69 A.D: The Year of Four Emperors

By Gwyn Morgan | Go to book overview

8
The Beginning of the End:
Vespasian through August 69

To understand the campaign by the Balkan legions that unseated Vitellius in late December 69, we must deal first with the man in whose name—if not always with whose blessing—they undertook their offensive. Discontented as these legions were, apparently from the moment Otho committed suicide in mid-April, they had no cause to embrace until Vespasian was proclaimed emperor and invited them to take up arms in his behalf. It was as well that they did so. For of the four men who became emperors in 68/69, Vespasian must have seemed to contemporaries as well as to posterity the one whose bid for power was the least likely to succeed, by reason of his birth, his age, and his career to date. Hence Tacitus' frequent references to “the luck of the Flavians,” the many stories Suetonius retails of signs portending Vespasian's elevation to the throne, and—for that matter—his insistence that Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian, believed or came to believe firmly in the workings of Fate.

To reconstruct Vespasian's activities we must rely on a relatively brief life by Suetonius, a comprehensive if eulogistic account of his campaigns in Judaea by Josephus, stray details from what remains of Dio's history, and above all, the information Tacitus chooses to provide. As usual, Tacitus is the most important of our sources, but—also as usual— he provides the information in ways that suit his purposes much better than they do ours. The bulk of the material he serves up in three segments, each set at more or less the appropriate chronological point in his overall account, the first in the survey of the empire's situation in January 69; the second where Otho and Vitellius have been brought on stage and the possibility of Vespasian's taking a hand in the game is raised; and the third where Vitellius has not yet reached Rome, but has already given what Tacitus presents as clear evidence that he is unfit to rule. In none of these segments, however, does Tacitus favor the emperor who gave him his own start in public life. Though he declares Vespasian the first man to be improved by becoming emperor, a relative judgment anyway, one of his aims throughout is to debunk the idea that Vespasian had undertaken his revolt to save the empire from Vitellius. Though the new

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