4. The Well-Named Spiller of Blood Was the First to Feast Atop the Bodies of Defeated Enemies
As seen above, the Mongols had feasted over the still living bodies of defeated Rus and Cuman commanders after the Battle of Kalka River in 1223. However, that was not the first time that vanquished leaders had faced such a fate. Such a ghoulish mode of celebration seems to have been pioneered by the first Abbasid Caliph Abul Abbas (722 – 754). Nicknamed Al Saffah (“Spiller of Blood” – a well earned nickname), he feasted atop the bodies of his foes after he defeated and displaced the Ummayad Dynasty as Caliphs.
Al Saffah had initiated a revolt against the Ummayads, and crushed them in a climactic battle in 750. He then tracked down and killed as many members of the defeated dynasty as he could get his hands on. In 751, Al Saffah declared an amnesty, and 80 surviving Ummayad princes emerged from hiding to receive their pardons at a banquet. It turned out be their final meal. Al Saffah had them seized, stabbed, covered their quivering bodies with leather rugs, then sat down and bade other guests join him in a feast as the dying Ummayads writhed beneath them.
The Roman Emperor Vespasian (9 – 79 AD), was born Titus Flavius Vespasianus in an unremarkable village named Falacrinae, northeast of Rome. He hailed from a relatively comfortable but otherwise undistinguished family without pedigree, of the equestrian class – the second of the property based classes of ancient Rome, that ranked below the senatorial class. His ancestors included a common legionary who went on to become a centurion, a debt collector, and a small scale money lender with a clientele of barbarians.
Vespasian rose from his humble origins to become emperor of Rome and found the Flavian Dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire for three decades. A self made man, he entered the cursus honorum (the career ladder of Roman officialdom) as a military tribune, and steadily rose through its military and civilian positions. His first big break came during the invasion of Britain in 43 AD, when he displayed exceptional brilliance in command of a Roman legion, and won the esteem of Emperor Claudius. That led to a consulship, but he displeased Claudius’ wife, and was forced to retire soon thereafter.
2. Vespasian Transformed the Year of the Three Emperors Into the Year of the Four Emperors
Vespasian reemerged from retirement after Emperor Claudius’ death, and won favor with his successor, Nero. His restored career was derailed, however, when he fell asleep while Nero was giving a lyre recital. Things got so bad for Vespasian that he was forced to become a muleteer to make ends meet. His fortunes revived when he was appointed to suppress the Jewish Rebellion in 67 AD, and he was busily engaged in that when Nero was forced from power and driven to suicide in 68.
In the subsequent scramble for power, rival governors and generals mounted the throne in quick succession. By April of 69, the year was already known as “The Year of the Three Emperors”. Vespasian reasoned why not four? He secured support in the Roman east, then declared himself emperor and sent his forces to Rome. By year’s end, his armies had triumphed, and won a final victory that secured the Empire for Vespasian. His rule was successful, as he restored stability and good governance, and launched a massive building and public works program.
1. This Emperor’s Final Words Were Wholly in Character
Vespasian had a reputation for wit and amiability. As emperor, he seldom stood on ceremony, but cultivated a blunt and even coarse mannerism, and was given to forthright speech. He never forgot his origins, and resisted the temptation to put on airs to which most Roman emperors succumbed. One of his revenue raising schemes involved a tax on public urinals, which was widely ridiculed. His son and designated heir took him to task for that, and argued that it was beneath imperial dignity to collect revenue from bodily excreta.
In response, Vespasian held a coin beneath his son’s nose, and asked whether he could smell any urine. He concluded the lesson with the statement: “money does not smell” – which became a Latin proverb. Vespasian’s final words were in line with his character. Starting with Julius Caesar, who was declared a god after his assassination, Roman emperors who died in good repute were deified after death. When he felt the end nearing in 79 AD, Vespasian, in a final illustration of a lifelong penchant for not taking himself too seriously, joked just before he drew his last breath: “dear me, I think I am becoming a god“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading