Vespasian saved the Roman Empire: following a succession of weak or bad emperors it was rather necessary to find someone who would restore confidence by proving to be a strong and competent ruler. Vespasian was clearly acceptable to the army but he also made himself acceptable to the senate and the elite at Rome. He was personally frugal and was soon able to get the finances on a sound footing.
He is the only Roman Emperor who can be recognised from his sculptured portrait: a very square face, firm but fair. Someone you would not like to cross, but if you did cross him, would give you a fair hearing. No doubt the talented sculptors who produced the official portraits of emperors were told that this was the image they should represent, but one feels that it was not too far from the truth.
Vespasian himself did not come from the nobility. His father was an equestrian – a knight from the Sabine Hills behind Rome. Vespasian won his spurs in the army when he was the commander of the Second Augustan Legion in the conquest of Britain, conquering 20 hillforts in the south west of the country – and the Isle of Wight. He then went on to govern North Africa where he failed to enrich himself and so had to go into the mule trade to restore his personal finances. He then disgraced himself by falling asleep in one of Nero’s concerts, but was nevertheless chosen as a safe pair of hands to deal with the rebellion in Judea, where he pacified most of the country. He was about to lay siege to Jerusalem when Nero was killed and the war was suspended. Eventually he became Emperor, though it was interesting that the impetus of this came from his subordinates: Mucianus, the Governor of Syria and Primus, the Governor of the legions in the Balkans. His son Titus was left to carry on the war in Judaea, which involved a six month siege of Jerusalem resulting in a very bloody capture of the city and the destruction of the temple.
There were further mopping up operations culminating in the siege of the impregnable fortress at Masada which was held by an extremist Jewish sect who, when they realised that defeat was inevitable, committed suicide en masse so the Romans broke into a deserted fort. This marked the beginning of the end for the Jews – though there was a final revolt sixty years later in the AD 130s. But the Jews were either killed, or enslaved, or scattered, and have never been able to come together again as a nation until the 20th century.
But the Romans carried off enormous loot from Jerusalem which enabled Titus to return home to a great triumph and for Vespasian to set about building the greatest of all Roman buildings – the Amphitheatre known as the Coliseum, which even today remains Rome’s biggest monument.
There were other wars too. There was a further revolt in the Rhineland where Civilis tried to persuade the troops on the German frontier to set up a Gallic empire, but the Gauls in central France were not having it, — they were too prosperous under the benefits of Roman rule.
Vespasian also was just the person to establish the finances of the empire after the extravagance of Nero. At home, he made himself Censor which enabled him to enumerate all Roman citizens and make sure that they paid their taxes, and also enabled him to bring new blood into the Senate by promoting equites (knights) into becoming senators: many of them came from Spain and Gaul and soon proved to be more Roman than the Romans – and provided many of Rome’s greatest emperors.
He was personally frugal. There is a famous story how he introduced, or re-introduced, a tax on urine. Urine is an extremely valuable chemical much used by fullers and those who clean clothes. It was collected in jars placed at street corners where it was purchased by those in the clothes cleaning business, who had to pay a tax on this valuable commodity. When Titus, Vespasian‘s son complained at this sordid tax, Vespasian took a coin and thrust it underneath his son’s nose with the famous phrase: pecunia non olet – money does not smell. Vespasian re-established the empire’s finances on a sound basis.
Vespasian ruled for only ten years. He was succeeded by his son Titus who was in his early forties but who had already established his abilities by concluding the Jewish War. However Titus himself died after only two years as emperor, and was succeeded by his brother Domitian.
The two brothers were very different: Titus was outgoing and expansive, whereas Domitian was taciturn and withdrawn. Titus made a good beginning by withdrawing the law of treason. This law, the law of Maiestas was a law of treason which was begun in a small way by Augustus and had grown substantially under his successors who used it to exterminate anyone even suspected of plotting against the emperor. Informers were encouraged, and senators went in fear of being denounced for plotting, often unfairly. But Titus proclaimed that he would not listen to the informers, or use the law of Maiestas. As a result no senator was put to death in his reign. But after two years he died, sadly at the age of forty-five, and was succeeded by his brother Domitian.
Domitian is a problem: because he was withdrawn, he did not like the senators, and the senators did not like him. And since history was written by the senators, his reign has gone down as being a reign of terror. Modern scholars however have begun to pick out another story. The coinage, which had been debased slightly under both Nero and Vespasian, was slightly improved. Domitian was industrious and showed good judgement, and the middle classes flourished. More of the equites were brought into the administration to do the jobs done by imperial freedmen, and the empire quietly prospered. Outside the senatorial class he appears to have been popular, particularly with the army and the provincials, and he laid on festivals and games for the people of Rome. But he was too willing to listen to informers bringing accusations of treason, often unjustified, and as a result, many senators were put to death, and freedom of speech was much reduced. Inevitably, once he was out of the way, historians, notably Tacitus, painted him in the darkest colours. Mommsen described his reign as ‘ sombre but intelligent despotism’.
Eventually, after a reign of 15 years – longer than any Roman emperor since Tiberius – he was assassinated by a court conspiracy among his personal attendants. He had no obvious successor, but the Senate chose Nerva, an elderly and not very distinguished senator to be his successor. After only a year he lost much of his power and prestige to the praetorians who ordered him to choose his successor, which proved to be the most important decision of his career, when he appointed Trajan, a young and energetic general. Eventually, in A.D. 98, he died and was succeeded by the first of the great emperors of the second century, Trajan.
At this point, let us leave the rulers in Rome and take a look at what life was like in a town in the country. In A.D. 79 a major disaster occurred when Vesuvius erupted and overwhelmed the town of Pompeii. Though this was a disaster for Pompeii, it was fortunate for archaeologists, for it enables us to take a look at what life was like in a medium-sized town in southern Italy.