W E might say that Vespasian, the tenth of the Caesars, was the first to be chosen on his merits. The great Julius seized the supreme power by sheer force of commanding ability and resolute will; the five princes that followed owed their position in the first place to their connection either by blood or marriage alliance to his house. Augustus was a not unworthy successor; possibly the same may be said of Tiberius, though his real character is one of the most doubtful of historical questions.
As for Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, no one would have dreamt of committing the Imperial power to them, had it not been for the fascination, and, it is only right to add the undoubted utility of the hereditary principle. Galba owed his elevation in no small degree to a distinguished descent, which made him one of the first personages of the Empire outside the Imperial house; Otho and Vitellius to the caprice and discontent of the army. Vespasian had no claims but what he had created for himself. His birth, on the father's side, was undistinguished. His grandfather, T. Flavius Petro, fought at Pharsalia on the vanquished side, and obtaining pardon and his discharge, found employment as a bank-clerk in Rome; his father was a collector of customs and afterwards a money-lender in the country now called Switzerland. He left a wife, Vespasia Polla by name, and two sons. The fate of the elder has already been related; the younger became Emperor. Polla was superior to her husband in social position. Her father was a soldier and rose to a rank which corresponded approximately to that of colonel in our own army; her brother was elected Prætor, and in right of his office became a Senator. Suetonius tells us that many monuments of the family of the Vespasii were still to be seen in his time at a village called Vespasia between Nursia and Spoletum and therefore in the Sabine country.
The younger Flavius was born on Nov. 17th. in the year 9 A.D. and was brought up by his father's mother. So kindly were his after-recollections of the old lady's care of him that when he ascended the throne he frequently visited the place, which he was careful to keep absolutely unchanged, and that on high days he used to drink from a little silver cup which she had been accustomed to use. When the time came for him to choose his profession he showed a strong aversion to public life, an aversion with difficulty overcome by his mother's reproaches.
His first real distinctions were won in Britain. There he fought thirty battles, and added various territories, among which was Vectis (the Isle of Wight), to the Roman dominions. The honour of the consulship followed, and this again was succeeded by the appointment to the Governorship of Africa. His integrity as an administrator was proved, it was thought, by the fact that he came back a poorer man than he went. So great indeed was his straits that he had to mortgage all his estates to his elder brother, and to add to his income by dealing in slaves, horses, etc.
Nero took him in his train on the Greek tour which he made not long before his fall. Vespasian got into great disgrace by his uncourtier-like behaviour. Whatever the Greeks might think or profess to think about the Emperor's performance, he could not help showing his own want of appreciation. Frequently he left the theatre before the entertainment was concluded; sometimes he fell asleep while it was going on. The offended Prince discharged him from further attendance, and even banished him from court. Vespasian, in no little fear of his life, retired to some out of the way place. Hither, much to his astonishment, he was followed by the offer of a provincial government and the command of an army. The great Jewish rebellion, which was not crushed till Jerusalem had fallen, had broken out; and Nero put aside his private dislike to entrust the care of the war to the ablest soldier that he could find.
The usual prognostics of his elevation had not been wanting, or did not fail to be forthcoming after the event. We have a curious story of an oak, growing in the garden of Vespasian's father, from the stem of which three boughs suddenly shot forth before the birth of his three children. The first was very small and soon withered away. This indicated the birth of a daughter. The second was a large and luxuriant growth; the third had the proportions of a tree. The father consulted a soothsayer as to the meaning of this prodigy, and was so elated by his answer, that he announced to his mother that her youngest grandson would some day be Emperor. The old lady only laughed, remarking that it was very strange that her son should be in his dotage while she was still in full possession of her faculties.
Appearances equally significant were, it is said, observed after the fall of Nero and during the struggle which ended in Vespasian's elevation. A statue of the Great Julius at Rome was found to have turned to the east during the night; before the first battle of Bedriacum, when the armies were just about to engage two eagles were seen to fight; when one had vanquished the other, a third from the east came and conquered the victor. Suetonius tells us that Josephus, whom Vespasian had taken prisoner at Jotopata, predicted to his captor the Imperial dignity; and Josephus himself gives a full account of the incident. Modern habits of thought incline us to put more weight on the expression which Tacitus uses in speaking of the campaign of Claudius in Britain, "Tribes were conquered, kings made prisoners, and destiny learnt to know its favorite," or, it may be, "destiny made its favorite known to the world." It is certain there was a wide feeling in favor of Vespasian. The Empire was offered to him not only by his own legions but by the armies of Moesia.
After his accession he justified and more than justified the choice. "Alone of all the Emperors before him he was changed for the better by power." He did the work of Empire thoroughly, and, on the whole, did it well. He was conspicuous for his early habits even among a nation of early risers. He began business before it was light, read the despatches which had arrived, and went through the summaries of affairs which his secretaries submitted to him. He put on his own shoes and dressed himself, receiving morning calls while he was so occupied. This done he fulfilled any casual engagements until it was time for his ride or walk and after that for his siesta.
It was in the matter of finance that he chiefly showed his ability as a ruler. He found the treasury empty, as indeed was to be expected after the extravagant reign of Nero, followed by a year of civil war. According to his own estimate not less a sum than forty million pounds sterling was wanted to restore the finances of the Empire to a sound condition—a formidable sum without doubt, in days to which the gigantic monetary transactions of modern times were unknown. This state of things he set himself to remedy, and doubtless incurred process.
Some of his measures were obviously right. It is specially mentioned that he revoked the remission of taxes made by Galba. It was impossible that Galba, who occupied the throne only for a few troubled months, could have taken a just view of the financial position of the Empire. And some of the stories told about Vespasian's avarice and rapacity were doubtless false or exaggerated. There is certainly a formidable catalogue of them. "He openly carried on operations of which even a subject would have been ashamed" says Suetonius, happily ignorant of our modern system of 'corners', "buying up some articles only that he might sell them again at a higher price." He did not hesitate to sell offices to candidates and verdicts of acquittal to persons accused, whether innocent or guilty. He is even believed to have deliberately promoted the most unscrupulous of the Imperial agents to most important posts, only that he might find them more wealthy when he brought them to an account. "They are my sponges," he was wont to say, "I soak them when they are dry, and squeeze them out when they are full." Suetonius goes on to say that the Emperor's greed of money was his only fault; but he adds that, in his own opinion, the harsh measures which he adopted were a matter of sheer necessity. The machine of government could not, in fact, be worked without recourse to extraordinary means of supplying the deficit in the revenue.
It is not unlikely that the habit of exacting grew upon him, and that he persisted in his oppressive finance after the necessity had passed away. This is strictly in accordance with our experience of human nature, and would reconcile the different estimates of the Emperor's character. We can hardly be said to possess Tacitus' opinion on the subject, unless it be that when he is describing the rebuilding of Cremona after its destruction by the troops of Antonius Primus he means a sarcasm by the words "the temples and squares were restored by the munificence of the burghers, and Vespasian gave his exhortations."
That he had to deal with a state of things in which it was taken for granted that the treasury was a legitimate object for plunder, is certain. Some of the stories of his way of paying unscrupulous persons in their own coin are amusing.
One of his attendants asked that a stewardship might be given to his brother. The Emperor put him off for the time, and sent for the candidate. "How much did you agree to give to So and So for his recommendation?" The man named the sum. "Pay it me," said the Emperor, "and you shall have the place." The original petitioner brought up the subject again. "Ah!" said the Emperor, "you must look for another brother. The man you recommended was, I found, not your brother but mine." His coachman, on one occasion, stopped the conveyance to get the mules shod. The Emperor suspected that it was done to give a litigant, who appeared on the spot with suspicious promptitude an opportunity of urging his suit. "What did you get for having the mules shod?" he asked, and insisted on receiving half the bribe. But the grimmest joke of all was not his own. It was made upon him amidst the strange license of his funeral. A clown, wearing, according to the curious custom of the time, a mask that resembled the dead man's features and imitating his ways to the life, asked the Imperial agents: "How much will this funeral cost?" "One hundred thousand pounds!" they replied. "What!" cried the sham Vespasian, "One hundred thousand pounds! Give me a thousand and you may throw me into the Tiber!"
That he was certainly not wanting in liberality is abundantly proved by the stories related of him. He made up the incomes of impoverished Senators who had passed the office of Consul to the legal qualification. To towns throughout the Empire that suffered from earthquakes or conflagrations he was very liberal, often rebuilding them with great magnificence. Literature and the arts were generously treated by him.
Various poets received his bounty. Especially we hear of his giving his thousand pounds to Saleius Bassus, an epic poet highly praised by his contemporaries, of whose merits we have no means of judging. He pensioned with the handsome sum of £1000 various Greek and Latin teachers of declamation, and handsomely rewarded an artist who had cleverly restored the great picture of Apelles, the Venus of Cos, and another who repaired the splendid Colossus of Rhodes. An engineer who undertook to carry some large columns to the Capitol was handsomely rewarded for his ingenuity. The Emperor, however, declined to make use of his invention. "I want to give employment to my poor people" he said. A tragic actor received a fee of £4000 from him and two great singers half as much each. His presents to such performers varied from a thousand to four thousand pounds, with the complimentary addition of crowns of gold. Not being a political economist, he encouraged trade by giving splendid entertainments. Gentlemen who were his guests always had presents to carry home at the Saturnalia, and ladies on the first of March.
On the whole we get the idea of a vigorous man with some petty weaknesses, possessed with a strong sense of public duty, but without refinement or elevation of character.
If we are to look about for a parallel in modern times, we might, perhaps, find it in President Lincoln. One thing is certainly common to the two men: a gift of rough and somewhat boisterous humour.
Such was his jest to Titus, his son and successor when the latter remonstrated with him on his making a gain from a somewhat unsavory source. He handed Titus a coin and asked him: "Has it a bad smell?" "No," said Titus. "Yet it comes from there."
When his last illness came on, he remarked with a grim allusion to the Roman practice of deifying deceased Emperors, "Dear me! I fancy that I am becoming a god." Almost at the last moment he bade his attendants to help him up from his chair. "An Emperor should die standing," he said. A moment afterwards he breathed his last. The day of his death was the 24th. June, A.D. 79. He was in his sixty-ninth year.