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Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World
John RobertsJohn Roberts

Vespasian (Titus Flāvius Vespāsiānus), 

emperor ad 69–79, b. ad 9 at Sabine Reātĕ. His father, Flavius Sabīnus, was a tax‐collector (see publicani); his mother was of equestrian family, but her brother entered the senate, reaching the praetorship. Vespasian was military tribune (see tribuni militum) in 27, serving in Thrace, quaestor in Crete in the mid‐30s, aedile (at the second attempt) in 38, and praetor in 40. Claudius' freedman Narcissus now advanced his undistinguished career, and he became legate of legion II Augusta, commanding it in the invasion of Britain in 43 and subduing the SW as far as Exeter (43–47); for this he won triumphal ornaments and two priesthoods (see priests). He was suffect consul in 51 and is next heard of as an unpopular proconsul of Africa c.62; any unemployment may be due to the deaths of Narcissus and Lucius Vitellius and the eclipse of other supporters during the ascendancy of  Iulia Agrippina. In 66 he accompanied Nero to Greece and allegedly offended him by falling asleep at one of his recitals, but at the end of the year he was entrusted with suppressing the rebellion in Judaea. By mid‐68 he had largely subdued Judaea apart from Jerusalem itself but conducted no further large‐scale campaigns.

Vespasian now settled his differences with the governor of Syria, Licinius Mucianus. They successively recognized Galba, Otho, and Aulus Vitellius, but the idea of using the eastern legions to attain power became a plan in the spring of 69. On 1 July the two Egyptian legions proclaimed Vespasian; those in Judaea did so on 3 July, and the Syrian legions a little later. Mucianus set out with a task‐force against Italy while Vespasian was to hold up the grain ships at Alexandria. However, the Danubian legions also declared for Vespasian, and the legionary legate Antonius Primus invaded Italy. After his crushing victory at Cremona the city was sacked. (Primus fell from favour in 70 and took the blame. It was alleged that Primus' invasion was against orders (certainly Mucianus would have opposed his action), but victory could never have been bloodless.) Primus pressed on, entering Rome on 21 December, the day after Vitellius' death. The senate immediately conferred all the usual powers on Vespasian, though he dated his tribunician years from 1 July, negating the acts of senate and people and treating his legions as an electoral college.

There survives a fragment of an enabling law, conferring powers, privileges, and exemptions, most with Julio‐Claudian precedents. It sanctioned all Vespasian had done up to the passing of the law and empowered him to act in whatever way he deemed advantageous to the Roman people. His status was lower than that of any of his predecessors, and the law took the place of the auctōritās (prestige) he lacked. Vespasian was careful to publicize a number of omens which portended his accession; he often took the consulship, however briefly, and accumulated imperatorial acclamations. Vespasian insisted that the succession would devolve on his son. Controversy over the dynastic principle, part of a wider controversy over the role of the senate in government, may have caused his quarrel with doctrinaire senators like Helvidius Priscus, who was exiled and later put to death.

Vespasian returned to Italy in the late summer of 70. While at Alexandria he had been concerned with raising money, and his sales of imperial estates and new taxes caused discontent there. He claimed that 40,000 million sesterces were needed to stabilize the state. He increased, sometimes doubled, provincial taxation and revoked imperial immunities (see immunitas). Such measures were essential after the costs incurred by Nero and the devastation of the civil wars; contemporaries inevitably charged Vespasian with ‘avarice’. He was able to restore the Capitol, burnt in December 69, to build his forum and temple of Peace (see templum pacis), and to begin the Colosseum. An attempt by senators in 70 to diminish expenditure by the state treasury (aerarium), so promoting senatorial independence, was promptly vetoed.

It may have been partly for financial reasons that in 73–74 he held the censorship (see censor) with Titus. But both as censor and previously, he recruited many new members, Italian and provincial, to the senate, and conferred rights on communities abroad, notably a grant of Latin rights (see ius latii) to all native communities in Spain.

Vespasian restored discipline to the armies after the events of 68–69. Before his return Mucianus had reduced the praetorian guard, enlarged by Vitellius, to approximately its old size, and they were entrusted to Titus on his return. The legions were regrouped so that Vitellian troops would not occupy dangerous positions. In the east Vespasian by the end of his reign had substituted three armies (six legions) in Syria, Cappadocia, and Judaea for the single army (until Nero's time only four legions) in Syria. After the Jewish rebellion and the Rhineland rebellion of Iulius Civilis had been suppressed, Vespasian continued imperial expansion with the annexation of northern England, the pacification of Wales, and an advance into Scotland (see iulius agricola), as well as in SW Germany between Rhine and Danube.

On his death in June 79 he was accorded deification. Unassuming behaviour had partially conciliated the aristocracy, although some of his friends were informers or otherwise disreputable; Tacitus claims that he was the first man to improve after becoming emperor, and the reign seems to have been tranquil after conflicts with the senate had been won. The years after 75 were marred (as far as is known) only by Titus' execution of Caecina Alienus and his forcing Eprius Marcellus to suicide.

Vespasian was industrious, and his simple life a model for contemporaries. Matching his rugged features he cultivated a bluff manner, parading humble origins and ridiculing a man who corrected his accent. His initial appointments (see petillius cerialis) show astuteness in building a powerful party of which the core was his own family. To have ended the wars was an achievement, and Pax was a principal motif on his coinage. His proclaimed purposes were the restoration and enhancement of the state, and he made no great break with tradition.

Though Vespasian was no orator, he could quote Homer, and his sons were cultivated. He attended to the needs of Rome and the empire by founding chairs of rhetoric and philosophy and by granting fiscal privileges to teachers and doctors.

Vespasian's wife Flavia Domitilla was alleged to be of only Latin status until her father proved her Roman citizenship. Besides his two sons she bore a daughter also named Flavia Domitilla; wife and daughter died before Vespasian's accession. He then lived with an earlier mistress, a freedwoman of Antonia (2).

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