The death of the Roman emperor Nero in 68 c.e. was followed by a period in which different Roman armies backed different claimants for the imperial throne. The winner, Vespasian (r. 69–79 c.e.), founded the shortlived Flavian dynasty of himself and his two sons, Titus and Domitian.
Titus Flavius Vespasianus was born to provincial aristocrats and decided early in life on a senatorial career. His wife and the mother of his two sons, Flavia Domitilla, died before he became emperor. He survived the dangerous administrations of Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, earning a reputation as both a competent administrator and an imperial sycophant. He served successfully as a military commander in Claudius’s invasion of Britain. Vespasian’s peak of responsibility came in 66, when Nero named him as commander of the armies sent to put down the Jewish revolts. He quickly crushed the rebellion in most of the country and besieged the rebel stronghold at Jerusalem. It was there that the news of Nero’s suicide in 68 and the ensuing struggle for the imperial throne reached him. Vespasian continued the siege of Jerusalem until the summer of 69, when in collaboration with the governors of Syria and Egypt he declared the empire for himself.
Vespasian provided stable if tight-fisted government after the turmoil of Nero’s reign and the disruptions of the civil wars. He left his eldest son Titus behind to continue the Jewish war, which ended with the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish Temple in the spring of 70. In Rome, Vespasian rebuilt the Capitol, destroyed by fire in 69, and built the Colosseum. Despite his building projects Vespasian retained enough control over the imperial taxes and treasury to leave a surplus for his successor. He refilled the depleted ranks of the Senate and granted civic rights to many communities outside Italy, particularly in Spain. Like several emperors who fought their way to the throne rather than inheriting it, Vespasian retained a sense of humor about the office. The imperial biographer Suetonius recounted his deathbed witticism on the practice of deifying dead emperors who had become famous:
“Dear me, I think I am becoming a god.”
The prophecy proved correct as the Senate deified him at the instigation of his son and successor, Titus.
Before Vespasian’s death, Titus had a reputation as his father’s enforcer, tough and not overly scrupulous. As emperor, Vespasian loaded Titus with offices, including the important one of praetorian prefect, in an attempt to establish him as a clear successor. This strategy proved successful, and Titus peacefully ascended the throne after Vespasian’s death.
As emperor, he was popular both in his own time and later. He appealed to the ordinary people of Rome by continuing Vespasian’s building programs and providing lavish games and shows. The most prominent architectural work associated with his reign was the Arch of Titus, commemorating his victory over the Jews. He also sent money to aid communities damaged by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79. Like his father, he left a surplus in the treasury.
Titus left no legitimate son and was succeeded by his younger brother, Domitian. Intelligent and hardworking like his father and brother, Domitian was also harsh and tyrannical. He spent the reign of Vespasian in his brother’s shadow, although he did enjoy the title of caesar. He succeeded with little difficulty after Titus’s death. Some ancient sources charge him with poisoning Titus, but there is no direct evidence. Like Titus, he had his predecessor deified.
As emperor, Domitian was one of the greatest of all builders of Rome, building a great palace on the Palatine Hill and rebuilding the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline, as well as dozens of other structures. He was a cultural conservative who identified himself with Roman traditions and Roman religion. In 85 he awarded himself the unprecedented title of perpetual censor, traditionally the office associated with the guardianship of Roman morality. Like all the Flavians, he was a severe taxer and careful spender, who left a surplus in the treasury.
Domitian’s biggest political problem was his bad relationship with the Senate, an institution for which he felt and displayed no great respect. This relationship deteriorated throughout his reign. The portrait of Domitian as a “bad emperor” is traceable to senatorial sources, particularly the historians Suetonius and Tacitus, although there was no attempt to portray him as a madman like Gaius or Nero. Domitian preferred to rule through a court group including relatives, freedmen, and a few senators, rather than dealing with the Senate as a whole; many senators were exiled or executed during his reign. His death came by an assassination plot, and the Senate, in contrast to his deified father and brother, condemned his memory. Marcus Cocceius Nerva, who made a point of breaking with the previous reign, succeeded Domitian.
- De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors. Available online. URL: http://www.roman-emperors.org (September 2005);
- Garzetti, Albino. From Tiberius to the Antonines: A History of the Roman Empire, AD 14–192. Trans. by J. R. Foster. London: Methuen, 1974;
- Jones, Brian W. The Emperor Domitian. New York: Routledge, 1992;
- ———. The Emperor Titus. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984;
- McCrum, Michael, and A. G. Woodhead, eds. Select Documents of the Principates of the Flavian Emperors, Including the Year of Revolution, A.D. 68–96. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.
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