Vespasian was from an equestrian family that rose into the senatorial rank under the Julio–Claudian emperors. Although he fulfilled the standard succession of public offices and held the consulship in AD 51, Vespasian's renown came from his military success; he was legate of Legio II Augusta during the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 and subjugated Judaea during the Jewish rebellion of 66.
While Vespasian besieged Jerusalem during the Jewish rebellion, emperor Nero committed suicide and plunged Rome into a year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors. After Galba and Otho perished in quick succession, Vitellius became emperor in April 69. The Roman legions of Roman Egypt and Judaea reacted by declaring Vespasian, their commander, emperor on 1 July 69. In his bid for imperial power, Vespasian joined forces with Mucianus, the governor of Syria, and Primus, a general in Pannonia, leaving his son Titus to command the besieging forces at Jerusalem. Primus and Mucianus led the Flavian forces against Vitellius, while Vespasian took control of Egypt. On 20 December 69, Vitellius was defeated, and the following day Vespasian was declared emperor by the Senate. Vespasian dated his tribunician years from 1 July, substituting the acts of Rome's Senate and people as the legal basis for his appointment with the declaration of his legions, and transforming his legions into an electoral college.
Little information survives about the government during Vespasian's ten-year rule. He reformed the financial system at Rome after the campaign against Judaea ended successfully, and initiated several ambitious construction projects. He began the building of the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum. In reaction to the events of 68–69, Vespasian forced through an improvement in army discipline. Through his general Agricola, Vespasian increased imperial expansion in Britain. After his death in 79, he was succeeded by his eldest son Titus, thus becoming the first Roman emperor to be directly succeeded by his own natural son and establishing the Flavian dynasty.
Vespasian was born in a village north-east of Rome called Falacrinae. His family was relatively undistinguished and lacking in pedigree. His paternal grandfather, Titus Flavius Petro, became the first to distinguish himself, rising to the rank of centurion and fighting at Pharsalus for Pompey in 48 BC. Subsequently he became a debt collector.
Petro's son, Titus Flavius Sabinus, worked as a customs official in the province of Asia and became a money-lender on a small scale among the Helvetii. He gained a reputation as a scrupulous and honest "tax-farmer". Sabinus married up in status, to Vespasia Polla, whose father had risen to the rank of prefect of the camp and whose brother became a Senator.
Sabinus and Vespasia had three children, the eldest of whom, a girl, died in infancy. The elder boy, Titus Flavius Sabinus entered public life and pursued the cursus honorum. He served in the army as a military tribune in Thrace in 36. The following year he was elected quaestor and served in Crete and Cyrene. He rose through the ranks of Roman public office, being elected aedile on his second attempt in 39 and praetor on his first attempt in 40, taking the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the Emperor Caligula.
The younger boy, Vespasian, seemed far less likely to be successful, initially not wishing to pursue high public office. He followed in his brother's footsteps when driven to it by his mother's taunting. During this period he married Flavia Domitilla, the daughter of Flavius Liberalis from Ferentium and formerly the mistress of Statilius Capella, a Roman equestrian from Sabrata in Africa.
They had two sons, Titus Flavius Vespasianus (born 39) and Titus Flavius Domitianus (born 51), and a daughter, Domitilla (born 39). His wife Domitilla and his daughter Domitilla both died before Vespasian became Emperor in 69. After the death of his wife, Vespasian's longstanding mistress, Antonia Caenis, became his wife in all but formal status, a relationship that continued until she died in 75.
In preparation for a praetorship, Vespasian needed two periods of service in the minor magistracies, one military and the other public. Vespasian served in the military in Thrace for about 3 years. On his return to Rome in about AD 30, he obtained a post in the vigintivirate, the minor magistracies, most probably in one of the posts in charge of street cleaning. His early performance was so unsuccessful that Emperor Caligula reportedly stuffed handfuls of muck down his toga to correct the uncleaned Roman streets, formally his responsibility.
During the period of the ascendancy of Sejanus, there is no record of Vespasian's significant activity in political events. After completion of a term in the vigintivirate, Vespasian was entitled to stand for election as quaestor; a senatorial office. But his lack of political or family influence meant that Vespasian served as quaestor in one of the provincial posts in Crete, rather than as assistant to important men in Rome.
Next he needed to gain a praetorship, carrying the Imperium, but non-patricians and the less well-connected had to serve in at least one intermediary post as an aedile or tribune. Vespasian failed at his first attempt to gain an aedileship but was successful in his second attempt, becoming an aedile in 38. Despite his lack of significant family connections or success in office, he achieved praetorship in either 39 or 40, at the youngest age permitted (30), during a period of political upheaval in the organisation of elections. His longstanding relationship with freedwoman Antonia Caenis, confidential secretary to the Emperor's grandmother and part of the circle of courtiers and servants around the Emperor, may have contributed to his success.
Upon the accession of Claudius as emperor in 41, Vespasian was appointed legate of Legio II Augusta, stationed in Germania, thanks to the influence of the Imperial freedman Narcissus. In 43, Vespasian and the II Augusta participated in the Roman invasion of Britain, and he distinguished himself under the overall command of Aulus Plautius. After participating in crucial early battles on the rivers Medway and Thames, he was sent to reduce the south west, penetrating through the modern counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall with the probable objectives of securing the south coast ports and harbours along with the tin mines of Cornwall and the silver and lead mines of Somerset.
Vespasian marched from Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester) to subdue the hostile Durotriges and Dumnonii tribes, captured twenty oppida (towns, or more probably hill forts, including Hod Hill and Maiden Castle in Dorset). He also invaded Vectis (now the Isle of Wight), finally setting up a fortress and legionary headquarters at Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). During this time he injured himself and had not fully recovered until he went to Egypt. These successes earned him triumphal regalia (ornamenta triumphalia) on his return to Rome.
His success as the legate of a legion earned him a consulship in 51, after which he retired from public life, having incurred the enmity of Claudius' wife, Agrippina. He came out of retirement in 63 when he was sent as governor to Africa Province. According to Tacitus (ii.97), his rule was "infamous and odious" but according to Suetonius (Vesp. 4), he was "upright and, highly honourable". On one occasion, Suetonius writes, Vespasian was pelted with turnips.
Vespasian used his time in North Africa wisely. Usually governorships were seen by ex-consuls as opportunities to extort huge amounts of money to regain the wealth they had spent on their previous political campaigns. Corruption was so rife that it was almost expected that a governor would come back from these appointments with his pockets full. However, Vespasian used his time in North Africa making friends instead of money, something that would be far more valuable in the years to come. During his time in North Africa, he found himself in financial difficulties and was forced to mortgage his estates to his brother. To revive his fortunes he turned to the mule trade and gained the nickname mulio (muleteer).
Returning from Africa, Vespasian toured Greece in Nero's retinue, but lost Imperial favour after paying insufficient attention (some sources suggest he fell asleep) during one of the Emperor's recitals on the lyre, and found himself in the political wilderness.
In 66 AD, Vespasian was appointed to suppress the Jewish revolt underway in Judea. The fighting there had killed the previous governor and routed Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, when he tried to restore order. Two legions, with eight cavalry squadrons and ten auxiliary cohorts, were therefore dispatched under the command of Vespasian while his elder son, Titus, arrived from Alexandria with another.
During this time he became the patron of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish resistance leader captured at the Siege of Yodfat, who would later write his people's history in Greek. Ultimately, thousands of Jews were killed and the Romans destroyed many towns in re-establishing control over Judea; they also took Jerusalem in 70. Vespasian is remembered by Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, as a fair and humane official, in contrast with the notorious Herod Agrippa II whom Josephus goes to great lengths to demonize.
While under the emperor's patronage, Josephus wrote that after the Roman Legio X Fretensis, accompanied by Vespasian, destroyed Jericho on 21 June 68, Vespasian took a group of Jews who could not swim (possibly Essenes from Qumran), fettered them, and threw them into the Dead Sea to test the sea's legendary buoyancy. Indeed, the captives bobbed up to the surface after being thrown in the water from the boats.
Josephus (as well as Tacitus), reporting on the conclusion of the Jewish war, reported a prophecy that around the time when Jerusalem and the Temple would be taken, a man from their own nation, viz. the Messiah, would become governor of the habitable earth. Josephus, dismissing these things, said that the only governor of the habitable earth was Vespasian who conquered it.
After the death of Nero in 68, Rome saw a succession of short-lived emperors and a year of civil wars. Galba was murdered by supporters of Otho, who was defeated by Vitellius. Otho's supporters, looking for another candidate to support, settled on Vespasian.
According to Suetonius, a prophecy ubiquitous in the Eastern provinces claimed that from Judaea would come the future rulers of the world. Vespasian eventually believed that this prophecy applied to him, and found a number of omens, oracles, and portents that reinforced this belief.
He also found encouragement in Mucianus, the governor of Syria; and, although Vespasian was a strict disciplinarian and reformer of abuses, Vespasian's soldiers were thoroughly devoted to him. All eyes in the East were now upon him. Mucianus and the Syrian legions were eager to support him. While he was at Caesarea, he was proclaimed emperor (1 July 69), first by the army in Egypt under Tiberius Julius Alexander, and then by his troops in Judaea (11 July according to Suetonius, 3 July according to Tacitus).
Nevertheless, Vitellius, the occupant of the throne, had Rome's best troops on his side — the veteran legions of Gaul and the Rhineland. But the feeling in Vespasian's favour quickly gathered strength, and the armies of Moesia, Pannonia, and Illyricum soon declared for him, and made him the de facto master of half of the Roman world.
While Vespasian himself was in Egypt securing its grain supply, his troops entered Italy from the northeast under the leadership of M. Antonius Primus. They defeated Vitellius's army (which had awaited him in Mevania) at Bedriacum (or Betriacum), sacked Cremona and advanced on Rome. Vitellius hastily arranged a peace with Antonius, but the Emperor's Praetorian Guard forced him to retain his seat. After furious fighting, Antonius' army entered Rome. In the resulting confusion, the Capitol was destroyed by fire and Vespasian's brother Sabinus was killed by a mob.
On receiving the tidings of his rival's defeat and death at Alexandria, the new emperor at once forwarded supplies of urgently needed grain to Rome, along with an edict or a declaration of policy, in which he gave assurance of an entire reversal of the laws of Nero, especially those relating to treason. While in Egypt he visited the Temple of Serapis, where reportedly he experienced a vision. Later he was confronted by two labourers who were convinced that he possessed a divine power that could work miracles.
Vespasian was declared emperor by the Senate while he was in Egypt in December of 69 (the Egyptians had declared him emperor in June 69). In the short-term, administration of the empire was given to Mucianus who was aided by Vespasian's son, Domitian. Mucianus started off Vespasian's rule with tax reform that was to restore the empire's finances. After Vespasian arrived in Rome in mid-70, Mucianus continued to press Vespasian to collect as many taxes as possible.
Vespasian and Mucianus renewed old taxes and instituted new ones, increased the tribute of the provinces, and kept a watchful eye upon the treasury officials. The Latin proverb "Pecunia non olet" ("Money does not smell") may have been created when he had introduced a urine tax on public toilets.
In early 70 Vespasian was still in Egypt, the source of Rome's grain supply, and had not yet left for Rome. According to Tacitus, his trip was delayed due to bad weather. Modern historians theorize that Vespasian had been and was continuing to consolidate support from the Egyptians before departing. Stories of a divine Vespasian healing people circulated in Egypt. During this period, protests erupted in Alexandria over his new tax policies and grain shipments were held up. Vespasian eventually restored order and grain shipments to Rome resumed.
In addition to the uprising in Egypt, unrest and civil war continued in the rest of the empire in 70. In Judea, rebellion had continued from 66. Vespasian's son, Titus, finally subdued the rebellion with the capture of Jerusalem and destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70. According to Eusebius, Vespasian then ordered all descendants of the royal line of David to be hunted down, causing the Jews to be persecuted from province to province. Several modern historians have suggested that Vespasian, already having been told by Josephus that he was prophesied to become emperor whilst in Judaea, was probably reacting to other widely known Messianic prophecies circulating at the time, to suppress any rival claimants arising from that dynasty.
In January of the same year, an uprising occurred in Gaul and Germany, known as the second Batavian Rebellion. This rebellion was headed by Gaius Julius Civilis and Julius Sabinus. Sabinus, claiming he was descended from Julius Caesar, declared himself Emperor of Gaul. The rebellion defeated and absorbed two Roman legions before it was suppressed by Vespasian's brother-in-law, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, by the end of 70.
In mid-70, Vespasian first came to Rome. Vespasian immediately embarked on a series of efforts to stay in power and prevent future revolts. He offered gifts to many in the military and much of the public. Soldiers loyal to Vitellius were dismissed or punished. He also restructured the Senatorial and Equestrian orders, removing his enemies and adding his allies. Regional autonomy of Greek provinces was repealed. Additionally, he made significant attempts to control public perception of his rule.
In general Vespasian enjoyed friendly relations with nearby barbarians, especially the Germanic and Dacian tribes, many of whom supported him politically in his bid for emperor.
Many modern historians note the increased amount of propaganda that appeared during Vespasian's reign. Stories of a supernatural emperor who was destined to rule circulated in the empire. Nearly one-third of all coins minted in Rome under Vespasian celebrated military victory or peace. The word vindex was removed from coins so as not to remind the public of rebellious Vindex. Construction projects bore inscriptions praising Vespasian and condemning previous emperors. A temple of peace was constructed in the forum as well. Vespasian approved histories written under his reign, ensuring biases against him were removed.
Vespasian also gave financial rewards to writers. The ancient historians who lived through the period such as Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus and Pliny the Elder speak suspiciously well of Vespasian while condemning the emperors who came before him. Tacitus admits that his status was elevated by Vespasian, Josephus identifies Vespasian as a patron and savior, and Pliny dedicated his Natural Histories to Vespasian's son, Titus.
Those who spoke against Vespasian were punished. A number of stoic philosophers were accused of corrupting students with inappropriate teachings and were expelled from Rome. Helvidius Priscus, a pro-republic philosopher, was executed for his teachings.
Between 71 and 79, much of Vespasian's reign is a mystery. Historians report that Vespasian ordered the construction of several buildings in Rome. Additionally, he survived several conspiracies against him.
Vespasian helped rebuild Rome after the civil war. He added the temple of Peace and the temple to the Deified Claudius. In 75, he erected a colossal statue of Apollo, begun under Nero, and he dedicated a stage of the theater of Marcellus. He also began construction of the Colosseum, using funds from the spoils of the Jewish Temple after the Siege of Jerusalem.
Suetonius claims that Vespasian was met with "constant conspiracies" against him. Only one conspiracy is known specifically, though. In 78 or 79, Eprius Marcellus and Aulus Caecina Alienus attempted to kill Vespasian. Why these men turned against Vespasian is not known.
In 78, Agricola was sent to Britain, and both extended and consolidated the Roman dominion in that province, pushing his way into what is now Scotland.
In his ninth consulship Vespasian had a slight illness in Campania and, returning at once to Rome, he left for Aquae Cutiliae and the country around Reate, where he spent every summer; however, his illness worsened and he developed severe diarrhea.
Feeling death coming on, he reportedly called out "Vae, puto deus fio." ("Dear me, I think I'm becoming a god"). Then, according to Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars:
At last, being taken ill of a diarrhea, to such a degree that he was ready to faint, he cried out, "An emperor ought to die standing upright." In endeavouring to rise, he died in the hands of those who were helping him up, upon the eighth of the calends of July [24 June], being sixty-nine years, one month, and seven days old.
He was succeeded by his son Titus.
Vespasian was known for his wit and his amiable manner alongside his commanding personality and military prowess. He could be liberal to impoverished Senators and equestrians and to cities and towns desolated by natural calamity. He was especially generous to men of letters and rhetors, several of whom he pensioned with salaries of as much as 1,000 gold pieces a year. Quintilian is said to have been the first public teacher who enjoyed this imperial favor. Pliny the Elder's work, the Natural History, was written during Vespasian's reign, and dedicated to Vespasian's son Titus.
Vespasian distrusted philosophers in general. It was the talk of philosophers, who liked to glorify the good times of the Republic, that provoked Vespasian into reviving the obsolete penal laws against this profession as a precautionary measure. Only one, Helvidius Priscus, was put to death after he had repeatedly affronted the Emperor by studied insults which Vespasian had initially tried to ignore. The philosopher Demetrius was banished to an island and when Vespasian heard Demetrius was still criticizing him, he sent the exiled philosopher the message: "You are doing everything to force me to kill you, but I do not slay a barking dog."
Vespasian was indeed noted for mildness when dealing with political opposition. According to Suetonius, he bore the frank language of his friends, the quips of pleaders, and the impudence of the philosophers with the greatest patience. Although Licinius Mucianus, a man of questionable reputation as being the receiver in homosexual sex, treated the Emperor with scant respect, Vespasian never criticised him publicly but privately uttered the words: "I, at least, am a man." He was also noted for his benefactions to the people. Much money was spent on public works and the restoration and beautification of Rome: a new forum, the Temple of Peace, the public baths and the great show piece, the Colosseum.
Vespasian debased the denarius during his reign, reducing the silver purity from 93.5% to 90% – the silver weight dropping from 2.97 grams to 2.87 grams.
In modern Romance languages, urinals are still named after him (for example, vespasiano in Italian, and vespasienne in French), probably in reference to a tax he placed on urine collection (useful due to its ammoniac content; see Pay toilet). Vespasian appears as the king of Paltisca in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum, 2.1.7.
His last words are quoted in The Gambler, a 2014 remake of the 1974 James Caan film of the same name.