I. Roemercohorte Opladen e.V.

Emperor Vespasian

Titus Flavius Vespasianus, known as Vespasian, was born as the son of the customs collector Flavius Sabinus and Vespasia Polla (both of the equestrian order) in Raete, north of Rome, in 9 AD. In 40 AD, Vespasian became Praetor and received important support from Narcissus, who was a rather influential clerk with Emperor Claudius.

First steps on the way to power

During Claudius’ campaign in Britain (43-44 AD), Vepasian was awarded triumphal honors and two priesthoods, for his distinguished service as legionary commander. In 51 AD he was appointed consul, followed by the pro-consulate of Africa in 63. His administrative work won him a lot of merit, as he did not use this position to personally enrich himself. In 66 AD, Vespasian fell into disgrace with Emperor Nero, who was travelling through the province Achaia, because he fell asleep during one of the emperor’s musical performances. In spite of this sacrilege, he was appointed governor of Judea by Nero in 67 AD, to put down the Jewish uprising there. It’s quite likely that Nero chose the relatively unknown Vespasian as commander to prevent a possible revolt directed against himself.

By mid-68, Vespasian had brought the province back under Roman control, except for Jerusalem and some minor fortifications. After he received word of Nero’s suicide (the emperor died June 9), Vespasian put his preparations to take Jerusalem on hold and recognised Galba, who had himself proclaimed "Legate of the Senate and the Roman people" in Carthago Nova on April 2, as the legitimate successor of Nero. Slowly, but decisively, Vespasian began to develop his own ambitious plans. Gaius Licinius Mucianus, the Governor of Syria, played a very important role in this. Although they quite disliked each other, which was mainly due to Vespasian’s higher rank as legate compared to that of governor, both avidly followed the political events and put their differences aside. Galba’s death in January and Otho’s suicide in April encouraged them in their tendency to organize a rebellion. Though Vitellius, who defeated Otho, was recognized as emperor by the both of them, they secretly made certain to have the benevolence of Tiberius Iulius Alexandros, Prefect of Egypt.

War and emperorship

Because Mucianus had no sons to found a dynasty and Alexandros was only of equestrian state and not even of Roman descent, only Vespasian, father of two sons, Titus and Domitianus, could be considered a true contender to the imperial throne. Therefore, Mucianus and Alexandros had no choice but to install Vespasian as contender to the throne. On July 1st 69, Alexandros ordered the Egyptian legions to swear fealty to Vespasian. By mid-July, the legions of Syria and Judea followed suit. While Vespasian would control the supply of Egyptian grain to Rome, which was quite essential, Mucianus was supposed to march to Italy with 20,000 men. On initiative of a Gaul, Marcus Antonius Primus of Tolosa, Legate of a Pannonian legion, the legions of the Danube joined Vespasian by late August. Arbitrarily Marcus Antonius Primus marched on Italy, where he defeated soldiers loyal to Vitellius in the second battle of Bedriacum near Cremona. He continued on to Rome, where he met bitter and desperate resistance.

The Prefect of Rome, Sabinus, brother of Vespasian, had almost made Vitellius abdicate, which no emperor had ever done before. Sabinus fled to the Capitol where he was captured and consequently killed by forces still loyal to Vitellius. On December 20th, Vitellius was arrested by soldiers and killed in the forum. The next day, Primus arrived in Rome and the Senate confirmed Vespasian’s claim for the throne. Despite his services that led to the fall of Rome and that made Vespasian emperor, Primus was reprimanded by Mucianus for his arbitrary way of acting and accused of atrocities of war. Then Primus travelled east to Vespasian, was commended by him and discharged honorably to return home to Tolosa.


Mucianus, now in control of Rome, thanks to Primus, had all potential troublemakers executed and had a watchful eye turned towards Domitianus, son of Vespasian. Vespasian himself returned to Rome in 70 AD, where he erected a temple of peace in the forum as a symbol of the end of the civil war. The coins minted by Vespasian often bore images to commemorate the restoration of peace, because it was an enormous effort for him to gain the people’s sympathy due to his lowly origins. One of the most famous of Vespasian’s coins commemorates the taking of Jerusalem by his eldest son Titus, who was left in command in the east. The caption read "JUDEA CAPTA". Vespasian’s power relied on the army that put down the Jewish uprising (except for the fortress Massada, which was taken in 73 AD after a long siege) and, under the command of Cerealis, decisively defeated the Germanic and Gallic tribes at Augusta Treverorum.

To reinforce his own position and in order not to grant important positions to forces formerly loyal to Vitellius, which could turn out to have negative consequences for his emperorship, Vespasian reorganized the army. The vast multi-legionary bases on the Rhine and the Danube were split into smaller, more separated camps, because they posed too great a threat politically. Further changes allowed for the legionary forces to be stationed more permanently at a location, quite contrary to the auxiliary units - a consequence of the Gallic revolt. The mixing of nationalities to prevent a dominance of one ethnic group within the auxiliary unit did further safeguard against a revolt. Vespasian considered July 1, 69 his first day of office, the day his troops proclaimed him emperor. This is further proof that Vespasian owed his emperorship to his army. This was, of course, a thorn in the side of the Senate, which Vespasian managed to control by regular consultations without giving it too much leeway.

Money and politics

In 73/74 he restored the office of censor, which he held himself and thereby controlled the senate. His autarchy was strengthened. Aside from the control of the population, the finances of state represented a major problem to Vespasian. The treasury, depleted by the civil war, needed filling desperately, forcing Vespasian to raise and and introduce new taxes (e.g. taxing public lavatories, prompting the famous quote: "pecunia non olet" (Money doesn’t stink)), causing derision and criticism. Vespasian countered his critics by actions that didn’t make him appear a stingy autocrat, but in fact quite generous. Thus do we find the princeps offering subventions to senators not possessing the property qualifications of their rank, restoring many cities throughout the empire, building the temple of peace, start of construction on the colloseum, and granting state salaries for the first time to teachers of Latin and Greek rhetoric. He showed his close ties to his people by reducing protection of his own person, so that he was actually approachable to "anyone".

The task Vespasian had to master as emperor required support, which was manifest in the person of his son, Titus. This also expressed his intention to found a new dynasty, the Flavians. Constantly subjected to hostility from moralists and conservatives, he relied on more drastic means. Conspirators, among them closest advisors of the emperor, opposing imperial succession by inheritance, were executed on orders of Titus.

By acquiring the area between upper Rhine and Danube (agri decumates), Vespasian shortened the empire’s northern border significantly. The veteran general Cerealis subdued the Brigants in Britain, thereby pushing the Border further north towards Caledonia. Yet, those operations were the exception rather than the rule during Vespasian reign, and it was a time of relative peace throughout the Empire.

Vespasian died at Aquae Cutiliea, not far from his place of birth, on June 24 79.

Zeichnung eines römischen Legionärs aus dem Logo der I. Roemercohorte Opladen e.V.