Ancient History & Civilisation


1. Vitellius’ family may have been an old and noble one, or it may have been of undistinguished and even mean extraction. Both views are held, and either might reasonably be discounted as due to the prejudice excited by his reign, were it not that these origins had been hotly argued about many years previously.

Writing to Quintus Vitellius, one of Divus Augustus’ quaestors, Quintus Elogius described the family as follows: ‘You Vitellii are descended from Faunus, an aboriginal king of Italy, and Vitellia, who was widely worshipped as a goddess. At one time you ruled over the whole of Latium, but later the surviving members of the family moved from Sabine territory to Rome, where they became patricians. For centuries after, Vitellii were to be found along the Vitellian Way, which runs from the Janiculum to the sea, and the people of a settlement there of the same name demanded permission to defend themselves against the Aequiculi under their own officers. Another group of Vitellii, serving in the Roman army during the Samnite war, were dispatched to Apulia and established themselves at Nuceria, but eventually their descendants went back to resume senatorial privileges at Rome.’1

2. On the other hand, many people claim that the family had been founded by a freedman; Cassius Severus and a few others add that he was a cut–rate shoemaker, whose son made a comfortable living as professional litigant and a dealer in confiscated property, before marrying a low–class woman, the daughter of a baker named Antiochus, and fathering on her a Roman eques. We may leave undecided the question of which account is correct.

At all events, whether his ancestry should have inspired pride or shame, Publius Vitellius of Nuceria was certainly an eques and a procurator under Augustus. He passed on his name to four distinguished sons: Aulus, Quintus, Publius and Lucius. Aulus, an epicure and a famous host, died during his consulship, as partner to Nero’s father Domitius. Quintus was degraded in a purge of subversive senators proposed by Tiberius. Publius was an aide–de–camp to Germanicus, whose murderer, Gnaeus Piso, he arrested and brought to justice. He attained the praetorship, but was himself arrested in the aftermath of Sejanus’ conspiracy. When handed over to the custody of his own brother, Aulus, he cut his wrists with a penknife; yet he allowed them to be bandaged up, not through any fear of death, but because his friends begged him to stay with them. Later, he fell ill and died in prison.

Lucius became consul and then governor of Syria, where with masterly diplomacy he induced King Artabanus of Parthia to attend a parley and even to worship the legionary standards. Afterwards, Lucius shared two regular consulships with the emperor Claudius, held the office of censor, and took full charge of the empire while Claudius was away on the British expedition. Lucius’ integrity and industry were outstanding; the only blot on his fame was a scandalous infatuation for a certain freedwoman, whose spittle he would mix with honey and use every day, quite openly, as a salve for his neck and throat. A skilful flatterer, he instituted the practice of worshipping Gaius as a god: on his return from Syria, he never dared enter the imperial presence without covering his head, turning around, and finally prostrating himself.2 Since Claudius, Gaius’ successor, was ruled by his wives and freedmen, Lucius, who lost no chance of advancement, begged Messalina to grant him the tremendous privilege of removing her shoes; thereafter he nursed the right shoe inside his toga, occasionally taking it out to kiss it. He placed golden images of Narcissus and Pallas among his household gods. He is also the one who said to Claudius, ‘May you do this very often!’ when he was congratulating him at the celebration of the Saecular Games.3

3. Lucius died of paralysis on the day after he had been accused of treason, but lived to see his two sons by Sestilia – a noble–hearted woman of distinguished family – achieve the consulship in the same year, 4 the younger following the elder in the July appointment. The Senate awarded him a public funeral and a statue on the Rostra inscribed ‘steadfast in Loyalty to the Emperor’.

Lucius’ son Aulus Vitellius, the future emperor, was born on 24 September, or perhaps on 7 September, while Drusus Caesar and Norbanus Flaccus were consuls.5 The boy’s horoscope read so appallingly that Lucius did everything in his power to prevent him from winning a provincial governorship, and when he was proclaimed emperor in Germany his mother gave him up for lost. Vitellius had spent his boyhood and adolescence on Capreae, among Tiberius’ profligates. There he won the nickname ‘spintria’, which clung to him throughout his life; by surrendering his chastity to Tiberius, the story goes, he secured his father’s first advancement to public office.6

4. Vitellius, as he grew up, was notorious for every sort of vice and became a fixture at court: Gaius admired his skill in chariot driving, Claudius his skill at dice. Nero not only appreciated these talents, but was also indebted to him for one particular service. At the Neronia, Nero was anxious to compete in the lyre–playing contest, but did not dare do so even though the whole theatre clamoured for him enthusiastically; so he left his seat and disappeared until Vitellius, as president of the games, came in pursuit and on behalf of the audience persuaded him to reconsider his decision.7

5. Since he was the favourite of three emperors, Vitellius won the usual magistracies and several very distinguished priesthoods, and later served as governor of Africa and minister of public works. His reputation and energies, however, varied with the employment given him. He was exceptionally honest during his two–year administration of Africa, where he acted as legate for his brother, who succeeded him. But Vitellius’ behaviour at Rome was by no means so commendable: he used to pilfer offerings and ornaments from the temples and replace gold and silver with brass and pewter.

6. He married Petronia, a consul’s daughter, who in her will made their one–eyed son Petronianus her heir, with the proviso that Vitellius renounce paternal rights. To this he consented, but then shortly thereafter, as most people think, killed the boy; Vitellius’ story was that Petronianus, when accused of planning parricide, had been overcome by feelings of guilt and had himself drunk the poison which he had intended to use against his father. Next he married Galeria Fundana, whose father was a praetor; she bore him one daughter and a son who had so bad a stammer that he could hardly force out a word.

7. Galba’s appointment of Vitellius to the governorship of Lower Germany was entirely unexpected; the accepted view today is that Titus Vinius arranged it. This Vinius, a man of very great influence at the time, was well disposed towards Vitellius because they were fellow supporters of the Blues in the Circus.8 Yet, since Galba had openly stated that a glutton was the sort of rival whom he feared least and that he expected Vitellius to cram his belly with the fruits of the province, the appointment must have been made in contempt, not approval. Vitellius was so short of funds at the time and in such low water generally – this is common knowledge – that he rented an attic for his wife and children at Rome, let his own house for the remainder of the year, and financed his journey by pawning a pearl taken from his mother’s earring. The only means by which he could shake off the huge crowd of creditors who were continuously waylaying him – these included the people of Sinuessa and Formiae, whose public revenues he had embezzled – was to scare them with false accusations. Thus he pressed an action for assault against a freedman who had dunned him once too often, claiming to have been struck and kicked, and demanding damages in the amount of 50,000 sesterces.

The army’s dislike of Galba having now reached a stage little short of mutiny, they welcomed Vitellius with open arms as a gift from the gods. After all, here was the son of a man who had held three consulships – in the prime of life too, and of an easy, generous disposition. Vitellius’ conduct further enhanced their initial good opinion of him. He would greet even private soldiers with an embrace, and at wayside inns he behaved most affably towards the muleteers and suchlike whom he met in the morning, enquiring whether they had yet breakfasted, and then belching loudly to prove that he had done so himself.

8. At his camp in Germany he granted every favour asked of him and cancelled all punishments whatsoever, whether the men concerned were in disgrace, awaiting trial, or undergoing sentence. Consequently, before a month had passed, a group of soldiers suddenly crowded into his bedroom, saluted him as emperor, and, late though the hour was, carried him around the larger villages without even giving him time to dress. In the first flush of congratulation someone presented Vitellius with a drawn sword, taken from a shrine of Mars, which had once been Julius Caesar’s, and this he carried in his hand. During his absence a stove set fire to the dining room at headquarters, but when this unlucky portent caused general concern he told the troops, ‘Courage, my men! Light is given us.’ That was the only speech he made them. The army in Upper Germany, which had previously pledged its loyalty to the Senate rather than to Galba, now came out in his favour. Vitellius then assumed the cognomen Germanicus, which everyone eagerly pressed on him, but he hesitated to accept that of Augustus, and emphatically rejected that of Caesar.9

9. As soon as news reached Germany of Galba’s murder, Vitellius put his affairs in order and split the army into two divisions, one of which stayed with him. He sent the other against Otho, and it was at once granted a lucky augury: an eagle, swooping down from the right hand, hovered over the standards and flew slowly ahead of the advancing columns. However, when he marched off with the second division, several equestrian statues raised in his honour collapsed because the horses’ legs were weakly made; also, the laurel wreath which he had so ceremoniously bound on his head fell into a stream, and a few days later, while he was presiding over a court at Vienna, a rooster perched first on his shoulder, then on his hand.10 These presages were confirmed by future events, for he proved unable to support the weight of power won for him by his legates.

10. The news of the victory at Betriacum and of Otho’s suicide reached Vitellius before he had left Gaul. At once he disbanded all praetorian cohorts in Rome by a comprehensive decree, accusing them of a disgraceful lapse in discipline: they must surrender their arms to the tribunes. He gave further orders for the arrest and punishment of 120 praetorians known to have demanded a bounty from Otho in respect of services rendered at Galba’s assassination. These irreproachably correct acts raised the hope that Vitellius would make an admirable emperor, but the rest of his behaviour was instead in keeping with the character he had shown in the past, and fell far short of the imperial. At the outset of his march, for instance, he had himself carried through the main streets of the cities on his route, wearing triumphal dress; he crossed rivers in elaborately decorated barges wreathed in garlands; and he always kept a lavish supply of delicacies within reach of his hand. He let discipline go by the board, and would joke about the excesses committed by his men: not content with being wined and dined everywhere at public expense, they amused themselves by freeing slaves at random and then whipping, wounding and even murdering whoever tried to restrain them. When he reached one of the recent battlefields, where the stench of unburied corpses caused some consternation, Vitellius cheered his companions with the brazen remark ‘Only one thing smells sweeter to me than a dead enemy, and that is a dead fellow citizen.’ Nevertheless, he took a good swig of neat wine to counteract this perfume, and generously passed the flagon around. Equally offensive was his remark when he came across Otho’s simple headstone: ‘Well, he deserved this type of mausoleum.’ Having sent the dagger with which Otho had killed himself to the temple of Mars at Colonia Agrippinensis, he staged an all–night religious festival on the slopes of the Apennines.

11. At last, amid fanfares of trumpets, Vitellius entered Rome wearing a commander’s cloak and a sword, surrounded by standards and banners; his staff wore military cloaks, and his soldiers carried drawn swords.11

Paying less and less attention to all laws, human or divine, Vitellius next assumed the office of pontifex maximus – and chose to do so on the anniversary of the Allia defeat.12 On the same occasion he announced his appointments for the ten years ahead, and elected himself consul for life. Then he dispelled any doubt as to what model he would follow in managing the commonwealth by making commemorative offerings to Nero in the middle of the Campus Martius, amid a crowd of public priests. At the subsequent banquet, while a popular lyre player was performing, Vitellius admonished him that he should also play ‘something of the Master’s’; when the player started in on one of Nero’s solos, Vitellius jumped up delightedly and led the applause.

12. This was how his reign began. Later, he based many important political decisions on what the lowest performers in the theatre and circus told him, and relied particularly on the advice of his freedman Asiaticus. Asiaticus had been Vitellius’ slave and sexual partner, but he soon grew tired of this role and ran away. After a while he was discovered selling cheap drinks at Puteoli, and was put in chains until Vitellius ordered his release and again made him his favourite. However, Asiaticus behaved so insolently, and so thievishly as well, that Vitellius sold him to an itinerant trainer of gladiators; but he impulsively bought him back when he was just about to take part in the final match of a gladiatorial contest. When sent to govern Lower Germany, Vitellius freed Asiaticus, and on his first day as emperor he presented him with the gold ring of equestrian status; this surprised everyone, because that very morning he had rejected a popular demand for this award with the statement that Asiaticus’ appointment would disgrace the order.

13. Vitellius’ ruling vices were gluttony and cruelty. He banqueted three and often four times a day, namely morning, noon, afternoon and evening – the last meal being mainly a drinking bout – and survived the ordeal well enough by vomiting frequently. What made things worse was that he used to invite himself out to private banquets at all hours, and these never cost his various hosts less than 400,000 sesterces each. The most notorious feast of the series was given him by his brother Lucius on his entry into Rome: 2,000 magnificent fish and 7,000 game birds are said to have been served. Yet even this hardly compares in luxuriousness with a single tremendously large dish which Vitellius dedicated and named ‘The Shield of Minerva the Protectress’. The recipe called for pike livers, pheasant brains, peacock brains, flamingo tongues and lamprey milt, and the ingredients, collected in every corner of the empire from the Parthian frontier to the Spanish straits, were brought to Rome by naval triremes. Vitellius paid no attention to place or time in satisfying his remarkable appetite. While a sacrifice was in progress, he thought nothing of snatching lumps of meat or cake off the altar, almost out of the sacred fire, and bolting them down, and on his travels he would devour cuts of meat fetched smoking hot from wayside cookshops, and even yesterday’s half–eaten scraps.

14. His cruelty was such that he would kill or torture anyone at all on the slightest pretext – not excluding noblemen who had been his fellow students or friends, and whom he lured to court by promises of the highest advancement. One of them, with fever on him, asked for a glass of cold water; Vitellius brought it with his own hands, but added poison. As for all the moneylenders, creditors and tax collectors who had ever dunned him at Rome or demanded prompt payment for goods or services on the road, it is doubtful whether he showed mercy in a single instance. When one of these men paid a courtesy call at the palace, Vitellius sent him off to be executed, but a moment later countermanded the order. The courtiers praised this clemency, but Vitellius explained that he merely wished to give himself a treat by having the man killed before his eyes. Two sons came to plead for their father’s life; he had all three of them dispatched. An eques who was being marched away to his death called out, ‘You are my heir!’ Vitellius granted a stay of execution until the will had been produced; then, finding himself named as joint heir with the man’s freedman, ordered the two of them to die together. He even executed some of the common people for disparaging the Blues, on the suspicion that such criticism was directed against him. He particularly disliked lampoonists and astrologers, and made away at once with any who came up before him. This resentment dated from when an edict of his, forbidding any astrologers to remain in Italy after the Kalends of October, had been capped with a counter–edict:

Decreed by all astrologers
   In blessing on our state:
Vitellius will be no more
   On the appointed date.

According to some accounts, a prophetess of the Chatti, whom Vitellius credited with oracular powers, had promised him a long and secure reign if he outlived his mother; so when she fell sick he had her starved to death. Another version of the story is that his mother, grown weary of the present and apprehensive of the future, begged him for a supply of poison – a request which he was not slow to grant.

15. In the eighth month of Vitellius’ reign the Moesian and Pannonian legions repudiated him and swore allegiance to Vespasian; those in Syria and Judaea followed suit and took their oaths in person. To keep the goodwill of his remaining troops, Vitellius embarked on a course of limitless public and private generosity. He opened a recruiting campaign in Rome and promised volunteers immediate discharge after victory, with the full rights and privileges of regular service. When the forces supporting Vespasian converged on Rome, he sent against them the troops who had fought at Betriacum, under their original officers, and put his brother in command of a fleet manned by recruits and gladiators. Realizing, however, that he was being beaten or betrayed on every side, he approached Flavius Sabinus, Vespasian’s brother, and asked, ‘What is my abdication worth?’ Sabinus offered him his life and a fee of 100 million sesterces. Later, from the palace steps, Vitellius announced his decision to the assembled soldiers, explaining that the imperial power had, after all, been forced upon him. When an uproar of protest greeted this speech, he put things off; but next day he went in mourning to the Rostra and tearfully read it out again from a scroll. Once more the soldiers and the crowds shouted ‘stand fast!’ and outdid one another in their expressions of loyalty. Suddenly taking heart, Vitellius drove the unsuspecting Sabinus and the Flavian supporters into the Capitol, set fire to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and burned them alive; he watched the play of the flames and his victims’ struggles while banqueting in the mansion which had belonged to Tiberius. He was soon overcome by remorse and, blaming someone else for the murder, he called an assembly and forced all present to bear witness that peace was now his sole objective. Then, drawing his dagger, he tried in turn to make the consul, the other magistrates and the remaining senators accept it. When all refused, he went to lay it up in the Temple of Concord. However, they called him back by shouting, ‘No, you yourself are Concord!’ So back he came, saying, ‘Very well, I will keep the dagger and adopt the divine name you have graciously awarded me.’

16. Vitellius also made the Senate send envoys, accompanied by the Vestal Virgins, to arrange an armistice or at least to gain time for deliberation. But on the following day, while he was waiting for a response, a scout arrived with news that enemy detachments were close at hand. Stowing himself furtively into a sedan chair and accompanied only by his pastrycook and chef, he hurried to his father’s house on the Aventine, having planned an escape from there into Campania. But a faint rumour of peace tempted him back to the palace, which he found deserted, and when his two companions slipped away he strapped on a money belt full of gold pieces and hid in the doorkeeper’s quarters, tethering a dog outside and jamming a mattress against the door.

17. The advance guard had entered Rome without opposition and at once began searching about, as was to be expected. They hauled Vitellius from his hiding place and, not recognizing him, asked who he was and whether he knew the emperor’s whereabouts. Vitellius gave some lying answer, but was soon identified; so he begged to be placed in safe custody, even if that meant prison, on the ground that he had certain information crucial to Vespasian’s safety. Instead, his hands were tied behind him, a noose was fastened round his neck, and amid cheers and abuse the soldiers dragged him, half–naked, with his clothes in tatters, along the Sacred Way to the Forum. They pulled his head back by the hair, as is done with criminals, and stuck a sword point under the chin, which exposed his face to public contempt. Dung and filth were hurled at him, also such epithets as ‘Greedy guts’ and ‘Fire–raiser’, and his forlorn appearance occasioned loud laughter. Indeed, Vitellius looked queer enough even at his best, being unusually tall, with an alcoholic flush, a huge paunch and a limp, the result of a chariot crash – Gaius had been driving at the time. The soldiers put him through the torture of the little cuts before finally killing him near the Gemonian Stairs. Then they dragged his body to the Tiber with a hook and threw it in.

18. Vitellius died at the age of fifty–six; nor did his brother and son outlive him. The omen of the rooster at Vienna, noted above, had been interpreted as meaning that a Gaul would kill him. This proved correct: the general who dispatched him was Antonius Primus, a native of Tolosa, and his boyhood nickname had been Becco, which means ‘rooster’s beak’.13


1. The Flavii, admittedly an obscure family, none of whose members had ever enjoyed high office, at last brought stable government to the empire; they had found it drifting uneasily through a year of revolution in the course of which three successive emperors lost their lives by violence. We have no cause to be ashamed of the Flavian record, though it is generally admitted that Domitian’s cruelty and greed justified his assassination.

Titus Flavius Petro, a citizen of Reate, who fought for Pompey in the civil war as a centurion or perhaps a reservist, made his way back there from the battlefield of Pharsalus, secured an honourable discharge with a full pardon, and took up debt collecting. Although his son Sabinus is said either to have been a primipilaris or to have resigned a position as centurion on grounds of ill health, the truth is that he avoided military service and became a customs supervisor in Asia, where several cities honoured him with statues inscribed ‘To an Honest Customs Officer’. He later turned banker among the Helvetii, and there died, leaving a wife, Vespasia Polla, and two sons, Sabinus and Vespasian. Sabinus, the elder, attained the rank of city prefect at Rome; Vespasian became emperor. Vespasia Polla belonged to a good family from Nursia. Vespasius Pollio, her father, had three times held the position of military tribune and been camp prefect; her brother was a senator of praetorian rank. Moreover, on a hilltop some six miles from Nursia along the road to Spoletium stands the village of Vespasiae, where a great many tombs testify to the family’s antiquity and local renown. Some people admittedly claim that the emperor’s great–grandfather, originally from the region beyond the Po, acted as a foreman of the labourers who come from Umbria every year to help the Sabines with their harvest, and that he married and settled in Reate, but my own careful researches have turned up no evidence whatsoever to substantiate this.

2. Vespasian was born in the evening on 17 November, in the hamlet of Falacrina just beyond Reate, during the consulship of Quintus Sulpicius Camerinus and Gaius Poppaeus Sabinus, 1 five years before the death of Augustus. His paternal grandmother, Tertulla, brought him up on her estate at Cosa, and as emperor he would often revisit the house, which he kept exactly as it had always been in an attempt to preserve his childhood memories intact. At religious festivals and holidays he made a practice of drinking from a little silver cup which had once belonged to his grandmother, so dear was her memory to him.

For years he postponed his candidature for the broad purple stripe of senatorial rank, already earned by his brother Sabinus, and in the end it was Vespasia Polla who drove him to take this step – not by pleading with him or commanding him as his mother, but by constant sarcastic use of the phrase ‘your brother’s footman’. Vespasian served as a military tribune in Thrace, and when quaestorships were being assigned by lot he drew that of Crete and Cyrenaica. His first attempt to win an aedileship came to nothing; at the second he scraped through in only the sixth place; however, as soon as he stood for the praetorship he was one of the most popular choices. The Senate then being at odds with Gaius, Vespasian, who never missed a chance of winning favour at court, proposed that special games should be held to celebrate the emperor’s German victory. He also proposed that, as an additional punishment, the bodies of conspirators should be denied public burial, and during a full session of the Senate he acknowledged the emperor’s graciousness in having invited him to dine.

3. Meanwhile, Vespasian married Flavia Domitilla, the former mistress of Statilius Capella, an eques from Sabrata in Africa. Her father, Flavius Liberalis, although only a humble quaestor’s clerk from Ferentium, had appeared before a board of arbitration and established her claim to free birth and the full Roman citizenship in place of only a Latin one.2 Vespasian had three children by Flavia, namely Titus, Domitian and Domitilla, but he lost both his wife and his daughter even before he held a magistracy. He then took up with Caenis, his former mistress and one of Antonia’s freedwomen secretaries, who remained his wife in all but name even when he became emperor.

4. On Claudius’ accession, Vespasian was indebted to Narcissus for the command of a legion in Germany; he then proceeded to Britain, where he fought thirty battles, subjugated two warlike tribes, and captured more than twenty towns, besides the entire island of Vectis. In these campaigns he served at times under Aulus Plautius, the consular legate, and at times directly under Claudius, earning triumphal decorations; soon afterwards he obtained a couple of priesthoods, as well as a consulship for the last two months of the year. While waiting for a consular appointment, however, he lived in retirement, for fear of Agrippina’s power over Nero and of the animosity which she continued to feel towards any friend of Narcissus even after his death.

In the distribution of provinces Vespasian drew Africa, where his rule was characterized by justice and great dignity, except on a single occasion when the people of Hadrumetum rioted and pelted him with turnips. It is known that he came back no richer than he went, because his credit was so nearly exhausted that, in order to keep up his position, he had to mortgage all his estates to his brother Sabinus and go into trade; this gave him the nickname ‘Mule Driver’. Vespasian is also said to have earned a severe reprimand after getting a young man raised to senatorial rank, against his father’s wishes, for a fee of 200,000 sesterces.

He toured Achaia in Nero’s retinue, but offended him deeply by either leaving the room during his song recitals or staying and falling asleep. In consequence he not only lost his favour but was dismissed from court, and fled to a small out–of–the–way township, where he hid in terror of his life until finally offered the military command of a province.

An ancient superstition was current in the east that out of Judaea would come the rulers of the world. This prediction, as it later proved, referred to Roman emperors, but the Jews, who read it as referring to themselves, rebelled; after murdering their procurator, they routed the consular governor of Syria when he came down to restore order, and captured an Eagle. To crush this uprising the Romans needed a strong army under an energetic commander, who could be trusted not to abuse his powers. The choice fell on Vespasian. He had given signal proof of energy, and nothing, it seemed, need be feared from a man of such modest antecedents. Two legions, with eight cavalry divisions and ten supernumerary cohorts, were therefore dispatched to join the forces already in Judaea, and Vespasian took his elder son Titus to serve on his staff. No sooner had they reached Judaea than he impressed the neighbouring provinces by his prompt tightening up of discipline and his audacious conduct in battle after battle. During the assault on one enemy city he was wounded on the knee by a stone and caught several arrows on his shield.

5. When Nero and Galba were both dead and Vitellius was disputing the rule with Otho, Vespasian began to remember his imperial ambitions, which had originally been raised by the following omens. An ancient oak tree, sacred to Mars, growing on the Flavian estate near Rome, put out a shoot for each of the three occasions when his mother gave birth, and these clearly had a bearing on the child’s future. The first slim shoot withered quickly, and the eldest child, a girl, died within the year. The second shoot was long and healthy, promising good luck, but the third seemed more like a tree than a branch. Sabinus, the father, is said to have been greatly impressed by an inspection of a victim’s entrails and to have congratulated his mother on having a grandson who would become emperor. She roared with laughter and said, ‘Fancy your going soft in the head before your old mother does!’

Later, during Vespasian’s aedileship, the emperor Gaius, furious because Vespasian had not kept the streets clean as was his duty, ordered some soldiers to load him with mud; they obeyed by stuffing into the fold of his senatorial toga as much as it could hold – an omen interpreted to mean that one day the soil of Italy would be neglected and trampled upon as the result of civil war, but that Vespasian would protect it and, so to speak, take it to his bosom.

Then a stray dog picked up a human hand at the crossroads, which it brought into the room where Vespasian was breakfasting and dropped under the table.3 On another occasion a plough ox shook off its yoke, burst into Vespasian’s dining room, scattered the servants, and then, as if suddenly exhausted, fell at his feet and lowered its neck. He also found a cypress tree lying uprooted on his grandmother’s farm, though there had been no gale to account for the accident; yet by the next day it had taken root again and was greener and stronger than ever.

In Achaia, Vespasian dreamed that he and his family would begin to prosper from the moment when Nero lost a tooth, and on the following day, while he was in the imperial quarters, a doctor entered and showed him one of Nero’s teeth which he had just extracted.

In Judaea, Vespasian consulted the god of Carmel and was given a promise that he would never be disappointed in what he planned or desired, however lofty his ambitions. Also, a distinguished Jewish prisoner of Vespasian’s, Josephus by name, insisted that he would soon be released by the very man who had now put him in fetters and who would then be emperor.4 Reports of further omens came from Rome: Nero, it seemed, had been warned in a dream shortly before his death to take the sacred chariot of Jupiter Optimus Maximus from the Capitol to the Circus, calling at Vespasian’s house as he went. Soon after this, while Galba was on his way to the elections which gave him a second consulship, a statue of Julius Caesar turned of its own accord to face east; and at Betriacum, when the battle was about to begin, two eagles fought in full view of both armies, but a third appeared from the rising sun and drove off the victor.

6. Still Vespasian made no move, although his adherents were impatient to press his claims, until he was suddenly stirred to action by the fortuitous support of a distant group of soldiers whom he did not even know: 2,000 men belonging to the three legions in Moesia that had been sent to reinforce Otho. They had marched forward as far as Aquileia, despite the news of Otho’s defeat and suicide which reached them on the way, and had there taken advantage of the unsettled times to plunder at pleasure. Pausing at last to consider what the reckoning might be on their return, they hit on the idea of setting up their own emperor. And why not? After all, the troops in Spain had appointed Galba; the praetorians, Otho; the troops in Germany, Vitellius. So they went through the whole list of provincial governors, rejecting each name in turn for this reason or that until finally choosing Vespasian – on the strong recommendation of some Third Legion men who had been sent to Moesia from Syria just prior to Nero’s death – and marking all their standards with his name. Though they were temporarily recalled to duty at this point and did no more in the matter, the news of their decision leaked out. Tiberius Alexander, the prefect in Egypt, thereupon made his legions take the oath to Vespasian, on the Kalends of July, later celebrated as Vespasian’s accession day, and on 11 July the army in Judaea swore allegiance to Vespasian in person. Three things helped him greatly: first, the copy of a letter (possibly forged) in which Otho begged him most earnestly to save Rome and take vengeance on Vitellius; second, a persistent rumour that Vitellius had planned, after his victory, to restation the legions, transferring those in Germany to the east, a much softer option; lastly, the support of Licinius Mucianus, then commanding in Syria, who swallowed the jealousy of Vespasian which he had long made no effort to hide and promised to lend him the whole Syrian army, and the support of Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, who promised him 40,000 archers.

7. So Vespasian began a new civil war: having sent troops ahead to Italy, he himself crossed over to Alexandria, so that he might occupy this key to Egypt. There he dismissed his companions and entered the Temple of Serapis, alone, to consult the auspices and discover how long he would last as emperor. After many propitiatory sacrifices he turned to go, but saw his freedman Basilides handing him the customary branches, garlands and bread5 – although Basilides had for a long time been nearly crippled by rheumatism and was moreover far away. Almost at once dispatches from Italy brought the news of Vitellius’ defeat at Cremona and his assassination at Rome.

Vespasian, still rather bewildered in his new role of emperor, felt a certain lack of authority and of what might be called the divine spark; yet both these attributes were granted him. As he sat on the tribunal, two labourers, one blind, the other lame, approached together, begging to be healed. Apparently the god Serapis had promised them in a dream that if Vespasian would consent to spit on the blind man’s eyes and touch the lame man’s leg with his heel, both would be made well. Vespasian had so little faith in his curative powers that he showed great reluctance in doing as he was asked, but his friends persuaded him to try them, in the presence of a large audience too – and the charm worked. At the same time, certain soothsayers were inspired to excavate a sacred site at Tegea in Arcadia, where a hoard of very ancient vases was discovered, all painted with a striking likeness of Vespasian.

8. As a man of great promise and reputation, Vespasian celebrated a triumph over the Jews on his return to Rome, and added eight more consulships to the one he had already earned.6 He also assumed the office of censor, and throughout his reign he made it his principal business first to shore up the foundations of the commonwealth, which were in a state of collapse, and then to embellish it artistically.

The troops, whose discipline had been weakened either by the exultation of victory or by the humiliation of defeat, had been indulging in all sorts of wild excesses; moreover, rumbles of internal dissension could be heard in the provinces and free cities as well as in certain of the subject kingdoms. This led Vespasian to discharge or punish a large number of Vitellius’ men and, so far from showing his own troops any special favour, he was slow in paying them even the victory bonus to which they were entitled. He missed no opportunity of tightening discipline: when a young man, reeking of perfume, came to thank him for a promotion in rank, Vespasian turned his head away in disgust and cancelled the order, saying crushingly, ‘I should not have minded so much if it had been garlic.’ When the marine brigade, detachments of which had to be constantly on the move between Ostia or Puteoli and Rome, applied for a special shoe allowance, Vespasian not only turned down the application, but instructed them in future to march barefoot, and this has been their practice ever since. He revoked the privilege of self–governance from Achaia, Lycia, Rhodes, Byzantium and Samos, and reduced the kingdoms of Trachian Cilicia and Commagene to provincial status. He garrisoned Cappadocia as a precaution against the frequent barbarian raids, and appointed a governor of consular rank instead of a mere eques.

Rome had become unsightly, since many buildings had burned or collapsed, and so Vespasian authorized anyone who pleased to take over vacant sites and build on them if the original owners failed to come forward. He personally inaugurated the restoration of the burned Capitol by collecting the first basketful of rubble and carrying it away on his shoulders, and undertook to replace the 3,000 bronze tablets which had been lost in the fire, hunting high and low for copies of the inscriptions engraved on them. Those ancient, beautifully phrased records of senatorial decrees and popular ordinances dealt with such matters as alliances, treaties and the privileges granted to individuals, and dated back almost to the foundation of Rome.

9. He also started work on several new buildings: the Temple of Peace near the Forum; the Temple of Divus Claudius on the Caelian Hill, begun by Agrippina but almost completely destroyed by Nero; and an amphitheatre in the centre of the city, 7 which he knew Augustus had always planned to construct.

He reformed the senatorial and equestrian orders, now weakened by frequent murders and long–term neglect, reviewing their membership and replacing undesirables with the most eligible Italian and provincial candidates available; in order to define clearly the difference between these orders as one of status rather than of privilege, he pronounced the following judgement in a dispute between a senator and an eques: ‘No abuse must be offered a senator, although it may be returned when given.’

10. Vespasian found a huge waiting list of lawsuits: old ones left undecided because of interruptions in regular court proceedings, and new ones due to the recent states of emergency. So he drew lots for a board of commissioners to settle war–compensation claims and make emergency decisions in the centumviral court, thus greatly reducing the number of cases. Most of the litigants would otherwise have been dead by the time they were summoned to appear.

11. Since nothing at all had been done to counteract the debauched and reckless style of living then in fashion, Vespasian induced the Senate to decree that any woman who had taken another person’s slave as a lover should lose her freedom, and that nobody lending money to a minor should be entitled to collect the debt, even if the father died and the minor inherited the estate.

12. He was from first to last modest and restrained in his conduct of affairs, and more inclined to parade than to cast a veil over his humble origins. Indeed, when certain people tried to connect his ancestors with the founders of Reate and with one of Hercules’ comrades whose tomb is still to be seen on the Via Salaria, Vespasian burst into a roar of laughter. He had anything but a craving for outward show; on the day of his triumph, the painful crawl of the procession so wearied him that he said frankly, ‘What an old fool I was to demand a triumph, as though I owed this honour to my ancestors or had ever made it one of my own ambitions! It serves me right!’ Moreover, he neither claimed the tribunician power nor adopted the title Father of His Country until late in his reign, and even before the civil war was over he discontinued the practice of having everyone who attended his morning audiences searched for concealed weapons.

13. Vespasian showed great patience if his friends took liberties with him in conversation, or advocates made innuendoes in their speeches, or philosophers affected to despise him, and great restraint in his dealings with Licinius Mucianus, a bumptious and immoral fellow who traded on his past services by treating him disrespectfully. Thus he complained only once about Mucianus, and then in private to a common acquaintance, his concluding words being ‘I, at least, am a man.’8 When Salvius Liberalis was defending a rich client, he earned a laugh from Vespasian himself by daring to ask, ‘Does the emperor really care whether Hipparchus is or is not worth a million in gold?’9 And when Demetrius the Cynic, who had been banished from Rome, happened to meet Vespasian’s travelling party, yet made no move to rise or salute him and barked out some rude remark or other, Vespasian merely commented, ‘Good dog!’10

14. Not being the sort of man to bear grudges or pay off old scores, he arranged a splendid match for the daughter of his former enemy Vitellius, even providing her dowry and trousseau. Then there was the matter of the chief usher. When, long before, Vespasian had been dismissed from Nero’s court and cried in terror, ‘But what shall I do? Where on earth shall I go?’, the chief usher answered, ‘Oh, go to Plagueville!’, and pushed him outside. He now came to beg for forgiveness, and Vespasian did no more than show him the door with an equally short and almost identically framed goodbye.

He felt so little inclination to execute anyone whom he feared or suspected that, warned by his friends against Mettius Pompusianus, who was believed to have an imperial horoscope, he saddled him with a debt of gratitude by making him consul.

15. My researches show that no innocent party was ever punished during Vespasian’s reign except behind his back or while he was absent from Rome, unless by deliberate defiance of his wishes or by misinforming him about the facts in the case. He showed great leniency towards Helvidius Priscus, who on his return from Syria was the only man to greet him simply as ‘Vespasian’, 11 and who throughout his praetorship omitted all courteous mention of him from official orders. However, feeling himself, as it were, reduced to the ranks by Priscus’ insufferable rudeness, Vespasian flared up at last, banished him, and eventually gave orders for his execution. Nevertheless, he meant to save him, and wrote out a reprieve; but this was not delivered, owing to a mistaken report that Priscus had already been executed. Vespasian never rejoiced in anyone’s death, and would often weep when convicted criminals were forced to pay the extreme penalty.

16. His one serious failing was avarice. Not content with restoring the duties remitted by Galba, he levied new and heavier ones, increased and sometimes doubled the tribute due from the provinces, and openly engaged in business dealings which would have disgraced even a private citizen – such as buying up certain commodities only to put them back on the market at higher prices. He thought nothing of exacting fees from candidates for public office or of selling pardons to the innocent and guilty alike, and is said to have deliberately raised his greediest procurators to positions in which they could fatten their purses satisfactorily before he came down hard on them for extortion. They were, at any rate, nicknamed his ‘sponges’– he put them in to soak, only to squeeze them dry later.

Some claim that greed was in Vespasian’s very bones – an accusation once thrown at him by an old slave of his, a cattleman. When Vespasian became emperor the slave begged to be freed but, finding that he was expected to buy the privilege, complained, ‘so the fox has changed his fur, but not his nature!’ Still, the more credible view is that the emptiness alike of the public treasury and the imperial exchequer forced Vespasian into heavy taxation and unethical business dealings; he himself had declared at his accession that 40,000 million sesterces were needed to put the commonwealth on its feet again. Certainly he spent his income to the best possible advantage, however questionable its sources.

17. Vespasian behaved most generously to all classes: granting subventions to senators who did not possess the property qualifications of their rank; securing impoverished men of consular rank an annual pension of 500,000 sesterces; rebuilding on a grander scale than before the many cities throughout the empire which had been burned or destroyed by earthquakes; and proving himself a devoted patron of the arts and sciences.

18. He was the first to pay teachers of Latin and Greek rhetoric a regular annual salary of 100,000 sesterces from the imperial exchequer; he also awarded prizes to leading poets, and to artists as well, notably the ones who refashioned the Venus of Cos and the Colossus.12 An engineer offered to haul some huge columns up to the Capitol at moderate expense by a simple mechanical contrivance, but Vespasian declined his services: ‘I must always ensure’, he said, ‘that the working classes earn enough money to buy themselves food.’ Nevertheless, he paid the engineer a very handsome fee.

19. When the Theatre of Marcellus opened again after Vespasian had built its new stage, he revived the former musical performances and presented Apelles the tragic actor with 400,000 sesterces, Terpnus and Diodorus the lyre players with 200,000 each, and several others with 100,000; his lowest cash awards were 40,000, and he also distributed several gold crowns. Moreover, he ordered a great number of formal dinners on a lavish scale, to support the dealers in provisions. On the Saturnalia he gave party favours to his male dinner guests, and he did the same for women on the Kalends of March. But even this generosity could not rid him of his reputation for stinginess. Thus the people of Alexandria continued to call him ‘Cybiosactes’, after one of the meanest of all their kings. And when he died the famous comedian Favor, who had been chosen to wear his funeral mask in the procession and give the customary imitations of his gestures and words, shouted to the stewards, ‘Hey! how much will all this cost?’ ‘Ten million sesterces,’ they answered. ‘Then I’ll take a hundred thousand down, and you can just pitch me into the Tiber.’

20. Vespasian was square–shouldered, with strong, wellformed limbs, but always wore a strained expression on his face, so that once, when he asked a well–known wit who always used to make jokes about people, ‘Why not make one about me?’, the answer came, ‘I will, when you have at last finished relieving yourself.’ He enjoyed perfect health and took no medical precautions for preserving it, except to have his throat and body massaged regularly in the court for ball games, and to fast one whole day every month.

21. Here follows a general description of his habits. After becoming emperor he would rise early, before daylight even, to deal with his correspondence and official reports. Next he would invite his friends to wish him good morning while he put on his shoes and dressed for the day. Having attended to any urgent business, he would first take a drive and then return to bed for a nap – with one of the several mistresses whom he had engaged after Caenis’ death. Finally he took a bath and went to dinner, where he would be in such a cheerful mood that members of his household usually chose this time to ask favours of him.

22. Yet Vespasian was nearly always just as good–natured, cracking frequent jokes; he was in fact a man of considerable wit, although it often took such a low and vulgar form that he even indulged in schoolboy humour. All the same, some of his sayings are still remembered. Taken to task by Mestrius Florus, a man of consular status, for vulgarly saying plostra instead of plaustra, he greeted him the following day as ‘Flaurus’.13 Once a woman complained that she was desperately in love with him, and would not leave him alone until he consented to seduce her. ‘How shall I enter that item in your expense ledger?’ asked his steward later, on learning that she had got 400,000 sesterces out of him. ‘Oh,’ said Vespasian, ‘just put it down to “love for Vespasian”.’

23. With his knack of apt quotation from the Greek classics, he once described a very tall man whose genitals were grotesquely overdeveloped as ‘striding along with a lance which casts a preposterous shadow’.14 And when, to avoid paying death duties into the imperial exchequer, a very rich freedman named Cerylus changed his name to Laches and announced that he had been born free, Vespasian quoted:

O, Laches, when your life is o’er,
Cerylus you will be once more.15

Most of his humour, however, centred on the way he did business; he always tried to make his swindles sound less offensive by passing them off as jokes. One of his favourite servants applied for a stewardship on behalf of a man whose brother he claimed to be. ‘Wait,’ Vespasian told him, and had the candidate brought in for a private interview. ‘How much commission would you have paid my servant?’ he asked. The man mentioned a sum. ‘You may pay it directly to me,’ said Vespasian, giving him the stewardship. When the servant brought the matter up again, Vespasian’s advice was ‘Go and find another brother. The one you mistook for your own turns out to be mine!’

Once, on a journey, his muleteer dismounted and began shoeing the mules; Vespasian suspected a ruse to hold him up, because a friend of the muleteer’s had appeared and was now busily discussing a lawsuit. Vespasian made the muleteer tell him just what his shoeing fee would be, and insisted on being paid half. Titus complained of the tax which Vespasian had imposed on urinals. Vespasian handed him a coin which had been part of the first day’s proceeds: ‘Does it smell bad, my son?’ he asked. ‘No, Father.’ ‘That’s odd: it comes straight from the urinal!’ When a deputation reported that a huge and expensive statue had been voted him at public expense, Vespasian held out his hand, saying, ‘The pedestal is waiting.’

Nothing could stop this flow of humour, even the fear of imminent death. Among the many portents of his end was a yawning crevice in the Mausoleum of Augustus. ‘That will be for Junia Calvina,’ he said; ‘she is one of his descendants.’16 And at the fatal sight of a comet he cried, ‘Look at that long hair! The King of Parthia must be going to die.’17 His deathbed joke was ‘Dear me! I must be turning into a god.’

24. During his ninth and last consulship Vespasian visited Campania and was bothered by slight attacks of fever. He hurried back to Rome, then went on to Cutiliae and his summer retreat near Reate, where he made things worse by bathing in cold water and irritating his stomach. Yet he carried on with his imperial duties as usual and even received deputations at his bedside, until he almost fainted after a sudden violent bout of diarrhoea; he struggled to rise, muttering that an emperor ought to die at least on his feet, and collapsed in the arms of the attendants who went to his rescue. This was 23 June, when he had lived sixty–nine years, seven months and seven days.18

25. All accounts agree on Vespasian’s supreme confidence in his horoscope and those of his family. Despite frequent plots to murder him, he dared tell the Senate that either his sons would succeed him or no one would. He is said to have dreamed about a pair of scales hanging in the hall of the palace: Claudius and Nero in one pan were exactly balanced against himself, Titus and Domitian in the other. And this proved an accurate prophecy, since the families were destined to rule for an equal length of time.

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