Titus Flavius Vespasianus 9-79 CE

Article excerpt


The series of papers on the reign of Vespasian (AD 69-79) which appear in this volume of Acta Classica owe their existence to a day-long conference held at the University of Queensland in November 2009. One aim of the conference was to mark the 2000th anniversary of Vespasian's birth in AD 9. A more personal aim for those in attendance was a desire to honour the work of Brian Jones and Bob Milns, whose lifelong interest in Rome's Flavian emperors has greatly influenced many scholars, and in particular those who offered papers on the day. (1) As the day unfolded, discussion centred repeatedly on the ways in which Vespasian presented himself and his sons to the inhabitants of the Empire, and especially to the Senate and people of Rome. It would be no easy task to supersede the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and certainly Vespasian could not rely on armed might alone. His power had to be presented in ways which responded to a variety of tensions and sensibilities. His success in establishing a new dynasty in a difficult environment can hardly be denied, so his management of these tensions deserves credit. In different ways, the six papers which follow may be seen as providing insight into some of these tensions, and into Vespasian's management of them.

The first three papers focus on Suetonius' biography. David Wardle examines the ways in which Suetonius carefully navigated through positive and negative portrayals of episodes from Vespasian's early career, eventually arriving at a point of despair and trepidation for the subject which is dramatically relieved by his unexpected elevation to the principate. Vespasian is portrayed as a remarkably passive figure who becomes the recipient of empire through no planning of his own. Suetonius takes a positive view of Vespasian overall, but his treatment shows the problems caused retrospectively by Vespasian's rise to power under emperors as difficult as Caligula and Nero. Suetonius distances Vespasian from negative aspects of the Julio-Claudians and simultaneously emphasizes the excellence of his actions.

Bob Milns analyses the topic of Vespasian's humour, to which Suetonius devotes one-twelfth of his biography. Among several prominent themes, that of Vespasian's avaritia stands out. Vespasian was fundamentally good-natured, but there is a particular association between his humour and the disreputable manner in which he made money. According to Suetonius (Vesp. 23.1), humour was used in this connection 'in order that he might lessen the animosity in the case of unseemly profits.' In general, the emperor's dicacitas or 'biting wit' was not 'gentlemanly' and was seen as being appropriate to money-lenders or tax-collectors. At times, however, Milns finds that Vespasian employed humour that was appropriate to a gentleman, especially his use of jokes or bon mots derived from Greek classics (Suet. Vesp. 22). In combination, Vespasian's humour was that of a no-nonsense, well educated business person. Milns concludes that the emperor was not masking or making light of his family background in money-lending, tax-collecting and mule-trading. He was actually flaunting it (cf. Suet. Vesp. 12), much as Cato the Elder once advertised his parsimonia and origins among the Italian bourgeoisie. (2)

Michael Charles and Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides question whether Vespasian's wife, Flavia Domitilla, was in fact born a slave or freedwoman, as is widely believed. Their reading of Suetonius' passage on her origins (Vesp. 3) concludes that she may well have been freeborn while also of Junian Latin status. Thus her marriage to Vespasian would no longer be controversial from the point of view of her citizenship. Once more, the source material seems to have been shaped profoundly by ancient criticism of Vespasian's family background.

The final three papers are concerned above all with archaeological, topographical and numismatic evidence. …