 when he was sent as governor to Africa Province. According to Tacitus (ii.97), his rule was "infamous and odious" but according to Suetonius (Vesp. 4), he was "upright and, highly honourable". On one occasion he was pelted with turnips. Vespasian used his time in North Africa wisely. Usually governorships were seen by ex-consuls as opportunities to extort huge amounts of money to regain their wealth that they had spent on their previous political campaigns. Corruption was so rife, that it was almost expected that a governor would come back from these appointments with his pockets full. However, Vespasian used his time in North Africa making friends instead of money; something that would be far more valuable in the years to come. During his time in North Africa, he found himself in financial difficulties and was forced to mortgage his estates to his brother. To revive his fortunes he turned to the mule trade and gained the nickname mulio (mule-driver).
Returning from Africa, Vespasian toured Greece in Nero's retinue, but lost Imperial favour after paying insufficient attention (some sources suggest he fell asleep) during one of the Emperor's recitals on the lyre, and found himself in the political wilderness.
However, in 66, Vespasian was appointed to conduct the war in Judea, which was threatening unrest throughout the East. A revolt there had killed the previous governor and routed Licinius Mucianus, the governor of Syria, when he tried to restore order. Two legions, with eight cavalry squadrons and 10 auxiliary cohorts, were therefore dispatched under the command of Vespasian to add to the one already there. His elder son, Titus, served on his staff. During this time he became the patron of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish resistance leader turned Roman agent who would go on to write his people's history in Greek. In the end, thousands of Jews were killed and many towns destroyed by the Romans, who successfully re-established control over Judea. Vespasian served for a time as procurator for Judaea; he is remembered by Jews as a fair and humane official, in contrast to the notorious Herod the Great.
Josephus wrote that after the Roman Legio X Fretensis accompanied by Vespasian destroyed Jericho on June 21, 68, he took a group of Jews who could not swim (possibly Essenes from Qumran), fettered them, and threw them into the Dead Sea to test its legendary buoyancy. Sure enough, the Jews shot back up after being thrown in from boats and floated calmly on top of the sea.
After the death of Nero in 68, Rome saw a succession of short-lived emperors and a year of civil wars. Galba was murdered by Otho, who was defeated by Vitellius. Otho's supporters, looking for another candidate to support, settled on Vespasian.
According to Suetonius, a prophecy ubiquitous in the Eastern provinces claimed that from Judaea would come the future rulers of the world. Vespasian eventually believed that this prophecy applied to him, and found a number of omens, oracles, and portents that reinforced this belief.
He also found encouragement in Mucianus, the governor of Syria; and, although Vespasian was a strict disciplinarian and reformer of abuses, Vespasian's soldiers were thoroughly devoted to him. All eyes in the East were now upon him. Mucianus and the Syrian legions were eager to support him. While he was at Caesarea, he was proclaimed emperor (July 1, 69), first by the army in Egypt under Tiberius Julius Alexander, and then by his troops in Judaea (July 11).
Nevertheless, Vitellius, the occupant of the throne, had Rome's best troops on his side — the veteran legions of Gaul and the Rhineland. But the feeling in Vespasian's favour quickly gathered strength, and the armies of Moesia, Pannonia, and Illyricum soon declared for him, and made him the de facto master of half of the Roman world.
While Vespasian himself was in Egypt securing its grain supply, his troops entered Italy from the northeast under the leadership of M. Antonius Primus. They defeated Vitellius's army (which had awaited him in Mevania) at Bedriacum (or Betriacum), sacked Cremona and advanced on Rome. They entered Rome after furious fighting. In the resulting confusion, the Capitol was destroyed by fire and Vespasian's brother Sabinus was killed by a mob.
On receiving the tidings of his rival's defeat and death at Alexandria, the new emperor at once forwarded supplies of urgently needed grain to Rome, along with an edict or a declaration of policy, in which he gave assurance of an entire reversal of the laws of Nero, especially those relating to treason. While in Egypt he visited the Temple of Serapis, where reportedly he experienced a vision. Later he was confronted by two labourers who were convinced that he possessed a divine power that could work miracles.
Vespasian was declared emperor by the Senate while he was in Egypt in December of 69 (the Egyptians had declared him emperor in June of 69. In the short-term, administration of the empire was given to Mucianus who was aided by Vespasian's son, Domitian. Mucianus started off Vespasian's rule with tax reform that was to restore the empire's finances. After Vespasian arrived in Rome in mid-70, Mucianus continued to press Vespasian to collect as many taxes as possible.
Vespasian and Mucianus renewed old taxes and instituted new ones, increased the tribute of the provinces, and kept a watchful eye upon the treasury officials. The Latin proverb "Pecunia non olet" ("Money does not smell") may have been created when he had introduced a urine tax on public toilets. By his own example of simplicity of life — he caused something of a scandal when it was made known he took his own boots off — he initiated a marked improvement in the general tone of society in many respects.
In early 70, Vespasian was still in Egypt, the source of Rome's grain supply, and had not yet left for Rome. According to Tacitus, his trip was delayed due to bad weather. Modern historians theorize that Vespasian had been and was continuing to consolidate support from the Egyptians before departing. Stories of a divine Vespasian healing people circulated in Egypt. During this period, protests erupted in Alexandria over his new tax policies and grain shipments were held up. Vespasian eventually restored order and grain shipments to Rome resumed.
In addition to the uprising in Egypt, unrest and civil war continued in the rest of the empire in 70. In Judea, rebellion had continued from 66. Vespasian's son, Titus, finally subdued the rebellion with the capture of Jerusalem in 70. In January of the same year, an uprising occurred in Gaul and Germany, known as the second Batavian Rebellion. This rebellion was headed by Gaius Julius Civilis and Julius Sabinus. Sabinus, claiming he was descended from Julius Caesar, declared himself emperor of Gaul. The rebellion defeated and absorbed two Roman legions before it was suppressed by Vespasian's brother-in-law, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, by the end of 70.
Many modern historians note the increased amount of propaganda that appeared during Vespasian's reign. Stories of a supernatural emperor that was destined to rule circulated in the empire. Nearly one-third of all coins minted in Rome under Vespasian celebrated military victory or peace. The word vindex was removed from coins as to not remind the public of rebellious Vindex. Construction projects bore inscriptions praising Vespasian and condemning previous emperors. A temple of peace was constructed in the forum as well. Vespasian approved histories written under his reign, assuring biases against him were removed.
Vespasian also gave financial rewards to ancient writers. The ancient historians that lived through the period such as Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus and Pliny the Elder speak suspiciously well of Vespasian while condemning the emperors that came before him. Tacitus admits that his status was elevated by Vespasian, Josephus identifies Vespasian as a patron and savior, and Pliny dedicated his Natural Histories to Vespasian, Titus.
Those that spoke against Vespasian were punished. A number of stoic philosophers were accused of corrupting students with inappropriate teachings and were expelled from Rome. Helvidius Priscus, a pro-republic philosopher, was executed for his teachings.
Between 71 and 79, much of Vespasian's reign is a mystery. Historians report that Vespasian ordered the construction of several buildings in Rome. Additionally, he survived several conspiracies against him.
Vespasian helped rebuild Rome after the civil war. He added the temple of Peace and the temple to the Deified Claudius. In 75, he erected a colossal statue of Apollo, begun under Nero, and he dedicated a stage of the theater of Marcellus. He also began construction of the Colosseum.
Suetonius claims that Vespasian was met with "constant conspiracies" against him. Only one conspiracy is known specifically, though. In 78 or 79, Eprius Marcellus and Aulus Caecina Alienus attempted to kill Vespasian. Why these men turned against Vespasian is not known.
In 78, Agricola went to Britain, and both extended and consolidated the Roman dominion in that province, pushing his way into what is now Scotland. On June 23 of the following year, Vespasian died of an intestinal inflammation which led to excessive diarrhoea. According to Suetonius (Life of Vespasian 23.4), his last words were: Vae, puto, deus fio ("Dammit - I think I'm becoming a god").
Pliny the Elder's work, the Natural History, was written during Vespasian's reign, and dedicated to Vespasian's son Titus. Some of the philosophers who talked idly of the good times of the Republic, and thus indirectly encouraged conspiracy, provoked Vespasian into reviving the obsolete penal laws against this profession. However, only one, Helvidius Priscus, was put to death, and he had affronted the Emperor by studied insults. "I will not kill a dog that barks at me," were words expressing the temper of Vespasian. Vespasian was indeed noted for mildness. He was also noted for loyalty to the people, for example, much money was spent on public works and the restoration and beautification of Rome: a new forum, the Temple of Peace, the public baths and the Colosseum.