Emperor Vespasian – History, Reign, Reforms, & Achievements
In AD 68, Roman Emperor Nero found his entire world crumbling around him as not only was he declared a public enemy, but he was sentenced to death. However, Nero refused to give in and decided it would be best to die by his own hands. His eventual suicide left the Empire in a state of chaos since, at that time, Rome was in the middle of an invasion in Judea.
Following Nero’s death, the events that occurred were categorized as the Year of the Four Emperors, with Emperor Vespasian taking the reins after an era of three unsuccessful rulers. Vespasian was the founder of the Flavian Dynasty that ruled the Roman Empire for close to three decades.
Although much isn’t known about Vespasian’s rule from AD 69 to 79, he was still responsible for restoring and expanding the Empire. He was regarded as a symbol of peace to the Romans. Following his death in AD 79, he was succeeded by his son, Titus. This direct line of succession made Vespasian the first Roman Emperor to be succeeded by his biological son.
For his efforts in stabilizing the Empire, Vespasian is often regarded as one of the best Roman emperors. But who exactly was he? How did he rise to become a ruler of one of the most powerful empires in history? And most importantly, how did he transform the Roman Empire?
History: Family & Early Years
Born Titus Flavius Vespianus, Vespasian was born in the town of Falacrina located in northern Rome. His family wasn’t prominent and was described as “a family with little distinction.” His father, Titus Flavius Sabinus, was a tax collector and moneylender while his mother, Vespasia Polla, was a member of the Roman equestrian order.
Despite his parents being around, Vespasian was mostly raised by his paternal grandmother, Tertulla and attended school in Cosa. He also had an older brother called Sabinus, who was active in public service and eventually became a consul and governor.
Vespasian married Flavia Domitilla and they welcomed three children: Titus, Domitian, and Domitilla. However, both Flavia and their last born, Domitilla passed away before he was made emperor.
In AD 36, Vespasian served as a tribune in the military. He later followed in his brother’s footsteps and entered public service, starting his career as a quaestor in Crete, eventually reaching praetorship by AD 40. Vespasian used his position and status to find favor with the ruling emperor at that time, Caligula.
Political & Military Career
During the reign of Emperor Claudius, following that of Caligula, Vespasian enjoyed a close relationship with Narcissus. Narcissus was a freed slave who had immense power and served as a close advisor to the emperor.
Around that period, Vespasian was appointed to command the Legio II Augusta in the military. The legion took part in the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43. Together with his military forces, Vespasian successfully invaded the Isle of Wight and conquered many tribes and towns. Due to his military feats, he received high honors, including receiving two priesthoods, and Vespasian was made consul, a very powerful position in public service.
These achievements all happened during the reign of Claudius. However, the emperor died in AD 54 and Narcissus, whose power and authority had started to dwindle, committed suicide. During that period, Vespasian no longer had access to some of the higher appointments he had received and was forced into early retirement.
However, that period came to an end when in AD 63, he was appointed governor of the African Province, which encompassed Tunisia, sections of Algeria along with the coast of western Libya. Vespasian took his job seriously, especially at a time where governors were known to extort money to recoup the money they had spent on previous campaigns, in North Africa and was very strict where finances were concerned. This move made him extremely unpopular in the region so much so that the people pelted him with turnips.
Vespasian himself struggled with his personal finances and entered mule trading to regain some of his lost wealth, which earned him the nickname “mulio.” When he returned home, he served as Emperor Nero’s advisor during a tour of Greece. But their relationship soured for allegedly falling asleep during one of Nero’s recitals.
Despite him losing favor with the ruler, it didn’t prevent him from receiving the appointment to fight against the Jewish rebellion in Judea. It was Vespasian’s biggest appointment, since he had been charged to command three legions. But the appointment was somewhat strategic, in the sense that Nero regarded Vespasian as a man from humble beginnings who wouldn’t dream of challenging his rulership. Nonetheless. Vespasian was extremely successful in recapturing almost all of Judea with the exception of Jerusalem.
Year of the Four Emperors
Emperor Nero’s reign was considered to be a dark time for the Roman Empire. He was perhaps one of the most infamous criminals during that period and was rumored to have murdered his mother, wife, stepbrother, and many other Christians as ruler of the empire. He spent most of his fortunes living a life of debauchery, ignoring the needs of the empire. By the end of his 13-year reign, Nero had been declared a public enemy and had been sentenced to death by the Roman senate. He fled and decided to kill himself.
Nero’s death began the period known as the Year of the Four Emperors. The first to succeed the notorious emperor was Galba, who was in Spain when he received the news. However, Galba was very unpopular as emperor and made several poor choices that even turned his supporters against him. His appointment of a young senator called Lucius Calpurnius Piso Lucinianus as his successor angered nobleman Marcus Salvius Otho, who had wanted that honor. Because of Galba’s unpopularity, it was easier for Otho to organize a coup d’etat and the following events led to Galba and Lucinianus’s deaths.
Otho was made emperor the day Galba was murdered. He was known as a greedy man, however, he wasn’t regarded as cruel, so was expected to rule with some fairness. His efforts to restore peace were thwarted by Aulus Vitellius, who had earlier been sent to Germanica Inferior by Galba. Threatened by the prospect of a civil war, Otho initially asked for Vitellius’s daughter’s hand in marriage. However, Vitellius was not a man to be reasoned with and in the Battle of Bedriacum, Otho was defeated. Instead of retaliating, the new emperor decided to commit suicide. His reign lasted not more than three months.
Following Otho’s death, the Senate elected Vitellius as emperor but he faced a lot of challenges right from the start. Many Roman citizens were displeased with him for choosing the date signifying the anniversary of the Battle of the Allia -which was traditionally recognized by the people as a day of bad luck- to assume the position of Pontifex Maximus, which was the most important position in Roman religion. It seemed the bad omen followed the newly-elected emperor. Vitellius threw lavish parties and parades, which drained the empire’s coffers. He was also extremely violent and murdered many citizens.
Meanwhile, Otho’s supporters had started looking for a new emperor to rally behind and they settled on Vespasian. During that time, Vespasian was in Egypt and remained there, patiently biding his time until news of Vitellius’s assassination reached him. By December AD 69, Vespasian was declared emperor of the Roman Empire.
Vespasian’s Reign, Reforms & Achievements
Vespasian ruled for 10 years from AD 69 to AD 70 and was the first Roman emperor to die of natural causes. Following his election, he was faced with mounds of work and charged with restoring the Roman Empire to its former glory. He was tasked to bring order to the Roman government, stabilize the empire’s economy, increase security, and bring more discipline to the Roman military.
His first focus was on the reformation of the military. While he did have large support from both Eastern and Western troops, there were threats of a potential secession from Gaul. These threats highlighted the potential risk of using provincial militaries. To prevent this from happening, Vespasian decreed that auxiliary troops were not allowed to serve in their home regions or have a native leader. Instead, he strengthened those troops and maintained peaceful relations with them. This move of getting all armies to recognize one Roman emperor was regarded as one of his biggest accomplishments.
Vespasian knew the importance of the army and recognized it as the body that largely facilitated his ascension to emperor. He still respected the Senate but was not keen on partnering with the group of Rome’s nobles. Because of this move, he was so powerful that he had more control over the empire and could select new appointments into the Senate. He was very particular about his appointments and often placed his best men into provinces that the Senate controlled. However, the senators could not protest because his decisions were mostly good.
When Vespasian became emperor, the state of the Roman Empire’s finances were in shambles. Known as a frugal person, he adopted strict financial policies and re-instituted previous taxes that other emperors had canceled, and even introduced new taxes. He most famously introduced a tax on public urinals and when one of his sons protested against it, Vespasian was alleged to have held the coin under his son’s nose and said, “Money does not smell.” As a result, most modern Romance languages name urinals after him. For example, in Italian, urinals are called “vespasiano.”
But even though he was frugal, he didn’t have any issue with spending money, so long as it was for useful endeavors. For example, he spent heavily on public amenities, including the construction of the Colosseum, which served as a source of entertainment for Romans for many centuries. In modern times, the Colosseum is still regarded as one of Rome’s most iconic landmarks. Vespasian also converted Nero’s palace into an 80,000-seat stadium. Additionally, he built temples such as the Temple of Peace. In AD 75, he also completed and erected the statue of the god, Apollo. He was also a supporter of quality education and built many schools and libraries. It was under Vespasian’s reign that the educator Quintilian became the first public professor to be paid by the state.
By all accounts, Vespasian was regarded as a good leader. Although much of his reign has not fully been uncovered, it’s likely that he had a few enemies. Around AD 78 or 79, two men, Eprius Marcellus and Aulus Caecina Alienus attempted to kill him. However, the motives behind their action is unknown.
Vespasian did die; however, it was by natural causes. He reportedly fell sick while traveling outside Rome. After refusing to seek treatment, he caught a chill after a late night’s swim in AD 79. Other reports also say that Vespasian died after a bout of diarrhea. Shortly before dying, he was believed to have said, “Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god.”
To ensure that his legacy continued, Vespasian named his son, Titus as his successor. By doing so, this succession birthed the Flavian Dynasty.
Vespasian: Fast Facts
Born: November 17, 9 AD, Falacrine
Died: June 23, 79 AD, Aquae Cutiliae, Italy
Offspring: Domitian, Titus, Domitilla the Younger
Full name: Titus Flavius Vespasianus
Parents: Titus Flavius Sabinus, Vespasia Polla
Siblings: Titus Flavius Sabinus, Flavia Vespasia