Introduction: During.the winter of A.D. 69 Vespasian, one of Rome’s leading generals, was in Alexandria waiting out the period of civil war in Italy that had erupted after Nero’s suicide in 68. His army was blockading Egypt’s grain supply which Rome badly needed. Before long, he was able to gain control of the Empire.
Throughout those months in which Vespasian was waiting in Alexandria for the season of the summer winds and a calm sea, many miracles happened, by which were exhibited the favor of Heaven1 and a certain leaning toward the divine in Vespasian. One of the commoners of Alexandria, who was known for the loss of his sight, threw himself before Vespasian’s knees, praying to him with groans for a remedy for his blindness, having been so ordered by the God Serapis, whom the nation, being most pious, worships more than all others. And he prayed to the emperor that he should stoop to moisten with his spit his cheeks and the eyeballs. Another, whose hand was useless, ordered by the same God, prayed that Caesar should step on it with his foot. Vespasian at first laughed; then, at the same time, he was moved to fear by the thought of the infamy of failure and to hope by the prayers of the men and the voices of flattery. Finally he ordered it to be determined by physicians if such blindness and debility could be conquered by human powers. The physicians handled the two cases differently: in one, the power of sight had not been destroyed and would be restored if the obstructions were removed. In the other, the joints had fallen into deformity; if a healing force were applied, it would be possible to restore them. This was perhaps the wish of the Gods, and the emperor had been chosen for divine service. At any rate, if the healing was achieved, Caesar had glory; the onus of failure would belong to the poor beseechers. Therefore, Vespasian, sure that his good fortune was able to achieve anything and that nothing was incredible, with smiling face, standing amid the excitement of the tense multitude, did what he was asked. Immediately the hand was changed to a useful one and the day shone again for the blind man. Both cases are told by those who were present, and even now when lying has no reward.
1. As we might suppose, Tacitus was a “court historian.”