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Vespasian was a sentimental but strong Roman emperor

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 2 January 2013

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This edited article about Vespasian originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 801 published on 21st May 1977.

Vespasian and Pliny the Elder, picture, image, illustration

Conversation between Pliny the Elder and the emperor Vespasian by J Planella

There was no one in the world who could sing, write poetry and recite it as well as the Emperor Nero could. At least, that’s what Nero believed. And woe betide anyone who dared to contradict that belief.

Many of his subjects had suffered abominably under Nero – the greatest tyrant to wear the Imperial cloak. He had murdered and tortured innocent citizens, squeezed the people for taxes, and made everyone suffer with his “art” – his songs and his poetry which his subjects had to sit listening to for hours on end.

One man who cared little for the self-opinionated Emperor was a young Roman army officer named Vespasian. He was born in a village near Rome of farming parents – a fact he never lost sight of. Vespasian spoke with a countryman’s burr, softening his vowel sounds in a way that made the city Romans think of a yokel.

But Vespasian had all the direct and forthright ways of a countryman. The first time he was invited to hear the great Emperor Nero sing, he yawned, got up, and walked out. Next time, when he found himself faced with a poetry reading by Nero, he fell asleep.

Vespasian’s snores and his country manners infuriated Nero. Angrily, he dismissed the country bumpkin from his court – a mild enough sentence in those harsh times. But Vespasian, who had been a soldier all his life and had enjoyed the protection of the Imperial court, was suddenly quite frightened. “What shall I do? Where shall I go?” he cried.

“Oh, go to the devil!” retorted the chief usher, and pushed him out of the door.

The Roman writer Suetonius tells us this story and if he is to be half believed a remarkable change thereafter came over the fortunes of the countryman cast out by the court. For Vespasian went back to his regiment and steadily won promotion. While he was serving his country, Nero died. As we have seen, the tyrant Emperor was then succeeded in quick time by three army generals – Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, all of whom died violently and all of whom plunged the Roman Empire into Civil war.

When Vitellius, the last of them, was finally dragged from the Imperial palace, and marched through the streets of Rome to his execution, the Roman legions in the East had already decided whom they wanted for their next Emperor – and the Roman Senate, cowed by the power of the army, was in no position to refuse.

Their choice was “Farmer” Vespasian, their favourite general. He was to prove himself an Emperor like none the Romans had known before. Accustomed to tyrants in the Imperial palace, the citizens now had a countryman who stumbled over the pronunciation of classical Latin, who roared with laughter at the slightest joke, and who often wept when convicted criminals had to be executed.

Vespasian was so different from the noblemen and the generals who had for so long ruled Rome so badly, that we can liken his coming to that of Oliver Cromwell to the supreme rule of England centuries later. Like Cromwell, Vespasian was the reaction to the rule of vain, high-born men – the simple man of the people who knew what he wanted and ordered it in rustic words of one syllable.

By the time of the civil wars of his three short-lived predecessors, Vespasian had established himself as a formidable soldier. He had served in most of the Empire’s important provinces and during the campaign in Britain he fought 30 battles and conquered the Isle of Wight.

Just before he was proclaimed Emperor in A.D. 69 he was facing a major revolt in the Biblical land of Judea. The Jewish rebels, determined to throw off the Roman yoke, set about the Roman troops and wrested much of the country from their control. Vespasian gradually regained the areas of Galilee and Jericho, and pushed back the rebels towards Jerusalem.

It was at this time, while Roman was still fighting Roman in Italy, that the armies of the East clamoured for their commander to accept the title of Emperor. Accepting their offer, Vespasian left for Rome, ordering his son Titus to quell the last of the resistance in Judea.

It wasn’t that easy for Titus, though. There was more terrible fighting to come, and the Romans had to use battering rams to smash their way through the mighty walls of Jerusalem after an exhausting three-month siege. In the city the Temple was set on fire and many perished in the flames. It was nearly two years later that Titus was able to report that the revolt was over.

Meanwhile, Vespasian was faced with other threats which were proving how the Roman Empire so desperately needed his strong leadership. “It was a period rich in disasters,” says a Roman writer.

In Germany a barbarian leader named Civilis led his troops – many of whom were serving as auxiliaries in the Roman army – in a fierce rebellion against the Empire. He was supported by many of the Gallic tribes in France, whose Druid leaders thought that all the news they had been hearing about the Civil War in Rome meant that the Roman Empire was breaking up.

Indeed, Gaul and Germany were all but lost, and the rebellious soldiers under Civilis burned and rampaged, massacring one Roman garrison after another until scarcely a single outpost of the Empire remained.

Then a Roman general named Petilius Cerealis moved North from Italy with an army, and slowly re-imposed order in Rome’s Northern provinces across the Alps. At last Cerealis and Civilis, each standing on one side of a broken bridge, met face to face. “I give up,” said Civilis, and Cerealis then made a successful peace.

Delighted with his general. Vespasian made Cerealis the governor of Britain. But the Emperor was determined there would be no more of these rebellions, so he ruled that in future auxiliaries – those troops raised by the Romans from native populations – must not serve in the countries of their origin. In addition, all auxiliary legions must be commanded by Roman officers.

As a result of these measures, there was never again the kind of uprising that marked the beginning of Vespasian’s reign.

In those troubled times in the Empire it was the Emperor’s own long experience as a soldier in other lands that now stood Rome in such good stead. Vespasian had seen for himself that the frontiers of the Empire were far from secure. He set about creating new and stronger frontiers from the banks of the River Euphrates in the East to the Rhine and the Danube in Europe. In Britain the frontier was advanced farther North and in central Europe the troublesome area of the Black Forest was occupied by Roman legions.

No wonder that General Cerealis was able to tell the Gauls: “The good fortune and order of eight centuries has consolidated this mighty fabric of Empire, and it cannot be pulled asunder without destroying those who sunder it.”

Of course, someone had to pay for all these security measures, and Vespasian made the Roman taxpayers wince. He had a reputation for meanness and could crack jokes about it while imposing new taxes. So, although he made the Empire solvent again, he wasn’t very popular. Instead, he was simply respected, and even some of the aristocrats were forced to admit that he improved the Roman administration, when he appointed to high office men he could trust but who were not necessarily of high birth.

Throughout his ten year reign “Farmer” Vespasian never lost his common touch. One of his favourite outings was to visit the little farm where his grandmother brought him up as a boy – it was all to be kept as he had always known it, he commanded.

It was typical of Vespasian that when the Temple of Jupiter on Rome’s Capitol was burned down he urged its immediate rebuilding by himself carting away the first load of rubble from the ruined site. Typical, too, that when an engineer produced a device he had invented for lifting large parts of the new building, the Emperor paid him well for it, but refused it, saying: “It is important for me to provide work for the poor.”

There were few real grumbles about Vespasian’s reign. But among those few were some quarrelsome philosophers, who published pamphlets urging the end of Emperors and the restoration of the Republic. Other Emperors would have put them to death; Vespasian simply banished them. “I never kill a barking dog,” he said.

Vespasian, who was 60 when he became Emperor, died in the year A.D. 69. Even in death he set a new style. The last six Emperors had all died violently. Vespasian, however, died peacefully in his bed. To the end he was joking. “Who knows,” he quipped. “Perhaps I am about to become a god.”

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