Nov. 17?, AD 9, Reate [Rieti], Latiumd.
June 24, 79
in full CAESAR VESPASIANUS AUGUSTUS, original name TITUS FLAVIUS VESPASIANUS,
Roman emperor (ad 69-79) who, though of humble birth, became the founder of the
Flavian dynasty after the civil wars that followed Nero's death in 68. His
fiscal reforms and consolidation of the empire generated political stability and
a vast Roman building program. Early life.
was the son of Flavius Sabinus, a Roman knight who had been a tax collector. His
mother, Vespasia Polla, also belonged to the equestrian order in society but had
a brother who entered the Senate. In his early life Vespasian was somewhat
overshadowed by his older brother, Flavius Sabinus, who rose to hold an
important command on the Danube about AD 48 and was prefect of Rome for many
years under Nero. Although Vespasian is said to have hesitated before following
his brother into the Senate, his career was in no sense retarded; for, after
military service in Thrace and a quaestorship in Crete, he reached the
praetorship in the earliest year allowed him by law, namely AD 39, the year in
which his elder son, Titus, was born.
ingratiated himself with the ruling emperor, Caligula (Gaius Caesar); and in the
next reign, that of Claudius, he won the favour of the powerful freedman
Narcissus. He became commander of the Legio II Augusta, which took part in the
invasion of Britain in 43. After distinguished conduct at the crossing of the
Medway River, he was given charge of the left wing of the advance; he proceeded
to occupy the Isle of Wight and to conquer tribes as far west as Devon,
capturing more than 20 "towns." For these achievements he was awarded
triumphal honors and appointed to two priesthoods, and in 51 he became consul.
But, on Claudius' death in 54, Narcissus, whose power had been waning, was
driven to suicide; and for a time Vespasian received no further appointment.
About 63 he obtained the proconsulate of Africa, where his extreme financial
rigour made him so unpopular that on one occasion the people pelted him with
turnips. There was no ground for suspecting personal enrichment, but the
reputation for avarice remained with him the rest of his life.
In the autumn of 66 he accompanied Nero to Greece, where he was indiscreet enough to fall asleep at the Emperor's artistic performance. But this did not prevent his appointment, in February 67, to the command against the Jewish rebellion in Judaea, the scene of two disastrous Roman defeats in the previous year. The appointment was exceptional because Judaea had never before been garrisoned by a legionary army, and Vespasian was given three legions with a large force of auxiliary troops. For such an appointment Vespasian was regarded as a safe man--a highly competent general but one whose humble origins made it almost inconceivable that he would challenge Nero's government should he win victories. As long as Nero was alive, this diagnosis was surely right. Vespasian conducted two successful campaigns in 67 and 68, winning almost all Judaea except Jerusalem. But on Nero's death in June 68 he stopped fighting.
Struggle for power.
pause was surprising, and it was accompanied by the fact that at this moment,
with his son Titus as intermediary, Vespasian settled certain differences he had
had with the neighboring governor of Syria, Gaius Licinius Mucianus. The matters
discussed between the two commanders are unknown, but the circumstances cannot
but raise the question whether they were already considering a bid for power.
Vespasian seems to have claimed that further operations against the Jews
required a directive from the new emperor, Galba. Such a claim may have been
formally valid, but there may have also been underlying political
considerations. Vespasian did eventually decide to accept Galba, whose noble
descent, given the standards of the day, would have been daunting to a man of
Vespasian's position in society. He therefore remained quiet and in the
following winter sent Titus to congratulate Galba.
December 21 Vespasianí s position was officially confirmed by the Senate, but
he remained quite frank about the military origin of his rule. He dated his
powers to July 1, when the troops had acclaimed him, thus flouting
constitutional precedent and contradicting even the behavior of his rival
Vitellius, who had awaited confirmation by the Senate. Later Vespasian received
by law a number of powers for which his Julio-Claudian predecessors had not
sought explicit sanction. Whether similar grants had been made to Galba, Otho,
and Vitellius or were to be made to Vespasian's successors is not known; but a
fragment of the enabling law survives, and it includes a provision that can be
said to confer on him a naked autocracy. More important to him than any legal
enactment, however, were the recognition of his extralegal authority
(auctoritas) and the prestige of his upstart house. He carefully publicized the
divine omens that portended his accession and also built up the titles
surrounding his name. He held the consulate, for brief periods on each occasion,
every year of his reign except two; and he gave frequent consulates to his two
sons, Titus and Domitian. He accumulated "salutations" as imperator
from his armies and allowed Titus to share them with him. Throughout his reign
he was insistent that his sons would succeed him, one after the other (Titus
having no male issue); and it was probably over hereditary succession that he
quarreled with certain doctrinaire senators such as Helvidius Priscus, who was
executed about 76. But Helvidius and his friends had already expressed general
misgivings about Vespasian's government in the early months of 70.In about
October 70 Vespasian returned to Rome from Alexandria. While in Egypt he had
been concerned with raising money; and his exactions, coupled with sales of
imperial estates to speculators, caused great discontent among the Egyptians. He
now announced that about three times the revenue of the empire was needed to put
the state to rights, and both before and after his return he promoted his
financial program. He increased, and sometimes doubled, provincial taxation and
revoked immunities granted to various Greek-speaking provinces and cities. He
reclaimed public land in Italy from squatters and instituted various new taxes,
including the diversion to Rome's treasury of the tax paid by Jews of the
Diaspora to the Temple at Jerusalem. Such measures were essential after the
deficit incurred by Nero and the devastations of the civil wars, but
contemporaries inevitably continued to charge Vespasian with
"avarice." Such a charge, however, was irrelevant to any emperor of
the year 70.The sum raised by Vespasian for public funds cannot be determined.
But he was able to build his Forum and the Temple of Peace, to begin the
Coliseum over the foundations of Nero's "Golden House," and above all
to restore the capitol. His biographer Suetonius claims that throughout
Vespasian's reign his firm policy was "first to restore stability to the
tottering state, and then to adorn it." But, despite his buildings and his
generosity to needy friends, he probably bequeathed a substantial surplus of
public money to his successors.
was in the same spirit of stabilization that he turned to military affairs. The
first task was to restore discipline to the armies after the events of 68-69.
Before Vespasian's return Mucianus reduced the Praetorian Guard, greatly
enlarged by Vitellius, to approximately its former size; and the legions on the
frontiers were soon regrouped to remove from dangerous positions those that had
fought for Vitellius. Important changes were made in the East, where Vespasian
replaced the single army (which until Nero's time had only four legions) in
Syria with three armies, with a total of six legions, in Cappadocia, Syria, and
Judaea. Titus effectively ended the Jewish war with the capture of Jerusalem in
August 70, and about the same time an alarming revolt in the Rhineland was
broken by Vespasian's cousin Petilius Cerealis. The way was now open for the
improvement of certain frontiers. In southern Germany annexation of a territory
called Agri Decumates cut off the reentrant angle formed by the Rhine at Basel.
In Britain more important advances were made; the kingdom of Brigantia in
northern England was incorporated in the province, the pacification of Wales was
completed, and in 78 the general Gnaeus Agricola began the seven years'
governorship that was to lead Roman arms into the Scottish Highlands.
had some difficulty with his sons at the beginning of his reign. Domitian had
been overbearing and irresponsible in the months before his father's return and
was kept firmly in a junior position during the remaining years. With Titus
there was cause for alarm when his troops, after his victory in Judaea, asked
him to take them to Italy; but he returned alone. Although Titus was not allowed
an independent triumph, he became virtually a partner in Vespasian's rule, not
only accumulating consulates and imperatorial salutations with his father but
also being given command of the Praetorian Guard.
73 Vespasian and Titus became censors. In this office, although little is known
about the details, they probably carried out extensive reorganization of the
provincial communities, including some of the taxation reforms mentioned
earlier. They bestowed Latin rights on all Spain, which meant that all city
magistrates obtained Roman citizenship, with consequent profit to the imperial
treasury; and no doubt Roman citizenship was granted liberally elsewhere. In
addition they recruited many new members, provincial as well as Italian, to the
With the Senate, despite the discords of the early months, Vespasian succeeded in maintaining friendly relations. To the historian Tacitus, who was embarking on his senatorial career in Vespasian's last years, he was "the only emperor who had changed for the better." With opponents he considered dangerous or irreconcilable, he could be ruthless: with Helvidius Priscus may be associated a group of "philosophers" who were expelled from Italy; and in 78 he executed Eprius Marcellus, one of his earliest and most efficient supporters, accused of a conspiracy that may have been directed at Titus' association with the Jewish princess Berenice. But he showed good-natured tolerance of offensiveness that could do no harm.
the rugged and uncompromising features that are familiar from his portrait
busts, Vespasian cultivated a bluff and even coarse manner, characteristic of
the humble origins he liked to recall. This was popular, as also were his great
capacity for hard work and the simplicity of his daily life, which was taken as
a model by the contemporary aristocracy. At the same time he was astute and
ambitious; he built up a powerful party quickly at the outset, and many of his
initial appointments were dictated by nepotism or the desire to reward past
services. The policies of his reign, though sensible, reveal no great
imaginativeness, compared with those of such later emperors as Trajan or
Hadrian. Yet it was justly believed by contemporaries that Vespasian had
prevented the dissolution of the empire by putting an end to civil war, and it
was fitting that pax ("civil peace") should be a principle motif on
his coinage. In his last illness he said, "Vae, puto deus fio"
("Oh dear, I think I'm becoming a god"); and after his death he was
immediately accorded deification.
He had married one Flavia Domitilla, who bore his sons Titus and Domitian and a daughter, Flavia Domitilla (later deified). Both his wife and daughter died before he became emperor. He then returned to an earlier mistress, called Caenis, who had been a freedwoman of Antonia, sister-in-law to the emperor Tiberius; she too died before he did.