“Dear me, I think I am becoming a god“.
Born in an Italian village to an undistinguished family, Vespasian (9 – 79 AD) rose from humble origins to become emperor of Rome and found the Flavian Dynasty. 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.
A self-made man, Vespasian entered the cursus honorum (the career ladder of Roman officialdom) as a military tribune, and steadily rose through military and civilian positions of increasing responsibility. 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 the emperor Claudius. His success led to a consulship, but he displeased the emperor’s wife and was forced to retire soon thereafter.
Reemerging from retirement after Claudius’ death, he won favor with the emperor Nero, but his career was derailed when he gave offense by falling asleep while Nero was giving a lyre recital, and his fortunes sank to where 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, competing 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? Securing support in the Roman east, he declared himself emperor, sent his forces to Rome, and by year’s end he had won. His rule was successful, as he restored stability and good governance, and launched a massive building and public works program.
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. Never forgetting his origins, he 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, arguing that it was beneath imperial dignity to collect revenue from bodily excreta. Vespasian responded by holding a coin beneath his son’s nose, and asking whether he could smell any urine, and concluded by saying: “money does not smell” – which became a Latin proverb.
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 his lifelong penchant for not taking himself too seriously, joked just before dying: “dear me, I think I am becoming a god“.