1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vespasian

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VESPASIAN, in full Titus Flavius Vespanianus, Roman emperor A.D. 70–79, was born on the 18th of November, A.D. 9, in the Sabine country near Reate. His father was a tax collector and money-lender on a small scale; his mother was the sister of a senator. After having served with the army in Thrace and been quaestor in Crete and Cyrene, Vespasian rose to be aedile and praetor, having meanwhile married Flavia Domitilla, the daughter of a Roman knight, by whom he had two sons, Titus and Domitian, afterwards emperors. Having already served in Germany, in the years 43 and 44, in the reign of Claudius, he distinguished himself in command of the 2nd legion in Britain under Aulus Plautius. He reduced Vectis (Isle of Wight) and penetrated to the borders of Somersetshire. In 51 he was for a brief space consul; in 63 he went as governor to Africa, where, according to Tacitus (ii. 97), his rule was “ infamous and odious ”; according to Suetonius (Vesp. 4), “ upright and highly honourable.” He went with Nero's suite to Greece, and in 66 was appointed to conduct the war in Judaea, which was threatening general commotion throughout the East, owing to a widely spread notion in those parts that from Judaea were to come the future rulers of the world. Vespasian, who had a strong vein of superstition, was made to believe that he was himself to fulfil this expectation, and all manner of omens and oracles and portents were applied to him. He also found encouragement in Mucianus, the governor of Syria; and although a strict disciplinarian and reformer of abuses, he had a soldiery thoroughly devoted to him. All eyes in the East were now upon him; Mucianus and the Syrian legions were eager to support him; and on the 1st of July 69, while he was at Caesarea, he was proclaimed emperor, first by the army in Egypt, and then by his troops in Judaea. The legions of the East at once took the customary oath of allegiance. Nevertheless, Vitellius, the occupant of the throne, had on his side the veteran legions of Gaul and Germany, Rome's best troops. But the feeling in Vespasian's favour quickly gathered strength, and the armies of Moesia, Pannonia and Illyricum soon declared for him, and made him in fact master of half of the Roman world. They entered Italy on the north-east under the leadership of Antonius Primus, defeated the army of Vitellius at Bedriacum (or Betriacum), sacked Cremona and advanced on Rome, which they entered after furious fighting and a frightful confusion, in which the Capitol was destroyed by fire. The new emperor received the tidings of his rival's defeat and death at Alexandria, whence he at once forwarded supplies of corn to Rome, which were urgently needed, along with an edict or a declaration of policy, in which he gave assurance of an entire reversal of the laws of Nero, especially those relating to treason. While in Egypt he became more and more imbued with superstition, consulting astrologers and allowing himself to be flattered into a belief that he possessed a divine power which could work miracles. Leaving the war in Judaea to his son Titus, he arrived at Rome in 70. He at once devoted his energies to repairing the evils caused by civil war. He restored discipline in the army, which under Vitellius had become utterly demoralized, and, with the co-operation of the senate, put the government and the finances on a sound footing. He renewed old taxes and instituted new, increased the tribute of the provinces, and kept a watchful eye upon the treasury officials. By his own example of simplicity of life, he put to shame the luxury and extravagance of the Roman nobles and initiated in many respects a marked improvement in the general tone of society. As censor he raised the character of the senate, removing unfit and unworthy members and promoting good and able men, among them the excellent Julius Agricola. At the same time he made it more dependent upon the emperor, by exercising an influence upon its composition. He altered the constitution of the praetorian guard, in which only Italians, formed into nine cohorts, were enrolled. In 70 a formidable rising in Gaul, headed by Claudius Civilis, was suppressed and the German frontier made secure; the Jewish War was brought to a close by Titus's capture of Jerusalem, and in the following year, after the joint triumph of Vespasian and Titus, memorable as the first occasion on which a father and his son were thus associated together, the temple of ]anus was closed, and the Roman world had rest for the remaining nine years of Vespasian's reign. The peace of Vespasian passed into a proverb. In 78 Agricola went to Britain, and both extended and consolidated the Roman dominion in that province, pushing his arms into North Wales and the Isle of Anglesey. In the following year Vespasian died, on the 23rd of June.

The avarice with which both Tacitus and Suetonius stigmatize Vespasian seems really to have been an enlightened economy, which, in the disordered state of the Roman finances, was an absolute necessity. Vespasian could be liberal to impoverished senators and knights, to cities and towns desolated by natural calamity, and especially to men of letters and of the professor class, several of whom he pensioned with salaries of as much as £800 a year. Quintilian is said to have been the first public teacher who enjoyed this imperial favour. Pliny's great work, the Natural History, was written during Vespasian's reign, and dedicated to his son Titus. Some of the philosophers who talked idly of the good old times of the republic, and thus indirectly encouraged conspiracy, provoked him into reviving the obsolete penal laws against this class, but only one, Helvidius Priscus, was put to death, and he had affronted the emperor by studied insults. “ I will not kill a dog that barks at me,” were words honestly expressing the temper of Vespasian. Much money was spent on public works and the restoration and beautifying of Rome—a new forum, the splendid temple of Peace, the public baths and the vast Colosseum being begun under Vespasian. The roads and aqueducts were repaired, and the limits of the pomerium extended.

To the last Vespasian was a plain, blunt soldier, with decided strength of character and ability, and with a steady purpose to establish good order and secure the prosperity and welfare of his subjects. In his habits he was punctual and regular, transacting his business early in the morning, and enjoying his siesta after a drive. He had not quite the distinguished bearing looked for in an emperor. He was free in his conversation, and his humour, of which he had a good deal, was apt to take the form of rather coarse jokes. He could jest, it was said, even in his last moments. “ Methinks I am becoming a god,” he whispered to those around him. There is something very characteristic in the exclamation he is said to have uttered in his last illness, “ An emperor ought to die standing.”

See Tacitus, Histories; Suetonius, Vespasian; Dio Cassius, lxvi.; Merivale, Hist. of the Romans under the Empire, chs. 57–60; H. Schiller, Geschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit, i. pt. 2; B. W. Henderson, Civil War and Rebellion in the Roman Empire A.D. 69–70 (1908).