Roman Emperor, b. at Reate (now Rieti), the ancient capital of the Sabines, Nov. 18, A.D. 9; d. there, June 23, 79
Vespasian (TITUS FLAVIUS VESPASIANUS), Roman Emperor, b. at Reate (now Rieti), the ancient capital of the Sabines, November 18, A.D. 9; d. there, June 23, 79. His father was a prosperous tax-gatherer and money-lender, while the fact that his mother’s brother was a senator may have at least encouraged him to enter the public service. Early in his career he had opportunities to become familiar with conditions in the Levant, where he served as quastor; before entering his thirty-fourth year he had filled still more important magistracies. After serving with the army in Germany, he made a successful expedition into Southern Britain in command of the Second Legion, and attained consular rank in A.D. 51. Ten years later he was proconsul in Africa. He first appears in history as a member of the imperial suite when he accompanied Nero on a tour through Greece; but Vespasian was evidently a very poor courtier, for it is said that he fell asleep in Nero‘s presence while the emperor was reciting one of his own poems. In spite of this offensive conduct, and either because Nero could be sensible enough to forget personal animosities when reasons of state demanded, or because no one else could be found who was not still more objectionable, Vespasian was appointed to conduct the war against the Jews—an appointment which proved the immediate cause of his elevation to the purple.
Brutal oppression by successive Roman governors, culminating in the atrocities of Gessius Florus, had stirred the Jews to an insurrection in which the Roman garrison of Jerusalem was slaughtered. Many considerations obliged the Roman Court to take a serious view of this disturbance, not the least being the widespread belief that a new power originating in Judea was destined to supplant Rome in the mastery of the world. Taking with him his son Titus, Vespasian, in 66, invaded Judea, entering upon the last war in which the Jews were to take part as a nation. The siege of Jerusalem, in which more than half a million of t he inhabitants perished, was conducted by Titus, and ended in the fall of the city (September 2, 70), and the final destruction of the Temple. In the meantime Nero‘s career had ended in suicide, his successor, Galba, had been killed by Otho, and Otho, in his turn dethroned by the partisans of Vitellius, had followed Nero‘s last example. While the Jewish war was still in progress, the soldiers in Egypt proclaimed Vespasian emperor (July 1, 69), and their comrades in Judea confirmed the choice. Ostensibly, at least, he had made no bid for the diadem, but his soldiers were sincerely attached to him, and the debauchee Vitellius, Nero‘s parasite and favorite, whom the legions in Germany had proclaimed, was as unpromising from a military point of view as he was morally worthless. Vespasian remained at his post in Judea while his lieutenant, Antonius Primus, with the armies of Pannonia and the Balkan Peninsula, invaded Italy, routed the Vitellian forces near Cremona, and stormed Rome, which was defended by the Praetorian Guard and the populace (December 20, 69). It was not until the following summer that the new emperor left the conduct of affairs in Palestine to his son Titus and entered the city to receive confirmation at the hands of the Senate.
Vespasian’s assumption of the imperial authority ended one of those spasms of civil war which had shaken Rome at intervals ever since the days of Marius and Sulla. His reign was distinctly an era of reform. Titus, who was to become one of the most beneficent pagan rulers in history, was associated as Caesar in his father’s administration. The dignity of the Roman Senate was revived, largely by elimination of the disreputable elements; the law of treason, an odious legal cloak for tyranny, was abrogated; the courts of law were reformed; military discipline was placed upon a fairly secure basis. Vespasian, who was a master of financial administration, knew how to lavish his wealth in adding to the splendor of the imperial city, and it was in his reign that the Colosseum was begun. Abroad, the final conquest of Judea was followed by the suppression of a serious rising in Gaul and the consolidation of Roman authority in Britain by Cneius Agricola, who built the chain of forts between the Firths of Clyde and Forth. Still more important to the subsequent progress of civilization was the period of tranquility for the infant Church which began in this reign. The official classes of Rome then regarded the Christians vaguely as a Jewish sect, and as such the latter were subject to the impost of half a shekel for rebuilding the Capitoline temple, which had been destroyed when Rome was stormed for Vespasian; but this tax does not seem to have been the occasion of any general harsh treatment. Tertullian (Apologia) and Eusebius (Hist. eccl.) agree in acquitting Vespasian of persecution. St. Linus, the pope whose death occurred during this period, cannot be proved to have suffered martyrdom, while St. Apollinaris of Ravenna, though a martyr, may very well have suffered at the hands of a local mob.
The character of this emperor showed very little, if anything, of the pagan tyrant. Though himself a man of no literary culture, he became the protector of his prisoner of war, the Jewish historian Josephus, a worshipper of the One God, and even permitted him the use of his own family name (Flavius). While this generosity may have been in some degree prompted by Josephus’s shrewd prophecy of Vespasian’s elevation to the purple, there are other instances of his disposition to reward merit in those with whom he was by by no means personally sympathetic. Vespasian has the distinction of being the first Roman Emperor to transmit the imperial purple to his own son; he is also noteworthy in Roman imperial history as having very nearly completed his seventieth year and died a natural death: being in feeble health, he had withdrawn to benefit by the purer air of his native Reate, in the “dewy fields” (rosei campi) of the Sabine country. By his wife, Flavia Domitilla, he left two sons, Titus and Domitian, and a daughter, Domitilla, through whom the name of Vespasian’s empress was passed on to a granddaughter who is revered as a confessor of the Faith.