Vespasian: The Story of an Emperor

. . . To quell this revolt,1 the Romans needed a powerful army led by a hardworking commander, who would not go beyond his powers . . . and it seemed that [Vespasian, as] someone from such a humble beginning and name, need not be feared [as a political contender] . . . [But] after Nero and Galba were dead and Vitellius was feuding over the Principate with Otho, Vespasian recalled his goals to be emperor . . .2

In 68 CE the Roman emperor Nero committed suicide, leaving behind him a significant power vacuum and an unfinished violent uprising in Judea. The chaos that followed is known today as the Year of the Four Emperors, during which Galba, Otho, and Vitellius made the first three successful bids for power.

On the first day of July in 69 CE, Vespasian’s turn arrived. Aided by prophecy3 and planning,4 he and several allies threatened Vitellius’s insecure position in Rome.5 Over the course of the next six months, they strategically gained followers, military might, and authority in the eyes of the people Vespasian wished to rule. Although they eventually convinced Emperor Vitellius to bloodlessly abdicate power, fate was not on the side of peace6 – on the 22nd of December, Vespasian’s men killed Vitellius on the Gemonian Stairs in the center of Rome.7 The Roman Senate voted in favor of Vespasian as the new emperor, and 27 years of stability began.8

And so, 70 CE became the start of a new dynasty. Yet politics are not the only factor that make this year an historical juncture. With the rise of Vespasian came the turning point of the Great Revolt,9 and the end of the Second Temple Period in Jewish history. We also see shifts in the types of historical evidence we can rely on: Vespasian focused on infrastructure in the Roman Empire, and the epigraphic evidence that comes from this trend is substantial. In contrast, the evidence that we have from pre-70 comes largely from historians such as Josephus, and epigraphic evidence is rare. The bias of these authors is hard to avoid; Josephus and his contemporaries were extremely loyal to Vespasian and most of the accounts we have unfailingly exalt his glory.

So the question becomes, who was Vespasian? How was he able to consolidate power when three others had failed? And are our sources reliable or unabashedly attempting to legitimize his rule?

In trying to answer these questions, one of the strongest pieces of evidence we have is a piece of rock. Discovered in a farmer’s field in the Valley of Jezreel in 1973, this inscribed column served as a milestone on a Judaean road. Historians Benjamin Isaac and Israel Roll transcribed the contents as follows:

Caesar [Ve]spa
sianus Aug(ustus) M(arco) [Ul]
pio Tr[ai]an[o] leg(ato)
leg(ionis) X Fret(ensis)

In this inscription, the legate Traianus dedicates construction on the road to Vespasian using the phrase Imperator Caesar Vespasianus Augustus. This title honors Vespasian as the next Roman emperor but does not include the republican titles which the senate would have given him upon his official transition to power.11 Thus, the marker may be traced to sometime between Vespasian’s first claim to the empire on 1st July 69 and his official acceptance of imperial titles from the senate in or after December 69.12 Isaac and Roll explain that the proper titles for an Emperor are “omitted on the milestone of 69 in recognition of the fact that Vespasian formally was a usurper at the time.”13

However, the more interesting phenomenon here has to do with Traianus. A legate in Judaea, Traianus was loyal to Vespasian and in the following decade rose quickly up the ranks of his administration. In fact, as a direct result of this long-term political maneuvering, in 98 CE Traianus’s son Trajan even became the emperor in Rome. And so Traianus’s road marker

  [Trajan’s coins honored his father Traianus; c. 115 CE]

represents much more than infrastructure. This inscription is not just a milestone but a proclamation of fidelity, way before such a thing was safe. Traianus bet on Vespasian’s success – and in so doing gave the future a key to understanding Vespasian: loyalty. Loyalty ties this story together, from the generals who proclaimed Vespasian emperor many months before he did so himself, to the men who willingly died for his right to power and the writers who proclaimed his success for history. The generals who fought and killed for him in 69 not only shouldered military but personal risk – although they fought in Vespasian’s name, he himself didn’t shed blood in Italy where the most violent fighting occurred.14 Generals such as Mucianus shouldered the moral blame for Vespasian’s violent rise, giving him a claim at a “bloodless” ascension to power.

Acquiring loyalty allowed Vespasian to change history, and history has remembered.


Bosworth, A. B. “Vespasian and the Provinces: Some Problems of the Early 70’s A.D.” Athenaeum; Pavia 51 (January 1, 1973): 49–78.

Isaac, Benjamin. The Near East Under Roman Rule: Selected Papers. Leiden; New York: BRILL, 1998. Isaac, Benjamin, and Israel Roll. “A Milestone of A.D. 69 from Judaea: The Elder Trajan and Vespasian.” In The Near East Under Roman Rule, by Benjamin Isaac. Leiden; New York: BRILL, 1998.

Levick, Barbara. Vespasian. 2nd ed. Roman Imperial Biographies. London ; New York: Routledge, 2017.

Millar, Fergus. The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Parr, Peter J. Review of Roman Roads in Judaea. I. The Legio-Scythopolis Road, by Benjamin Isaac and Israel Roll. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 1 (1984): 123–123.

Reasoner, Mark. Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.

Further Reading

Fisher, Moshe. Roman Roads in Judaea II : The Jaffa-Jerusalem Roads. Oxford: Tempus Reparatvm, 1996.

Isaac, Benjamin H., and Israel Roll. Roman Roads in Judaea I: The Legio-Scythopolis Road. B.A.R., 1982.

Kennedy, D. L. “Roman Roads in Judaea. Vol. I. The Legio-Scythopolis Road. By Benjamin Isaac and Israel Roll. 29·5 × 20·5 Cm. Pp. 142 + 18 Pls. + 9 Figs. + Endmap. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (International Series 141). ISBN 0-86054-172-X. £9.00.” The Antiquaries Journal 64, no. 1 (March 1984): 160–61. doi:10.1017/S0003581500067871.

Levick, B. M. “T. V. Buttrey: Documentary Evidence for the Chronology of the Flavian Titulature. (Beiträge Zur Klassischen Philologie, 112.) Pp. vi + 64; 2 Plates. Meisenheim Am Glan: Anton Hain, 1980. Paper.” The Classical Review 32, no. 1 (April 1982): 106. doi:10.1017/S0009840X00239346.

  1. The Jewish uprising against the Romans in 66-70 CE, also known as the Jewish War or the Great Revolt. 
  2. Suetonius, Vespasian 4.2 and 5.1, translated by Rolfe in Reasoner, 80 
  3. According to Suetonius and Josephus, Vespasian relied on oracles and a prophecy that Rome’s next leader would come out of Judea, where he was a military commander. See Millar. 
  4. Levick suggests that Vespasian and his son Titus had been setting up this July 1st declaration for several months. She also comments that Titus may have had more than just his elderly father’s ambitions in mind – if he did, it worked, for he quickly gained power under his father’s rule and became emperor himself following his father’s death. 
  5. According to Suetonius and Tacitus, several men loyal to Vespasian declared him as emperor on the 1st and in the following weeks, although he himself did not make this claim. This assertion is backed by numismatic evidence; see Isaac: 1998, 38. 
  6. The men loyal to Vitellius were not as willing as he was to peacefully give up. Instead, when Vitellius offered to abdicate, his Praetorian Guard refused to stop fighting. See Levick, 58. 
  7. Levick 59. 
  8. Vespasian himself ruled from 69 to 79 CE, and his two sons were in power from 79-81 and 81-96. They are known as the Flavian Dynasty, and their rule is frequently seen as a golden age for the Roman Empire. 
  9. In 70 CE, Vespasian sent his son Titus to Jerusalem, where he destroyed the Temple and finally got the upper hand over the revolt that had begun under Nero. 
  10. Isaac and Roll: 1998, 36. 
  11. Suetonius, Vespasian 12, regarding Vespasian’s modesty in not accepting titles: “And not even he received . . . the title of father of the fatherland [pater patriae] immediately, but rather, at the proper time” (trans. Lauren Montieth). 
  12. Interestingly, Isaac and Roll also argue that Vespasian likely did not accept the Republican titles granted by the senate until the beginning of 70 CE (1998: 47), see note 11. 
  13. Isaac and Roll: 1998, 47 
  14. Levick 56 

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