Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars

Alexander Meddings - November 6, 2017

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
The alleged famous last words of Vespasian. YouTube


The way in which Vespasian met his death is very much in keeping with the character portrait that survives of him from antiquity. Histories and biographies show Vespasian as a light-hearted, witty man. And because, as we’ve seen so far, the manner in which an emperor lived his life is often reflected in the manner in which he departed it, it should come as no surprise that humor features large in the death of Vespasian.

While away in Campania in July of 79 AD, Vespasian suffered a minor illness. We don’t know the details, but it was enough to convince him to head back to Rome and start putting his affairs in order. Famously, upon first feeling ill he was said to have joked, Vae, puto deus fio,

“Alas, I think I am becoming a god”

making reference to the now-common practice of deifying emperors (the Senate did, in fact, posthumously declare him a god).

However, his health deteriorated rapidly, not helped by the fact that he was used to taking long, cold baths—just as any good Roman should—and therefore had an underlying intestinal disorder. He stopped off at Rieti, a city not far from Rome in the region of Lazio, but soon found himself confined to his bed. From there he continued to receive embassies and deal with official business, but a sudden bout of diarrhea on June 23 convinced him this was the end. Exclaiming that an emperor should die on his feet, he struggled out of bed, dying in the arms of those attending him.

So goes the official version. Scratch below the surface, however, and you find something sinister about the reign and character of Vespasian. Like Augustus, he was the first emperor of a new dynasty, a man who had only come to power by merit of being the only man left standing after a costly civil war. War in all its forms must inevitably be followed by peacetime. But in the aftermath of civil wars, rarely are such peacetimes jovial.

We should imagine Vespasian’s reign as one characterized by intense propaganda, severe censorship, and the rooting out and eradication of any past (or potential future) enemies. One indication of this is the fact that there is hardly a bad word to say about Vespasian in the surviving literature. History, after all, is often written by the victors.

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
Emperor Titus. Famous People


Titus’s death was not violent or theatrical or mysterious, it was simply sad. This was an emperor, we are told, who oozed potential but never got the chance to fully fulfill it. His death, on September 13 81 AD at the age of 41, was, in the words of Suetonius, “more humanity’s loss than his own”. There’s really little to say about Titus’s death from the Roman accounts. Returning from the games to his Sabine estate, a sudden fever forced him to stop off at Rieti. Inauspiciously, it was at the same villa his father, Vespasian, had passed away in just two years before.

The only intriguing question concerns his final words. While being carried in a litter to his family villa in Rieti, he apparently drew back the curtains and lamented about his life being cruelly taken from him when he didn’t deserve to lose it—okay, so maybe it was quite theatrical. He then uttered that he had just one regret in life. However, presumably to the annoyance of those around him, he refused to disclose what this was, though some speculated a secret affair with his brother’s wife, Domitia.

An altogether different version appears in the Babylonian Talmud. According to this Jewish text, the cause of Titus’s death was an insect that flew up his nose and picked away at his brain for seven years. That the Jewish author should have suggested this is hardly surprising: no love was lost between Titus and the Jews, given that the emperor had captured Jerusalem and sacked their Temple in 70 AD, killing as many as one million people. What’s surprising is that this legend was lazily copied from another regarding the biblical King Nimrod.

We’re told that the Roman public mourned as if they had lost a member of their own family, clearly an exaggeration. Moreover, Suetonius tells us that upon hearing about his death the senators flocked to the senate house, opened its doors, and took it in turns to heap praises on the deceased emperor, speaking more highly of him than they ever had when he was alive. We should be careful in seeing any of this as genuine; it more probably reflected their attempt to ingratiate themselves with his brother, and successor, Domitian.

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
Irish Times


“It was a terrible thing to be an emperor”, Domitian once said, “for everybody thought their paranoia over conspiracies was groundless until they ended up murdered.” Whether or not this quote was apocryphal we’ll never know. If it wasn’t, it’s certainly ironic as it perfectly foreshadowed his own death, assassinated by one of his niece’s attendants in the emperor’s bedroom on September 18 96 AD.

Another irony about Domitian’s death was that the emperor was already aware of its time and manner through a prophecy. His father, Vespasian, had once laughed at him when he rejected some mushrooms over dinner, reminding him that it was the sword, not poison, he should be mindful of. This foreknowledge, repeatedly reinforced by a number of bizarre omens and portents he received throughout his life, apparently drove his murderous paranoia.

Domitian had been told he would be killed on the sixth hour of September 18. What he hadn’t factored in was that those charged with telling him the time might be part of the conspiracy. On the appointed day, thinking the danger had passed, he agreed for someone with important news to visit him in his chambers, dismissing his attendants. Almost comedically, we’re still told that Domitian was “astonished” when he received his first stab wound. Other conspirators, including many of his chamber staff, then burst in, hacking the 45-year-old emperor to death and bringing his 15-year reign to an end.

Domitian was one of Rome’s worst emperors. Or at least that’s what we’re told. The Roman satirist Juvenal used to refer to him as “the bald Nero.” But what he and Nero shared was not personality, but the fact that they were both the last rulers of their respective dynasty—Nero, the Julio-Claudians; Domitian, the Flavians. This in many ways guaranteed that they would be negatively portrayed. For it was always in the interest of successive dynasties to portray the last member—or rather the last member of the last one—as malicious and incompetent.

What’s telling is while the senators were reportedly delighted over Domitian’s death, the army were distraught and the people were indifferent. This indifference should make us re-evaluate Domitian as a terrible emperor and point us towards asking new questions: Not why Domitian was killed 15 years into his reign but, if he was really as bad as our sources say, why for 15 years he was allowed to live.