Welcome to Rome Across Europe! With so much going on in the world, it’s hard to keep track of everything out there.
Like other media sources, articles on our site were completed well before they are posted. Because of this not every event gets to match up with the proper corresponding date in which it took place.
Since we got caught up with other articles we missed an Emperor’s birthday. We figured it’s close enough to still bring some celebration and shout Happy Birthday for this historical figure.
Today we check out the life of Titus Flāvius Caesar Vespasiānus Augustus, aka Vespasian!
The Vespasiānus family was relatively undistinguished and lacking in pedigree. Vespasian’s paternal grandfather, Titus Flavius Petro, was first to distinguish himself as he rose to the rank of Centurio and then becoming a debt collector upon his retirement from the Exercitus Romanus.
Petro’s son, Titus Flavius Sabinus, worked as a customs official in the provincia of Asiana and became a money-lender on a small scale among the Helvetii. He gained a reputation as a scrupulous and honest “tax-farmer”.
Sabinus married up in status, to Vespasia Polla, whose father had risen to the rank of Praefectus Castrorum and whose brother became a Senator.
Sabinus and Vespasia would have 3 children. The eldest child was a girl who died in infancy.
The elder boy, Titus Flavius Sabinus entered public life and pursued the Cursus Honorum. He would become a military Tribunus, be elected Quaestor, Aedilis and then Praetor under Emperor Caligula.
The 3rd child was born on 17 November 9 AD in a village north-east of Rome called Falacrinae. The youngest child, Vespasian, seemed far less likely to be successful, initially not wishing to pursue high public office.
Little is known about Vespasian’s childhood other than he followed in his brother’s footsteps, especially when driven to it by his mother’s taunting. During this period he married Flavia Domitilla, the daughter of Flavius Liberalis from Ferentium and formerly the mistress of Statilius Capella, a Roman equestrian from Sabrata in Africa Proconsularis.
Vespasian and Domitilla had 2 sons, Titus Flavius Vespasianus and Titus Flavius Domitianus, and a daughter, Domitilla. Sadly, his wife and his daughter both died before Vespasian became Emperor in AD 69.
After the death of his wife, Vespasian’s longstanding mistress, Antonia Caenis, became his wife in all but formal status, a relationship that survived until she died in AD 75.
In preparation for a Praetorship, Vespasian needed 2 periods of service in the minor magistracies, one military and the other public. Vespasian then went to Thrace for about 3 years to serve in the military.
On his return to Rome around AD 30, he obtained a post in the Vigintisexviri, most probably in one of the posts in charge of street cleaning. His early performance was so unsuccessful that Emperor Caligula reportedly stuffed handfuls of muck down his toga to correct the unclean Roman streets, formally his responsibility.
Not a good start at all.
After completion of a term in the Vigintisexviri, Vespasian was entitled to stand for election as Quaestor. Lack of political or family influence meant that Vespasian served as Quaestor in one of the provincial posts in Crete, rather than as assistant to important men in Rome.
Longing to hold the Imperium, Vespasian needed to gain a Praetorship. This would be difficult since non-Patricii and the less well-connected, like himself, had to serve in at least one intermediary post as an Aedile or Tribunus.
Although Vespasian failed at his initial attempt to gain an aedileship he was successful in his following attempt, becoming an Aedile in AD 38. Despite his lack of significant family connections or success in office, the next year Vespasian achieved praetorship at the youngest age permitted (30 years old), during a period of political upheaval in the organization of elections.
His longstanding relationship with freedwoman Antonia Caenis, confidential secretary to the Emperor’s grandmother and part of the circle of courtiers and servants around the Emperor, may have contributed to his success (wink, wink).
Upon the accession of Claudius as Emperor in AD 41, Vespasian was appointed Legate of Legio II Augusta, stationed in Germania. In AD 43, Vespasian and the Legio II Augusta participated in the Roman invasion of Britain.
Here Vespasian distinguished himself under the overall command of Aulus Plautius. After participating in crucial early battles on the rivers Medway and Thames, Vespasian was sent to reduce the south west, with the probable objectives of securing the south coast ports and harbors along with the tin mines of Cornwall and the silver and lead mines of Somerset.
Vespasian marched from Noviomagus Reginorum to subdue the hostile Durotriges and Dumnonii tribes, captured 20 oppida (towns or hill forts, including Hod Hill and Maiden Castle in Dorset). He also invaded Vectis, finally setting up a fortress and legionary headquarters at Isca Dumnoniorum.
During this time he injured himself and had not fully recovered until he went to Egypt. These successes earned Vespasian triumphal regalia (ornamenta triumphalia) on his return to Rome.
The success of Vespasian as the Legate of a Legion earned him a consulship in AD 51, after which he retired from public life. He came out of retirement in AD 63 when he was sent as Governor to Africa Province.
Vespasian used his time in North Africa wisely. Instead of extorting huge amounts of money to regain the wealth spent on previous political campaigns, like most Governors or Consuls did, Vespasian made friends.
Vespasian’s decision would be far more valuable in the years to come. During his time in North Africa Vespasian did find himself in financial difficulties, but was able to revive his fortunes via the mule trade and gained the nickname mulio (muleteer).
In 66 AD, Vespasian was appointed to suppress the Jewish revolt underway in Judea. The fighting there had killed the previous Roman Governor, and routed the governor of Syria as well.
Two Legiones, with 8 Cavalry squadrons and 10 Auxiliary Cohorts, were then dispatched under the command of Vespasian. His elder son, Titus, arrived from Alexandria with another.
During this time Vespasian became the patron of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish resistance leader captured at the Siege of Yodfat, who would later write his people’s history in Greek. Ultimately, thousands of Jews were killed and the Romans destroyed many towns in re-establishing control over Judea and Jerusalem.
Vespasian is remembered by Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, as a fair and humane official, in contrast with the notorious Herod Agrippa II whom Josephus goes to great lengths to demonize.
After Nero’s death in AD 68, Rome saw a succession of short-lived rulers and a year of civil wars. Galba was murdered by supporters of 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.
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.
While in Caesarea, Vespasian was proclaimed Emperor on 1 July 69. It was originally by the Army in Aegyptus under Tiberius Julius Alexander, and then by his own troops in Judaea on 11 July.
Nevertheless, Vitellius occupied the throne and had the veteran Legions of Gallia and the Rhineland on his side. But the feelings in Vespasian’s favor quickly gathered strength, and the forces in Moesia, Pannonia and Illyricum soon declared for Vespasian.
This 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 Marcus Antonius Primus. They defeated Vitellius’s army at Bedriacum, sacked Cremona and advanced on Rome.
Vitellius hastily arranged a peace with Antonius, but the Emperor’s Praetoriani forced him to retain his seat. After furious fighting, Antonius’ army entered Rome.
On receiving the tidings of his rival’s defeat and death at Alexandria, the new Emperor Vespasian at once forwarded supplies of urgently needed grain to Rome, along with an edict in which he gave assurance of an entire reversal of the laws of Nero.
Vespasian was declared Emperor by the Senate while he was in Egypt in December of AD 69. The Egyptians had declared him Emperor in June of the same year.
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.
They 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) was created when Vespasian introduced a urine tax on public toilets.
When Vespasian first returned to Rome, in mid-70 AD, Vespasian immediately embarked on a series of efforts to stay in power and prevent future revolts. He offered gifts to many in the military and much of the public.
Soldiers loyal to Vitellius were dismissed or punished. He also restructured the orders of the Senators and Equites, removing his enemies and adding his allies.
Regional autonomy of Greek provinces was repealed. Additionally, he made significant attempts to control public perception of his rule.
Many modern historians note the increased amount of propaganda that appeared during Vespasian’s reign. Construction projects bore inscriptions praising Vespasian and condemning his predecessors.
Nearly 1/3 of all coins minted in Rome under Vespasian celebrated military victory or peace. The word vindex was removed from coins so as not to remind the public of rebellious Vindex.
Vespasian also gave financial rewards to writers. The ancient historians who lived through the period such as Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus and Pliny the Elder speak suspiciously well of Vespasian while condemning the Emperors who came before him.
Those who spoke against Vespasian were punished. A number of stoic philosophers were accused of corrupting students with inappropriate teachings and were expelled from Rome.
Between AD 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.
After the civil war, Vespasian helped rebuild Rome. He added the temple of Peace and the temple to the Deified Claudius.
In AD 75, Vespasian 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 Amphitheatrum Flavium, aka the Colosseum, using funds from the spoils of the Jewish Temple after the Siege of Jerusalem.
Even with claims of constant conspiracies against Vespasian, only one conspiracy is known specifically. In AD 78 or 79, Eprius Marcellus and Aulus Caecina Alienus attempted to kill Vespasian but the reason why is unknown.
In AD 78, Agricola was sent to Britannia, and both extended and consolidated the Roman dominion in that province, pushing his way into what is now Scotland.
While in his 9th Consulship, Vespasian had a slight illness in Campania and returned to Rome at once. He left for Aquae Cutiliae and the country around Reate, but his illness worsened.
According to Suetonius’s The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: “At last, being taken ill of a diarrhea, to such a degree that he was ready to faint, he cried out, “An emperor ought to die standing upright.” In endeavoring to rise, he died in the hands of those who were helping him up, upon the eighth of the calends of July [24 June], being sixty-nine years, one month, and seven days old”.
Vespasian was known for his wit and his amiable manner alongside his commanding personality and military prowess. He could be liberal to impoverished Senators and equestrians and to cities and towns desolated by natural calamity.
He was especially generous 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.
Vespasian distrusted philosophers in general, viewing them as unmanly complainers who talked too much. It was the idle talk of philosophers, who liked to glorify the good times of the Res Publica Romana, which provoked Vespasian into reviving the obsolete penal laws against this profession as a precautionary measure.
According to Suetonius, Vespasian bore the frank language of his friends, the quips of pleaders, and the impudence of the philosophers with the greatest patience. He was also noted for his benefactions to the people.
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 great show piece, the Colosseum.
Vespasian debased the denarius during his reign, reducing the silver purity from 93.5% to 90%. The silver weight dropped from 0.105 ounces to 0.101 ounces.
In modern Romance languages, urinals are still named after him (for example, vespasiano in Italian, and vespasienne in French) in reference to a tax he placed on urine collection. Vespasian appears as the King of Paltisca in Saxo Grammaticus‘ Gesta Danorum.
We hope you enjoyed this belated-birthday tribute to Vespasian. Love him or not, one of the world’s greatest buildings bears his name and has stood for centuries.
Come back tomorrow to see what we have in store for you. Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Suetonius. The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Vespasian.
Cassius Dio. Roman History, Books 64, 65 and 66.
Flavius Josephus. The War of the Jews, Books 2, 3 and 4.
Lissner, I. Power and Folly: The Story of the Caesars. Jonathan Cape Ltd., London (1958).
Courtney, H. Vespasian. Routledge (1999). ISBN 0-415-16618-7.
Morgan, G. 69 AD. The Year of the Four Emperors. London: OUP (2006). ISBN 9780195124682.
Roberts, J. Vespasian. Oxford University Press (2007).