Biographies

Vespasian

Name: Vespasian
Bith Date: November 17, 9
Death Date: June 24, 79
Place of Birth: Reate, Italy
Nationality: Roman
Gender: Male
Occupations: emperor

The Roman emperor Vespasian (9-79) was the founder of the Flavian dynasty, which marked the shift from a narrow Roman to a broader Italian--and ultimately empirewide--participation in the leadership of the Roman Empire.

Vespasian, whose full Latin name was Titus Flavius Vespasianus, was born near the little town of Reate in the Sabine backcountry of central Italy. He and his brother were the first members of the family to reach senatorial rank. After a distinguished but by no means spectacular career, including military service on the Rhine and in Britain, Vespasian was chosen by Nero to stamp out a revolt in Judea, as much because of his lack of political significance (due to his family background) as because of his military talents. Again, in Judea he exhibited firm competence rather than dashing brilliance.

With the death of Nero (68) the imperial Julio-Claudian dynasty became extinct, and there began a dizzying succession of momentary emperors as the various provincial armies pushed forward their own commanders--Galba, Otho, Vitellius. Low birth seemed less a bar to empire, and on July 1, 69, troops acclaimed Vespasian the last and permanent emperor of that "Year of the Four Emperors."

Consolidation of Power

Vespasian was faced with immense tasks: to restore order to the machinery of government, stability to the finances, discipline to the armies, and security to the frontiers.

The military problem came first; the Eastern armies had supported Vespasian, and the Western, having fought each other to exhaustion, accepted him, but much remained to be done. A revolt in Gaul amounting to a nationalist secession from the empire showed the dangers inherent in the use of provincial soldiery. Vespasian therefore adopted a policy of not allowing auxiliaries (noncitizen troops) to serve in their native regions or be led by native commanders. He brought the citizen legions up to full strength and carefully cultivated their goodwill--Nero's fatal blunder had been to ignore the troops. Until now, only a Julio-Claudian had been able to command the allegiance of armies other than the one under his direct control; one of Vespasian's accomplishments was to get all the armies to accept whoever was the reigning emperor. The troops stayed out of emperor making for over a century.

Vespasian made no effort to blur the fact that he had won the empire through arms rather than having received it from the hands of the Senate. He treated the Senate with respect but did not try to revive Augustus's old idea of a partnership of emperor and Senate (with Vespasian's lack of background, any attempt at equality with the great nobles would ultimately point up his "inferiority").

Vespasian repeatedly held the censorship, which not only allowed him to survey the empire's resources for financial purposes but also gave him control over the Senate's membership. He kept a tight reign on appointments, even pushing his own men into provinces officially controlled by the Senate. Since his choices were usually good, the senators could hardly object openly, but it must be admitted that they respected rather than admired him. Indeed, he was a successful but never a truly popular emperor with any class.

Finance Reforms

The state finances were in an appalling condition when Vespasian took over. He promptly instituted a nearly peasant-style economy in government (he became the proverbial stingy emperor), reimposed the taxes recent emperors had canceled, raised provincial tribute where his surveys showed it possible, and even invented wholly new taxes. (His tax on public urinals gave rise to his famous witticism; when his son Titus objected to money from such a source, he held a coin under Titus's nose, saying, "Money does not smell.")

Yet Vespasian could spend freely, too; money went for roads and useful public works in every province. His most celebrated building, the Colosseum, converted the site of Nero's private palace into a stadium for 80,000 people. Nor would a merely miserly emperor have shown such interest in education. He endowed schools and libraries and appointed the famous Quintilian as the first state-paid public professor.

Augustus had sought secure frontiers at danger points but had paid little attention to safe areas, with the result that many frontiers were still vague. Vespasian wanted frontiers for administration as well as for security and so began a process of rectification, seeking frontiers that were secure, short, and with good communications. His best-known move was into southwestern Germany to shorten the Rhine-Danube frontier, but he made similar moves elsewhere. He also established great, permanent military posts for administration as well as defense.

Vespasian secured the succession by making his son Titus virtually coemperor and died peacefully in 79, an admirable if not a lovable emperor. Titus promptly had him deified.

Further Reading

  • The best source on Vespasian is Tacitus's Histories, but it breaks off after the first year. Suetonius's biography in Lives of the Twelve Caesars is the most complete account but is more interested in the man than in the emperor. For Vespasian and the Jews see Josephus's The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. Among modern works the best is Bernard W. Henderson, Five Roman Emperors (1927).

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