“The empire, which for a long time had been unsettled and, as it were, drifting… was at last taken in hand and given stability.” So begins Suetonius’ biography of the Roman emperor Vespasian, setting the tone for the narrative that follows. The story of Vespasian’s reign is a tale of war and intrigue, destruction and restoration, drama, and – more often than one would perhaps imagine – comedy. It is, ultimately, the tale of an attempt to restore order to the Roman world by a man whose life was shaped by the violent currents of the first half-century of Rome’s imperial history.
Arriving in Rome to find the imperial capital ravaged by a year of brutal internecine war and still reeling from the degradations of Nero’s megalomania, few emperors would leave such a lasting, iconic impression upon the empire and its capital as Vespasian.
Empire in Flames: Nero, Civil War, and the Rise of Vespasian
By the year AD 68, patience with the Emperor Nero was wearing thin. The man may not have fiddled whilst Rome burnt, but it is certainly true that he profited from the destruction of vast swathes of the city just 4 years earlier. The emperor, forgetting his role as first among equals (primus inter pares) built an enormous palatial complex covering parts of the Oppian and Palatine Hills, known as the Domus Aurea or Golden House. This included a colossal bronze statue of the emperor. Tensions increased until finally, open revolt broke out. The governor of Gallia Lugdunensis – Gaius Vindex – rebelled, sparking a desperate contest for power. In amidst the rival claims for control, Nero fled Rome and committed suicide on 9th June AD 68, the first emperor declared an enemy of the state by the senate. Modest to the end, his final words were a fittingly delusional lament: “Oh what an artist dies with me”!
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The power vacuum that emerged is known as the Year of the Four Emperors. Four competitors for the imperial power followed each other in quick succession: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and finally, Vespasian. The failures of each of Vespasian’s competitors helped reveal the inner mechanics of Roman imperial politics and made it clear that military support was crucial. The civil war, the first since Augustus had defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra almost a century earlier had revealed a secret of empire: according to Tacitus, it was now clear that “an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome”. The power of the army as kingmakers had been revealed.
The Making of a Roman Emperor: Vespasian’s Career
Although the third-century historian Cassius Dio would record that Vespasian had been “born for the throne”, the new Roman emperor actually came from rather humble beginnings. His family was Italian, rather than Roman, and of the equestrian class. Vespasian was actually the first of his family to attain senatorial rank. His early career reflected these comparatively lowly origins and took a while to get going.
Vespasian’s reputation was made with the military. In this, he followed his family; his paternal grandfather had distinguished himself in battle, rising to the rank of centurion and even fighting for Pompey the Great at the Battle of Pharsalus (where he would have been decisively beaten by the forces of Julius Caesar) in 48 BC. On the cursus honorum, the sequential ‘ladder of magistracies’ followed by aspirational young men in the Empire, Vespasian undertook postings in Thrace, Crete, Germany, and Britain. He achieved the consulship in AD 51, governing the province of Africa Proconsularis (encompassing most of the coastal regions of modern Tunisia and Libya). He accompanied Nero and his retinue to Greece to watch the emperor’s artistic tour (he reputedly fell from favor when he fell asleep in one of Nero’s recitals!), and fell from political favor.
Rebellion: The Conquest of Judaea
Recalled from exile in AD 66, Nero appointed Vespasian to travel east, to suppress the revolt that was spreading through the region of Judaea. Short of capital, Nero had ordered the governor of Judaea – Gessius Florus – to confiscate the wealth that was housed in the Temple at Jerusalem. This act of sacrilege, along with the deeper running causes of religious tension and the general impoverishment of the provincial (predominately Jewish) population. When the tensions boiled over into violence and a Roman legion was ambushed and some 6,000 men massacred at the Battle of Beth Horon.
The appointment of Vespasian, who was accompanied by his son Titus, was the Roman response to crush the rebellion. They promptly began to drive the rebels back, and the early successes of the Jews was short-lived. By AD 67 Vespasian and Titus had taken back control of the province, leaving the Jews defending Jerusalem itself. Vespasian had to leave the siege of the Jewish holy city in Ad 69 with the outbreak of civil war. His son Titus finished his father’s campaign, overseeing the sack of the city and, most infamously, the looting and destruction of the Temple itself. The siege took a full 7 months to complete. In all, so the sources claim, more than one million Jews were killed during the revolt and countless others sold into slavery.
Vespasian and his Empire: Sources
Mirroring the course of his career, which revolved around his military successes, little is known of the government of Vespasian’s Empire. One supremely important document has survived though: the lex de imperio Vespasiani – the ‘Law Regulating Vespasian’s Authority’ – preserved on a large bronze tablet displayed in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. The eight surviving clauses of this document lay out the parts of Roman law from which Vespasian gained legality as Roman Emperor. Most notably though, the sixth clause outlines that the emperor was not bound by laws. Claims of constitutionality may be a step too far…
We are privileged to have several excellent sources that provide insight into his life. The Histories written by Tacitus is probably the most accomplished historical narrative of the period, despite its fragmentary form; only 5 books survive. Elsewhere, the history of Cassius Dio, a Greek senator writing in the early 3rd century, provides an account of Vespasian’s reign, although it is again fragmentary. Perhaps the most engaging account of Vespasian is provided by the biographer Suetonius. His biographies of Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to Domitian are rich in the anecdotal evidence that brings history to life; the grand narrative of imperial history – war and political intrigue – are interwoven with stories of sex and scandal that bring the emperors to life. A valuable account of Vespasian’s reign – especially the Jewish War – is provided by Flavius Josephus. A Jewish general, Josephus had originally fought against the Romans during the revolt. In AD 67 he and his men were under siege in the town of Jotapata. Rather than surrender, his men hid in a cave and drew lots. This was to determine who was to kill the others and finally, himself. A similarly gruesome game of chance is known to have occurred at the doomed Jewish fortress at Masada.
Imperial Capital: Vespasian and the Restoration of Rome
As Roman emperor, Vespasian entered an imperial capital that had born the brunt of civil war – where fierce factional fighting had erupted in the streets in AD 68 and 69 – and one that still carried the scars of the Great Fire. Therefore, much like Augustus previously, this was an emperor with a remit to rebuild. One of his primary goals was to be seen to give back the Rome to the people; the extravagances of Nero needed to be consigned to history (just like the emperor himself, who had suffered damnatio memoriae). The grounds of the Domus Aurea were re-opened. Most famously, the colossal statue of Nero was refashioned into a statue of the sun god, Helios, and the lake over which towered was filled. Atop it was built the structure perhaps most synonymous with Rome: the Flavian Amphitheatre – better known today as the Colosseum. Holding over 50,000 spectators, this was the largest amphitheater ever built (finally finished in AD 80 by Titus, 8 years after Vespasian inaugurated the project). It became the site of gladiatorial contests, public spectacles, animal hunts, and public executions. This was a clear architectural statement of the new emperor’s priorities, an assertion that this was a different kind of emperor, one who would put Rome, and the people, first.
Vespasian’s building program is also characterized by a celebration of his military successes. The most famous of these architectural celebrations is the Templum Pacis, dedicated to the goddess Pax (Peace). Built in AD 71 on the Velian Hill – facing the Colosseum – the Templum was a kind of vast space for public enjoyment, similar to the imperial fora that it was adjacent to (although it lacked the political functions). The Temple of Peace – like the Colosseum – was built ex manubis meaning that it was built from and decorated with, the spoils of war, an insightful juxtaposition for considering the nature of Roman civilization.
A Man with a Plan? Vespasian and the Flavian Dynasty
Stability and the return of order to the Roman world was one of the defining principles of Vespasian’s reign. This extended from his quashing rebellion through to his giving back the city of Rome to its people and grounding his authority in some semblance of legality. To help emphasize his commitment to Rome, Vespasian took active steps throughout his reign to establish his sons – Titus and Domitian – as his recognized heirs. Through them, the return to Roman order would be continued after Vespasian was gone.
Both sons had been involved in their father’s successes during the Civil War period, with Titus victorious over the Jewish Rebellion and Domitian engaged in the street fighting between the supporters of his father and the forces allayed to Vitellius. The reigns of his sons however are viewed with less favor than that of Vespasian and are marked by accusations of fraternal competition, jealousy, and plotting. Titus’s brief reign (AD 79-81) was marred by natural disasters, including the eruption of Vesuvius, and the account of his life by Suetonius is a jarring blend of Titus’ generosity to the public and alleged cruelty. Upon his death, the people are said to have: “rendered such thanks to him and heaped such praise on him after death as they had never done even when he was alive and present”. The reign of Domitian, despite a flourishing in Latin poetry – contributed to by Marital and Juvenal amongst others – is notable for a return to cruelty and excess. He was assassinated in AD 96 and his memory joyfully condemned by the Senate.
Humility and Humour: Death of an Emperor and Vespasian’s Legacy
After ruling the empire for a decade, Vespasian contracted an illness whilst traveling through Campania. Returning at once to Rome, he promptly set out for his usual summer retreat at the thermal springs at Aquae Cutiliae. The natural springs could do little to avail his condition which worsened dramatically, however, and on 24th June, Vespasian – the man who had restored order to the empire – died. In Rome, his reputation was suitably respected. He was deified, joining the ranks of the gods, and was thus honored with a cult of priests and worshipped by the populace of the empire as divi Vespasian. His cult – and later that of his son, Titus – was housed in the Templum divi Vespasiani, at the western end of the Roman Forum, between the Temple of Concordia and the Temple of Saturn. Quite what Vespasian would have made of this monument is anyone’s guess; before he died, he is reported to have remarked, with tongue firmly in cheek: “Oh no, I think I’m turning into a god”!
Having risen from relative obscurity to become the Roman emperor, and as the man responsible for perhaps the most iconic of all Roman buildings, Vespasian nevertheless enjoys a reputation as a man of simple yet generous tastes and affable wit, alongside that of the authoritative general. Today, several modern languages derive their name for urinals from Vespasian – such as vespasiano in Italian. It’s tempting to ponder which legacy – in private at least – he would have been prouder of.