Titus Flavius Vespasianus (b. A.D. 9, d. A.D. 79,
emperor A.D. 69-79) restored peace and stability to
an empire in disarray following the death of Nero in
A.D. 68. In the process he established the Flavian
dynasty as the legitimate successor to the Imperial
throne. Although we lack many details about the
events and chronology of his reign, Vespasian
provided practical leadership and a return to stable
government - accomplishments which, when combined
with his other achievements, make his emperorship
particularly notable within the history of the
Early Life and Career
Vespasian was born at Falacrina near Sabine Reate on
17 November, A.D. 9, the son of T. Flavius Sabinus,
a successful tax collector and banker, and Vespasia
Polla. Both parents were of equestrian status. Few
details of his first fifteen years survive, yet it
appears that his father and mother were often away
from home on business for long periods. As a result,
Vespasian's early education became the
responsibility of his paternal grandmother, Tertulla.
[] In about A.D. 25 Vespasian assumed the toga
virilis and later accepted the wearing of the latus
clavus, and with it the senatorial path that his
older brother, T. Flavius Sabinus, had already
chosen. [] Although many of the particulars are
lacking, the posts typically occupied by one intent
upon a senatorial career soon followed: a military
tribunate in Thrace, perhaps for three or four
years; a quaestorship in Crete-Cyrene; and the
offices of aedile and praetor, successively, under
the emperor Gaius. []
It was during this period that Vespasian married
Flavia Domitilla. Daughter of a treasury clerk and
former mistress of an African knight, Flavia lacked
the social standing and family connections that the
politically ambitious usually sought through
marriage. In any case, the couple produced three
children, a daughter, also named Flavia Domitilla,
and two sons, the future emperors Titus and Domitian
. Flavia did not live to witness her husband's
emperorship and after her death Vespasian returned
to his former mistress Caenis, who had been
secretary to Antonia (daughter of Marc Antony and
mother of Claudius). Caenis apparently exerted
considerable influence over Vespasian, prompting
Suetonius to assert that she remained his wife in
all but name, even after he became emperor. []
Following the assassination of Gaius on 24 January,
A.D. 41, Vespasian advanced rapidly, thanks in large
part to the new princeps Claudius, whose favor the
Flavians had wisely secured with that of Antonia,
the mother of Germanicus, and of Claudius' freedmen,
especially Narcissus. [] The emperor soon
dispatched Vespasian to Argentoratum (Strasbourg) as
legatus legionis II Augustae, apparently to prepare
the legion for the invasion of Britain. Vespasian
first appeared at the battle of Medway in A.D. 43,
and soon thereafter led his legion across the south
of England, where he engaged the enemy thirty times
in battle, subdued two tribes, and conquered the
Isle of Wight. According to Suetonius, these
operations were conducted partly under Claudius and
partly under Vespasian's commander, Aulus Plautius.
Vespasian's contributions, however, did not go
unnoticed; he received the ornamenta triumphalia and
two priesthoods from Claudius for his exploits in
By the end of A.D. 51 Vespasian had reached the
consulship, the pinnacle of a political career at
Rome. For reasons that remain obscure he withdrew
from political life at this point, only to return
when chosen proconsul of Africa about A.D. 63-64.
His subsequent administration of the province was
marked by severity and parsimony, earning him a
reputation for being scrupulous but unpopular. []
Upon completion of his term, Vespasian returned to
Rome where, as a senior senator, he became a man of
influence in the emperor Nero's court. []
Important enough to be included on Nero's tour of
Greece in A.D. 66-67, Vespasian soon found himself
in the vicinity of increasing political turbulence
in the East. The situation would prove pivotal in
advancing his career.
Judaea and the Accession to Power
In response to rioting in Caesarea and Jerusalem
that had led to the slaughter in the latter city of
Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers, Nero granted to
Vespasian in A.D. 66 a special command in the East
with the objective of settling the revolt in Judaea.
By spring A.D. 67, with 60,000 legionaries,
auxiliaries, and allies under his control, Vespasian
set out to subdue Galilee and then to cut off
Jerusalem. Success was quick and decisive. By
October all of Galilee had been pacified and plans
for the strategic encirclement of Jerusalem were
soon formed. [] Meanwhile, at the other end of
the empire, the revolts of Gaius Iulius Vindex,
governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, and Servius
Sulpicius Galba , governor of Hispania
Tarraconensis, had brought Nero's reign to the brink
of collapse. The emperor committed suicide in June,
A.D. 68, thereby ensuring chaos for the next
eighteen months, as first Galba and then Marcus
Salvius Otho and Aulus Vitellius acceded to power.
Each lacked broad-based military and senatorial
support; each would be violently deposed in turn.
Still occupied with plans against Jerusalem,
Vespasian swore allegiance to each emperor. Shortly
after Vitellius assumed power in spring, A.D. 69,
however, Vespasian met on the border of Judaea and
Syria with Gaius Licinius Mucianus, governor of
Syria, and after a series of private and public
consultations, the two decided to revolt. [] On
July 1, at the urging of Tiberius Alexander, prefect
of Egypt, the legions of Alexandria declared for
Vespasian, as did the legions of Judaea two days
later. By August all of Syria and the Danube legions
had done likewise. Vespasian next dispatched
Mucianus to Italy with 20,000 troops, while he set
out from Syria to Alexandria in order to control
grain shipments for the purpose of starving Italy
into submission. [] The siege of Jerusalem he
placed in the hands of his son Titus.
Meanwhile, the Danubian legions, unwilling to wait
for Mucianus' arrival, began their march against
Vitellius ' forces. The latter army, suffering from
a lack of discipline and training, and unaccustomed
to the heat of Rome, was defeated at Cremona in late
October. [] By mid-December the Flavian forces
had reached Carsulae, 95 kilometers north of Rome on
the Flaminian Road, where the Vitellians, with no
further hope of reinforcements, soon surrendered. At
Rome, unable to persuade his followers to accept
terms for his abdication, Vitellius was in peril. On
the morning of December 20 the Flavian army entered
Rome. By that afternoon, the emperor was dead.
Tacitus records that by December 22, A.D. 69,
Vespasian had been given all the honors and
privileges usually granted to emperors. Even so, the
issue remains unclear, owing largely to a surviving
fragment of an enabling law, the lex de imperio
Vespasiani, which conferred powers, privileges, and
exemptions, most with Julio-Claudian precedents, on
the new emperor. Whether the fragment represents a
typical granting of imperial powers that has
uniquely survived in Vespasian's case, or is an
attempt to limit or expand such powers, remains
difficult to know. In any case, the lex sanctioned
all that Vespasian had done up to its passing and
gave him authority to act as he saw fit on behalf of
the Roman people. []
What does seem clear is that Vespasian felt the need
to legitimize his new reign with vigor. He zealously
publicized the number of divine omens that predicted
his accession and at every opportunity he
accumulated multiple consulships and imperial
salutations. He also actively promoted the principle
of dynastic succession, insisting that the
emperorship would fall to his son. The initiative
was fulfilled when Titus succeeded his father in
Upon his arrival in Rome in late summer, A.D. 70,
Vespasian faced the daunting task of restoring a
city and a government ravaged by the recent civil
wars. Although many particulars are missing, a
portrait nevertheles emerges of a ruler
conscientiously committed to the methodical renewal
of both city and empire. Concerning Rome itself, the
emperor encouraged rebuilding on vacated lots,
restored the Capitol (burned in A.D. 69), and also
began work on several new buildings: a temple to the
deified Claudius on the Caelian Hill, a project
designed to identify Vespasian as a legitimate heir
to the Julio-Claudians, while distancing himself
from Nero ; a temple of Peace near the Forum; and
the magnificent Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheatre),
located on the site of the lake of Nero 's Golden
Claiming that he needed forty thousand million
sesterces for these projects and for others aimed at
putting the state on more secure footing, Vespasian
is said to have revoked various imperial immunities,
manipulated the supply of certain commodities to
inflate their price, and increased provincial
taxation. [] The measures are consistent with
his characterization in the sources as both obdurate
and avaricious. There were occasional political
problems as well: Helvidius Priscus, an advocate of
senatorial independence and a critic of the Flavian
regime from the start, was exiled after A.D. 75 and
later executed; Marcellus Eprius and A. Alienus
Caecina were condemned by Titus for conspiracy, the
former committing suicide, the latter executed in
As Suetonius claims, however, in financial matters
Vespasian always put revenues to the best possible
advantage, regardless of their source. Tacitus, too,
offers a generally favorable assessment, citing
Vespasian as the first man to improve after becoming
emperor. [] Thus do we find the princeps
offering subventions to senators not possessing the
property qualifications of their rank, restoring
many cities throughout the empire, and granting
state salaries for the first time to teachers of
Latin and Greek rhetoric. To enhance Roman economic
and social life even further, he encouraged
theatrical productions by building a new stage for
the Theatre of Marcellus, and he also put on lavish
state dinners to assist the food trades. []
In other matters the emperor displayed similar
concern. He restored the depleted ranks of the
senatorial and equestrian orders with eligible
Italian and provincial candidates and reduced the
backlog of pending court cases at Rome. Vespasian
also re-established discipline in the army, while
punishing or dismissing large numbers of Vitellius '
Beyond Rome, the emperor increased the number of
legions in the East and continued the process of
imperial expansion by the annexation of northern
England, the pacification of Wales, and by advances
into Scotland and southwest Germany between the
Rhine and the Danube. Vespasian also conferred
rights on communities abroad, especially in Spain,
where the granting of Latin rights to all native
communities contributed to the rapid Romanization of
that province during the Imperial period. []
Death and Assessment
In contrast to his immediate imperial predecessors,
Vespasian died peacefully - at Aquae Cutiliae near
his birthplace in Sabine country on 23 June, A.D.
79, after contracting a brief illness. The occasion
is said to have inspired his deathbed quip: "Oh my,
I must be turning into a god!" [] In fact,
public deification did follow his death, as did his
internment in the Mausoleum of Augustus alongside
A man of strict military discipline and simple
tastes, Vespasian proved to be a conscientious and
generally tolerant administrator. More importantly,
following the upheavals of A.D. 68-69, his reign was
welcome for its general tranquility and restoration
of peace. In Vespasian Rome found a leader who made
no great breaks with tradition, yet his ability ro
rebuild the empire and especially his willingness to
expand the composition of the governing class helped
to establish a positive working model for the "good
emperors" of the second century.
Since the scholarship on Vespasian is more
comprehensive than can be treated here, the works
listed below are main accounts or bear directly upon
issues discussed in the entry above. A comprehensive
modern anglophone study of this emperor is yet to be
- Atti congresso internazionale di studi Flaviani, 2
vols. Rieti, 1983.
- Atti congresso internazionale di studi Vespasianei,
2 vols. Rieti, 1981.
- Bosworth, A.B. "Vespasian and the Provinces: Some
Problems of the Early 70s A.D." Athenaeum 51 (1973):
- Brunt, P. A. "Lex de imperio Vespasiani." JRS (67)
- D'Espèrey, S. Franchet. "Vespasien, Titus et la
littérature." ANRW II.32.5: 3048-3086.
- Dudley, D. and Webster, G. The Roman Conquest of
Britain. London, 1965.
- Gonzalez, J. "The Lex Irnitana: A New Copy of the
Flavian Municipal Law." JRS 76 (1986): 147-243.
- Grant, M. The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide
to the Rulers of Rome, 31 B.C. - A.D. 476. New York,
- Homo, L. Vespasien, l'Empereur du bons sens (69-79
ap. J.-C.). Paris, 1949.
- Levi, M.A. "I Flavi." ANRW II.2: 177-207.
- McCrum, M. and Woodhead, A. G. Select Documents of
the Principates of the Flavian Emperors Including
the Year of the Revolution. Cambridge, 1966.
- Nicols, John. Vespasian and the Partes Flavianae.
- Scarre, C. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors. The
Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial
Rome. London, 1995.
- Suddington, D. B. The Development of the Roman
Auxiliary Forces from Caesar to Vespasian, 49 B.C. -
A.D. 79. Harare: U. of Zimbabwe, 1982.
- Syme, R. Tacitus. Oxford, 1958.
- Wardel, David. "Vespasian, Helvidius Priscus and the
Restoration of the Capitol." Historia 45 (1996):
- Wellesley, K. The Long Year: A.D. 69. Bristol, 1989,
[] Suet. Vesp. 2.1. Suetonius remains the major
source but see also Tac. Hist. 2-5; Cass. Dio 65;
Joseph. BJ 3-4.
[] Suetonius (Vesp. 2.1) claims that Vespasian
did not accept the latus clavus, the broad striped
toga worn by one aspiring to a senatorial career,
immediately. The delay, however, was perhaps no more
than three years. See J. Nicols, Vespasian and the
Partes Flavianae (Wiesbaden, 1978), 2.
[] Military tribunate and quaestorship: Suet.
Vesp. 2.3; aedileship: ibid., 5.3, in which Gaius,
furious that Vespasian had not kept the streets
clean, as was his duty, ordered some soldiers to
load him with filth;,they complied by stuffing his
toga with as much as it could hold. See also Dio
59.12.2-3; praetorship: Suet. Vesp. 2.3, in which
Vespasian is depicted as one of Gaius' leading
adulators, an account consistent with Tacitus'
portrayal (Hist 1.50.4; 2.5.1) of his early career.
For a more complete discussion of these posts and
attendant problems of dating, see Nicols, Vespasian,
[] Marriage and Caenis: Suet. Vesp. 3; Cass. Dio
[] Nicols, Vespasian, 12-39.
[] Suet. Vesp. 4.1 For additional details on
Vespasian's exploits in Britain, see D. Dudley and
G. Webster, The Roman Conquest of Britain (London,
1965), 55 ff., 98.
[] Concerning Vespasian's years between his
consulship and proconsulship, see Suet. Vesp. 4.2
and Nicols, Vespasian, 9. On his unpopularity in
Africa, see Suet. Vesp. 4.3, an account of a riot at
Hadrumentum, where he was once pelted with turnips.
In recording that Africa supported Vitellius in A.D.
69, Tacitus too suggests popular dissatisfaction
with Vespasian's proconsulship. See Hist. 2.97.2.
[] This despite the fact that the sources record
two rebukes of Vespasian, one for extorting money
from a young man seeking career advancement (Suet.
Vesp. 4.3), the other for either leaving the room or
dozing off during one of the emperor's recitals
(Suet. Vesp. 4.4 and 14, which places the
transgression in Greece; Tac. (Ann. 16.5.3), who
makes Rome and the Quinquennial Games of A.D. 65 the
setting; A. Braithwaite, C. Suetoni Tranquilli Divus
Vespasianus, Oxford, 1927, 30, who argues for both
Greece and Rome).
[] Subjugation of Galilee: Joseph. BJ 3.65-4.106;
siege of Jerusalem: ibid., 4.366-376, 414.
[] Revolt of Vindex: Suet. Nero 40; Tac. Ann.
14.4; revolt of Galba: Suet. Galba 10; Plut. Galba,
4-5; suicide of Nero: Suet. Nero 49; Cass. Dio
63.29.2. For the most complete account of the period
between Nero's death and the accession of Vespasian,
see K. Wellesley, The Long Year: A.D. 69, 2nd. ed.
[] Tac. Hist. 2.76.
[] Troops in support of Vespasian: Suet. Vit.
15; Mucianus and his forces: Tac. Hist. 2.83;
Vespasian and grain shipments: Joseph. BJ 4.605 ff.;
see also Tac. Hist. 3.48, on Vespasian's possible
plan to shut off grain shipments to Italy from
Carthage as well.
[] On Vitellius' army and its lack of
discipline, see Tac. Hist. 2.93-94; illness of army:
ibid., 2.99.1; Cremona: ibid., 3.32-33.
[] On Vitellius' last days, see Tac. Hist.
3.68-81. On the complicated issue of Vitellius'
death date, see L. Holzapfel, "Römische
Kaiserdaten," Klio 13 (1913): 301.
[] Honors, etc. Tac. Hist 4.3. For more on the
lex de imperio Vespasiani, see P. A. Brunt, "Lex de
imperio Vespasiani," JRS (67) 1977: 95-116.
[] Omens: Suet. Vesp. 5; consulships and honors:
ibid., 8; succession of sons: ibid., 25.
[] On Vespasian's restoration of Rome, see Suet.
Vesp. 9; Cass. Dio 65.10; D. Wardel, "Vespasian,
Helvidius Priscus and the Restoration of the
Capitol," Historia 45 (1996): 208-222.
[] Suet. Vesp. 16.
[] Ibid.; Tac. Hist. 1.50.
[] Suet. Vesp. 17-19.
[] Ibid., 8-10.
[] On Vespasian's exploits in Britain, see esp.
Tac., Agricola, eds. R. M. Ogilvie and I. A.
Richmond (1967), and W. S. Hanson, Agricola and the
Conquest of the North (1987); on the granting of
Latin rights in Spain, see, e.g., J. Gonzalez, "The
Lex Irnitana: a New Copy of the Flavian Municipal
Law." JRS 76 (1986): 147-243.
[] For this witticism and other anecdotes
concerning Vespasian's sense of humor, see Suet.