The powers of a de facto dictator were passed on to Augustus’ successors. They included Titus Flavius Vespasianus, better known to history as Vespasian (9 AD – 79 AD), who was born in an unremarkable Italian village to an undistinguished family. 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 those humble origins to become emperor and found the Flavian Dynasty.
A self-made man, Vespasian entered the cursus honorum (the career ladder of Roman officialdom) as a military tribune. He rose steadily through military and civilian positions of increasing responsibility. His first big break came during the invasion of Britain in 43 AD. He displayed exceptional brilliance in command of a Roman legion, and his military talent earned him the esteem of Emperor Claudius. Vespasian’s success in Britain led to a consulship, but then he displeased the emperor’s wife and was forced to retire soon thereafter.
3. Vespasian Lived Through The Year of the Three Emperors, and Decided to Make it the Year of the Four Emperors
Vespasian reemerged from retirement after Emperor Claudius’ death, and won favor with his successor, Emperor Nero. However, his revived career was derailed when he gave offense by falling asleep while Nero was giving a lyre recital. Vespasian’s fortunes sank so low, that he was forced to become a muleteer in order to make ends meet. His fortunes revived once again in 67 AD, when he was appointed to suppress the Great Jewish Revolt.
Vespasian was busily engaged in doing that, when Nero was forced to flee Rome and driven to suicide in 68 AD. In the subsequent scramble for power, competing governors and generals mounted the throne in quick succession. By April, 69 AD, the year was already known as “The Year of the Three Emperors”. Vespasian reasoned why not four?
2. Rome’s First Emperor From a Non-Senatorial Background
In the chaos following the fall of Nero, Vespasian seized the moment. He secured support in the Roman east, where he had been sent down to put down the Jewish Revolt, and declared himself emperor. He sent his forces to Rome, and by the end of 69 AD, he had won. That victory made him Rome’s first emperor who hailed not from a senatorial family, but an equestrian one – a social rank below that of senators.
Vespasian’s rule was successful, as he restored stability and good governance, and launched a massive building and public works program. Construction of Rome’s Colosseum, known at the time as the Flavian Amphitheater, was begun in his reign. It was completed and inaugurated in the reign of his son and successor, Titus.
1. Despite Wielding the Powers of a Dictator, Vespasian Never Lost the Common Touch or Forgot His Humble Origins
Despite having all the powers of a dictator, Vespasian was never full of himself, and 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 humble 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. He 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“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading