Historian Suetonius Tranquillus said of Roman emperor Vespasian: ‘The empire, which for a long time had been unsettled and, as if it were drifting, was at last taken in hand and given stability.’
He was a successful soldier, a skilled politician and a patient, intelligent man. The decade-long reign of Titus Vespasian was a stark contrast to that of the outlandish reign of Nero and the three emperors whose short-lived tenures in 69 have been all but consigned to the waste bin of Roman history.
Read on to discover the life and times of Caesar Vespasian including an incredible story about root vegetables.
Titus Flavius Vespasianus - The Early Years
Vespasian was born during the reign of Emperor Augustus in 9 AD, in a village lying to the northeast of Rome called Falacrine. It’s believed to be – although there remains some debate as to its actual location – close to the town of Rieti in modern-day Lazio.
Both his parents hailed from the equites, or equestrian class, a group of the ruling nobility which sat below the senatorial class in ancient Roman society. His father Titus Flavius Sabinus was a customs official and a banker, while his mother, Vespasia Polla, also came from a relatively prominent family within the Roman nobility.
Like many Roman emperors, Titus Flavius Vespasianus began his rise to power as a soldier. He served as a military tribune in Thrace – parts of modern-day Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey – and then as a quaestor in Creta et Cyrenaica, which comprises the island of Crete and part of Libya.
As praetor, he managed to get noticed first by Emperor Caligula and then by his successor, Claudius. The pathway to becoming emperor Vespasian was getting clearer.
Vespasian in Britain, Africa and Judea
Vespasian was made legatus in 41 AD – a military rank similar to that of a modern-day generaI – of Legio II Augusta. Under the command of Aulus Plautius, he was in the army that invaded Britain in 43 AD. He was briefed with securing much of the south and southwest of the country and was so successful he was awarded ornamenta triumphalia – triumphal honours and regalia – when he got back to Rome. He was also appointed to Rome’s highest political position, that of consul, in 51 AD.
There then appears to be a period between 51 AD and 63 AD where little is recorded of Vespasian’s career. His enforced semi-retirement was believed to have been caused by a falling out with Agrippina, the wife of Claudius, but the reasons for him becoming persona non grata are unclear.
His situation changed once again when he was appointed proconsul of Africa in 63 AD, which encompassed much of modern-day Tunisia, northeastern Algeria and the western coastline of Libya. In 67 AD Vespasian – with his son Titus – was sent to Judea to put down a Jewish rebellion. His successes in Judea, coupled with his earlier impact in Britain, cemented his reputation as one of Rome’s most able military commanders.
While Vespasian’s career was clearly successful, like many leading Romans at the time there was a limit as to how far one could progress. However, all that changed in 68 AD when, at the age of 30, Emperor Nero committed suicide without an obvious heir. Without a successor from the established Julio-Claudian dynasty, there was a scramble for power among several high-ranking members of the ruling classes – with no single claim being more obvious than any other, and military might being the decisive factor.
Nero’s immediate successor, Servius Sulpicius Galba, was murdered within seven months, Marcus Salvius Otho lasted just three months before killing himself, and Aulus Vitellus was defeated and killed by troops loyal to Vespasian. The new emperor of Rome was Caesar Vespasianus Augustus.
Roman Emperor Vespasian
Taking control of a chaotic city following the tumultuous rule of Nero and the civil war of Galba, Otho and Vitellus was no easy task, but Vespasian managed it with tact, skill, diplomacy and patience.
He wanted those outside Rome to feel as much a part of the empire as those living within its walls. He was a fine administrator and one of his most important jobs was to reform Rome’s finances after years of outrageous overspending, including reducing the silver purity in the denarius.
Because of his tax policies, Rome became cash-rich under his rule. He used some of the city’s new-found wealth to embark on a building programme that included a number of temples, columns and statues. He famously started construction of the iconic Colosseum, known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, which was paid for from the spoils of war from his time in Judea. Unfortunately he died before it was complete. It was finished and opened by his son Titus.
Oddly, less is known of Caesar Vespasian’s reign during the latter years of his rule. What we do know is that he was a common-sense ruler who forewent the outrageous trappings of many a Roman emperor, instead deciding to live a relatively simple life.
He worked hard to ensure Rome was politically and financially stable, and to make sure the army was well-disciplined. He also focused his efforts to secure an orderly succession, ensuring that his sons would follow him. He was successful in all three endeavours.
In fact historian Tacitus wrote that Emperor Vespasian was the first man to have improved after becoming emperor. Praise indeed.
After a long and successful reign, Vespasian fell ill and died in 79 AD. His son Titus succeeded him.