Vespasian inherited his family’s reputation for stinginess, but this probably signified no more than financial realism. He liked to present himself as a common man, and enjoyed a dirty joke. When he decided to introduce a new tax on public latrines (these were profitable enterprises, because urine was much in demand by laundries for bleaching clothes whiter than white), his son Titus demurred. The emperor is reported to have responded that a coin did not smell (pecunia non olet).

The Flavians reintroduced competence into government. According to Tacitus, Vespasian was the first man to improve after becoming emperor. Rebellions in Germany and Britain, overhangs from the Year of the Four Emperors, were efficiently quelled. Increased taxes and the manipulation of the supply of certain commodities removed a large deficit at the treasury, the consequence of Neronian extravagance and the luxury of civil war.

The emperor and his sons, Titus Flavius Vespasianus and Titus Flavius Domitianus (known as Domitian), who succeeded him on the throne, did all they could to signal a break with the empire’s original first family, and more particularly with Nero.

Vespasian reestablished a working relationship with the ruling class, which provided trustworthy and responsible personnel to govern the provinces and command the armies. Without its backing, even if this was only tacit, experience had shown that an emperor would be unable to manage the empire. However, one dangerous continuity with the discredited past remained obstinately in place—the existence in the Senate of an opposition party, or at least a faction of critics.

Imagine a perfect human being, virtuous and wise. If he sees his child in danger of drowning, it is natural for him to do all he can to rescue it. But if, despite his best efforts, he fails, he will accept what has happened without feeling distress or pity. In this way happiness cannot be compromised.

For most of us, this scenario is both disagreeable and implausible, but it epitomizes in a single exemplum the essence of Stoicism, a philosophical tradition that Rome’s elite had long made its own. It was founded by Zeno of Citium, who lectured at the end of the fourth century B.C. in the Painted Porch in Athens, the  (Poikile Stoa), whence the name of his doctrines. The stoa was a roofed colonnade on the northern side of the Agora, or marketplace, where paintings on wooden panels of great events in Athenian history were on display. It was a convenient spot where a teacher and his students could hold their classes.

For the Stoic the universe consisted of matter inspirited by a divine breath. This creative fire (or warm air) was called the Word (the Greek term is  or logos, which we know from the Christian Gospel of Saint John, perhaps written about this time, when Hadrian was a young man). The logos fashioned the universe into a rational and purposive whole, of which an individual human soul formed a small part.

To lead a good life and attain happiness a man or woman had to live in harmony with this principle of energy and order. The ordinary aspirations of human life—health, wealth, friendship, family—have a real value, but they are subordinate to the imperatives of thelogos, which can do no wrong. What seems like misfortunes cannot be so in the eyes of the cosmos and must be accepted with a cheerful heart. Ergo the inhuman imperturbability of the bereaved father. The universe has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.

The living embodiment of Stoicism was the philosopher Epictetus. He was born in about A.D. 55, a slave of one of Nero’s freedmen, Epaphroditus, who helped his patron Nero to kill himself, and had been lame from childhood. At a certain point he was probably handed on to a new owner, for his name is the Greek for “acquired.” It is not known when or how he won his freedom; perhaps Epaphroditus let him go in the confused and violent aftermath of the fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

One of Epictetus’ catchphrases was —“bear and forbear,” or more precisely, “endure and renounce.” In one of his lectures, he spoke of an appropriately calm approach to being executed.

This is what it means … to have made desire and aversion free from every hindrance and proofed them against chance. I must die. If immediately, then I die. But if a little later, I will have some lunch, for it’s lunchtime, and then I will die at the appointed time. How shall I face my end? As becomes a man who is giving back what belongs to someone else.

Epictetus held philosophy classes in Rome. Like Socrates, he wrote no books, and his thought survives thanks to verbatim notes of what he said, taken down by one of his students. He lived in the greatest simplicity and was modest about himself and his achievements. Children were only half-complete human beings, he felt, but their straightforwardness in play impressed him, and he loved to get down on his hands and knees and speak baby talk with them.

Ever since Augustus replaced the noisy, competitive, semidemocratic Republic with an efficient autocracy toward the end of the previous century, a minority of senators had kept their distance from the government and criticized successive administrations. It was never altogether clear to the emperor of the day whether or not they were a loyal opposition. Some of them cherished a long-term ambition to restore the Republic, but most intelligent observers of the political scene recognized that the past could not be recalled. What they sought was temperate rule by an intelligent and experienced emperor.

These dissidents have been named the Stoic opposition because their chief tactics—a refusal to cooperate with an unworthy government and a willingness to endure uncomplainingly the punishment of the state—could be justified in philosophical terms. They knew they were going to lose, but nonetheless proceeded on their dangerous course with stoicism—as well as with Stoicism.

Families that shared common political views intermarried over the years and one generation picked up where the previous one left off. Women played a key role and on occasion were braver and more decisive than their husbands. One of these was Arria, wife of Aulus Caecina Paetus, who supported an abortive revolt against the emperor Claudius in A.D. 42 by the governor of Illyricum, a province on the far side of the Adriatic Sea (roughly today’s Albania and Croatia).

The emperor let it be known that he expected Paetus to commit suicide (a civilized alternative to execution for the well born or well-connected). However, when the last moment came, Paetus succumbed to nerves and it looked as if he would not behave in the expected high Roman fashion. Arria took his sword from him and stabbed herself with it. She said: “Paetus, it doesn’t hurt,” and handed back the weapon. The couple were soon both dead, and the words Paete, non dolet became a catchphrase for selfless courage.

Although Vespasian and the Flavians promised better government, the Stoic opposition remained unreconciled. An able but obstinate senator, Helvidius Priscus, opposed measures aimed at pleasing Vespasian. Helvidius insisted on addressing the emperor by his original preimperial name and delivered speeches attacking Vespasian personally and the office he held.

Epictetus recalls a memorable exchange. Vespasian asked Helvidius to stay away from a meeting of the Senate. Helvidius replied:

“It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the Senate, but so long as I am I must attend its meetings.”

“Very well then, but when you attend, hold your tongue.”

“Don’t ask for my opinion and I will hold my tongue.”

“But I am obliged to ask your opinion [as a senior senator].”

“Then I am obliged to reply and give you my opinion.”

“But if you speak, I will have you executed.”

“All right, then, but when did I ever claim that I was immortal? You play your part, and I will play mine.”

This may or may not be a verbatim account, but it epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of the Stoic opposition—brave but to little effect, content to condemn but not to overthrow. But in one sense they posed the imperial idea a real and irresoluble threat. Although they suffered persecution from time to time, they remained an integral part of the political elite whether through friendship, family ties, or a dour underpinning philosophy of life. They could not be liquidated without risking the alienation of those on whose cooperation emperors depended.

An abiding problem with Rome’s system of imperial government was the succession. In constitutional theory the emperor was merely the senior official in a republic, and so the future could not be spelled out. However, Vespasian believed reasonably enough that with two capable sons his own bloodline would be sufficient to ensure governmental continuity.

The calculation bore fruit, at first. In 79 the emperor was struck down by a bowel complaint. His sense of humor did not betray him, even when he realized that he was not to recover. In the confident expectation that, as was customary, the Senate would vote to deify him posthumously, he remarked: “Dear me, I seem to be becoming a god!” He continued with his official duties and received embassies. His doctors complained, but he replied, “An emperor ought to die on his feet.” There is another version of this story. According to this, he made the remark when he was overtaken by a sudden and painful attack of diarrhea, and nearly fainted. He struggled to his feet and expired in the arms of those around him.

Hadrian was only an infant at the time, but as an adult he spread the word that Vespasian had in fact been poisoned at a banquet by his good-looking and able son Titus. This is an improbable claim. Such evidence as there is suggests that Titus loved and was loyal to his father; at any rate, in his brief reign he maintained Vespasian’s policies.

On August 24, two months almost to the day after Vespasian’s death, Mount Vesuvius in Campania erupted and buried the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii beneath ash.

The event made a profound impression and talk of it may have been among Hadrian’s early memories. Dust was reported to have spread to Africa, Syria, and Egypt. At Rome it filled the air overhead and darkened the sun for several days. According to Dio Cassius, “people did not know and could not imagine what had happened, but, like those close at hand, believed that the whole world was being turned upside down, that the sun was disappearing into the earth and that the earth was being lifted to the sky.” Pliny the Younger was in Campania at the time, and was convinced that “the whole world was dying with me and I with it.”

It soon became clear that this was not the case, but the terror that the end of the world was at hand fed the millenarian anxieties of the age. It was a fearful reminder that humankind was at the mercy of uncontrollable forces, which reason alone could not vanquish.

In 81, shortly after the endless munera with which he had marked the opening of a new amphitheater, the Colosseum, and some splendid public baths, Titus sickened unexpectedly with a fever and died. Domitian succeeded Titus without challenge. According to the literary sources, he was of a solitary and suspicious disposition. As a child, his father and brother had spent much of their time at Nero’s court and during his teens had been largely absent on public business in the east. He seems to have been often left to his own devices and grew up unsupported by the day-to-day affection and supervision of his closest relatives.

Domitian was ill at ease socially and was sometimes reported to feign madness. He enjoyed the solitude of his vast villa outside Rome in the Alban Hills. According to Suetonius,

At the beginning of his reign he used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly sharpened stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with [him], Vibius Crispus made the witty reply: “Not even a fly.”

Thirty years old when he assumed power, Domitian proved to be a competent administrator, and he performed his judicial duties conscientiously. He has had a bad press, for he alienated the Senate, and the literary sources reflect its antipathy. So what was said against him needs to be treated with caution. However, the antipathy itself is telling, for the inability of an emperor to manage the political class represents a serious failure.

Like Nero, Domitian had no obvious qualifications for the job he held; his refractory nature did not inspire confidence and, although he had held public office during his father’s reign, he had not been allowed the opportunity to gain military experience.

One senses that a fear of insufficiency lay behind his bossy and decidedly autocratic manner. He appreciated it when flatterers hailed him as Dominus et deus noster, “our lord and god.” The imperial system, as invented by Augustus, depended on everyone accepting the necessary fiction that it was the old Roman Republic reborn and that the emperor was merely the first among equals. Domitian was too impatient to waste time on this, and offended senators by his lack of civilitas, or polite affability.

Evidence survives of sensible measures taken by provincial governors, usually following precedents set by previous emperors. Where Domitian himself intervened, the most notable characteristic was not any special concern for justice or efficiency, but a censorious tone of voice.

His moralizing approach to governance found its most intense expression in a revival of the Julian Laws, with the aim of “shaking the thunderbolt of purity.” The emperor sought to implement legislation dating from Augustus’ day that encouraged marriage and protected the family, and the old Scantinian law that penalized male-to-male sexual activity.

As censor perpetuus, or censor for life, Domitian gave himself oversight of public morals. He took his responsibilities with the utmost seriousness. He twice acted against Vestal Virgins, whom he charged with incestum, illicit sexual intercourse. The six Vestals were the only priestesses in the Roman religious system, and their main task was to watch over Rome’s eternal flame, or symbolic hearth. If it was allowed to go out, the well-being and prosperity of the city was put at risk.

Recruited when a little girl from the nobility, a Vestal served for thirty years and was under the care of the pontifex maximus, chief priest. She could expect a life of luxury and high prestige. But she had to be careful. If a Vestal was found to have slept with a man a terrible fate awaited her—to be buried alive. Early in the reign three Vestals, half the complement, were found guilty of incestum, but Domitian was in a forgiving mood and allowed them to choose their own form of death.

Some years later the senior Vestal, Cornelia, who had already been acquitted of the same charge, was again arraigned. Domitian tried her and, although she protested her innocence vigorously, convicted her. In his capacity as pontifex maximus he accompanied her to a stretch of rising ground just inside the city walls called the Campus Sceleratus, the “field polluted by crime.” Here a small underground chamber had been prepared, containing a couch, a lamp, and a table with food on it.

Cornelia’s dress caught as she descended a ladder into the tiny vault, and Domitian, who was standing beside her, politely offered her his hand. She drew back in disgust and pushed his arm away. She took care to lower herself onto the couch without offense to her modesty. The ladder was pulled up and the access hole filled with earth. Cornelia was left alone to meet her death, whether through eventual asphyxiation or, perhaps, a more immediate suicide with poison or knife.

The affair left a bad impression. A former praetor was persuaded to make a tardy confession of having slept with the Vestal, but many doubted her guilt.

Domitian was unfazed by the contrast with his own private life. According to Dio, “he was not only physically lazy and emotionally timorous, but also extremely promiscuous and indulged in rough sex both with women and boys.” Apparently he liked to call copulation by the Greek word for “bed-wrestling.”

Domitian spent much of his time outside Rome on campaign, no doubt to the Senate’s relief. Like all the Flavians, he recognized that military success would help to stabilize the regime. He defeated the Chatti, a Germanic tribe beyond the middle Rhine, and permanently occupied the Taunus region, in this way strengthening the frontier by eliminating an awkward re-entrant. He enclosed this new acquisition with a limes, a line of blockhouses and forts, that showed exactly where the imperial boundary was as well as demonstrating Rome’s firm intention to maintain and defend it.

Domitian made more of his immediate victory than was warranted, and it was some years before the territory was fully pacified. However, he bought popularity with the troops by raising their wages by one third—the first time there had been an increase since the days of Augustus—as well as offering them three costly congiaria, or one-off bonuses. This was the kind of emperor the rank and file appreciated.

If the Rhine frontier was more or less settled, the same could not be said for the Danube. North of the river lay the Transylvanian basin, surrounded by the rugged Carpathian Mountains. Here was the home of the Dacians, a rich and powerful people who had originated in northwestern Asia Minor. They controlled substantial mineral reserves, especially of gold and silver, which they traded with their Celtic and Germanic neighbors and the Greek cities on the coast of the Black Sea.

In the early part of the first century B.C., a certain Burebista transformed the disparate and decentralized Dacians into a unified kingdom for the first time and established alliances with adjoining tribes. A great power began to emerge that in time might challenge Rome. Julius Caesar saw the danger and was planning an expedition against Burebista before his assassination, in 44 B.C. Luckily for Rome, the king died in the same year and the threat receded.

A century or so later, however, a new, energetic, and talented ruler came to the fore, Decebalus, “shrewd in his understanding of warfare, and shrewd too in the waging of war.” His ambition was to reestablish the Dacian empire. He judged that Rome would not countenance the reappearance of an expansionist power on its frontier, and decided on a preemptive strike. In A.D. 84 a horde crossed the Danube and invaded the province of Moesia (parts of modern Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania), killing the governor.

Domitian took immediate action. He made his way to Moesia to mastermind a military response. However, he did not lead the legions himself, staying in a town well behind the front line. Instead, he gave command of the army to Cornelius Fuscus, who had helped Vespasian to the throne and was praetorian prefect. He is listed among flattering amici Caesaris in a satire by Juvenal as an incompetent warmonger,

    dreaming of battle while lolling in marble villas, His guts a predestined feast for Dacia’s vultures.

The poet was not the prophet he seemed, for he wrote long after the campaign had ended in a second bad defeat and Fuscus’ death.

The emperor now faced a serious crisis. The ruling class expected the emperor to pursue a policy of imperial expansion and was liable to lose confidence in him were territory to be abandoned, legions destroyed, or a compromise peace agreed with the enemy. To deal with Decebalus the emperor assembled a new force, perhaps six legions strong, by withdrawing troops from elsewhere in the empire. A legion was ordered to the Danube from Britannia, as a result of which a successful campaign to extend the territory under Roman control had to be put into reverse. A new fortress at Inchtutil in Scotland was abandoned.

This time the Romans scored a decisive victory. Decebalus feared that they would proceed to his capital, Sarmizegetusa. Short of men, he anticipated the trick played on Macbeth at Dunsinane. Trees were cut down and dressed in military uniforms to give an impression that his forces were more numerous than in fact they were.

In the event, the maneuver proved to be unnecessary. Domitian’s attention—and his legions—was diverted to the neighboring province of Pannonia, where dangerous revolts among Germanic tribes needed urgent attention. To avoid fighting a war on two fronts, the emperor agreed to terms with the Dacians. Decebalus was awarded a substantial annual subsidy of about 8 million sesterces. In a further dangerous concession, the emperor agreed to provide military engineers and artillery to help Decebalus fortify his realm against attack.

The emperor staged victory celebrations back in Rome. Informed opinion was derisive and word spread that exhibits displayed as campaign spoils really came from the imperial furniture store. Perilous laughter circulated around the best dinner tables.

With the indestructible optimism of veteran social climbers, the Ulpii did not allow themselves to be dismayed by the emperor’s eccentricities. They remained loyal supporters of the dynasty. Just as Traianus had been close to Vespasian, so his able son Trajan was promoted by Titus and Domitian. Trajan spent much of his youth in the army as a military tribune laticlavius: every legion was allocated six tribunes, general staff officers who reported to the legionary commander, or legatus. The senior tribune was calledlaticlavius, or “broad-banded.” This was a reference to the red stripe senators wore on their togas, and the laticlavius was usually a young man of senatorial rank at the outset of his political career.

Trajan had the physical strength and height for effective soldiering. He spent time in the east and on the German frontier and gained the respect and affection of the legionaries under his command. He became praetor in 86 and was a colleague of Hadrian’s father. In the following year, at the age of thirty-one, he received his first legionary command. He was appointed the legatus of the VII Gemina. Founded less than twenty years previously, the legion was recruited in Spain, almost certainly from the Romanized citizenry of Baetica in the south. It was based at Legio, on a plateau beneath the mountains of Asturia and Cantabria; this is today’s León, where the outline of the army camp can still be detected. This northwest region of Spain had been the last part of the peninsula to have been conquered by Rome, as recently as the first century B.C., and the hardy and aggressive mountaineers needed watching. But Trajan’s main task was to protect the export of gold from this mineral-rich region.

It was not the most demanding of jobs, managing a backwater, but the appointment was a useful step up the military ladder. Then fate provided an unexpected opportunity that propelled Trajan to the center of events, and into the emperor’s highest favor.

News arrived that the governor of Upper Germania, Lucius Antonius Saturninus, had raised the standard of revolt on January 1, 89. When the news of this insurrection reached Trajan, he did not hesitate to spearhead a counterattack. On the emperor’s orders, he immediately led his legion on the long march across Gaul to Upper Germania to face down and fight the rebels.

The emperor himself left Rome on January 12, for the same destination. In fact, neither man was required. Saturninus had expected help from a Germanic tribe that failed to turn up, and a colleague, the governor of Lower Germania, was able to outflank and defeat him. The revolt was at an end by January 25—almost before it began.

Domitian was a conspiracy theorist, and once remarked: “Rulers find themselves in an extremely invidious position, for when they discover a conspiracy no one believes them, unless they are killed.” He was determined that there had been one on this occasion, and held an inquiry, although so far as we can judge, Saturninus acted on his own.

In 91 Trajan received the culminating reward for his services. He was appointed consul ordinarius—a high accolade that the Flavians seldom conferred outside the imperial family: the two ordinarii entered office at the beginning of the year, which was named after them, and were a cut above the suffecti, or substitute consuls, who took their places after a few weeks or months.

Our impoverished literary sources do not specify Trajan’s activities for the next few years after his consulship, but it is possible to make an informed guess. There were eleven imperial provinces, whose governors were directly chosen by the emperor (the others lying in the care of the Senate), and a former consul could expect appointment to one of them. Trajan, having been the junior of the two ordinarii, was likely to have found the German provinces open to him. A couple of years or so later he probably moved on to one of the militarily much more challenging Danube provinces, perhaps Pannonia, where Rome was engaged in a difficult conflict with a powerful Germanic tribe, the Suebi.

Hadrian had spent his entire life under Flavian rule, and by his late teens he would have absorbed the history of his times. His guardian was a rising man and this placed him close to the center of power, although too young to have arrived at mature judgments. Indeed, mature judgments came at some risk to life and limb for anyone within range of a suspicious and nervous ruler. Nevertheless, two conclusions were evident to an intelligent bystander, however inexperienced.

First, for it to run sweetly the imperial system depended on its chief executive and its senior management being on reasonably good terms. For how long could an atmosphere of distrust last without the eventual need for a painful adjustment? Second, it was a brave emperor who abandoned, whether from choice or necessity, the traditional policy of military aggression. In Augustus’ day, Virgil, the poet laureate of Roman power, had sung of an imperium sine fine. A century later he still pointed the way to an empire without end and without frontiers.

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