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Imperial Stability

Immediately upon his senatorial confirmation as 'Emperor' (December of AD 69) Vespasian moved with extreme purpose on several fronts, but perhaps none more so than to legitimize his reign. With nearly 2 years of civil war having come to an end, certainly the people and the legions were tired of it, but proving himself where his several 'Year of the Four Emperor' predecessors had failed, was a necessity. With a strong presence Vespasian could not only restore Roman glory but secure his position from the pitfalls of recent imperial rivals. Though he risked angering supporters and the Senate alike, Vespasian clearly marked his eldest son Titus as heir, making him a partner in administrative affairs and naming him Caesar in AD 71. This designation (marking the first use of the name Caesar clearly as a title) angered the Senate who certainly wished to avoid the Caligula's and Nero's of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, but they had little choice in the matter. Additionally, Vespasian openly promoted various omens that predicted his rise, assumed the consulship on several occasions. He also tied his own legitimacy to the Julio-Claudians through Claudius, by erecting a temple in his honor on the Caelian Hill.

While Vespasian undertook several building projects, none are as noteworthy as the Flavian Ampitheatre. The Colosseum, so named for the nearby Colossus of Nero, was not only a grand legacy to the culture of Roman 'bread and circuses' but was intended as a showcased gift from the Flavians to the Roman people. As the home of the ultimate Roman spectacle, it would also help divert attention from the debauchery of Nero's reign and the uncertainty of civil war (despite the fact that it wouldn't be completed until the reign of his son Titus). However, the cost for such projects was reported to cost 'forty thousand million sesterces' (40 trillion), which would require a serious adjustment to Roman fiscal policy. Nero's extravagance and civil war had drained the treasury dangerously low and while Vespasian would earn a bit of a reputation as a miser for raising taxes especially in the provinces, and manipulation of various market prices, he did succeed in the terribly difficult task of securing Rome's financial integrity. And despite his concern to prove legitimacy as Emperor, he was no hypocrite. He lived a modest lifestyle, in comparison to his predecessors, and readily reported his own family's humble origins. In keeping with that origin, unlike the Julio-Claudians, he refused the Tribunician power and the title 'Father of the Country' until very late in his reign (perhaps in order to secure that power for Titus).

Perhaps Vespasian's greatest contribution was the reformation of the army. It was not a reformation in the sense of massive change, but in restoring its sense of imperial loyalty. (After Vespasian, the legions would remain relatively loyal to the reigning emperor until the death of Commodus some 120 years later). He did punish Vitellius' men by dismissing many from service, but for the most part left the legions intact from their previous positions. In Britain, more northern territory was brought under Roman rule and there were considerable pacification efforts in the Rhine and Danube regions. He increased the number of legions in the east, in part to help Titus finish the capitulation of Judaea, and to stop 'barbaric' invasions into Cappadocia. In relation to the Jews, Vespasian and Titus were at times brutal, but their victory pacified notable Jewish resistance in that province for generations (until the reign of Hadrian). In fact, the Vespasian coin 'Judaea Capta' commemorating their achievement was a highly token of propaganda for the Flavians and remains a highly prized and collectible coin in the ancient numismatics field.

Culturally the emperor also set about restoring a sense of the Augustan age. The Senate and Equestrian roles were re-ordered allowing worthy men to make political climbs while replacing those who did not have merit. In Hispania, Latin rights (a stepping stone to full citizenship) was granted to communities en masse, greatly enhancing that provinces Romanization. Of incredible, if sometimes overlooked, importance was the reduction of the court backlogs, which had been growing to enormous proportions since the waning days of Nero's reign and were a terrible drain on resources. Latin and Greek rhetoric tutors were offered a state salary for the first time and entertainers too were paid handsomely by Vespasian's court. (Unlike Nero, the emperor appreciated entertainment but did not participate or treat it in a socially non Roman manner). The Theatre of Marcellus was built too, providing a new stage to entertain and to encourage the art and he hosted lavish state dinners, (despite probably having some personal disdain for spending the money) in order to boost the various food related markets.

All in all, both Suetonius and Tacitus, paint a vividly glowing picture of Vespasian. According to Suetonius, Vespasian was a man of great humor despite a constant 'strained' look on his face. Reporting a tale in which Vespasian asked a comedian, who was apparently making jokes on several people, to make a joke on him, Suetonius says the comedian's response was: "I will, when you have finished your bowel movement." Even in his waning days, after 10 years of stable and prosperous rule, the emperor kept his much lauded sense of humor. As he fought of sickness at the end of his life, he reportedly joked, 'Vae, puto deus fio' ('Woe, I think I'm turning into a god.') The emperor's death came shortly after and again according to Suetnoius,

".he (Vespasian) had a slight illness in Campania, and returning at once to the city, he left for Cutilae and the country about Reate, where he spent the summer every year. There, in addition to an increase in his illness. he nevertheless continued to perform his duties as emperor, even receiving embassies as he lay in bed. Taken on a sudden with such an attack of diarrhea that he all but swooned, he said: "An emperor ought to die standing," and while he was struggling to get on his feet, he died in the arms of those who tried to help him, on the ninth day before the Kalends of July (June 23, AD 79) at the age of sixty-nine years, one month, and seven days."

Vespasian is often overlooked for his contributions to the young principate, but his importance cannot be denied. If not for the rather harsh reign of his second son, Domitian, the period between Vespasian and Marcus Aurelius may have been known as that of the '7 Good Emperors' rather than just five. (Vespasian and Titus added to Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius). There is no question that Vespasian, despite his dynastic leanings, provided a model of efficient and effective government for those quality emperors that followed. One can certainly believe that the Roman state was still strong enough in the 1st century AD that it could easily have survived the crippling civil war after Nero, and that any quality leader could've 'righted the ship', but it wasn't any other quality leader who emerged, it was Vespasian. The Roman people too seemed to understand his importance, deifying him soon after death, and interring him in the Mausoleum of Augustus, an honorable shrine reserved for the original imperial family.

continue to Titus

Did you know?

Flavius Josephus, the great Jewish historian, was originally a Roman captive following Vespasian's campaigns in Judaea. He eventually became such an ardent supporter of Vespasian and Titus that he took the name Flavius in their honor.



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Imperial Stability - Related Topic: Roman Emperors


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