Vespasian

  • Born 9 AD
  • Reigned 69 – 79 AD
  • Pivotal moment: The first emperor not related to the family of Augustus, Vespasian achieved imperial power by the support of the armies and via a special law enacted to confer authority on him.

Titus Flavius Vespasianus owed his early appointments to the emperor Claudius’s imperial freedman Narcissus. But even then his career was undistinguished until he incurred imperial displeasure by nodding off while Nero recited poems and was sent to quell the rebellion in Judaea.

By 68 AD he had almost succeeded, but more pressing matters had erupted in the west. Even sane, moderate Romans had turned against Nero, who committed suicide in that year. The armies now declared three different men as emperor in quick succession, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, who fought each other until only Vitellius was left. Meanwhile Vespasian had engineered his own proclamation as emperor, and arrived in Rome in 70 AD.

Tradition was broken with Vespasian’s accession. Since he was not related to any of Augustus’s Julio-Claudian family, he could not inherit the imperial powers of his predecessors. A law was passed conferring authority on him (lex de imperio Vespasiani), providing important documentary evidence for historians.

His 10-year reign was not pivotal in the sense of momentous turning points in history, but it was remarkable for long lasting peace, stabilisation of the imperial finances and attention to the provinces. Vespasian is one of the less remote emperors. He was down to earth with a sense of humour. ‘Dear me,’ he said when he was dying, ‘I seem to be turning into a god.’

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