Before They Were Famous: Vespasian

Nov 2010
Titus Flavius Vespasianus was born on 17 November 9 in Sabine country in a village called Falacrina, the location of which is the subject of debate. The Flavian family lacked a strong pedigree. It was his grandfather, Titus Flavius Petro, who first gets a mention in the history books when he fought for Pompey as a Centurion at the Battle of Pharsalus. During peace time Petro was a debt collector. He must have been successful at his job because his son, Titus Flavius Sabinus was a member of the Equestrian order where he worked as a tax collector and then a banker in the province of Asia where he was honoured with statues attributed to his honesty. Sabinus died in Gaul where he was also honoured for his honesty, this time as a banker (an honest banker! Who'd have thought?). The Flavians were most certainly a family rising in power.

Sabinus married up in status to Vespasia Polla and together had two sons, Titus Flavius Sabinus and Titus Flavius Vespasianus. They also had a daughter, Flavia Vespasia, who died in infancy.

Mr and Mrs Flavius were busy parents and spent a lot of time away from home and as a result his education and upbringing were the responsibility of his grandmother, Tertulla. In 25, aged 16, he donned the toga virilis, and later accepted the latus clavus, and with it – and his mother's financial backing - entered into the senate.

If you were to bet which if the two sons would be most successful in Roman society the good money would have gone on Sabinus. As was usual in Rome most of the effort in bringing up children, as far as the father was concerned, went on his eldest son who was, naturally, the father's heir. What also made Sabinus a good bet was that Vespasian was not, initially, interested in high public office. Indeed, Sabinus burst from the traps as he entered the cursus honorum – the sequential order of public offices.

Vespasianus only followed Sabinus' example because of his mother's nagging. If you had bet on Vespasianus you might be looking a little green around the gills at this point. Just to increase your worries Vespasianus then married Flavia Domitilla, daughter to a humble quaestor's clerk and mistress to an African Equestrian. With a lack of social standing and family connections Vespasianus' marriage to Flavia was not the act of the politically ambitious. The outside bet was increasingly looking like a lame horse.

As a part of the cursus honorum Vespasianus would have been required to serve two periods in the minor magistracies, one military and the one public. He served in the military in Thrace for three years before returning to Rome where he became a member of the Vigintisexviri, or “Twenty-Six Men”. The Vigintisexviri was a college separated into six boards: decemviri stlitibus iudicandis who were in effect a jury of ten men; tresviri capitales - three men who acted as police and executioner; tresviri aere argento auro flando feriundo – responsible for striking and casting gold; quattuorviri viis urbe purgandis – maintenance men of Rome; duoviri viis extra urbem purgandis – in charge of maintaining the roads near to Rome; and praefecti Capuam Cumas – administrators of justice in Capua and Cumae. Vespasianus got the job maintaining the streets of Rome, or as we would call it today: street cleaner. He was so poor at his job that Caligula stuffed handfuls of muck down his toga as punishment for the unclean Roman streets.

After completing his minor magistracies Vepasianus stood for election as quaestor. He won, but due to a lack of political and familial influence he was given a provincial post in Crete.

Next on the cursus honorum was the post of praetor. An important post that carried imperium (power and authority). But Vespasianus was not a patrician and was required to serve a year as an aedile or tribune. He was successful at his second attempt and became aedile in 38. In 40 he achieved praetorship at the youngest permitted age of 30. His relationship with a secretary to the Emperor's grandmother may have had something to do with this.

In 41, Claudius became emperor and, with the patronage of the Emperor's freedman Narcissus, appointed Vespasianus legate of the Legion II Augusta in Germania. In 43, the Legion II Augusta took part in the Roman invasion of Britain where Vespasianus distinguished himself under the leadership of Aulus Plautius. He participated in early battles in Kent before being sent to the south west to secure the south coast and the tin mines of Cornwall, and the silver and lead mines of Somerset. He subdued the Durotriges and Dumnonii tribes, captured twenty hill forts, invaded the Isle of Wight and set up a fortress in Exeter. For his efforts he received ornamenta triumphalia (triumphal insignia – only emperors were allowed actual triumphs) and a consulship for the last two months of the year on his return to Rome. Vespasianus was not looking like such a lame horse any more.

Big brother Sabinus, not wanting to be outdone, became Consul in 47, envoy of the emperor – acting praetor of Moesia from 50 to 56, Consul again in 52, and Urban Prefect from 56 to 69.

In 54 Claudius died. Nero (and his mother, Agrippina) ascended to the throne. Agrippina showed animosity towards anyone who was a friend of Narcissus, and that meant the indebted Vespasianus who was cast out. In 63, Nero's mother having been dead some four years, Vespasianus was made proconsul of Africa. During his term he regained Nero's trust sufficiently to be included in Nero's entourage during the emperors tour of Greece in 66-67 – an invitation that almost cost Vespasianus his life when he fell asleep during one of Nero's musical recitals.

That year a revolt broke out in Judaea. Who was on hand to deal with the problem? Vespasianus and his eldest son Titus. They marched with sixty thousand legionaries to subdue Galilee and, three years later, earned the ultimate power: Vespasianus became emperor. Still fancy putting your money on Sabinus?