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Emperor Vespasian
Emperor Vespasian

Caesar Vespasianus Augustus (November 18, 9June 23, 79), originally known as Titus Flavius Vespasianus and best known as Vespasian, was the emperor of Rome from 69 to 79. He was founder of the Flavian dynasty and ascended the throne in the end of the Year of the four emperors.


Family and early career

He was born in the Sabine country near Reate. His father, Titus Flavius Sabinus, was an equestrian who worked as a customs official in Asia and a money-lender on a small scale in Aventicum, where Vespasian lived for some time; his mother, Vespasia Polla, was the sister of a Senator.

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, and the following year was elected quaestor, serving in Crete and Cyrene. He rose through the ranks of Roman public office, being elected aedile at the second attempt in 39 and praetor at the first attempt in 40, taking the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the Emperor Caligula.

In the meantime he had married Flavia Domitilla, the daughter of an equestrian from Ferentium, and 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; therafter his mistress, Caenis, was his wife in all but name until she died in 74.

Upon the accession of Claudius as emperor in 41, Vespasian was appointed legate of the Legio II Augusta, stationed in Germania, thanks to the influence of the Imperial freedman Narcissus.

Invasion of Britannia

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 southwest, penetrating to the borders of modern Somerset. He fought thirty battles, captured twenty oppida (towns, or more probably hillforts, one of them being Maiden Castle in Dorset), subdued two powerful nations and reduced Vectis (the Isle of Wight), earning a triumph on his return to Rome.

Continued political career

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, where, according to Tacitus (ii.97), his rule was "infamous and odious"; according to Suetonius (Vesp. 4), "upright and, highly honourable". On one occasion he was pelted with turnips. At this time 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 to the Emperor's recitals on the lyre, and found himself in the political wilderness.

Great Jewish Revolt

However, in 66, Vespasian was appointed to conduct the war in Iudaea, 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. Vespasian was dispatched with two legions to add to the one already there. His elder son, Titus, served under him. 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.

The Year of Four Emperors

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 Iudaea 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 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; and while he was at Caesarea, he was proclaimed emperor (July 1, 69), first by the army in Egypt, and then by his troops in Iudaea (July 11).

Nevertheless, Vitellius, the occupant of the throne, had on his side the veteran legions of Gaul and the Rhineland, Rome's best troops. 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 in fact master of half of the Roman world.

While Vespasian himself was in Egypt securing its grain supply, his troops entered Italy on the northeast under the leadership of M. Antonius Primus, defeated Vitellius's army (which had awaited him in Mevania) at Bedriacum (or Betriacum), sacked Cremona and advanced on Rome, which they entered after furious fighting and a frightful confusion, in which the Capitol was destroyed by fire.

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, and later was confronted by two laborers who were convinced that he possessed a divine power which could work miracles.

Vespasian as Emperor

Leaving the war in Judaea to his son Titus, he arrived at Rome in 70. He at once devoted his energies to repairing the evils caused by civil war. He restored discipline in the army, which under Vitellius had become utterly demoralized, and, with the cooperation of the Senate, put the government and the finances on a sound footing.

He renewed old taxes and instituted new ones, increased the tribute of the provinces, and kept a watchful eye upon the treasury officials. By his own example of simplicity of life, he put to shame the luxury and extravagance of the Roman nobles and initiated in many respects a marked improvement in the general tone of society.

As censor he reformed the Senatorial and Equestrian orders, removing unfit and unworthy members and promoting good and able men, among them Gnaeus Julius Agricola. At the same time, he made it more dependent upon the Emperor, by exercising an influence upon its composition. He altered the constitution of the Praetorian Guard, in which only Italians, formed into nine cohorts, were enrolled.

In 70, a formidable rising in Gaul, headed by Gaius Julius Civilis, was suppressed by Vespasian's brother-in-law, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, and the German frontier made secure; the Jewish War was brought to a close by Titus's capture of Jerusalem, and in the following year, after the joint triumph of Vespasian and Titus, memorable as the first occasion on which a father and his son were thus associated together in the Western world, the temple of Janus was closed, and the Roman world had rest for the remaining nine years of Vespasian's reign. "The peace of Vespasian" passed into a proverb.

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. In the following year Vespasian died, on June 23.

Views on Vespasian

The avarice with which both Tacitus and Suetonius stigmatize Vespasian seems really to have been an enlightened economy, which, in the disordered state of the Roman finances, was an absolute necessity.

Vespasian could be liberal to impoverished Senators and equestrians, to cities and towns desolated by natural calamity, and especially to men of letters and rhetors, several of whom he pensioned with salaries of as much as 1,000 gold pieces a year. Quintilian is said to have been the first public teacher who enjoyed this Imperial favor.

Pliny the Elder's great 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 old times of the Republic, and thus indirectly encouraged conspiracy, provoked him into reviving the obsolete penal laws against this profession, but 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 honestly expressing the temper of Vespasian. Vespasian was indeed noted for mildness and a healthy sense of justice. For example, he helped his late adversary Vitellius' daughter find a suitable husband and even provided her with the dowry. Much money was spent on public works and the restoration and beautifying of Rome: a new forum, the splendid Temple of Peace, the public baths and the vast Colosseum.

To the last, Vespasian was a plain, blunt soldier, with a demonstrated strength of character and ability, and with a steady purpose to establish good order and secure the prosperity and welfare of his subjects. In his habits he was punctual and regular, transacting his business early in the morning, and enjoying a siesta in the afternoon.

He did not quite have the distinguished bearing looked for in an emperor. He was free in his conversation, and his humour, of which he had a good deal, was apt to take the form of rather coarse jokes. He could jest even in his last moments. "Alas, I think I'm turning into a God," he whispered to those around him. There is something very characteristic in the exclamation he is said to have uttered in his last illness, "An emperor ought to die standing."


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This entry was based on the entry from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

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